Why a touch of madness boosts creativity

Sanity is boring and true genius may be born of mood swings and mania, writes Ian Murray.

Highly creative people such as Dickens, Newton and Churchill suffered from psychiatric disorders, according to an honorary consultant psychiatrist at Oxford University.

Anthony Storr told the annual meeting of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Birmingham that genius tended to be born of madness. "Creativity should be linked with mental instability," he said. "Blissful happiness is not conducive to inventiveness. If we were content in the world, would we be moved to write great novels? The most inventive are at odds with the world and themselves."

Dr Storr said recurrent manic depression was common among writers and poets. Extreme mood swings or mania could provide creative people with depths of insight and emotional intensity that so-called normal people could never achieve.

"Dickens had to keep busy or he got depressed. He wrote more than one book at a time. He was a journalist, actor, social reformer and, in between, he went for 15-mile walks in the country. He never stopped because if he did, he got extremely depressed."

He said Balzac was another compulsive worker, who appeared to run up debts deliberately so that he was forced to write prolifically to pay them.

While severe mental illness normally precluded creative work, men and women of genius tended to have a mental disorder. "Those who are at ease with themselves are just not motivated, so we should not be surprised that many creative people are disturbed," Dr Storr said. "Mankind has only developed because we are not perfectly adapted to our environment and we need to be inventive to survive.

"If we were pre-programmed by instinct to behave in a particular way, like the lower animals, there would be no reason to alter anything. We are creative because we have the capacity to imagine something better all the time.

"A great many of the most interesting people in the world are disturbed. We label them as mentally ill, but there is something wrong with our definition. A so-called normal person is incredibly dull and excruciatingly boring."

Dr Storr said the metaphysical poet John Donne wrote a Defence of Suicide and many writers, including Hemingway, Thomas Chatterton, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath took their own lives. William Collins, William Cowper, John Clare, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Edgar Allen Poe, Coleridge, Tennyson, Tolstoy and Ruskin, were all depressives who toyed with the idea of suicide. Friends of Graham Greene were convinced he would take his own life.

Philosophers and mathematicians tended to be loners, incapable of forming long-term relationships with anything other than their work. Newton, Descartes, Pascal, Hobbs, Nietszche, Kant, Lichtenstein and Spinoza never married. "They formed a relationship with the abstract that made it impossible for them to form a personal relationship," Dr Storr said.

"They were much more interested in a relationship between numbers or abstracts than with people."

Dr Storr quoted a recent study among 47 award-winning writers and artists that found that 30 per cent had general psychiatric conditions and half of the poets had required psychiatric treatment.

Churchill, he said, was a depressive who was saved by his painting. "He wouldn't stand near the edge of a railway platform or take a hotel room with a balcony because he felt he might jump off. He would stay up until three in the morning, because like many depressives, he didn't want to go to bed until the last moment for fear of lying awake troubled by depressing thoughts. He used to talk about his 'black dog' moods."

Generally, however, Dr Storr said politicians were "pathologically ambitious" rather than gifted: "They are people who need to succeed but have no particular skills."

© Copyright 1999 Times Newspapers Ltd.