Some months ago a psychiatrist in control of a well-funded foundation, who was, as he supposed, investigating the subject, wrote me, soliciting my opinions about the relationship between “creativity” and “mental illness.” I felt nettled and helpless. I avoid using such terms, whenever possible. Like most writers, I suspect, when I compose a poem, a story, or an essay, I think of myself, insofar as I think of myself at all, as an imitator, a renderer of actions, a juxtaposer of images, thoughts, and tones, a relater of ideas. All such items to be dealt with—actions, images, etc.—I take to exist independently of me, since I seem more provisional and less interesting than they. What, then, am I creating?
But doesn’t the artist, one might ask, create the imitations, the juxtapositions, the relationships? Don’t the ideas, the organization of the materials, come from him and him only? I hope not. If I create them, what interest would they have? What general applicability? Would it please a scientist to think that Newton created the law of gravitational attraction? No, the artist had best say every prayer to every unknown force and perform every ritual in the hope that he or she will create nothing, only find for all who are interested what is there to find. He must not create, but discover.
As for the other term—physical illness I understand. A person is sick: he can’t do the things he usually can and wants to do. But sometimes one person may say to another in response to an observation that causes discomfort, “You’re sick!” It’s a put-down, a way not to reply, an overused and uninteresting metaphor. Are “crazy” or—if the psychiatrist prefers—”severely disturbed” people incapacitated and therefore “ill” in the primary meaning of the word? Don’t they frequently say things that are very interesting—haunting even? Isn’t that what a literary artist strives to do? So how can we describe them as ill, since, in this respect at least, they are highly capable? The term “mental illness” is a metaphor and like all metaphors limited in its application. When it is pushed beyond its limits, it breaks down, becomes meaningless.
Moved by such doubts, one has to go on and ask whether the terms “creativity” and “mental illness” haven’t often been used to defend rigid societies now and in recent centuries from too much oddity, too much artistic questioning, too much fun. If we can think that Shakespeare only created Othello and Iago, we may “appreciate them properly,” which is to say, we may safely ignore them, may safely experience the play untroubled by the naive and scary notion that Othello and Iago are discoveries, there to be found in all of us. And if someone (like the “Savage” in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World) takes Shakespeare too seriously in this way, too naively, we may say such a person is mad and safely ignore him.
But what about the simple, crude little question implied by the psychiatrist’s lofty jargon: is art made by mad people? Plato, for one, seems to have thought so—remarking in Ion: “as the Corybantian revelers when they dance are not in their right mind, so the lyric poets are not in their right mind when they are composing their beautiful strains: but when falling under the power of music and metre they are inspired and possessed.” That view of poetry frequently becomes the basis for banishing it from society—good middle-class responsible managerial society—altogether: as Plato himself did from his ideal republic.
But Plato’s views in this, or at least his motives for them, are suspect for two charmingly opposed reasons: he himself was a failed poet (as a young man he showed Socrates the tragedy he had written, and Socrates told him to forget it) and, at the same time, he was a great poet, a poet-turned-critic whose criticism has the power and imagination of poetry. Or are those dialogues too full of yes-men to be truly dramatic?
It is a historical oddity that when a culture becomes secular, rationalistic, and anti-poetic, poetry itself in the early stages of the new dispensation comes to be looked upon as Plato does with perhaps a touch of mockery in Ion: as a divine emanation, irrational, and beyond ordinary life. In compensation for losing his social (Miltonic/ Aeschylean) function as an interpreter of the divine, the poet looks upon himself as divine while the rest of society regards him as, at best, a bit addled. Didn’t something like this happen again in our own European 19th century? If Plato was impressed and amused by the poets who reminded him of Corybantian revelers, what would he have said about Blake, who claimed divine powers, and about the outcast, expatriate Shelley, who announced that poets were the unacknowledged legislators of mankind?
Plato, then, was a Romanticist, and the cultural soil in which Romanticism germinates would seem to be, paradoxically, the unabashed materialism of an emergent middle class. And what is modern psychiatry, after all, but a secular priesthood that deals with the still pesky, if atrophied, spiritual needs of that middle class?
But after Plato comes Aristotle. His Poetics, in the casual form in which the treatise has come down to us, may well be merely the lecture notes of a student. It seems clear, nevertheless, that this most seminal of all essays in literary theory is primarily a counterstatement to the Platonic view. For our purpose (which is to give the proper answer to the psychiatrist’s question) the relevant passages are XVII, 2:
Again, the poet should work out his play, to the best of his power, with appropriate gestures; for those who feel emotion are most convincing through natural sympathy with the characters they represent; and one who is agitated storms, one who is angry rages, with the most life-like reality. Hence poetry implies either a happy gift of nature or a strain of madness. In one case a man can take the mould of any character; in the other, he is lifted out of his proper self.
And XXIV, 7:
Homer, admirable in all respects, has the special merit of being the only poet who rightly appreciates the part he should take himself. The poet should speak as little as possible in his own person, for it is not this that makes him an imitator. Other poets appear themselves upon the scene throughout, and imitate but little and rarely. Homer, after a few prefatory words, at once brings in a man, or woman, or other personage; none of them wanting in characteristic qualities, but each with a character of his own.
From these passages it would appear that what, in Aristotle’s view, distinguishes a good poet and storyteller is not madness necessarily, but, alternatively and preferably, a form of sanity, “a happy gift of nature.” True, he might seem a little odd to someone secretly watching him “work out his play, to the best of his power, with appropriate gestures.” But if oddness is madness (as it is sometimes taken to be by psychiatrists, among others), then we live in a mad society. The poet, according to Aristotle—that is, the imitative poet, the kind who describes actions, which is the kind of poet that both he and Plato are talking about—does not directly express himself (or herself) at all. For Aristotle, the poet rationally, lucidly loses himself in the actions that he undertakes to describe and in the people (and “other personages”—gods? spirits?) that he hopes to portray. And the aim of the whole process is to help us all achieve the same recognition, the same identification with the feelings of others that is the foundation of the poet’s sanity and ours.