Essay in the Journal this morning, in the weekend section, about the connection between mental illness and creative genius. I try not to pay too much attention to the WSJ’s Saturday essays, and my mental health is the better for it. But I thought today’s page W3 piece by Jeannette Winterson (“In Praise of the Crack-Up”) wanted a little reply.
[For a very thorough, sometimes too thorough, exploration of this topic, see Peter D. Kramer’s Against Depression. But my thoughts, different from his, are what follows.]
No one extols the virtues of depressed Pizza Guys. Read an essay like Winterson’s, you’d get the idea that writers and artists were the only moody people out there. Perhaps artsy people don’t have a very wide circle of acquaintance. So let me assure you: mental illness, including but not limited to depression, knows no professional barriers. Accountants, Wal-Mart Managers, Engineering Professors — keep an ear out and you’ll quickly discover these people, too, can suffer mood disorders.
The difference being, of course, that your average laboratory technician doesn’t get asked to write an op-ed about the experience. And no one pores through the details of the billing-clerk’s private life, in order to write a riveting biography about the “real story” behind that face we know so well. Thus we never ask ourselves, “But what would interstate commerce come to, if we didn’t have depressed truck drivers??” [Who would cover those long-haul routes without the work of those who long for solitude? Mmn, I suppose the guys who are so fond of CB radios, and, these days, cellphones.]
But in fairness, the nature of literature and art does mislead. I was struck the other month reading through a collection medieval poetry: it’s 98% about love, death, and combinations of love-n-death. And pretty much that seems to hold true through the centuries. As much as *I* like to write about exciting topics like doing the dishes, or changing diapers, apparently themes with a little more drama tend to be more enduring.
–> So whereas the janitor has little to gain, professionally, by letting his personal agony shine through in his work, a writer or painter can use the depths of despair or psychosis as raw material for a riveting masterpiece. Of course ordinary grief and heartbreak are plenty dark for those purposes, and most of us will get to enjoy a fair bit of both by the time we’re old enough to write decently; but sure, if you happen to have episodes of mental illness to draw on, that works too.
And it *is* consoling for other suffering readers to know they are not alone in their experiences. So not such a bad contribution to the art, if you go in for that type of reading.
Which leads to a final point: Writing about difficult experiences is helpful to the writer. Or painting for the painter, and so on, I imagine. (The other arts are beyond my skill, so I can’t be sure.) Though honestly, most of us, when we work through our feelings this way, end up with a piece that is dreadfully boring — ‘maddening’ you might say; it takes true genius to be able to write about the experience of mental illness without causing it to become contagious. For the average depressed person, best to keep those feelings in the personal journal, far, far, from an editor’s desk.
But none of that makes it necessary to keep around the assorted mental illnesses just for literature’s sake. Any more than we need to keep around cancer because it has produced so many great works of art (I like this one), or encourage warfare in the Mediterranean that we might get another Iliad in the process. Given effective, no-obnoxious-side-effects cures for mental illness, there will still be plenty to write about.