Suffering, Creativity, and Genius

What would Nietzsche make of us? What would Nietzsche make of the T-shirt you can find on Facebook that is a spoof of a beer label. It reads, “Nietzsche’s Übermensch/Superior Quality/It’s Beyond Good/Zarathustra & CO. Distillery/Consume Responsibly.” If there were a God who gave him a soul, would Nietzsche turn in his grave? What would he think about the fact that over the years I have viewed his writings as a kind of self-help? That is, and perhaps ironically, if I have not sought comfort in Buddhism, I have sought comfort in Nietzsche’s writings. I have often been inspired by his call to greatness, his call to take on profound suffering in the name of creation, in the name of genius. And I realized long ago that it was inspirational because it appealed to my ego, as I’m sure it does to the egos of other, predominantly white boys/men. The inspiration works like this: “Don’t you want to think of yourself as a creative genius, then quit your bitching about your suffering and embrace it!” The implication supposedly: if I’m reading Nietzsche, and I’m embracing my suffering, then I, too, am a higher type. On top of Nietzsche’s writings in some sense inviting this sort of poor reasoning, there is the danger that goes along with dedicating your life to reading the works of geniuses: One, of course, would very much like to be a peer of the authors one is reading. It is difficult, particularly if you’re introverted and spend much time in isolation with the work of geniuses, not to long for some measure of equality.

However, neither suffering nor our embracing of it are sufficient for creative genius. So much is obvious. Nevertheless, it is rather interesting to think about the connection between genius and suffering and/or madness. In today’s essay, I want to explore in a loose way a number of issues concerning creativity, genius, suffering, and psychopathy.

Consider Wendell Berry‘s essay, “The Specialization of Poetry,” which provides an interesting way into these issues. As his title indicates, Berry is concerned to challenge what he sees in 1974 as the specialization of poetry. Briefly, Berry contrasts the poet specialist with the “ordinary person” who happens write poetry in addition to doing other work. He considers, for example, William Carlos Williams who is both a poet and a community engaged doctor. For Berry, the poet specialist runs the risk of making their poetry divorced from more communal, public concerns, choosing to focus instead on interiority, in particular on their suffering. Among other things this is marked by the reader’s interest in the poet’s life itself, her views on all manner of things, instead of simply the poetry itself. In addition to the poet’s turning inward and away from shared experience and public concerns, Berry notes a concomitant turn to the art of words. The words themselves, not what they say, takes precedence over engagement with experience and tradition. But Berry’s main problem seems to be that with a focus on suffering there is a focus on people as sufferers (victims) and not actors responsible for their fate. Hence, there is a contrast between the passive poet responding to her suffering and the activist poet who takes responsibility for themselves and what is happening in society. Further, Berry thinks that the poet’s focus on interiority goes along with an absence of narrative in contemporary poetry and the lack of narrative goes with the lack of communal engagement. While we won’t be engaging all or many of these issues, I want to give the reader the context of Berry’s discussion.

Berry is an interesting figure. He has been a Kentuckian farmer, writer, poet, activist, and more. He has been a much needed voice in contemporary America, engaging as he does issues concerning technology, greed, sustainability, and much more that is counter to the prevailing trends in the West, trends, which through globalization, infect the rest of the world. So, I understand his concern with a detachment between poetry and engaged communal life and activism. Nevertheless, I think his treatment of poetry, creativity, and suffering is problematic. His treatment of the connection between suffering and creativity is too narrow. I hope to show this assessment is plausible in the exploratory remarks that follow.

As in the above summary, he sees a direct connection between poetry’s specialization and its disconnect from community life. Again, what I want to try to do is finesse the connection between suffering and creativity in a way that Berry fails to, as one of the ways that he seems to think poetry has become specialized is through the idea that creativity requires suffering. Berry writes:

Isolated by the specialization of their art—by their tendency to make a religion of poetry or to make a world out of words, and their preoccupation with the present and the new—poets of modern times seem to run extreme occupational risks. James Dickey says: “I think there is a terrible danger in the over cultivation of one’s sensibilities, and that’s what poets are forced to do in order to become poets.” And: “In order to create poetry, you make a monster out of your own mind.” He explains that some poets use alcohol or other drugs, first to coax the monster, and then to protect themselves from it. He mentions, as victims, John Berryman, Hart Crane, and Dylan Thomas, and calls poetry one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. But he believes that most of the victims have been content with their bargain: “Because the moments of intensity which do lead to delight and joy and fulfillment are so much better than those that other people have.” (Standing by Words, 14)

So here we see several features that distinguish the poet from the ordinary person. The poet cultivates her sensibilities, sometimes by artificial means, and through this cultivation the poet suffers in a way that the ordinary person does not. And through this profound suffering, creation is made possible and results in a delight, joy, and fulfillment that is out of reach for the ordinary person.

As part of Berry’s case against this division between poet specialists and non-poets, he writes:

What I mainly want to question in Mr. Dickey’s statement is the assumption that this monstrousness of mind and this suffering are necessary to the writing of poetry. There is no denying that poetry can be written in this way—at least for a while. History certainly offers examples of unhappy or obsessed or mad poets, but it offers more examples of poets who sang or wrote in the exuberance of sanity, health, wholeness of spirit. One instantly credits Anne Sexton’s statement that “Pain engraves a deeper memory,” not because one believes that it invariably does, but because one senses, in the modesty and brevity of the sentence, the probability that it sometimes does. But one can only be suspicious of the conclusion of the “afterthought” of Robert Lowell’s Notebook: “In truth I seem to have felt mostly the joys of living; in remembering, in recording, thanks to the gift of the Muse, it is the pain.” One is simply aware of too much joyous poetry that has been the gift of the Muse, who apparently leaves the ratio of pain and joy to be determined by the poet. To attribute to the Muse a special fondness for pain is to come too close to desiring and cultivating pain. There is, I believe, some currency to the assumption that a fragmented, diseased people can make a whole and healthy art out of their fragmentation and disease. It has not yet been done. Yeats says that “neither scholars nor the populace have sung or read anything generation after generation because of its pain.”

Clearly, profound suffering is neither necessary nor sufficient for writing profound poetry. Berry is correct to that extent. —To connect Berry to Nietzsche, it is noteworthy that Berry writes above, “To attribute to the Muse a special fondness for pain is to come too close to desiring and cultivating pain” for one can easily read Nietzsche admonition to take on ever more suffering and responsibility as an admonition to desire and cultivate pain.— But where is the pain to come from in the creative process? We find one possible answer in Berry’s writings, namely, one finds pain independently of one’s work, whether it is “naturally” occurring, for example, an illness, or induced, for example, by alcohol or drugs. We find a different answer in Nietzsche’s writings on the will to power. That is, the creative genius as a higher type desires resistance, i.e., suffering, to the achievement of the artistic goal. For it is only by overcoming great obstacles, suffering them, that one expresses and manifests one’s power. There may well be a bridge between these two: the greater one is able to deal with the suffering of one’s life independent of the creative act, the greater suffering one can endure in the act of creation. Interestingly, Berry does not address the issue of suffering the creative process. Nietzsche by contrast does address the idea of suffering as inspiration, for example, in The Gay Science. This is not terribly surprising given that he suffered profoundly and that it is this profound suffering that so obviously inspires his desire to revaluate the value of suffering, particularly given his rejection of God/Christianity. Nietzsche writes, for example:

You see that I do not want to take leave ungratefully from that time of severe sickness whose profits I have not yet exhausted even today. I am very conscious of the advantages that my fickle health gives me over all robust squares. A philosopher who has traversed many kinds of health, and keeps traversing them, has passed through an equal number of philosophies; he simply cannot keep from transposing his states every time into the most spiritual form and distance: this art of transfiguration is philosophy. We philosophers are not free to divide body from soul as the people do; we are even less free to divide soul from spirit. We are not thinking frogs, nor objectifying and registering mechanisms with their innards removed: constantly, we have to give birth to our thoughts out of our pain and, like mothers, endow them with all we have of blood, heart, fire, pleasure, passion, agony, conscience, fate, and catastrophe. Life—that means for us constantly transforming all that we are into light in flame—also everything that wounds us; we simply can do no other. And as for sickness: are we not almost tempted to ask whether we could get along without it? Only great pain is the ultimate liberator of the spirit, being the teacher of the great suspicion that turns every U into an X, a real, genuine X, that is the letter before the penultimate one. [As Kaufman notes in a footnote here, “There is a German expression for deceiving someone that means literally: passing off a u as an x. Originally it referred to the Roman numerals, V and X, and it meant passing off a five for a ten.”]

Only great pain, the long, slow pain that takes its time — on which we are burned, as it were, with Greenwood—compels us philosophers to descend into our ultimate depths and to put aside all trust, everything good-natured, everything that would interpose a veil, that is mild, that is medium—things in which formerly we have found our humanity. I doubt that such pain makes us “better”; but I know that it makes us more profound. (Preface §3)

It would take us too far afield to do justice to this passage, but we can note that for Nietzsche there is very strong connection between suffering and profundity. As from the last paragraph, one thing that great suffering does is to cut through the bullshit that might ordinarily occupy us. Hence, Nietzsche’s claim that great suffering, “compels us philosophers to descend into our ultimate depths and to put aside all trust, everything good-natured, everything that would interpose a veil, that is mild, that is medium….” While suffering greatly is not sufficient for genius, genius is helped by great suffering in the way that it cuts through the mediocre.

So far we have followed Berry in thinking about creativity in relation to suffering. But we also might shift, how much of a shift this is is a good question, from thinking about suffering in general, to thinking about forms of mental illness in relation to creativity. One possible connection between mental illness and suffering, aside from the obvious one that illnesses are often great producers of suffering, is that mental illness often involves an increased sensitivity to stimuli of various kinds that is akin to Dickey’s notion of an “over cultivation of one’s sensibilities.” But what else might we say?

In the online Journal Nautilus, there is a recent piece by Dean Keith Simonton called, “If You Think You’re a Genius, You’re Crazy: Both geniuses and madman pay attention to what others ignore.” As the title suggests, Simonton’s focus is on the relationship between creative genius and madness, not suffering per se. In considering whether or not there is a connection between genius and madness, Simonton, as Berry does, notes that there have been plenty of creative geniuses who were not suffering from a psychopathy. Moreover, there have been so many creative geniuses in history that even if a large number of them have suffered from a psychopathy, the overall percentage of mad geniuses may still be quite small. Further, taking it to the logical extreme, we do not typically see great works of genius coming out of mental hospitals. Nevertheless, Simonton notes that there is evidence of a connection between creative genius and psychopathy:

Modern empirical research suggests that we should because it has pinpointed the connection between madness and creativity clearly. The most important process underlying strokes of creative genius is cognitive disinhibition—the tendency to pay attention to things that normally should be ignored or filtered out by attention because they appear irrelevant.

When Alexander Fleming noticed that a blue mold was killing off the bacteria culture in his petri dish, he could have just tossed the latter into the autoclave like any of his colleagues might have done. Instead, Fleming won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of penicillin, the antibacterial agent derived from the mold Penicillium notatum. Many people have gone for a walk in the woods and returned with annoying burrs attached to their clothing, but only George de Mestral decided to investigate further with a microscope, and thereby discover the basis for Velcro.

Cognitive disinhibition proves no less beneficial in the arts than in the sciences. Artistic geniuses will often report how the germ for a major creative project came from hearing a tiny piece of casual conversation or seeing a unique but otherwise trivial event during a daily walk. For example, Henry James reported in his preface to The Spoils of Poynton that the germ of the story came from an allusion made by a woman sitting beside him at Christmas Eve dinner.

Things stand out to the genius that don’t stand out to others because of their seeming ordinariness. But as Simonton notes: “…cognitive disinhibition has a dark side: It is positively associated with psychopathology.” But that, of course, doesn’t mean that only people with a psychopathy are going to have a creatively useful cognitive disinhibition. But such a lack of absolutes is not surprising.

As we noted before, there is certainly a connection between psychopathy and suffering, and insofar as there is, we have a bridge between Berry and Simonton. But recall that Berry’s discussion of suffering centered around the cultivation of the poet’s sensibilities. Such a courting of suffering is not by itself a psychopathy. Further, not all psychopathy that may be conducive to creativity is going to concern or involve cognitive disinhibition. Both cultivated sensibilities and certain psychopathy may instead involve a certain intensity of feeling.

Perhaps by feeling more intensely that which others feel only vaguely and occasionally allows the artist, the painter, the writer, the poet, etc., to tune into key aspects of human experience. It is not that their life in its specifics is like that of their audiences, but rather that their audiences when reading, for example, their poetry, are able to tune into their experiences in a new way. Where previously the audience had only vaguely and occasionally felt the feeling in question, with the work of the poet, they have a new way into the experience—the poet, through their non-ordinariness, casts those aspects of human experience into sharp relief from the chaos of human life that usually occludes or obscures them from view.

We might also draw a connection between intense feeling and cognitive disinhibition. In at least some cases, intense feeling correlates with non-ordinary apprehension of reality. Those aspects of reality that one feels most intensely stand in sharp relief from everything else that is backgrounded by the intense feeling. And in this way the intensely feeling person experiences intensely what others experience as unremarkable or ordinary.

Much more can certainly be said about the connections between creativity, genius, suffering, and psychopathy. However, we have seen enough to complicate Berry’s treatment of these issues. While Berry admits that, “It would be ungrateful and stupid to condemn and turn our backs on the work of inward-turned poets. That work contains much of value that we need to cherish and to learn from” (21), his treatment of the relation between creativity and suffering would benefit from an increased concern with the details of the various possible connections between suffering, psychopathy, creativity, and genius. He may well be, or have been correct, in regard to his criticism of the direction of poetry in 1974, but it is hard to assess his criticism of the suffering poet as turned overly inward and away from communal concerns with the paucity of detail that he presents.

I am grateful more than I can say for Wendell Berry, his writings, and the work he has done to try to make the world better. However, at the risk of being petty, while his poetry, or at least some of it by my lights, is excellent, and his non-fiction essays are often profound, he does not strike me as a creative genius. I cannot help but feel that this may be in some part due to his not being quite mad enough despite how mad he may be in other ways:

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

by Wendell Berry

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,

vacation with pay. Want more

of everything ready-made. Be afraid

to know your neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head.

Not even your future will be a mystery

any more. Your mind will be punched in a card

and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something

they will call you. When they want you

to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something

that won’t compute. Love the Lord.

Love the world. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace

the flag. Hope to live in that free

republic for which it stands.

Give your approval to all you cannot

understand. Praise ignorance, for what man

has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.

Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.

Say that your main crop is the forest

that you did not plant,

that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested

when they have rotted into the mold.

Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus

that will build under the trees

every thousand years.

Listen to carrion — put your ear

close, and hear the faint chattering

of the songs that are to come.

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.

Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful

though you have considered all the facts.

So long as women do not go cheap

for power, please women more than men.

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy

a woman satisfied to bear a child?

Will this disturb the sleep

of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.

Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head

in her lap. Swear allegiance

to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos

can predict the motions of your mind,

lose it. Leave it as a sign

to mark the false trail, the way

you didn’t go. Be like the fox

who makes more tracks than necessary,

some in the wrong direction.

Practice resurrection.


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