Distance and Isolation: The Schizophrenic Aesthetic

Madness, provided it comes as a gift of heaven, is the channel by which we receive the greatest blessings. … [It] is a nobler thing than sober sense … madness comes from God, whereas sober sense is merely human.
Plato, Phaedrus and the Seventh and Eight Letters, 46-47

He bag production
He got walrus gumboot
He got Ono sideboard
He one spinal cracker
He got feet down below his knee
Hold you in his armchair you can feel his disease
Come together right now over me
The Beatles, Come Together

It is safe to say that most of America would not argue with me if I stated that The Beatles were creative geniuses, musically. Yet, many of their lyrics seem nonsensical. Take their song, “Come Together”, for example. It is nearly impossible to make logical sense of the lyrics; nonetheless, the song has a certain aesthetic. This begs the question, what is creativity? How do we determine those who are creative? Creativity certainly doesn’t contain only one form or fundamental nature (Sass 55) as the Beatles, and numerous other contemporary artists illustrate. The lyrics in Come Together can also be read as a “word salad,” an arrangement of random words carrying no meaning, which is often a symptom of schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is seen by most to be the essence of madness, where the sufferer loses the capacity for the complex psychological processes considered necessary for creativity (Sass 61). However, certain aesthetics, namely modernism and postmodernism, share a lot of “symptoms” with schizophrenia. In this essay, I will demonstrate how modernist, and postmodernist authors use schizophrenia-like chaos in their works and discuss the implications that this both modern and ancient connection between schizophrenia and creativity contains regarding the schizophrenic’s role within our society.

To understand the connection between schizophrenia and creativity, we must first understand what schizophrenia is. The American Psychiatric Association defines the characteristic symptoms of schizophrenia as delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech that contains frequent derailment or incoherence, grossly disorganized behavior, and the so-called “negative symptoms” (312). The negative symptoms include: affect flattening, which is a decreased expression of emotion; alogia, which is a lack of words or poverty of speech; asociality, which is a lack of friends, or interest in activities or intimacy; and avolition, which is a general lack of desire to pursue meaningful goals (APA 313). While patients with schizophrenia often perform poorly on cognitive tests, they do not perform poorly across the board and sometimes their performance on a particular test or portion of the test is off the charts (Sass 62). “Whenever the patient has an earnest aspiration, he shows himself capable of making exceptionally sharp-witted and complex deductions to achieve his desired ends” (Blueler 77). As modernist, Ezra Pound said, “Genius… is the capacity to see ten things where the ordinary man sees one” (Fitzgerald, and O’Brien 3). For the schizophrenic artist, this might, quite literally, be the case.

So, where do we find the connection between schizophrenia and art? The answer lies in two more contemporary aesthetics: modernism and postmodernism. These two art forms work to break the constraint of modern ideas or assumptions and the techniques they use to accomplish emulated characteristics common to schizophrenia. “[Modernism] involve[s] a stripping away of all normal affective, practical, or cultural associations of objects, which come to be viewed instead in terms of their mere existence or abstract geometrical form or to take on a curious and tantalizing, pseudo-allegorical quality in which meanings seem to be suggested yet can never be attained” (Sass 60). Modernism arose in the early 20th century in reaction to world altering and devastating events, such as World War I which decimated much of Europe. Veterans, such as the renowned modernist, Ernest Hemingway, were returning home to a chaotic and fragmented world and the modernist aesthetic served as a medium for examining and understanding that new world. To summarize Ihab Hassan’s book The Dismemberment of Orpheus, Modernism is characterized by distance, metaphor, hypotaxis, and paranoia. Sounds remarkably like symptoms of schizophrenia.

If modernism is leaning towards schizophrenia-like sensibilities, then postmodernism has fallen upon them. Hassan describes postmodernism as characterized by antiform, chance, anarchy, exhaustion, silence, deconstruction, antithesis, absence, parataxis, metonymy, anti-interpretation, anti-narrative, irony, and, interestingly enough, schizophrenia. “[Postmodernism] reject[s] any aspiration toward the ideals of authenticity or unity of the self, passionate spontaneity, intense personal engagement, or immediacy in one’s contact with the world.” (Sass 60). Postmodernism was born during the fifties in much the same way as modernism. Artists woke up to a terrifying new world in which reason and logic—the very things that were supposed to save mankind—created the atom bomb. For the very first time in history, global destruction became a possibility. No wonder postmodern artists rejected reason and logic and cultivated detachment and isolation.

Where do schizophrenia, modernism and postmodernism meet? Filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein describes art as unity between two elements, “sensual thinking with an explicitly conscious striving and soaring” (145). Modernism and postmodernism occur where schizophrenic-like thinking meets intentional form and function. Artists using these aesthetics are somehow able to tap into schizophrenic sensualities and bring them to bear in their work. In addition, those diagnosed with schizophrenia, with the proper training and motivation, can bring “conscious striving and soaring” to their schizophrenia and give us moving works of art.

Perhaps one of the best examples of an artist tapping schizophrenic-like thinking to expand perspective is William Faulkner. The first chapter from Faulkner’s book, The Sound and the Fury, is told through the eyes of Benji, who sees the world from an immensely different perspective. For example, Benji describes going around in a circle in a horse-drawn carriage as vastly different from a normal person’s experience:

I could hear Queenie’s feet and the bright shapes went smooth and steady on both sides, the shadows of them flowing across Queenies back. They went on like the bright tops of wheels. Then those on one side stopped at the tall white post where the soldier was. But on the other side they went on smooth and steady, but a little slower. (7)

Faulkner uses frequent derailment or incoherence with purpose. Whereas in a typical novel the reader is thinking ahead and anticipating what will come next, that is impossible to do in Benji’s chapter. We don’t know where we will go next, or how we will perceive situations. We have to give ourselves completely to Benji and as a result, we are much more connected emotionally, and we become invested in the story. We also feel a bit of the helplessness that Benji and the other children feel because of this. We are completely immersed in the story, yet there is nothing we can do to comfort Benji. We are powerless and emotionally vulnerable, two things that make The Sound and the Fury both very poignant and very much a modernist work.

Another artist who adeptly taps into schizophrenic-like chaos is the poet T.S. Eliot. Portions of Eliot’s poem, “The Waste Land,” written while in a sanitarium, contain derailment, incoherence, and apparent word salads:

O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter
And on her daughter
They wash their feet in soda water
Et O ces voix d’enfants, chantant dans la coupole!

Twit twit twit
Jug jug jug jug jug jug
So rudely forc’d
Unreal City
Under the brown fog of winter noon
Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant
Unshaven, with a pocket full of currants
C.i.f. London: documents at sight,
Asked me in demotic French
To luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel
Followed by a weekend at the Metropole. (62)

Through the chaos of The Waste Land, Eliot’s intent and meaning become evident. He uses numerous cultural references, but they are often fragmented and the thought process is derailed by new ideas, references and words. This creates an image of a world that is hugely fragmented, yet somehow sublime and full of meaning.

Just as Faulkner, Eliot and many other artists are able to somehow tap into schizophrenic chaos in order to create deeper meaning and beauty in their work, some schizophrenic artists are able to harness their chaos through conscious and intentional form in order to share with the world the beauty in their different perspective. Essayist Judy Ruiz is one such artist diagnosed with schizophrenia. In her personal essay, “Oranges and Sweet Sister Boy”, Ruiz examines gender identity and mental illness through a very unusual form. Her essay opens with this disjunctive form:

I am sleeping, hard, when the telephone rings. It’s my brother, and he’s calling to say that he is now my sister. I feel something fry a little, deep behind my eyes. Knowing how dreams sometimes get mixed up with not-dreams, I decide to do a reality test at once. “Let me get a cigarette,” I say, knowing that if I reach for a Marlboro and it turns into a trombone or a snake or anything else on the way to my lips that I’m still out in the large world of dreams.
The cigarette stays lit. I light it. I ask my brother to run that stuff by me again.
It is the Texas Zephyr at midnight-the woman in a white suit, the man in a blue uniform she carries flowers-I know they are flowers. (Ruiz 1)

By using varying styles of prose, differing font size and visual structure, and fragmented narratives, Ruiz is able to force the reader to think differently and assume a perspective that he or she might not otherwise assume. Ruiz is able to use this chaotic form to create an epistemology in which she is attempts to examine justify several beliefs about acceptable human behavior, as she says later in the essay, “I think we humans are in big trouble, that many of us don’t really have a clue as to what acceptable human behavior is.” (6). Ruiz, Faulkner, and Eliot are just a few of the modern examples which demonstrate that when the chaos of schizophrenia meets with the intentional consciousness of a trained artist we are left with artwork that moves the soul and expands the mind. This link between schizophrenia and creativity is not as new as it might seem. In fact, the association of creativity with madness goes back to the ancient Greeks.

Dionysus, the Greek God of epiphany, son of Zeus, was struck with madness by the jealous Hera (Euripides, Milman, and Johnston xi). This madness provided Dionysus with great ecstasies and terrible suffering and in turn he induced similar frenzied madness in those around him (xi-xii). Eventually, Dionysus came to symbolize prophecy, creation from chaos, and creative inspiration (xi-xii). Madness has been with us since the beginning of human consciousness, but the way it has been treated has varied according to the ages. The Greeks, who gave us the foundations for reason and logic, also provided a model with which to view madness, one which we have largely disregarded. This model credits madness with creativity and inspiration outside of normal human understanding (Becker 46). Thus, those afflicted with madness were also seen as important members of society.

16th century Europe, though not as open minded as the Greeks, saw a link between creativity and melancholia, a madness characterized by eccentricity, sensitivity, moodiness and solitariness (Becker 47). In fact, it wasn’t until the Enlightenment—the age that brought resurgence in reason and logic—that our social minds became closed to the idea of those with mental illness as being important contributing members of society (Becker 45). The only exception to this rule seems to be the romantics, who brought about a revival in melancholia-like conditions. “The Romantics produced not only a logical connection between creativity and madness but also one in which madness was simultaneously a piteous and exalted condition that stood in sharp contrast to what they regarded as dreaded normality” (Becker 45). Still, even with the romantics, there was not, and still is not, an overarching acceptance of those with mental illness as valuable members of society.

The field of psychology has long been interested in the creative process and has looked at the link between creativity and mental illness. As far as the creative process goes, many psychologists see it as either a sort of regression into childhood or a precarious dance upon the precipices of madness. Many psychologists feel that high quality art often contains a regression toward something more akin to childhood and less rational (Kris 59).Creativity has also been associated with a disinhibition of more primitive function in the brain (Eysenck 341). Just as a flower grows and blooms with an unconscious purpose, creative thoughts and perceptions need to blossom with the same spontaneity, not through rationale and self-awareness (Abrams 205). Indeed, some psychologists have found a link between bipolar and other affective disorders, and creativity. In her book, Touched With Fire, psychologist Kay Jamison draws the connection between creativity and bipolar disorder, implying that creativity is a gift inherent in the disorder. Yet, few psychologists have looked for connections between creativity and other mental illnesses and most reject artwork created by those with schizophrenia as valuable. However, bipolar and schizophrenia share several symptoms and there is a high occurrence of misdiagnosis between them because of the difficulty in distinguishing the two (APA 310).

We trace reason and logic to the ancient Greeks; we ought to adopt their point of view on mental illness as well. In her essay, On Being Ill, Virginia Woolf says, “We float with the sticks on the stream; helter-skelter with the dead leaves on the lawn, irresponsible and disinterested and able, perhaps for the first time for years, to look round, to look up—to look, for example, at the sky” (12). She is talking about illness. Indeed, mental illness can provide the sufferers with a unique perspective that allows them to present society with beauty and clarity outside of reason and logic.

Woolf goes on to say, “There is, let us confess it (and illness is the great confessional), a childish outspokenness in illness; things are said, truths blurted out, which the cautious respectability of health conceals” (11). Perhaps the schizophrenic aesthetic derives from the expression of deeper truths which are normally concealed by rational thought. A schizophrenic patient in a mental institution once wrote:

The burning question of today is the proposal put by the conspirators which is about removing all things living and dead between Heaven and Earth. In this way they think that they will be able to make room for something new and better, which is supposed to come out of the rays of the sun. However, I shall apply for permission to form an exception. (20)

The different perspective that comes from having a mental disorder can provide society with something new and better. You need only to think of the gifted dancing of Vaslav Nijinsky, the beautiful piano playing of David Helfgott, or the brilliant mind of mathematician, John Forbes Nash, Jr., to realize the truth in the schizophrenic patient’s writing.

The link between schizophrenia and creativity exists. It is easy to understand how a person experiencing such symptoms could be set aside by society, but this marginalization is hurting more than just those suffering from schizophrenia. Society, as a whole, is being deprived of the potential for beauty in those with schizophrenia. The fact that creative inspiration can be seen in this “degenerative” mental illness suggests that we need to reconsider the word “illness” and how we treat those labeled with it. After all, how can we write off those who display symptoms of schizophrenia and then turn around and commend artists emulating those same traits? We should, instead, love and support those suffering from a mental illness. I wonder how many more David Helfgotts we might have if we provided sufferers with encouragement, pulled them into society, and allowed them to contribute in whatever way they could. As Edgar Allan Poe writes in Eleanora, “I am come from a race noted for vigor of fancy and ardor of passion. Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest of intelligence; whether much that is glorious, whether all that is profound, does not spring from disease of thought.” (648).