The world has long sought to explain the mysteries of madness and genius and has largely failed to do so. Perhaps the better idea would be simply to allow madness and genius to go on explaining the world’s own mysteries to itself…

Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join Marcia Christoff-Kurapovna as she explores the mysterious role madness has played throughout history with respect to some of the greatest artistic geniuses. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher

“Guernica,” by Pablo Picasso

“A post-mortem examination of the brain of Nietzsche might conceivably show us the particular atypical form of paralysis from which he died. But what would this have to do with Zarathustra?” —Carl Gustav Jung

The City of Washington D.C. is Philosophy itself, spiritually and physically a child of the Enlightenment, and the philosophy is empirical, rational, and transcendental, expressed geographically by several layers of idealistic abstraction held together by sourceless sinews of ex-nihilo nihilo. It is a grid of north-south and east-west arranged in ascending order, ascending to monuments and memorials and seats of power. The grid is slashed by bold diagonals of broad avenues that meet in fifteen circles and squares, far-flung and flying forward, each designated for important personalities of national pride and prejudice and spaced at intervals to underscore that importance without which the grid would be lost and aimless. The multiplicity of circles and squares represents the nation’s imperial aims; aims that stretch generously away from The City’s weighty center and into the world in the role of pesky referee and self-assigned moral paragon. The White House and the Capitol building are the great hubs of the great radiation of the slashing boulevards, together the main reference point for City quadrants and City quiddities, the marking of a national meridian: the Hobbesian geometry of might. Neither the physical city nor its spiritual content is an accident. The City was not inherited from a dead civilization; it was not built up in layers of borrowed history from second-hand centuries. It was a deliberate thing, created for the sole purpose of crowning an Idea, its principal architect a former volunteer soldier in the Revolution who was feted and famous in his day, though few know that the gentleman died penniless and owed money by the country that feted and made him famous. But such is Washington D-of-C, metaphysically and oh-so otherwise. It comes as no surprise, then, that topping off this civic celebration of the imperial-rational, the strategic-geometric and the hegemonic-egocentric astride its own grid of greatness is that “Valhalla of the government clerk,” the madhouse.

Founded in 1855 as “The Government Hospital of the Insane,” but referred to by the more demurely circumspect “St. Elizabeth’s,” the asylum was built on a hill in southeast Washington overlooking the Potomac and Anacostia rivers and within a few years boasted three-hundred acres, over one hundred buildings and seven-thousand patients, among whom was a Man of Thought incarcerated there for the irrational act of too much thinking. Though St. Elizabeth’s original mission was to provide “the most humane care and enlightened curative treatment of the insane of the Army, Navy, and District of Columbia,” it became home to Ezra Pound, the poet and sometime pro-Mussolini renegade. One spring day in Italy, May 1945, having come within an inch of his life after capture by an Italian Partisan firing squad following the execution of Mussolini that April, Pound was turned over to and detained by the US military’s Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) in Genoa. The charge was treason and the punishment was a death camp outside of Pisa, his cell an open-air, floodlight-filled, steel mesh cage measuring six-by-six feet and dubbed by wartime journalists “the repository of the dirtiest sediment of our troops in the wartime theater” in reference to the American military personnel incarcerated there who had committed the most serious crimes and were awaiting trial, court-martial or execution. Three months later, Pound was transferred to St. Elizabeth’s on the grounds of insanity, a verdict reached by four separate psychiatric evaluations. Pound’s lawyer repeatedly appealed for bail to move the poet to a private institution once the head of St. Elizabeth’s declared that his famous patient would never “improve” under his care. But US authorities remained unmoved. Somehow, the idea of an American writer screaming harangues over Radio Roma that the Federal Reserve was the work of the devil satisfactorily met The City’s qualifications for lunacy and so Ezra Pound stayed on, for thirteen years.

At first, Pound was put in Howard Hall, the window-less and very worst section of the hospital, where, according to one of his close confidantes, the poet was “surrounded by rapists and killers” and “was shut away from the daylight among men and women who screamed all day, foamed at the mouth or tried to choke one another. Those wallowed in their own filth had to have their clothes removed. In such a milieu he would not have survived very long.” Pound was later transferred to the Chestnut Ward, a “heart-breaking bedlam,” where he refused all treatment, preferring to spend his time rendering the Confucian Odes into his distinct Anglo-Saxon translation, just as his cage at Pisa was the unlikely and uncanny locus of inspiration for the famous Cantos named after that inspiring city—a body of work called one of the great masterpieces of the twentieth century (and originally jotted down on toilet paper at the camp). Pound frustrated his doctors by proving not crazy enough, and the threat of new treatments, such as electric shock therapy and lobotomies—already performed on inmates who had once been government employees—were scheduled and then rescinded, as too many pilgrims streamed in on a weekly basis to visit the mad-wise man to discuss art, literature, politics and philosophy, foremost among whom was T.S. Eliot, with whom Pound traded off-color barbs in Latin. Other attempts by the hospital to render the poet “normal”—i.e. to quash any useless urges to write great epic poetry or to assist an entire generation of artists in getting their works properly published though one is oneself starving and struggling for publication—were in vain.

Pound persisted in remaining as intellectually and spiritually vigorous as possible in his tiny room with its mere slit of a window, a feat that recalls Viktor Frankl’s theme in Man’s Search for Meaning about the power of immovable spiritual faith among those prisoners at Nazi camps who survived their surroundings, versus those who, lacking such mental fortitude, were too weak to withstand the horrors around them. Pound survived through associations. (“Only a man with deep resources could have survived an ordeal like that,” wrote the literary critic Guy Davenport, a close friend of Pound, in his 1973 collection of essays The Geography of the Imagination). He summoned Tasso and Raleigh, who, too, wrote in their cells; the treason charge he shared with William Blake, Dante, and Socrates, while the whole crazy-poet guff he took in stride. He received his guests warmly and eagerly welcomed new writers keen on his advice. In an essay after the poet’s death, Davenport remarked that at the time he began to visit Pound at St. Elizabeth’s, he, Davenport, had completed two academic degrees and was on his way to a third and then a fourth. But it was at the foot of this most fascinating artist, he writes, that his real learning took place. (“All real education,” Davenport wrote of Pound’s influence on him in a beautiful tribute after the poet’s death, “is unconscious seduction.”) Slowly and surely, it was the doctors and administrators at the asylum who began to question the state of their own reason as they observed this curious patient, dubbed by staff as “the political prisoner,” acting in full possession of himself. But given the penchant of The City to create its own reality out of its own non-reality and the norm of its delusional patricians to label as insane those who refuse to find personal salvation in political submission, the case of the defiant Mr. Pound comes as no real surprise.

By 1958, the efforts of Archibald MacLeish—his friend and admirer—Dag Hammarskjöld, Ernest Hemingway, and Robert Frost succeeded in their exhaustive campaign to have the poet freed from the hospital. Pound returned to his beloved Italy where he died on 1 November 1972. His burial in Venice was an exquisite and solemn affair of lagoons by twilight, gondoliers, roses, Gregorian chant and Monteverdian plainchant. At Pound’s death, every school of poetry was under his influence and his name spoken with awe. In an introduction to the poet’s collected works Eliot declared his friend “the most important living poet in the English language;” Joyce said to no other man was he more indebted in his life; Ford Maddox Ford wrote that Pound’s Cathay was one of the most beautiful works ever to see print and Robert Fitzgerald, of Odyssey translation fame, credited Pound with the greatest influence on his technique. Karl Shapiro, who deplored the poet’s anti-Semitic views, regarded the Pisan Cantos as of “an extraordinary high order,” and John Dos Passos, though calling Pound “erratic to the point of insanity,” said that he “still remains one of the masters of the English language.” Davenport, summing up Pound’s aesthetic impact on the poetry and literature of the modern age stated simply and beautifully: “He was a renaissance.”

Central to Pound’s high crimes was that he expected to find in Mussolini, whom he extolled in his radio broadcasts, a contemporary version of Sigismondo Malatesta. That is, Pound had hoped that Italy’s tyrant would be converted into a patron of arts and letters much like the poet’s own fifteenth-century hero, “not because he went out and beat up other princes’ armies,” Pound’s publisher, James Laughlin of New Directions, once told The Paris Review, “but because he brought in the best Greek scholars such as Gemistos Plethon and the best artists such as Alberti and Duccio di Buoninsegna and Piero della Francesca to his court.” There is the impression of a kind of Möbius strip of borderless seams and seamless borders that such a comment brings to mind, one in which the debt of art to madness and that of madness to art is blurred by the very consistency of its own form. Many a great mind has coursed along the peripheries that divide (or conjoin) genius and insanity, a common political tangent of which is the Aristotelian fault-line between Monarch and Tyrant (great leader and despot, hero and megalomaniac…), so full of breathtaking vistas and hairpin curves throughout the intellectual journey. These spirits wander Diogenes-like, torchlight in hand and heart, looking for high-minded kindred souls, a melancholy investigation that starts out optimistic and sane and ends smothered by contempt tinged with a streak of violence. In Nietzsche, we find in an unpublished entry in his journal of 1870: “I would like nothing better than to meet a man… a being of angry greatness, with the bravest eye and the keenest will; at once warrior, poet, and philosopher, one whom you could imagine striding over serpents and monsters.” The writing continues: “The hero of the future will be a man of tragic awareness. The light of Grecian joyousness will be on his brow. The glory with which the rebirth of antiquity—hitherto lingering—will be inaugurated, the rebirth in German of the Hellenic world.” A few years later we read: “In me a catastrophe is waiting to happen.” In a letter to the Swedish playwright August Strindberg on the eve of Nietzsche’s mental collapse around 1880, he writes: “Dear Friend! I have summoned a council of princes to Rome. I will see to it that the young Kaiser is shot.” Nonetheless, by the turn of the twentieth century, Nietzsche scholar-mania was storming Europe, the erratic nature and sad demise of the philosopher hardly dimming the luminescent after-glow of his aphoristic wisdom. As Carl Gustav Jung, a phenomenal writer on psychological influences upon art, put so succinctly: “A post-mortem examination of the brain of Nietzsche might conceivably show us the particular atypical form of paralysis from which he died. But what would this have to do with Zarathustra?”

What indeed. The question raises another question: whether detachment from reality is the ultimate perspective on reality; whether only the mind well-nigh high in flight can grasp the most fundamental, grounded, truth of things. “Genius resembles insanity only as gold might resemble brass,” wrote the psychologist William Hirsh in his 1896 work Genius and Degeneration. But even Aristotle argued that “no excellent soul” is exempt from a “mixture of madness.” Goethe himself, “the sanest and most perfect of men,” was subject to “delusions of his sense.” And has it not always been the case that mankind at large has turned to marginalized poet-loners for the deepest connection to what Jung referred to as humanity’s “psychic community”? “The first thought in the first human soul is intimately linked up with the last thought in the last human being,” wrote the eighteenth-century philosopher of history, Johann Gottfried Herder, and it is to the “disturbed” minds of history that we give due credit and a tip of the hat for fastening those chain-links together more securely than what the common and the normal can but let slip through its grasp. Herder’s sentiment reminds one of Heraclitus, that most intriguing of pre-Socratics, whose statement, “We are living each other’s deaths; we are dying each other’s lives” echoes the same poignancy: man’s inner tempests and loneliness are a universal phenomenon, yet one that is still so privately, unfathomably, individual. “The degree of depth in our feelings for ourselves conditions the degree of our sympathy with others,” wrote the German historian Friedrich Meinecke “for it is only ourselves that we can, as it were, project into others. Only soul can discover soul; only a genius can understand, stimulate, or censure another genius.” Alas, the desire to go ‘deep into oneself’ is itself—today’s psychologizers and categorizers tell us—a symptom of psychosis. But art does not care. The great Spanish Baroque master, El Greco, used inmates from insane asylums as models for his depictions of religious ecstasy in his paintings; his duende-rich contemporary, Cervantes, made us feel that Don Quixote is right and we, the sane, are wrong. Miguel de Unamuno put this point very clearly when he wrote that we are sane “only because there are more of us.” He continued: “If we all, or the majority, could see giants in windmills, the windmills would be giants and no more ado about it.”

It is a banal fact of the human condition that extremes of passion can both destroy a man’s capacity to reason or immerse him in the highest contemplation of his own existence—the difference being whether he thinks the meaning of that existence resides in Euclid’s orderly universe or within Euler’s shapeless infinitus. “It is strange that a deep darkness surrounds the sources of the visionary material, a phantasmagoric darkness,” wrote Jung in his stellar book of essays on the psychology of art, The Spirit of Man in Art and Literature (1961). “It is a strange vision of chaos. The ordered cosmos he believes in by day is meant to protect him from the fear that besets him by night. His enlightenment is born of night fears!” St. Augustine comes to mind, who once cried: “And higher still we soared, thinking in our minds and speaking and marveling at your works: and so we came to our own souls, and went beyond them to reach at last that region of richness unending…” And Plotinus as well, in his famous Enneads: “When the soul begins again to mount, it comes not to something alien, but to its very self.” If Philosophy understands that the finite cannot comprehend the infinite and asks how can the finite comprehend the infinite, it is Art that tells us that the finite must become the infinite. The consequence for the artist, says Jung, is to live in what is for him a normal, reasonable, permanent dream-state—or, if you will, an unrelieved state of “hallucination.” Thus, when El Greco spoke of having to becalm “the whispering voices on my mind” in order to create his works, we may view this bit of quirk as idiosyncratic, eccentric, and possibly a touch “mad,” but it is still The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (1586-1588) that is the treasure bequeathed to the world as a result.

The case of Ezra Pound is particularly illuminating on this theme—this man who was so deeply concerned about the state of his civilization, so angered by indifference to it, he urged his fellow poets “to save the public soul by punching it in the face.” In Enrico IV by Luigi Pirandello, a man who falls on his head and thinks himself that great king (the son of Frederick Barbarossa and the father of Frederick II Hohenstaufen), is described as having wanted to prolong his madness to avoid having to see the world again as a sane man. The same has been more or less said of Pound: that, as he drifted into more obscure Cantos and consuming political obsessions, his insight into the world around him grew all the more vivid. Still, the final judgment on Pound was rendered by men who could not understand him. One psychiatrist at his hearing declared: “We are dealing now with the end product of an individual who throughout his lifetime has been highly antagonistic, highly eccentric, the whole world revolving around him, a querulous person, and less than able to order his life.” Perhaps if this doctor had been made aware that Pound ordered his life for the sole purpose of being querulous and antagonistic, the condemnations against him might have been motivated by at least some degree of humor. “Very few great artists of the time escaped the prevailing winds that blew from neo-classicism against bourgeois democratic culture,” Lionel Trilling once wrote in reference to Pound. “We cannot mention the name of any great writer of the modern period whose work has not in some way, and usually in a passionate and explicit way, insisted on this quarrel [of ‘the self’ with its environment and culture] who has not expressed the bitterest discontent with civilization. [W]e can say that Pound took his duty in this regard very seriously and literally.” That summation echoes the view of William F. Ogburn, an early twentieth-century psychiatrist with the University of Chicago, who wrote in March 1929: “To the extent that insanity is traceable to mental maladjustments due to psychological experiences, it would appear that modern civilization is caused to a very large extent of serious psychological maladjustments on the part of mankind.” So what is an artist to do in such a state of affairs?

Well, he has a few options. “When a great artistic genius is born into the world,” wrote Charles Young in The Conditions of Art in America (1895), “there must follow one of these results: either he will spend his God-given power pandering to princes or people’s vanity; or, if of a purer nature, he will be driven crazy for want of sympathy; or, if of a stronger nature, he will be driven in upon himself, his finer impulses crushed or he will be put to work in another occupation—engineering or mechanical occupations, struggling for money at some task to which the divine inspiration avails nothing.” Cervantes, for his part, urged the artist to press on: “When life itself seems lunatic who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams—this may be madness. And maddest of all is to see life as it is, and not as it should be.” Jung (again) also saw as the duty of the artist the imperative of going into himself to serve a greater external whole: “The artist meets the psychic needs of the society in which he lives, and therefore means more than his personal fate, whether he is aware of it or not. Being essentially an instrument to his work, he is subordinate to it.” Rather beautifully, he adds: “He is plunged into the healing and redeeming depths of the collective psyche, where man is not lost in the isolation of consciousness and its errors and sufferings, but where all men are caught in a common rhythm which allows the individual to communicate his feelings and strivings to mankind as a whole.” Kant, it must be remembered, reached the conclusion that we know nothing of things as they exist in themselves and our mind is ever putting its shaping hand on every object so that the world as we conceive it and the world as it really exists are separated by an impassable barrier. Oskar Külpe, a noted nineteenth-century German psychologist who pioneered psychological studies in “imageless thoughts” to see if man could conceive of ideas and abstractions without pictorial or symbolic reference, theorized that as one’s outer experience is bound up with space, and one’s inner experience with time, experience as a whole can be thought only in and through these categories (space and time—both subjective, according to Kant) such that all science—whether the study of, say, nature or the study of the human soul—become phenomena. In other words, the mind itself places its own stamp on every object it encounters. It is the artist who gives that stamp a particularly elegant and violent flourish.

The notion of the “responsibility” of the artist to his public highlights, in turn, the principal philosophical difference between the Man of the Left and the Man of the Right, as artist. Conservative and liberal critics have always displayed the vulgar proprietary tactic of trying to fence in certain cultural luminaries within their own ideological camps—the “conservative” Mr. Eliot or the “liberal” Mr. Hemingway, etc. But there is no such thing as a “conservative” or “liberal” artist: there are only artists, and there is only art. A great artist may be a Man of the Right or a Man of the Left, and all great Men of the Right are great Men of the Left in the sense that on either side is to be found the loftiest of anarchists, men who live their lives raging after an epic house-cleaning of cultural and political civilization; men who long for “great leaders” and who, to the last, possess almost unrestrained contempt for democracy or “Democracy.” But an important sub-division then follows, that between Reactionary and Radical, the former concerned mainly for the fate of “Man” while the latter is preoccupied with the fate of “humanity.” In modern times, Nietzsche and Heidegger, Pound, T.E. Hulme, Wyndham Lewis, Eliot—all of whom one may call, to varying degrees “Reactionary”—dedicated their art, their lives, to this first definition. Those of a radicalist bent such as Pablo Neruda, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, and so many countless others, were about the perfection of the lot, the engineered mass man, a select-breed socialism. It is a very compelling, and rarely-studied, characteristic of the Man of the Right that beneath his élitaire and contemptuous exterior resides this deep desire for the excellent individual—and this, not to communize his excellence among the many, but to set him free. Hence, the unusual warmth and music to much of the writing amongst these thinkers so routinely dismissed as “The Right.” Pound said of his friend Wyndham Lewis what he might have said of himself: “He is the man at war; the battler against commonness of mind.” Nietzsche, who saw life as a great chase after beauty, wrote that he wanted men to go through the world “like laughing lions.” Andrew Seth Pringle-Pattison, a Scottish historian who was the first to organize Scottish philosophy as a consistent scholarly discipline, described in his work Man’s Place in the Cosmos (1912) his feelings after reading The World as Will and Idea by the darkly reactionary Schopenhauer: “Here there met me the full, unselfish sunlit gaze of art; here I saw sickness and healing, a haven of refuge, hell and heaven.” Heidegger, regarded as one of the supreme cynics of his time, advised Pound: “Hold fast to old dreams, lest this our world lose heart.”

But the true poet is, above all, a man of his word, and seeks the reflection of his convictions in authentic expression and never in the mirroring of fashionable doctrine. Pound was brilliant in this regard. He cautioned against the nihilism of the modern art of his generation, calling it “the cheap way out.” But he also did not approve of slavish devotion to tradition: “We do not like the idea of tradition as limited by the conventional taste of four or five centuries and one continent,” he wrote, and he cared little for conservative provincials whose view of art was “a petrified gaze into the past.” (This brings to mind Alan Bloom in his The Closing of the American Mind: “As soon as tradition has come to be recognized as tradition it is dead.”) “We will sweep out the past century as surely as Attila swept across Europe”, Pound prophesized, disdainful as he was of the aesthetics of the 1890s. Then he added: “We do not desire to cut ourselves off from the past. We do not desire to cast ourselves off from great art of any period.” The eighteenth-century historian Giambattista Vico said that there are two kinds of wisdom: the poetic and the philosophical and the artist worthy of the label, born of the Left or the Right, sees to it that he is communicating both. It is why Guernica (1937) by Picasso and St. Francis in Meditation (c.1635) of Zurbarán say the same thing. It is why Gerhardt Richter, the great contemporary artist born in 1932 in Dresden and raised in an atheist household, could tell an interviewer many years later that, upon entering a cathedral for the first time, he knew he was witnessing the most beautiful civilization on earth. It also explains why the communist film director Pier Paolo Pasolini, when interviewing the “proto-fascist” Ezra Pound on Italian television in 1961 and reading to the aging poet the very moving second half of his Canto LXXXI, Pasolini’s fascination is apparent; his politics are not. Only through high art can madness be translated into human dignity (“And what is madness but nobility of soul crossed with Circumstance?” asked Theodore Roepke) and every artist seeks one outcome from his political “system” of choice: to allow for the ascendancy of the best creative talent; that talent to be the voice of his era, and that voice the echo of an inner world that is also the unique antidote to an intolerable “rational” around him. It is the noble vision, clean and uncorrupted. And it is, of course, where all the trouble begins, and ends.


For almost two-and-a-half millennia some subtle relationship has been thought to exist between genius and insanity, argued John Ferguson Nisbet, a nineteenth-century psychologist whose work The Insanity of Genius: And the General Inequality of Human Faculty Physiologically Considered (1891) was a best-seller in its day. Aristotle noted how often eminent men displayed “morbid symptoms of mind.” Plato distinguished between two kinds of delirium—one being ordinary insanity, the other “the spiritual exaltation which produced poets, inventors and prophets.” Socrates had hallucinations believing that he was followed around by a demon. “But what does this all prove?” asked Nisbet. “That hallucination is genius, or that it produces genius?”

Michel Foucault, a thinker perhaps not too welcome on these pages, nevertheless had interesting things to say on this subject in his 1961 book, Madness and Civilization. “Through madness a work that seems to drown in the world to reveal that there is non-sense and to transfigure itself with the features of pathology alone, actually engages within itself the world’s time, masters it and leads it.” He goes on to say that through madness, “a work of art opens a void, a moment of silence, a question without answer, provokes a breach without reconciliation where the world is forced to question itself.” Foucault traced the evolution of the concept of madness through three phases: the Renaissance, the neo-Classical Age (the eighteenth century) and the modern experience. In the Renaissance, madness was seen as the “wisdom of folly,” and art and literature depicted the mad as more or less free to go about, engaged with sane society, all the while seen as representing the mysterious forces of cosmic tragedy. In the mid-seventeenth to eighteenth centuries, the periods beginning and defining the Enlightenment, the rational response to the mad was to completely separate them from society. By the modern age, the afflictions of the “wise fool” were seen as “disease,” and thus began the age of confinement, psychiatric wards and the constant supervision of doctors—the institutionalization of the institution, so to speak, more cruel and controlling than their cruder predecessors. (By 1929, there were more hospital beds in the main insane asylum in New York State than all hospital beds combined for the rest of the state.) Studying the fates of Van Gogh and Nietzsche around the turn of the twentieth century, Foucault concluded that the “pathologisation of madness” was a disease of the modern era itself.

The science of the relation of genius to insanity took root as a scholarly cottage industry in the late nineteenth and early- twentieth centuries, prominent among which was the idea that the brain of the genius was distinguished by greater excitability, a certain greater richness of organization, that, at the same time, could be evidence of “degeneration”—i.e. the beginnings of the descent into insanity. In a captivating opening chapter in his 1896 book Genius and Degeneration entitled “The Psychology of Genius,” the psychologist William Hirsh, previously mentioned above, denied that genius was a form of insanity, but, he admitted, that neither could be “defined.” After comparing Schiller with Goethe, Mozart with Beethoven, great statesmen and generals, artists and scientific men, Hirsh could only conclude: “Where art begins, science ends”—that is, that the mysteries of the creative mind just cannot be apprehended. And because insanity is as equally indefinable as artistic genius, he continued, it is impossible to draw a sharp line between mental sanity and mental derangement. J.F. Nisbet argued that the common denominator between genius and madness was in “nerve disease,” “nerve damage” and “unsoundness”—conditions not due to the “cerebro-anatomical structure” of the brain so much as to the “transmission of vague tendencies and predispositions” which had their base in “a certain functional orientation of the nerve cells.” As a result, all intellectual ability from “imbecility to normal thinking to great brilliance” were variations of degrees of “emanations or secretions” of the nerve cells. Still another theory asserted that genius is “necessarily epileptoid,” since experiments showed that an epileptic attack with consciousness was similar to the creative act of genius. Frederick Myers, described by one nineteenth-century journal as “the chief explorer of twilight psychology,” maintained that genius was a subliminal self that occurred in an “uprush”—an emergence into ordinary consciousness of ideas that were matured, so to speak, below the surface. Insanity, meanwhile, was a form of “normal psychoses” in attenuated form or “neuroses in higher manifestations” bred alongside the maturation of genius on the subliminal level.

A German thinker next appeared on the scene, Dr. Max Nordau, who proclaimed in a famous essay of the time, “On the Pathology of Goethe,” that the man of genius is a product of distinct evolution, not of degeneration, any insanity being an aberration. (While Cesare Lombroso, perhaps the most fascinating criminologist in history, wrote controversial theories on the “evolutionary structure” of the criminal mind—a work of racism throughout, but one also with strong flashes of insight and brilliance acknowledged by scholars across the political spectrum). This then led to further, still more intricate, inquiry as to whether there was any genetic, hereditary pre-disposition to genius—or to insanity—later morphing into the weird world of the weird-science of “eugenics,” which took the medical community—and then philosophers and then ideologues—by storm. Its rapid rise in popularity as a study was largely due to its exhaustive promotion by the cousin of Charles Darwin, Francis Galton. Eventually, “and of course,” eugenics was seized upon by Socialists of a certain stripe who saw in its theories the means by which a society could be scientifically engineered into a collectivist paradise, all the while doing away with uncooperative, belligerent individuals. The very vile writings of G.B. Shaw and H.G. Wells on the advantages of gas chambers and the elimination of “inferior races” via eugenic application are testament to the spellbinding powers of charm this science worked upon the Left. On the other extreme, its study was taken up by Nazi-adherents as a means of creating that ever-elusive “superior race” of men. Eugenics was a form of madness that had gripped the rational, Western scientific community, one that had been rendered totally bewildered by the impenetrability of genius—a phenomenon so completely beyond that community’s comprehension that the only solution was to make sure genius became corrupted and then brought under control.


But there was also the idea of genius as a peculiar kind of individual mind that was the complex, unique repository of a collective unconscious—as an organizing intelligence, in other words, coordinating a mass of observed facts, apparently contradictory, all integrated. This social interpretation of genius—that the man in possession of the divine fire is for the life of his country and epoch the brain of his times; a complex organism coordinating everything, disciplining, and subordinating forces toward a single end—was one of the great intellectual legacies of Carl Gustav Jung. The capacity of the genius, he argued, depended upon a man’s inclination and ability “to absorb and elaborate the accumulated intellectual treasures of the environment.” The Swiss psychologist wrote beautifully on “psychic factors” in the life of the artist—his brilliance, his insanity, his impenetrability. As a humanist, a philosopher, a gentleman and psychologist, Jung never lost sight of the “human” in the “being”; there is in his writings a deep reverence for the inexplicable in human creativity compared to the dreary Freud’s stiff pseudo-reductionism. “It is a process that cannot be analyzed or reduced or defined as it will erode the golden gleam and the shimmering robes of artistic creation,” Jung wrote, regarding it as necessary to the inner life of mankind that those “shimmering robes” be draped as luxuriously upon an educated civilization as could intoxicate its collective senses. It is to this end that Jung speaks of the critical role of the artist.

[Art] is something strange that derives its existence from the hinterland of man’s mind, as if it had emerged from the abyss of pre-human ages, or from a superhuman world of contrasting light and darkness… The very enormity of the experience gives it value gives it is shattering impact. Sublime, pregnant with meaning, yet chilling the blood with its strangeness, it arises from timeless depths, glamorous, daemonic and grotesque, it bursts asunder our human standards of value and aesthetic form, a terrifying angle of eternal chaos, a crimen laesae majestatis humanae—a crime of high treason against humanity…

When the lights went out on ancient Greece, its end was not marked by an event, a war, a new religion or a new empire but by the passing of the last of its great personalities. “After the death of Philopoemen,” wrote Pausanias of the legendary Greek general, “Greece ceased to have good men.” This is what we’ve come to: the end of good men; of the self-made Self. Vico said that the stages of world history had three categories: first the “Gods,” then the “Heroes,” and then the “Humans.” We’ve dumped the gods, we’ve rejected the heroes, and we’re now left with the humans: at first, man looks to the gods for answers but religion fails him, or too many of him. He looks then to his heroes only to see that philosophy—our attempt to make sense of heroic minds and actions—eludes him and the heroes come crashing down. In his desperation man then tries to rely on common man, in the process inventing ideology and thereby setting man again man—the heroes and gods having already been killed off long ago.

It still remains the case, nonetheless, that somehow an unusual desire for the self-made Self persists—the god-like, the heroic, the moral potential of the modest man if separated from the mob; the stand-alone mind, the sense of grandeur in a personality; a desire to want to see the best in one’s fellow human as in oneself, even when it seems utter madness to hope for such. “Man must feel himself to be a breath of the eternal wind of will that sweeps through the winds of the infinite,” wrote Nietzsche, the man whose life too soon lost the breath, the wind and the will. But like all fine minds that are disturbed minds, he knew that the moment when, at once, a great work of art is born and is fulfilled the world is being evaluated, arraigned by that work and is ultimately responsible for what it is. In short: we need the madness—for art’s sake. What better summary of this than to remember that it was in a six-by-six-foot cage set outside in remote, open air in a military death camp that a man, deemed insane, could pen the words: What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee/What thou lov’st well is thy heritage… The world has long sought to explain the mysteries of madness and genius and has largely failed to do so. Perhaps the better idea would be simply to take a cue from the history of the words and actions of the human race and allow madness and genius to go on explaining, like none other can, the world’s own mysteries to itself.

This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in January 2016.

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