Creativity and psychopathology in literature

Montserrat Lusarreta Kawas
Rush University Medical Center, Chicago, Illinois, United States (Spring 2015)

“There is no great genius without a mixture of madness.” — Aristotle

“I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.” — Edgar Allan Poe

 Virginia Woolf
 Virginia Woolf

William Faulkner, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy and Virginia Woolf, among many others, all suffered from one of the most challenging psychiatric illnesses, bipolar disorder. Also known as manic-depressive disorder, this is a chronic disorder of alternating episodes of mood disturbance ranging from depression to episodes of mania or hypomania. During manic episodes, patients exhibit an elevated or irritable mood, sense of grandiosity, reduced need for sleep and hyperactivity, sometimes severe enough to cause delusions, impulsivity, poor judgment, and reckless behaviors.1 These creative minds were among the most afflicted, but is there a way to explain their creative process? Is psychological distress necessary to create great works? It has been said that psychological suffering can be an essential component of artistic creativity. These eminent authors were crippled by their conditions, but were also able to create transcendent and unparalleled masterpieces. They might have used their abundant energy and productivity to generate art and it seems as if their illness was a source of their inventiveness. Did their altered cognitive state facilitate the creation of unique and extraordinary ideas?2Was their work fruit of their mental illness?

Bipolar disorder and creativity may be intimately connected.3 While researching the link between creativity and mental illness, Nancy Andreasen interviewed thirty faculty members at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop and thirty control subjects, finding that 80% of the writers had had an episode of either depression or manic depression, and supporting the idea that mood disorders are prevalent among the artistic population.4 It has been alleged that during manic episodes, periods characterized by elation, people can become more productive. There is some research that describes the connection between creativity and psychopathology, suggesting that this form of emotional distress and instability may contribute to the materialization of creativity. In their study McCraw and colleagues suggest an intrinsic connection between this affective disorder and creativity, indicating that 82% of bipolar patients in their study acknowledged being creative when hypomanic/manic. The authors describe the advantages that participants experience during manic phases (i.e. feeling good, being productive, and gaining results) and suggest that this mood disorder can improve focus and clarity during creative activities.5 Scholastic achievement and its relationship with bipolar disorder have also been investigated. MacCabe’s and colleagues’ study suggests that individuals with outstanding school performance have an increased risk of developing bipolar disorder.6

This coexistence of mental illness and creativity can be illustrated by the case of Virginia Woolf, who was severely impaired by depression and hypomania. Through autobiographical and biographic sources we know that Virginia Wolf experienced intense mood swings that culminated in suicide at the age of fifty-nine. She made sense of her chaotic experience through writing, and it is with A Sketch of the Past that she vividly recalls the ambivalence she felt throughout her life. “I am hardly aware of myself, but only of the sensation. I am only the container of the feeling of ecstasy, of the feeling of rapture.”7 However, she was able to translate her medical illness into creative accomplishment; her disorder significantly influenced the magnitude of her work. During her manic phases characterized by intensified emotions and deviant odd behaviors, she created novels, short stories, biographies, non-fiction books, translations, autobiographical writings, letters, and diaries. While editing her diary entries her husband Leonard Woolf, states: ‘the diaries show the extraordinary energy, persistence, and concentration to which she devoted herself to the art of writing and the undeviating conscientiousness with which she wrote and rewrote and again rewrote her books.’8

Research describes how these moments of heightened and euphoric mood make people have better access to vocabulary, memory, and other cognitive resources. People experiencing mania can often be more clever and imaginative, often show inflated emotional responses which may facilitate their talent in literature, and often have unusual stamina and remarkable capacity for concentration.9 Hypomanic and manic symptoms may facilitate high levels of performance. Virginia Woolf’s writings portrayed her fractured mind; through them she embarked in a perilous journey to comprehend the complexities of her own mind. Plato said, “for all good poets compose their beautiful poems not as works of art, but because they are inspired and possessed…not in their right mind when they compose their beautiful songs.”10

On her suicide letter to her husband, Virginia Woolf wrote: ‘Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do.’11 Bipolar disorder is a serious medical condition associated with high levels of functional impairment, morbidity, and increased risk of suicide.12 This erratic, unpredictable, and lifelong condition which enveloped the writer’s life and influenced her work caused severe personal grievances. She was touched by madness; she had aggressive and violent breakdowns, melancholic and suicidal mania, and yielded into an agonizing death. This emotional turmoil and suffering is a reminder that mental health problems should never go untreated. Even though a relationship between affective disorders and creativity can be sketched, it is indispensable to look for help and support.

 

References

  1. Pinto S, Schub T. Bipolar Disorder. [serial online]. May 30, 2014;Available from: CINAHL Plus with Full Text, Ipswich, MA. Accessed January 7, 2015.
  2. Jamison K. Manic depressive illness and creativity. Scientific American Special Issue [serial online]. June 2, 1997;7(1):44. Available from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed January 7, 2015.
  3. Akiskal H. In search of Aristotle: temperament, human nature, melancholia, creativity and eminence. Annals Of General Psychiatry [serial online]. January 2, 2008;7:1. Available from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed January 7, 2015.
    Ruiter M, Johnson S. Mania risk and creativity: A multi-method study of the role of motivation. Journal Of Affective Disorders [serial online]. January 2015;170:52-58. Available from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed January 7, 2015.
    McCraw S, Parker G, Fletcher K, Friend P. Self-reported creativity in bipolar disorder: prevalence, types and associated outcomes in mania versus hypomania. Journal Of Affective Disorders [serial online]. December 2013;151(3):831-836. Available from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed January 7, 2015.
  4. Andreasen N. Secrets of the Creative Brain. Atlantic [serial online]. July 2014;313(6):62-75. Available from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed January 7, 2015.
  5. McCraw S, Parker G, Fletcher K, Friend P. Self-reported creativity in bipolar disorder: prevalence, types and associated outcomes in mania versus hypomania. Journal Of Affective Disorders [serial online]. December 2013;151(3):831-836. Available from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed January 7, 2015.
  6. MacCabe J, Lambe M, Hultman C, et al. Excellent school performance at age 16 and risk of adult bipolar disorder: national cohort study. British Journal Of Psychiatry [serial online]. February 2010;196(2):109-115. Available from: Child Development & Adolescent Studies, Ipswich, MA. Accessed January 5, 2015.
  7. Woolf, V. Moments of Being. 2nd Ed. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Brace & Company: 1985.
  8. Woolf V. A Writer’s Diary, Being Extracts From The Diary Of Virginia Woolf: Orlando, Florida: Harcourt, Inc: 1954.
  9. Koutsantoni K. Manic Depression in Literature: The Case of Virginia Woolf. Medical Humanities [serial online]. June 1, 2012;38(1):7-14. Available from: Philosopher’s Index, Ipswich, MA. Accessed January 5, 2015.
    MacCabe J, Lambe M, Hultman C, et al. Excellent school performance at age 16 and risk of adult bipolar disorder: national cohort study. British Journal Of Psychiatry [serial online]. February 2010;196(2):109-115. Available from: Child Development & Adolescent Studies, Ipswich, MA. Accessed January 5, 2015.
  10. Bulkley, D.D. Plato’s Best Thoughts. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons: 1883.
    Jamison K. Manic depressive illness and creativity. Scientific American Special Issue [serial online]. June 2, 1997;7(1):44. Available from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed January 7, 2015.
  11. Popova, M. March 28, 1941: Virginia Woolf’s Suicide Letter and Its Cruel Misinterpretation in the Media. Available from http://www.brainpickings.org/2014/03/28/virginia-woolf-suicide-letter/
  12. Neelakanthappa Munoli R, Kumar Praharaj S, Venkata Narasimha Sharma P. Co-morbidity in Bipolar Disorder: A Retrospective Study. Indian Journal Of Psychological Medicine [serial online]. July 2014;36(3):270-275. Available from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed January 7, 2015.

 


 

MONTSERRAT LUSARRETA KAWAS, MA, LCSW, graduated with a master’s degree in Social Work from Loyola University Chicago.  She completed a fellowship in geriatric social work before joining Medical Home Network at Rush University Medical Center.  She provides assistance and support to patients and families on a wide variety of issues such as care coordination, caregiver support, psychotherapy, in-home care options, and medical equipment. She also has volunteered, interned, and worked in Spanish-speaking communities, providing outpatient psychotherapy, case management, and conducting research aimed to reduce health disparities in the Latino community.

 

Hektorama  | Psychiatry Psychology