What is the relationship between artists and depression?

The skilled and thoughtful William Gosline returns for a second guest post. The news of Robin Williams’ suicide has sparked an ongoing conversation about depression and mental ill-health among artists and other creatives. In a nuanced post Gosline reaches beyond the simple correlation between creativity and depression, to reflect on the real and complex relationship between the two.

Read William Gosline’s serial fiction Jury Selection at the author’s blog.

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A week has passed since the world lost one of its best and brightest. Robin Williams took his own life. The Internet has writhed conjecture, as is its nature, but perhaps as a sign of its maturation, the overarching tone is one of loss and sadness. Eulogies as memes abound. Because who amongst us hasn’t felt the heavy hand of depression, either within a loved one or ourselves? Robin Williams’ passing epitomizes one of humanity’s great contradictions: that the most gifted and giving of us are often the most tortured.

chinese-translator-of-hemingway-2
Ernest Hemingway

Artists are especially susceptible. Depression, madness and suicide recur elliptically in the lives of our great creators. Spalding Gray, after watching Tim Burton’s Big Fish of all movies, drowned himself in the river. Sylvia Plath put her head in an oven. Ernest Hemingway, stripped in his dotage of his trademark virility, took matters into his own hands.

But what is the connection between vision and psychosis, between depression and creativity? By rights, Picasso should have been mad: he worked in four dimensions. Dali, with his wild eyes and curled mustache, only pretended to be mad and when asked to play a truly mad man, the Emperor in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s never realized Dune epic, sanely declared he would–for the sum of $100,000 an hour. A cynical nod to the shrewd megalomania of Hollywood and a point in fact: his madness was self-promotion.

“alienation, while important to the formation of the writer, is not necessarily a prerequisite to insanity or depression.”

Van Gogh, on the other hand, painted the commonplace, pastoral world in which he lived. Dali and Picasso consciously manipulated reality, its tropes and dimensions. Van Gogh, for all the effulgence of his art, the broad strokes and bold colors, painted what he saw. Yet, it was he who lost the battle. Perhaps then in contemplation of his craft, we can get a bit closer to the crux of the question: what is the relationship between the artist and depression or madness.

In the course of doing research for a character based off of Jack Kerouac, I pieced together an extremely rough sketch of the famous Beat writer. I read some of his work but also found the ancillary scholarship on him just as illuminating. Of French Canadian extract, he was a quasi second-language speaker whose first language, Quebec French, was dismissed as nothing more than a backwoods colloquial dialect. Like many writers, he was astride two worlds, at home in neither. But such alienation, while important to the formation of the writer, is not necessarily a prerequisite to insanity or depression.

Salvador_Dalí_1939
Salavdor Dali was mad but mad north-north-west. When the wind was Southerly, he knew to ask Hollywood for a big pay cheque.

Of more value is a consideration of the method by which he worked. The manuscript of On the Road is almost as famous as the book itself: one long scroll that he pounded away at over the course of a few weeks, literally churning it out of the typewriter. It is here that we might begin to discern a connection, in the spontaneous, feverish “channeling” of Kerouac’s recollections. In fact, in the preface to his collected letters, the editor mentions the perils of spontaneous writing. Kerouac, like Gene Wolfe’s famous character Severian the Torturer, was doomed to forget nothing. The avalanche of memory crushed him and towards the end, even the solitary heights of Big Sur, an aerie to which he had oft retreated for silence and solace, couldn’t save him.

But if Kerouac was powerless before memory, exhuming it in frenzied streams, others are powerless before sensation. Van Gogh was evidently that and in the world of literature, his match might be the forgotten Swiss writer, Robert Walser. Robert Walser, like Van Gogh and Kerouac, was the passive observer. In an essay by William Gass, his anonymous narrators are described as “will-less wanderers, impotent observers of life, passive perceivers of action and passion.” As Walser drew nearer to the asylum where he would live out the rest of his life, his writing became increasingly disjointed and impressionistic, the nebbish narrator flitting from field to café, from cobbled street to farm, like a drift of cloud.

I believe that Robin Williams held something in common with these artists. His improvisation was explosive: machine-gun one-liners uttered at the speed of thought; impersonations rattled off in a bricolage of association. His performances were gut busting, hilarious, his ability to transition from idea to idea, mind-boggling. But in light of recent events, there is also something troubling in the frenzy of his delivery. As though, through frantic incantation like a Catholic priest or a mystic, he could stay just one step ahead of his ghosts.

I have ventured too far down the path of conjecture. The truth is I was as shocked and dismayed by his death as everyone else. My rambling is just an effort to make some sense of it, to furrow some parameters around depression and its relationship to the artist as a means of self-preservation. Because Robin Williams had fooled us all, with his broad smile and kind eyes. Here is a man, we thought, who has attained peace despite his tribulations. But his suicide is an object lesson for us of how easy it is to mistake someone who has come to terms with their demons with someone who has succumbed to them.

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3 thoughts on “What is the relationship between artists and depression?”

  1. If we start with well known artists to make sense of those who lose their lives to suicide or battles with addiction to make the “madness-genius” correlation we are maybe going in the wrong direction. The eccentric can skew the picture.
    I do have a mood disorder and I have always found a lot of comfort in creative outlets but I’m not a genius (or I’m a very late bloomer). But having worked with both mental health and brain injury it can be quite amazing to see the art that those with serious illness can produce. I would not be surprised if there is a creative “loosening” and a perspective of “otherness” that in some people can really free up a creative flow.
    When it comes together there can be some great art. The suicide and addiction risks come with or without fame and adoration.

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  2. Everybody dies. A lot of people die very unhappily, but it is kept quiet by the family. Slow suicide by alcohol is extremely common, but not recorded as suicide.

    Famous people are ferreted out by the media, so it is harder to draw a veil over what happened to them. This skews our perceptions. Robin Williams had Parkinson’s, on top of his previous troubles.

    This having been said, a lot of creative people have mood disorders, like bipolar, which might fit Williams. A close friend of mine is a sufferer, and an artist. It creates a feverish imagination, which cannot be repressed. A lot of average people repress their imagination to fit into society. Some people are unable to do either of these things. A tiny minority of those become famous.

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  3. I believe that Robin Williams held something in common with these artists. His improvisation was explosive: machine-gun one-liners uttered at the speed of thought; impersonations rattled off in a bricolage of association. His performances were gut busting, hilarious, his ability to transition from idea to idea, mind-boggling. But in light of recent events, there is also something troubling in the frenzy of his delivery. As though, through frantic incantation like a Catholic priest or a mystic, he could stay just one step ahead of his ghosts.

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