Steve Edington

Creativity, Madness and the Holy

"Men have called me mad," wrote Edgar Allen Poe, "but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence -- whether much that is glorious -- whether all that is profound -- does not spring from disease of thought -- from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect."

Many people have long shared Poe's suspicion that genius and insanity are entwined. Indeed, history holds countless examples of "that fine madness." Scores of influential 18th and 19th century poets, notably William Blake, Lord Byron and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, wrote about the extreme mood swings they endured. Modern American poets John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Theodore Rothke, Delmore Schwartz and Anne Sexton were all hospitalized for either mania or depression during their lives. And many painters and composers, among them Vincent Van Gogh, Georgia O'Keeffe, Charles Mingus and Robert Schumann have been similarly afflicted...Recent studies indicate that the temperaments and cognitive styles associated with mood disorders can in fact enhance creativity in some individuals.
from Manic-Depressive Illness and Creativity, Scientific American Magazine, February 1995, Kay Redfield Jamison.

There was a little alley in San Francisco back of the Southern Pacific station at Third and Townsend in redbrick of drowsy lazy afternoons with everybody at work in offices in the air you feel the impending rush of their commuter frenzy as soon they'll be charging en masse from Market and Sansome buildings on foot and in buses and all well-dressed thru workingman Frisco of Walk-up truckdrivers and even the poor grime-bemarked Third Street of lost bums...and here's all these Millbrae and San Carlos neat-necktied producers and commuters of America and Steel civilization rushing by with San Francisco Chronicles and green Call-Bulletins not even enough time to be disdainful, they've to cat 130, 132, 134, 136 all the way up to 146 till the time of evening supper in homes of the railroad earth when high in the sky the magic stars ride above the following hotshot freight trains --

It's all in California, it's all a sea, I swim out of it in afternoons of sun hot meditation in my jeans with head on handkerchief or brakeman's lantern or (if not working) on books, I look up at blue sky of perfect lostpurity and feel the warp of wood of old America beneath me and have insane conversations with Negroes in several-story windows above which is so much like the alleys of Lowell and I hear far off in the sense of coming night that engine calling our mountains.
from Lonesome Traveler, by Jack Kerouac

This past Thursday several of my friends and I gathered in a Lowell establishment to observe a bittersweet occasion. October 21, 1999, marked the 30th anniversary of the death of Jack Kerouac. I'm not altogether sure just how appropriate of a gesture it was to raise mugs of beer to his memory since poor Jack died of liver failure brought on by alcoholism. But we felt some gesture had to be made, especially in his hometown where his literary consciousness first took shape.

The circumstances surrounding this writer's death 30 years ago were especially tragic. The man whose voice and writings captured a restless, rebellious, and life-affirming spirit in the generation coming of age following World War II -- in a manner reminiscent of the impact Walt Whitman had on the generation of his day -- died a lonely death in a modest suburban home in St. Petersburg, Florida. Kerouac was 47 years old; he had become largely alienated and estranged from his friends and associates who comprised the literary and cultural phenomenon called the "beat generation." The man whose writings about, and insights into, the America of the late 1940s and 1950s planted the seeds of the cultural and political upheavals of the 1960s, had become a kind of a reactionary recluse; and he was more than a little bewildered at what the fruits of his writing had yielded. Living with his third wife and his invalid mother, his drinking was, in effect, a prolonged suicide.

While Kerouac was never diagnosed as being clinically depressed, or having mood disorders, his behavior, particularly in his declining years, was at least suggestive of such conditions. Whatever the case may have actually been, this amazingly creative individual, who could do almost magical things with words and images, and whose magnetic personality - and strikingly good looks - put him at the center of a literary and cultural movement, was destroyed by his own demons.

At the time of his death Kerouac's estate was worth only a few thousand dollars, sales of his books that remained in print were mediocre, and he'd become pretty much of a literary afterthought even though his signature work, On The Road, had been published only 12 years earlier. Thirty years later the worth of his estate is measured in the millions of dollars, everything he ever published is in print and selling in numbers that dwarf what they did in his lifetime. Many of his previously unpublished writings are coming into print as well. His works are part of the curricula of numerous English Departments around the country, and literary conferences are now held where scholarly papers on his life and writings are presented and discussed.

What Don MacLean said of Vincent Van Gogh in his very moving tribute to that artist ("Vincent," or "Starry Starry Night"), could also be said of Jack Kerouac today by many of his readers: "Now I understand all you tried to say to me; how you suffered for your sanity; how you tried to set them free. They did not listen, they did not know how; perhaps they'll listen now."

If the sales of Kerouac's books, along with the various CDs now available of him reading his own works, are any indication a lot of people are listening now. He is certainly not the first and probably will not be the last artist, writer, or poet to die in a seemingly defeated state only to come to life again through his/her work, as the true value of their work and vision is eventually recognized and appreciated.

I am using Mr. Kerouac's life and death more as a point of departure to explore two larger issues. First I want to look at the relationship between the creative urge or impulse, and self-destruction; and between creativity and certain forms of mental illness. My feeling is that we need to be very cautious as to what we make of such correlations, and very careful as to the conclusions we may draw about them. Then, I want to talk to what I feel the role of the artist, the role of the highly creative individual, is in society. I happen to believe that such persons perform a profoundly religious function, whether they regard themselves as "religious" in any conventional sense or not.

The article from which I quote at the beginning of this essay appeared in the February, 1996 issue of Scientific American" with the title "Manic-Depressive Illness and Creativity." For me, the pictures on the first two pages of the article were as fascinating as the text itself in that they contained a photographic collage of well known writers, artists, and composers who were either diagnosed as manic depressive or who showed symptoms of it. Some of them succumbed to suicide; others had their battles with alcoholism or with the use of addictive drugs. Among those pictured in the collage are Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe, Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain.

It would be very tedious, and not terribly creative, for me to dissect an article from Scientific American, so I won't do it. Suffice it to say that this one had a lot of charts and graphs, cited a number of surveys by various psychiatric researchers, and provided a generous amount of analysis to demonstrate - to my satisfaction, anyway - that there are considerably higher rates of suicide, depression, and manic depression among established and recognized artists, writers and poets than are found in the general population at large. Left unexplained - and perhaps it's unexplainable - is what this high correlation really means.

Does it mean that mental illness, or suicidal, or self-destructive tendencies, are prerequisites for artistic creativity? Not at all. Even given the impressive array of writers and artists pictured in this piece who indeed had near life-long battles with their dark sides, an even greater array of equally gifted and creative persons who led, or lead, fairly normal lives could also, I am sure, be assembled. I can't help but be aware that Kurt Vonnegut, another of my favorite writers, was born the same year as Kerouac (1922) and just recently published another collection of essays and short pieces. Many of Vonnegut's novels, in fact, go into far more bizarre and complex territory than do Kerouac's. But by all indications Vonnegut's a pretty stable individual. Even for all the maniacally weird stuff that Steven King comes up with, he seems to be a regular guy from Bangor Maine and a die hard Red Sox fan (Lord, is there any other kind? All we Red Sox fans ever do, it seems, is die hard). Regular guy that Mr. King appears to be, I'm still not sure I'd want to follow him around; just knowing the kinds of things his mind is capable of is pretty scary all by itself.

But back to the article itself. It's hard to ignore the correlation it shows between certain kinds of mental and emotional instability and enhanced creativity. While I don't believe the one directly causes the other, I would say that having to struggle for one's sanity, and having to endure long, dark nights of the soul, could heighten one's sensitivity to both the preciousness and fragile and sacred dimension to life by means of whatever creative tools he or she possesses. Creation often is borne out of struggle. For some highly talented persons pushing their creative energies also seems to bring out their self-destructive tendencies as well.

When Kerouac wrote his first complete draft of "On The Road" in 1950 (and it would not be published for ever years thereafter) he did it in three weeks using a continuous roll of teletype paper which he'd put in his typewriter so he wouldn't lose his concentration by having to change sheets of paper. For those three weeks - so the story goes - he subsisted largely on black coffee and Benzedrine and hardly any sleep.

Now I can get very caught up in writing projects of my own on occasion to the point that I'm barely focused on much of anything else, but I've never been possessed quite like that, and would just as soon not be. Among the lines Jack came out with in that outburst of writing were these : "The only ones for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous Roman Candles exploding like spiders across the skies and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes awwwww!..."

Kerouac is describing a kind of "divine madness" here, a joyful, liberating kind of madness that lifts us out of the mundane into some other realm of reality. He lit up a whole generation with words like these, and he continues to do so for subsequent generations. And there is something kind of romantic about the image of a handsome young writer from the working-class neighborhoods of Lowell, Massachusetts bent over his typewriter in his New York loft on a three week writing binge cranking out lines like these.

But there's very little, if anything, romantic at all about coming to see that there was another dimension of madness Kerouac had to deal with other than the kind he extolled in this passage.

He may not have the types of mental illness that some of the artists and writers I mentioned earlier did, but he had numerous inner conflicts and conflicting emotions and unresolved tensions that eventually drove him to the madness of alcoholism. It was this kind of drinking which cost him his life before he even reached the age of 50.

Divine and destructive madness ran side by side in his life. Kerouac was hardly alone in that respect.

What I want to say as a way of wrapping up this first point is that I do get somewhat concerned when I see correlations cited between mental illness and self-destruction, and creativity. There is a correlation, I do not dispute that. My concern is that such information as this could be used to romanticize mental illness or suicidal behavior. there is absolutely nothing romantic or glorious about either. I would not want to see the message come through - especially to young people who may be just feeling and trying out their creative oats - that I have to gamble with my sanity, if not my very life, in order to be a really good writer, poet, artist or musician. I also think that's the last message any of the writers and artists who have had their life and death struggles with themselves would want to have conveyed.

Creativity is a struggle; it can push the creator to greater lengths and deeper depths than he/she may even with so go. It has extracted its price from certain highly talented and insightful individuals; but a far greater number have learned how to walk to the edge of madness without falling over that edge. So while I do not romanticize or glamorize the struggle for sanity that persons like Van Gogh or Kerouac, or numerous other artists and writers had to contend with, I honor their struggles nonetheless. I also feel blessed to see and experience the art and the writing that came forth in the wake of those struggles.

My second point, to which I must now hasten, is that the role of the artist within the larger society and culture in which he/she lives, is to point us to the sacred and the holy in life. By sacred and holy I do not mean some realm of existence that is sealed off from the lives we generally live and to which you need some kind of pass to get into. The role of the artist is to allow us to see the sacred or holy dimension to life that has always been right in front of us. It is to allow us, in TS Eliot's words, "to arrive at where we started and see it clearly for the first time." I call holy or sacred that which lifts us out of ourselves and out of the mundane - if only for a moment - and lets us see the preciousness of life and our connection to the larger life that is always around and enfolding us.

The immediate past President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Dr. William Schulz, gives expression to what I'm trying to say in an essay from his book "Finding Time" on what he regarded as some common affirmations generally held among UUs. One such affirmation was "that the Sacred or Divine, the Precious and the Profound, are made evident not in the miraculous or (the) supernatural, but in the simple and the everyday." Bill Schulz will be the first to tell you that even as president of that association he did not purport to speak for all UUs with respect to matters of belief. But his words certainly resonate with me. As a corollary to those words Bill added "the gracious is available to every one of us, disguised in the simple and the mundane."

Now connect these words of Bill's with what I just said about the task or role of the artist. The artist is the one who shows us the sacred in the simple, and who shows us the graciousness that is available to each one of us though it may be disguised (as Dr. Schulz so wisely and cleverly put it) as mundane. We all walk under stars; it is the artist who shows us the preciousness and the sacredness of a "Starry Starry Night."

Now let's take this idea to the passage from "Lonesome Traveler. As noted it comes from a rather brief period of time in the early 1950s - no more than a few months - when Kerouac worked as a brakeman on the Southern Pacific Railroad out of San Francisco. Jack sees a certain beauty in the "little alleys" and notes how the commuters rush for their trains with "not even enough time to be disdainful" of the "lost bums." He notes that the commuters do not even see how "high in the sky the magic stars ride above the hotshot freight trains." To these commuters Kerouac probably appeared to be another working class guy on his way to his brakeman's job; but listen again to what he looks at, and feels, and hears: "I look up at the blue sky of lostpurity and feel the warp of wood or old America beneath me... everything is pouring in, the switching moves of the boxcars in that little alley which is so much like the alleys of Lowell and I hear far off in the sense of the coming night that engine calling our mountains" (my italics). It is the artist, the poet, the writer who draws on his or her creative powers to implore us to look, to feel, to hear, to sense. To seek and find the Sacred in the simple and the Holy, in the mundane, is a religious act, I feel, which is why I believe the role of the artist is ultimately a religious one.

As has been shown already, some of our more creative and expressive individuals have had to walk through the demonic in their searches for the holy, and sometimes the demonic entraps, and in some cases, destroys them. But many others walk all the way through it. I think of Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl" in this respect. It goes on for stanza after stanza as something of a raw scream at what Ginsberg saw as being some of the destructive forces and powers at work in America of the mid-1950s with its cold war fears, its race for nuclear warfare superiority, and its fanatical anti-communism. The poem also heralds those who lived on the fringes of society at the time, and who would not or could not fit in. It is not a piece of poetry for the squeamish or faint-hearted.

But if you can stay with Ginsberg you come to the finals stanzas where he affirms the holiness of life and the sacredness found in the persons that Jesus once termed "the least of these." It is a harrowing journey Mr. Ginsberg takes you on in this particular piece of work, but on that ultimately leaves the reader with a "yes."

Ginsberg came back to Lowell when Kerouac died to be one of his pallbearers. But Allen Ginsberg could walk through madness and come back to the "yes." He could face madness he saw and come back to the affirmation of life's essential sacredness. And Allen lived into his 70s, and saw his work embraced in a way that Jack tragically did not get to see of his own.

This in closing: When "On The Road" was finally published in 1957 Jack Kerouac went from obscurity to both fame and notoriety in literally a matter of days. In a radio program that took place in the wake of that fame, an interviewer asked Kerouac "Just what is it you want, anyway?" Kerouac's reply, which probably took both the interviewer and his listeners back a couple of paces, was "I want God to show me his face."

I don't fully know, and I doubt anyone will ever fully figure out, what Jack Kerouac meant by that. Maybe Jack himself did. His own religion was a mixture of early Catholicism, and alter attraction to and near immersion in Buddhism for a time - plus some philosophical and spiritual meanderings of his own. But in the spirit of "fools rush in" I'll take my own guess at what Kerouac was attempting to express with those words. Maybe he was trying to say I want to know what really matters; I want to know what it is that ultimately pulls together this oftentimes disentangled life of mine; I want to know where and how I find the sacred beneath and beyond the mundane. In other words, "I want God to show me his face."

Whatever terminology they may use, it is the artist, the poet, the writer who try to show us a face of life that is not always immediately visible to us. some of them pay dearly in their attempt to do this; many others manage to keep their balance quite well. Whatever their personal fates, perhaps we'll listen now.

(From a sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashau, New Hampshire, Oct 24 1999)

Stephen D. Edington, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashua, New Hampshire, is the author of "Kerouac's Nashau Connection" (1999). A member of the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac Committee, he is a visiting adjunct professor, teaching a course on The Literature of the Beat Movement, at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.



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