Touched by Fire

Reviewed by Sara Sklaroff
Sunday, April 30, 2006


Ten Stories of Creative Struggle

By Jeffrey A. Kottler

Jossey-Bass. 311 pp. $24.95


From Chaucer and Dürer to Picasso and Disney

By Paul Johnson

HarperCollins. 310 pp. $25.95

When British researchers late last year announced that they had found behavioral similarities between highly creative people and schizophrenics, they were confirming something we thought we already knew. Many of history's great artists -- writers, painters, composers, dancers -- were, well, nuts. That's one reason it's so satisfying to read about them: Their lives lend our own craziness a touch of distinction, while assuring us that, mad as we might be, we've got nothing on Vincent van Gogh.

That's the impulse that drove Jeffrey A. Kottler, chair of the Department of Counseling at California State University, Fullerton, to take up the study of the human mind. "It wasn't until I became a psychologist and started listening to everyone else's troubles," he writes in Divine Madness , "that I learned I wasn't nearly as weird as I had ever imagined." Of his profiles of major artists, entertainers and writers of the 20th century, the most gripping -- those of Charles Mingus, Lenny Bruce, Vaslav Nijinsky and Brian Wilson -- succeed not because they break any new historical ground but because they get to the essence of madness, in all its horror and pathos.

Take Lenny Bruce. In his early career as an emcee on the strip-club circuit, he was so desperate for a laugh -- or at least a gasp -- that he once took the stage stark naked. Was that crazy? Or was he quite sanely -- and effectively -- commenting on the bizarre human ritual of strip tease? Perhaps, as Kottler writes, "he wanted to root out our greatest fears and inhibitions, all of the things that we avoid and repress and deny." In that sense, Bruce walked the line between insanity and the necessary social dysfunction of the true innovator. By the time he was getting arrested for using certain four-letter words (and one 10-letter word), Kottler says, Bruce was certainly suffering from paranoia (though the cops really were out to get him) as well as drug addiction and engaging in various forms of self-destructive, antisocial behavior.

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