Touched by Fire
You don't have to be crazy to be a genius, but as history tells us, it helps.

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.

This is where it gets tricky. Bruce's comedic brilliance no doubt owed a great deal to the intellectual and emotional access his illness afforded him. But he also suffered terribly, ultimately dying of a morphine overdose in the very spot where he spent most of his time, where he seemed to feel safest: sitting on his toilet.

Nijinsky had it worse. Although already considered "difficult," by age 17 he was on his way to being a star in the world of dance. His leaps seemed to defy gravity; his innovations shone with brilliance. As he became sicker, stranger and more violent, he was treated by many of the great therapists of his time (although both Freud and Jung considered him a lost cause and stayed away). Nothing worked; his career was basically over by the time he was 30, and by his late forties he was "morbidly obese. . . . He would laugh inappropriately in a disturbing cackle. . . . [and] masturbate publicly whenever the impulse struck him." Even more poignant is the image of a bloated, drug-addled Brian Wilson in 1977, locked in his bedroom, sobbing, as a well-meaning Paul McCartney knocks on his door, "first softly, then loudly, begging to be let in." Here is a snapshot of true insanity, a paralyzing, anhedonic embrace.

Greatness seems a more cheerful condition in Paul Johnson's new book, Creators , which profiles 17 famous figures. While he sees creativity as a God-given gift, "inherent in all of us," Johnson's business here is to examine "the truly sublime, which drives artists to attempt huge and delicate works never before conceived, let alone carried out." What Johnson seems to be getting at is the urge that makes a great creative talent: that which is at the root of Picasso's animalistic drive, T.S. Eliot's fierce brilliance, Shakespeare's breathtaking fluency and invention.

These are the flip sides of Kottler's story: personalities unbounded by convention -- or at least able to work around it. Actually, more often within it: The figures Johnson clearly admires tend to be financially successful, socially prominent and wildly prolific. Even as he chides Picasso for his brutality and leftist politics, he can't help but admire his affluence: "By the time of his death, he was by far the richest artist who had ever lived." Those familiar with Johnson from his 1988 Intellectuals may be surprised to find little overt ideology in this companion volume. Here he is less interested in taking down the heroes of the left than in celebrating great men of arts and letters. (There is room for only one goddess, Jane Austen, in this pantheon; Johnson devotes several paragraphs to the question of whether she was pretty or not, along with George Eliot, Madame de Staël and George Sand. The conclusion: Only ugly chicks would have had to bother laying pen to paper.)

Johnson, unlike Kottler, turns out to be a mystifier: He isn't looking to find the source of the creative flow so much as to take a nice long bath in it. And thus he is a big fan of superlatives: "Geoffrey Chaucer . . . was perhaps the most creative spirit ever to write in English." "Shakespeare is the most creative personality in human history." "Louis Comfort Tiffany . . . was the greatest creator of glassware of modern times, perhaps of all time." There's a "Ripley's Believe It or Not" enthusiasm here. (Did you know that over his lifetime Hokusai lived at 93 different addresses or that J.M.W. Turner completed nearly 1,000 oil paintings and 20,000 drawings and watercolors?) There's also something of the dinner-party guest who makes you wish you'd switched around the place cards. While his command of the facts may be impressive, really you just want to eat your damn duck.

Of the two, Johnson is by far the more sophisticated writer, but his stories lack the revealing blood and guts of Kottler's. (They do have one thing in common: Between them, they have written more than 100 books, which could no doubt be classed as a type of mania. Consult your DSM-IV.) Still, if you don't know much about, say, Dürer or Bach, Johnson's potted histories will give you a very good introduction. There's something charming about such an effort in the age of Wikipedia.

For Kottler, the stakes are higher. He admits that in the process of researching his subjects he fantasized about treating them, and wonders what would have happened had Sylvia Plath entered couples therapy with Ted Hughes or had Lenny Bruce and Judy Garland joined NarcAnon. Yes, this sounds pretty silly. And wouldn't curing such madness kill the creative impulse? Kottler wisely advises us to imagine the reverse: Given the right therapies, how much more might these extraordinary men and women have accomplished? Plath, who had good moments and bad, sums it up: "When you are insane you are busy being insane -- all the time. . . . When I was crazy, that's all I was." ·

Sara Sklaroff is a Washington-based writer and editor.

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