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The Column icon The Column: Issue 6

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The Column is a monthly feature that follows the lives of creative people and explores the world of creativity.

Madness and Creativity
Mike de Sousa, Director, AbleStable

'I am not really a man of science, I am not an observer, I am not an experimenter, I am not even a thinker. I am nothing but an adventurer - a conquistador - with all the boldness, and the tenacity of that type of being.'

Sigmund Freud

Creative people are in turn viewed as inspired, self indulgent, insightful, and insane. To some the spark of genius appears as a shallow breath away from the world of the irrational and those misunderstood souls who inhabit the world of the mad house.

Does creativity spring from an unseen reservoir of neurosis and emotional anxiety? How mad are you? Journey into the world of the creative mind.

The Secret You

Sarah is a single mother in her early twenties and works as a checkout assistant in a large food store. Although Sarah loves painting, no one sees her creative work except her three year old daughter. Sarah is a loving mother, is highly tuned, both to other people's emotions and to all that goes on around her, and maintains a quiet, self-contained presence.

Those that work with Sarah enjoy her independent free spirit, but sense there is something 'other' about her which they do not connect with. This otherness both defines her as an individual, yet separates her from her peers.


Sarah woke one day to find her partner had silently left. She waited for him but he never returned. A month later her doctor prescribed a course of anti-depressants that did little but made her drowsy and disoriented. After a week she had quit the medication.

The two things that pulled Sarah through the most difficult times was the love of her child, and her passion of painting. Some view her need to paint purely as therapy, but Sarah paints to express herself in moments of joy as well as sadness.

The Voice Within

Sarah's inner life is rich, some might say bizarre. Her dreams are full with colours, creatures, demons and fairies. Her dreamland is both a place of adventure and nightmare. In her waking life she sifts the feelings and emotions of her experiences through the filter of her brush. At times she lets her feelings guide her, at others she controls, decides, amends, concludes.

Sarah speaks silently to herself, but then, if we listen, so do we all. When she paints, her inner voice seeps out and the whispers of her hopes and dreams fill the canvas and touch the quiet air of her home.

I Am Not Mad

'Besides real diseases we are subject to many that are only imaginary for which physicians have invented imaginary cures: these have their several names, and so have the drugs that are proper to them...'

Jonathan Swift (1726)

Creativity and genius have been linked to madness since the Ancient Greek writings of Hippocrates and before, yet the contemporary idea of insanity remains a confused and often poorly argued notion.

Anthony Storr in an address to the Royal College of Psychiatrists (UK) stated that genius tended to be born of madness: 'Creativity should be linked with mental instability'. From the viewpoint of R D Laing, Thomas Szasz, and Foucault however, 'madness' is a label created by society in order to imprison its visionaries.

Creativity can, as Szasz and others have noted, be threatening to State authority and control, and the spontaneity and originality of creative people is often seen as a threat to the traditional and conservative nature of many societies. For that reason, 'scientific' models of the origin and nature of creativity seek to identify and label who creative people are, so they can be restrained or controlled. If creative people are portrayed as sick or unhealthy, then the dangerousness of their ideas can be more easily neutralized.

'Inasmuch as we have words to describe medicine as a healing art, but have none to describe it as a method of social control or political rule, we must first give it a name. I propose that we call it pharmacracy, from the Greek roots pharmakon, for ‘medicine' or ‘drug,' and kratein, for ‘to rule' or ‘to control.' ... As theocracy is rule by God or priests, and democracy is rule by the people or the majority, so pharmacracy is rule by medicine or physicians.'

Thomas Szasz, (Ceremonial Chemistry - 1974)


In the past people considered the fear of impending death might snap the insane person back to normality. The 'patient' would be placed in a coffin-shaped box pierced with holes and lowered into a tank of water. When bubbles ceased to rise they would be taken out, and if possible, revived. The spinning stool was another 'treatment' that spun the patient round until they were dizzy. The spinning would 'rearrange the brain contents into the right positions'.

Nowadays psychiatrists continue the tradition of 'blind therapy' through the use of drugs and electric shock treatment known as Electro Convulsive Therapy (ECT). An electric shock is given to the patient (much like electric eels were used in Roman times) which reportedly 'calms depression' and other 'neurotic disorders'.

Killing brain cells indiscriminately however is not the most effective way to encourage happiness.

Mad(e) In Heaven

'The mind is its own place, and of itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven'

John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667)

The word genius derives from the ancient belief that s/he who displays genius has a guardian spirit, or daemon ('genio'), which whispers in their ear. An inevitable consequence of language acquisition however is the development of our inner voice.

Rather than madness being viewed as an illness, Plato and Aristotle viewed madness as a force of illumination. Their view was that an inspired picture of the world could be created by listening to the voice of madness. In Western culture many mistakenly view this as the antithesis of the voice of reason.

We are free to fulfil our creative potential only when we release ourselves from the fear and prejudice that so often defines our notions of madness. There is still little we know about ourselves and much to explore, and therein lies our great adventure.


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Authors background
Mike de Sousa is the Director of AbleStable®. Mike has been commissioned as an artist, music composer, photographer, print and web site designer, and author.

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