Many are the creators who, throughout history, have believed they saw the origins of creativity, or at least some of its requirements, in good health and a feeling of wholeness. But neither are they few those who found the best stimuli for their creations to be suffering and sickness. Some seem to heed Horace’s advice to "delight and instruct"
Many are the creators who, throughout history, have believed they saw the origins of creativity, or at least some of its requirements, in good health and a feeling of wholeness. But neither are they few those who found the best stimuli for their creations to be suffering and sickness. Some seem to heed Horace’s advice to "delight and instruct" (or to create for one’s own delight) whilst others seem to confirm the saying "No pain, no gain" (or in this case, "No pain, no poems").
Not all authors of a theoretical or artistic work ascribe to one of these two opposing opinions regarding personal circumstances and, in particular, the moods that would stimulate their creativity and there are many who even reject the approach to the problem in those terms. But it is possible, however, to identify two clearly contending groups:
Of one school of thought would be those who consider that a state of well-being and satisfaction is the ideal one in order to be able to devote oneself to thought and artistic creation. This may seem the most obvious position since it coincides with the generally-held notion that culture is a luxury bestowed only on those whose most basic social, economic and psychological needs have already been met. However, the number of voices raised in protest against this viewpoint begs the question of whether this really is the majority view among creators.
Those of the opposing mindset maintain that discomfort, misery and anguish are the best fuel for creativity. Happiness is unproductive since it requires nothing whilst misery, on the other hand, would be a continuous spur to creative action, from this perspective. Creative work would serve as a means to expel the misfortune, thanks to one’s ability to express it creatively. At best, this intellectual or aesthetic expression of misery would enable us to overcome it, turning the manifestation of misfortune into a path leading towards well-being.
In his article "Duelo o placer de la escritura" (The Pain or Pleasure of Writing) (El País, 8 July 1986), the novelist Antonio Muñoz Molina argued both points of view. On the one hand, he recalled the beautiful words with which Cervantes described the ideal conditions for artistic creation: "Tranquility, peaceful surroundings, the pleasantness of the countryside, the serenity of the sky, the murmuring of the fountains and the stillness of the spirit in large measure turn even the most barren of muses fertile, offering new births to the world, filling it with wonder and contentment". On the other hand, Muñoz Molina broaches the idea of literary creation as the result of suffering, of the effort to flee from despair (and most definitely not as a gift from the sweet muses). Leaning towards the camp of those who think that human acts are more conditioned by historical circumstances than by the peculiarities of personal character, Muñoz Molina considered that these two outlooks would be characteristic of different times: "From Flaubert, perhaps from Baudelaire, the activity of literature, which was formerly a perk of laziness, shamelessly seeks the prestige of suffering and even of evil, which, on closer inspection, is a recent extravagance: among the Ancients, who admired Sophocles because he lived 90 years without a single day of unhappiness, the figure of Euripides, a hurdy and unhappy man mired in failure, was never emblematic of an artist but rather a mysterious exception".
The joyful laughter of the creator
The first viewpoint might be illustrated by the Nietzschean concept of creation. The creativity of the ‘higher self’ is, for this philosopher, a type of dance, a type of laughter, a type of game. The creator is the best representative of "great health": a being of joyful heart, of free spirit, light of foot. Fully convinced that "All good things laugh", the ‘higher self’ is able to laugh creatively because his theoretical works or his works of art are nothing more than the elaboration of that laughter with which he expresses his affirmation of the world; an affirmation that includes pleasure and pain, joy and misery and that is precisely why it is a tragic affirmation. For the Nietzschian creator, their work is the product of an unconditional affirmation of life, an affirmation that infuses them, that overflows from their eyes and hands; an affirmation understood as a desire for permanence, as a desire for eternity.
For Nietzsche, the antithesis of the creator is the priest – embodying the ultimate representation of all that is dirty, low and sick, of resentfulness triumphant over urges, of the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, of the heavy heart, the gracelessness, of all that is sad, rigid and sterile. But included within this priestly archetype also belong all creators who feed off neurosis, anguish or pain and all those who require illness in order to be productive. From Nietzsche’s “great health”, it is noted with contempt that "Pain makes chickens and poets cackle".
This exciting concept of creativity, as proffered in some of Nietzsche’s theoretical texts, might seem to be called into question by the author’s own personal history: rejected by his university colleagues and by women like Lou Salomé, lonely, sick, isolated in rural boarding houses, writing books that nobody read, proud, misunderstood and ultimately committed to an asylum, Nietzsche does not seem to have been endowed with “great health”. And although all ad hominem arguments are usually considered dubious, the truth is that his life seems to be a denial of his joyful song. Unless we take it to mean that, as his works demonstrate, external personal circumstances failed to damage the energy of his laughter, the powerful dance of his thought, the great health of his spirit.
The artist's discomfort
The opposing approach has many advocates for whom creativity is nothing other than the philosopher’s stone, capable of turning suffering into gold. Art would be a happy encounter between anguish and the ability to express it beautifully. It would be elevated to the category of an author who, enduring the suffering produced by life’s difficulties, was able to do something of note with it. In this sense, neurosis would be the best resource of a fertile spirit, because, as in the words Borges put into his protagonist's mouth in “The Poet testifies to his Fame” - "the tools of my trade are humiliation and anguish".
There have been many artists who found a cause-and-effect relationship between misfortune and creation. "Ideas are substitutes for sorrows," said Marcel Proust. And Franz Schubert said that "Pain sharpens the spirit and makes the soul stronger". However, it is clear that pain can only have a toning effect if its nature, its intensity and the personality of the sufferer result in a fruitful response and not a sterile collapse. There can then arise an opposition between one pain that strengthens and another that sterilizes. Some think that it is a case of degrees: moderate pain would stimulate us, while excessive pain would paralyze us. As Émile Cioran has posited: "Great disasters offer up nothing, neither in the literary nor in the religious field. Only middling misfortunes are fruitful, because they can be, because they are a starting point, whilst a hell too perfect is almost as sterile as paradise".
Once the idea had been established that suffering was the source of creativity, its most ardent supporters began to draw conclusions. If discomfort is productive then everything that contributes to well-being probably has sterilizing side effects. For this reason, when a friend of the painter Edward Munch recommended he try to rid himself of the conflicts that were torturing him, he replied without hesitation: "They belong to me and to my art. They are part of me; if I were to remove them, it would harm my work. I want to hold on to these sufferings". And likewise, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke felt obliged to respond to an invitation of this kind: the aforementioned Lou Andreas Salomé, enthused by the work of Freud, recommended Rilke begin psychoanalysis in order to destroy the demons tormenting him. With suspicion akin to that of Munch, Rilke rejected the advice arguing that if psychoanalysis were able to wipe out his demons, it would also be able to destroy his angels. And then one is on the slippery slope to psychotherapists being sought out by authors with writers’ block, has-been painters and musicians in crisis who, having observed a clear relief from their neurotic troubles and an improvement of their mood but an impoverishment of their work, then demanded an urgent antidote against this cure.
There have also been authors who came to a reverse reasoning, stating that if pain and anguish are the stimuli for productivity, it is logical to think that pleasure and satisfaction are an obstacle to intellectual or artistic work. Borges, for example, recalls that "in a perfected paraphrasing of Boswell, Hudson references that many times throughout his life he had undertaken the study of metaphysics only for it to be always interrupted by happiness". If happiness is an obstacle to the study of metaphysics then simple pleasure can also be fatal for those faced with literary creation. Some have come up with an arithmetic formula for pleasures and creations according to which plus one pleasure equals minus one creation. And this is how one can interpret Balzac’s, albeit tongue-in-cheek, assertion that: "Every woman you sleep with is a novel you won’t write".
Along these lines, although with another type of argumentation, would be Freud’s stance: the artist would initially be so frustrated as to be bordering on neurosis. Like every other dissatisfied person, they would seek refuge in fantasies to compensate for their unfulfilled desires. What would allow them a release from frustration would be their ability to give expression to these fantasies and make them communicable by means of successful formal elaboration. Thanks to that skill, the secret imaginations of an introvert would potentially become works of art, able to provide pleasure to others and, as a consequence, able to provide its creator with success and with it the means to gratify their desires. The painful circle set in motion by dissatisfaction would thus be happily closed.
This Freudian approach could lead to the idea that in the artist’s past there would be someone (often a child) rejected and isolated by all others, or who at the very least would have the impression of being so. The psychogenesis of artistic creation would be linked to the need to overcome this state of loneliness, bitterness and lack of affection in which one’s character would harden and one’s intelligence, spirit and productivity sharpen. The suffering of the marginalized person would lead them to develop the qualities with which they will eventually achieve recognition from others, reunion and reconciliation with others and satisfaction through others. But from this odd theory, it seems to be being deduced once again that the consequences of a creator’s triumph would be the end of their creativity, that their success would essentially be castrating. And, although there are cases that confirm this idea, there are many others that refute it.
Creativity despite the bad, not thanks to it
In a lecture at the Madrid Circle of Fine Arts on 15 October 1987, the renowned English novelist Julian Barnes made some harsh criticisms of those who believe that suffering, illness and vice may be the origin of artistic creation. He instead vindicated the health of the artist in the face of the usual apologies for "the artists’ curse".
Barnes recalled that, for years, Flaubert collected newspaper clippings, quotes from articles or books and other similar materials that served as documentation. One of the folders in which he filed these was entitled "The stupidity of critics".
Among the texts he had kept there, Barnes found one about George Sand that seemed to him, effectively, "one of the most stupid criticisms that I have ever had the pleasure of reading". It attempts to explain the writer’s hostility to the family and to traditional, societal norms based on the fact that "George Sand smokes cigarettes all day, and George Sand is a woman!". Barnes commented that "George Sand’s cigarettes may have been responsible for many things, from an unpleasant smell in the salon to the cancer that killed her. But, as far as her opinions are concerned, the functioning of cause and effect is exactly the opposite of what the critic supposed. It was her opinions about women’s rights that led her to smoke, not smoking that shaped her opinions".
Barnes' criticism thus calls out all attempts to look for the origin of artistic creativity in factors that are ostensibly pathological and divorced from the talent and efforts of the artist: "At one time, doctors and philosophers would look for the location of the soul in human organs like the heart, the pituitary gland or wherever. Today we tend to locate genius in illness".
"What I attack, or at least what I am sceptical about, is this reductionist approach, the idea that the life of a writer or a painter can be explained in terms of a malady, a defect, a neurosis, of an incidence of sexual trauma in childhood or of smoking cigarettes. It is, incidentally, a trend that has been growing in the 20th century, partly, I suspect, due to the influence of psychoanalysis".
Barnes complains that, having published (by then) four novels, he had had to give several hundred interviews, leading him to ponder as to the reason for so many questions. "Perhaps interviewers are looking for that secret source of pain that would explain everything. But I can’t help them, I don’t think there’s anything to explain or at the very least I think my work is better explained in terms of my own work".
Among the many examples with which Barnes supports his position, he singles out a question that was posed to Gabriel García Marquez about whether the effusion of imagination and fantasy found in his books comes partly from pharmacological stimulants. Barnes acknowledges García Marquez’s right to show the interviewer the door but is glad that he gave the following answer instead: "Bad readers ask me if I take drugs when I write my books; but that just shows that they know nothing about either literature or drugs. To be a good writer, you have to be totally lucid at each and every moment and also be in good health".
After refuting, with historical and logical arguments, the theory that El Greco’s style stemmed from his hypothetical astigmatism, Barnes formulates his thesis in emphatic terms: "I am not saying that no painter has ever suffered from a sight disorder, nor am I saying that writers never smoke, drink alcohol, take drugs, suffer from diseases or behave neurotically. What I am saying is that they work despite all of this and not because of it. This century, we have almost made it orthodoxy that the artist is neurotic, sick or psychologically unbalanced. Of course, there are writers and artists who are paranoid but, in general, good writers and good painters rely on their ability to work really hard, their concentration and constant editing and revision until a certain perfection is achieved. And these are things that, in turn, depend on good health and a clean, clear mind".
Creativity notwithstanding the creator’s disposition
There is, therefore, a great diversity of opinion, reflecting very different and even exact opposite personal experiences. Finding an external point of reference to confirm or refute one or all others is no easy task. Some seriously defend the idea that sickness, misery and anguish, which turn the existence of the mediocre into pure torment, are instead, for creative minds, the stimulus and the essential instrument of their genius. Others argue that, for both an artist and a modest civil servant, malaise is merely an obstacle and a burden on one’s working or personal life.
There remains the option of rejecting the approach to the problem and criticizing the alternative on which revised opinions are based. There could be, at least in many cases, a separation between an artist’s work and their body or mind.
Assigning creativity its own autonomous character would lead one to think that works of art (or speculative constructions) cannot be reduced to the natural hazards of biology, to the disorders of the body or to the moods of the soul. But it is also possible to see in its genesis a total expression of the artist who, through amazing - and mysterious - mental mechanisms is able to transform what happens in the depths of his organism - and his mind - into an object of intellectual or aesthetic value. This alternative is so real that from it have derived two opposing ways of understanding aesthetics: the formalist and the psychobiographical. Neither is without merit and both have produced, in the hands of different critics, brilliant interpretations and utter nonsense.
Professor of Medical Humanities, Department of Psychiatry, Universidad Autónoma of Madrid
Author: Vías paralelas. Vargas Llosa y Savater: un ensayo dialogado (Parallel Paths. Vargas Llosa and Savater: an essay in dialogues)
Translation from the original Dolor y goze en la creatividad in Spanish by Shauna Devlin