Ill at Ease: The Creative Bind


Nathaniel Hawthorn wrote, “The world owes all its onward impulses to men ill at ease.”

Certainly there is no field of endeavor in which this has been more true than that of the visionary arts.

“No one has ever written, painted, sculpted, modeled, built or invented,” proclaimed Antonin Artaud, “except literally to get out of hell.”

“Look on me!…” cried Lord Byron in his towering verse:

“…There is an order
Of mortals on the earth, who do become
Old in their youth, and died ere middle age..
Some perishing of pleasure ~ some of study ~
Some worn with toil ~ some of mere weariness ~
Some of disease ~ and some insanity ~
And some of whithered, or of broken hearts…”

In the last thirty years or so a growing interest in the diversity of human potential has sponsored a general review of the lives of history’s great creative minds, with a fresh eye as to how they managed to do what they did, and indeed continue to do ~ which may be more than many of us have at first quite comprehended.

That melancholia tends to permeate the creative temperament is by now such a byword among us as to have become actual cliche ~ and recent studies have opened public awareness even further to some startling realities regarding the actual personal price paid by those who generate our society’s visions of that which may yet come to be.

These studies reveal a rate of seasonal, clinical and suicidal depressions not only higher but astronomically higher among inspired creators than in their contemporary populations.

Such individuals, in the words of Robert Lowell, “see too much, and feel it with one skin-layer missing.”

Along with such vulnerable conditions of special awareness and sensitivity, creative artists have often had also to find ways to function with little-known special needs associated with their callings.

Alexander Popoff, for instance, describes, in his excellent biography of Leo Tolstoy, an 18th century residence called the ‘Stlitza’ ~ a three-story building in Moscow known to be favored by writers because of its thick, soundproof walls.

Given the seemingly desperate need of the individual, at our species’ current evolutionary stage, to feel in any possible or impossible way superior to his or her fellows (as well, it goes without saying, as to all other forms of intelligence both on and off our home planet), creative genius has also to contend with public receptions of both itself and its works which, when not taking the form of frenzied adulation, tend too frequently to be, both professionally and personally, decidedly cool.

As T. S. Eliot morosely observed, “humankind cannot stand very much reality.”

“There will be considerable opposition,” cautioned 18th century composer Christoph, just before his departure from Austria to join the court of enthusiastic patroness of the arts Marie Antoinette, regarding his then-sensational operatic style, “because it will run counter to national prejudice, against which there is no defense.”

A lesson which the lady herself ~ vivacious, gracious, and generous creature that she was ~ relearned much later, to her own great personal sorrow.

“It is the truth, a force of nature that expresses itself through me,” explained Carl Jung of the reception he frequently met in the world at large. “I am only a channel ~ I can imagine in many instances… I would become sinister to you. For instance, if life had led you to take up an artificial attitude, then you wouldn’t be able to stand me, because I am a natural being. By my very presence I crystallise; I am a ferment. The unconscious of people who live in an artificial manner senses me as a danger. Everything about me is irritating to them ~ my way of speaking, my way of laughing. They sense nature.”

He in fact did possess such an habitually unbridled sense of merriment that total strangers were known to walk up his driveway from the street to find out what was so very funny!

Jung’s, for his day, only slightly less outrageous contemporary, Sigmund Freud, agreed.

“No, the dawn is not yet,” he wrote. He continued gloomily, “We must carefully tend our lamp, for the night will be long.”

Part of the creative problem, in the emotional and pecuniary aftermath of such widespread unappreciation, are the chronic lack of means to provide for ~ and serious disinclination to submit to ~ frequently false, unornamental and joyless constrictions of any era’s fashions and mores ~ of whose all too often unworthy tenets alone, then as now, the parameters of Shakespeare’s “bubble, reputation” are almost exclusively composed.

“As I walked in,” recalls contemporary author and activist Caille Millner of her entrance to an ordinary roadside diner as a young woman, “I confronted the types of stares that I have learned will be the tax for my passage through this world.”

“I was quickly discovering that when I wore a $29 outfit and sat on a wooden stool answering the phone,” another contemporary author, Carolyn Jourdan, ruefully admits of her experiences in giving up a prestigious career as Senatorial attorney to assist in her father’s small town medical practice after her mother’s death, “my genius was no longer obvious to passers by.”

A letter to the editor published in the newspaper of a major American city, authored by a formerly well-known virtuoso violinist fallen on hard times, recounts how, in desperation, one afternoon he put out his instrument case for tips and lifted his Stratovarius to his shoulder streetside ~ and also how, after an hour of passionate performance, he’d packed it up again, the richer by less than ten dollars…

“We must break through the barriers of custom; shatter the laws of the base egotistical world,” penned Ludwig II of Bavaria to Richard Wagner (who, like Christoph, had ample reason for anxiety regarding public reaction to his then radically unorthodox compositional style ~ and prior, by the way, to this monarch’s own eventual dethronement on charges of insanity). “The ideal must and shall come to life!”

Added to its other burdens, the creative temperament seems often not to lend itself to those common compromises by which the average individual maintains its tenuous illusions of security in the face of its own and its fellows’ rampant lack of love for one another ~ tending, rather, to confront the crises we create for ourselves and each other head on, call them what they are, and eschew them entirely in favor of a more rarified trajectory through upper and lower worlds.

“Creative people,” affirmed poet Anne Sexton, “must not avoid the pain that thay get dealt.”

In the words of George Edward Woodbury, “genius burns the brighter in its own flames.”

John Berryman elaborated: “The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business… I think that what happens in my poetic work in the future will probably largely depend not on my sitting calmly on my ass as I think ‘Hmm, hmm, a long poem again? Hmm’, but In being knocked in the face, and thrown flat.”

“I have risked my life for my work, and it has cost me half my reason,” raged Vincent van Gogh. “One could have created life at less cost then creating art.”

It seems to this poet an entirely reasonable assuption that those who would have something to say which is not already being said by everyone else must indeed operate with genuine freedom of spirit.

“Such is always the mode in which the highest imaginative faculty siezes its materials,” explained John Ruskin (who ought to know).

“It never stops at crusts or ashes, or outward images of any kind; it plows them all aside, and plunges into the very central fiery heart; nothing else will content its spirituality… Its nature and dignity depend on its holding things always by the heart… All that it affirms, judges, or describes, it affirms from within.”

Before him Rimbaud wrote: “The poet makes himself a seer by… all forms of love, suffering, and madness. He searches himself. He exhaust all poisons in himself and keeps only their quintessences… He reaches the unknown.”

This is done by, in the words of poet Robert Lowell, a “course set willfully across the ungovernable and dangerous.”

Steering by such an arduously individual course, as Edgar Allan Poe affirmed of his fellow creators, “they penetrate… into the vast ocean of the light ineffable.”

Or, as it was put by the immortal Yeats, “We exchange civilities with the world beyond.”

For such capacities it seems reasonable to expect, amidst the dualities presently inherent in manifest being, that there might be a high price to pay. In earlier paragraphs we have explored some of the societal ~ but not yet the spiritual or emotional ~ tolls taken upon these etheric sojourners.

With regard to that of the spirit one would wish not to say too much, as it is a truth instinctively understood by everyone that to “speak of the devil” or anything else, for that matter, tends noticeably to make it appear…

Suffice it to observe, then, that there exist in the writings and diaries of a goodly number of the creative masters persistent impressions of being ‘shadowed’ by incredibly malevolent entities and energies whose mission, when it could be discerned, was to delay, distract, disable or destroy creative potential by any means necessary, and to feed upon misery created in their victims by whever degree of success they had managed in the endeavor.

Of all those whose records are available to us, European and American societies of the last few hundred years have been the most chronically separate from and ignorant of spiritual realities universally acknowledged by every other culture throughout planetary history and prehistory as running parallel to, and concurrent with, that of the five physical senses more commonly understood by us.

In the unusual instances when perceptions in this spiritual arena were let out from under wraps, they have typically found themselves instantly branded as evidences of insanity and made to be cause for the further estrangement of their authors from the bastions of societal acceptability.

“We of the craft,” quothe Lord Byron ascerbically, “are all crazy.”

Before being made to drink poison hemlock as the result of his own perceived social unacceptability, Socrates left a record in its defense which has sounded through the ages to edify its readers even in our own time:

“If a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet,” he pointed out, “he and his sane compositions never reach perfection, but are utterly eclipsed by the performances of the inspired madman.”

Whether their prevailing condition has represented insanity or indeed a species of super-sanity, as it were — overwhelmingly, the personal records of these sensitive spirits do reflect a dreadful emotional price for the special gifts and capacities they have harnessed in behalf of humanity at large ~ a price exacted in frequent and overwhelming heartbreak.

“The secret source of humor,” admitted early American writer Samuel Clemens, “is not joy, but sorrow.”

“They learn in suffering,” summed up the poet Shelley, “what they teach in song.”

This creative proclivity has also ~ like that for unorthodox patterns of thought (tending, as Socrates noted, too frequently and hastily to be labeled as madness) been observed since ancient days.

Just one generation afterward, Aristotle queried:

“Why is it that all men who are outstanding in philosophy, poetry or the arts are melancholic? The same was true of Ajax, (who) went completely insane… In later times also there has been Empedocles, Plato, Socrates, and many other well known men. The same is true of most of those who have handled poetry.”

“I have myself an inner weight of woe,” mourned poet Theodore Roethke, “that God Himself can scarcely bear.”

“I am groaning under the miseries of a diseased nervous system,” grieved Robert Burns in a letter to a friend.

“The pain is unrelenting,” corroborated William Styron.

Irish poet James Clarence Mangan tried to describe it. “Woe on woe,” he wrote, “and ‘within the lowest deep a lower deep.'”

In the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins: “Pitch past pitch of grief.”

There have been numerous heartwringing attempts from the creative community to convey an accurate sense of this special intensity of recurring or ongoing grief.

“It is difficult to put into words what I suffered.” These are the words of French composer Hector Berlioz. “The longing that seemed to be tearing my heart out by the roots… The disgust with living, the impossibility of dying… One power was left to me ~ to suffer… Sometimes I can scarcely endure this pain… I suffer so much, so much, that if I did not take a grip of myself I should shout and roll on the ground.”

Even quintessential society author F. Scott Fitzgerald suffered keenly from the effect of this pandemic creative syndrome.

“I realized,” he recollected, “every aspect of life, from the morning toothbrush to the friend at dinner, had become an effort.” He found himself “hating the night because I couldn’t sleep and hating the day because it went to toward night.”

Theodore Roethke, of course, put it in poetry:

“I know the purity of pure despair,” he wrote,

“My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
That place among the rocks ~ is it a cave,
Or winding pass? The edge is what I have.”

In this condition of appalling vulnerability, the sufferer cannot dodge the keenest edges of cruel truths which we create for ourselves and one another.

“One goes down into the well,” described Virginia Woolf, “and nothing protects one from the assault of truth.”

“In these flashing revelations of grief,” concurs Herman Melville,
“we see all things as they are.”

Letters have come to light in which at times these bringers of philosophical light reached out desperately for a last link which might hold them constructively present among us for a little longer:

“My situation is perilous,” despaired Richard Wagner. “I balance on the narrowest foothold ~ one push and all is over ~ there will be nothing more to be got out of me then ~ nothing, nothing more. Some light may show itself, someone must arise to help me vigorously now, and then I should still have the strength to recompense that help ~ but later I shall not, I feel it.”

“I am suffering under a depression of spirit which will not fail to ruin me should it long be continued… Console me ~ for you can,” pleaded Edgar Allen Poe. “but let it be quickly ~ or it will be too late.”

To these, as to Leo Tolstoy, “The thought of suicide came to me naturally… This thought was such a temptation.”

“I would like mostly,” mourned Austrian composer Hugo Wolf, “to hang myself on the nearest branch of the cherry trees standing now in full bloom…”

“There will never be any summer anymore,” poet Edward Thomas wrote, “and I am weary of everything. I stay because I am too weak to go… There is nothing else in my world but my dead heart and brain within me, and the rain without.”

“Oh, wretch!” raged William Cowper against himself, “to whom life and death are alike impossible!”

Against this overwhelming array of inner and outer resistance, creative artists may certainly count on whatever assistance sources of light in the spirit kingom may have to offer them ~ and upon one other ally only: an awesome inner fortitude of self-discipline.

As Harvard scholar Kay Redfield Jamison notes in her seminal study of great creative minds, “Changes or extremes alone do not guarantee good art, of course… If, however, they are coupled with imagination and discipline, the possibilities for creating a lasting and sustaining art may be greatly enhanced (by them).”

According to explaners of interdimensional relationship, interlocutors equipped to penetrate lofty realms of societal future vision and return in any sort of condition to impart such visions with coherency must necessarily find themselves somewhat severely impaired in their attempts at credible interface, both practically and fraternally, with their ordinary daily surroundings.

And ~ weather resultant of, or concommitant to, the handicaps listed above ~ to which in her own more minor way this author must also ruefully attest ~ they are. Yes, they certainly are…

“We are painters,” explained Toulouse-Lautrec, “and therefore somewhat useless.”

Illustrative of our point is a little known nugget involving an invitation by Caesar Augustus
to the great poets of his day, including such luminaries as Horace, Virgil, and Rufus, to attend him at his port city of Tarentium.

When not one of them appeared on the appointed date of attendance an inquiry was launched. It was found that they had all journeyed to Brundisiam instead, by mistake.

Buncha space cadets.

Brundisium, by the way, was so happy to see them that none of them were allowed to leave again until they’d consented to participate in a hastily arranged municipal poetry festival ~ a sign of generalized respect for their persons and of reverence for their works for which even the most renowned poets of our own time and place would give their eye teeth…

But then, the madness of the ancient Greek philosopher poets was, in general, closer to the average individual of their day than to that of ours.

“They say that in the reign of Lysimachus,” records the historian Lucien (than whom no more credible source may be found, as it is from he and his kind that we have inherited all that we know of his civilization’s written history), “the folk of Abdera were stricken by a plague that went something like this, my good Philo: In the early stages all the population had a violent and persistent fever right from the very beginning, but at about the seventh day it was dispelled, in some cases by a copious flow of blood from the nostrils, in others by perspiration, that also copious. But it affected their minds in a ridiculous way; for all had a mad hankering for tragedy, delivering blank verse at the top of their voices. In particular they would chant solos from Euripides’ Andromeda, singing the whole of Perseus’ long speech, and the city was full of all those pale, thin seventh-day patients ranting, ‘…And you, Oh Eros, lord of gods and men!…’ and loudly proclaiming the other bits, over a long period too, till the coming of winter and a heavy frost put an end to their nonsense!”

Such an event is of course nearly unimaginable to we of the present day, but then it is becoming more and more apparent that very many true and actual things likewise indeed seem somehow, just now (perhaps we may hope for not too much longer) to be likewise unimaginable.

Some successful suicides among the class of individual here under discussion are well known as such — others to not so many.

This roll includes such luminaries as Ralph Barton, Francesco Bassano, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, John Berryman, Barcroft Boake, Francesco Borrowmini, Paul Celan, Thomas Chatterton, Jeremiah Clarke, Hart Crane,John Davidson, Edward Dayes, Sergey Esenin, John Fletcher, Vincent van Gogh, Arshile Gorky, Benjamin Haydon, Ernest Hemingway, William Inge, Randall Jarrell, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Heinrich Von Kleist, Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Vachel Lindsay, Malcolm Lowry, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Gerard de Nerval, Jules Paskin, Cesare Pavese, Sylvia Plath, Mark Rothko, Anne Sexton, Nicolas de Stael, Sara Teasdale, Pietro Testa, Henry Tilson, and Virginia Woolf.

Attempted but failed suicides being easier than successful ones to keep from the public eye, it has typically taken more time for historical research to bring them finally into the light of general awareness.

Records indicate that Konstantine Batyushkov, Charles Baudelaire, Hector Berlioz, Joseph Conrad, William Cowper, Isak Dinesen, Gustaf Froding, Paul Gauguin, Lewis Gibbon, Maxim Gorky, Nikolai Gumilyov, Hermann Hesse, George Innes, JMR Lenz, Osip Mandelstam, EugeneO’Neill, Charles Parker, Edgar Allen Poe, Laura Ridig, Dante, Robert Schumann, Percy Shelley, Francis Thomas, Mary Wollstonecraft and Hugo Wolf all made unsuccessful applications for early release.

Those prevented from attempting to hurt themselves or others by (almost always preventive and voluntary) hospitalization are still less often contemporarily revealed.

Among them, we know now, are Antonine Artaud, Arthur Benson, Irving Berlin, Louise Bogan, Ralph Blakelock, Anton Bruckner, John Clare, William Collins, Richard Dadd, T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Robert Fergusson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Philip Guston, Carl Hill, Friedrich Holderlin, Ernst Josephson, Henry Kendall, Vladimir Klebnikov, Otto Klemperer, Charles Lamb, Edwin Landseer, Nikolaus Lenau, Hugh MacDiarmid, Charles Meryon, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Charles Mingus, Edvard Munch, Georgia O’Keeffe, Boris Pasternak, Raphael Peale, Jackson Pollock, Cole Porter, Ezra Pound, Theodore Roethke, John Ruskin, Delmore Schwartz, Christopher Smart, Jean Stafford, Torquato Tasso and Tennessee Williams.

Self-medication and regulation via alcohol and drug use being being still easier to disguise than is hospitalization, we know only of those whose needs placed them repeatedly in an openly intoxicated condition in full public view, such as Samuel Coleridge, Dylan Thomas, Edward Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Robert Lowell.

The longest of this account’s lists comprises a partial recognition of those whom — in the presence of every symptom qualifying them for modern-day diagnoses of severe mental and emotional handicap yet neither going into hospitalization nor, somehow, allowing themselves to fall entirely prey to their inner despair — simply overcame.

Among these may be found Hans Christian Andersen, Anton Arensky, Joanna Baille, Honore de Balzac, James Barrie, E. F. Benson, William Blake, Aleksandr Blok, David Bomberg, James Boswell, William Lisle Bowes, Rupert Brooke, John Bunyan, Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Thomas Campbell, Samuel Clemens, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Sell Cotman, Noel Coward, George Crabbe, George Darley, Charles Dickens, Emily Dickinson, John Dowland, Ernest Dowson, Thomas Eakins, Edward Elgar, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Stephen Foster, Theodore Gericault, Carlo Gesualdo, Mikhail Glinka, Hugo van der Goes, Nikolai Gogol, Kenneth Graham, Graham Greene, Thomas Gray, George Frideric Handel, Robert Stephen Hawker, Gustav Holst, Thomas Hood, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Victor Hugo, Leigh Hunt, Henrik Ibsen, Charles Ives, Henry James, William James, Samuel Johnson, John Keats, Walter Savage Landor, Orlando de Lassus, Edward Lear, Mikhail Lermontov, James Russel Lowell, William James, Gustav Mahler, John Martin, James Clarence Mangan, Herman Melville, Michelangelo. Adolphe Monticelli, Thomas Moore, Alfred D. Musset, Modest Mussorgsky, Francis Parkman, Bud Powell, Alexander Pushkin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Arthur Rimbaud, Samuel Rogers, George Romney, Giocchino Rossini, Sir Walter Scott, Alexander Scriabin, Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, August Strindberg, William Styron, Robert Southey, Peter Tchaikovsky, Alfred Tennyson, Edward Thomas, Leo Tolstoy,, Georg Trakl, Ivan Turgenev, Richard Wagner, Joseph Warton, George Frederic Watts, Walt Whitman, Sir David Wilkie, William Wordsworth, John Yeats, Emile Zola and Anders Zorn.

We conclude this with the inscription from a poster discovered by the author on the wall of a modern office. It reads:

“People with mental illnesses enrich our lives.”


The poet/editor of this website is physically disabled, and lives at a fraction of her nation’s poverty level. Contributions may be made at:

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