The suicides of literary geniuses Sylvia Plath and Sarah Kane have sparked debate and intrigue over the relationship between art and madness. Their connection is complex and unresolved. However, through historical and scientific evidence, greater insight can be gained into Plath and Kane’s suicides. The literary debate over the connection between creativity and insanity is rooted in anecdotes about eccentricities and peculiarities of behavior, found in biographical and historical records. The traditional view comes from ancient Greece, where Socrates and Plato stated that poetic genius was inseparable from madness.
Socrates believed the poet has “no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses,” and Plato said that the poetry of the sane “is beaten all hollow by the poetry of madmen” (Hershman and Lieb, Manic Depression and Creativity, 8). Even eighteenth-century rationalists, who honored sanity and intelligence, continued to credit the latter to temporary insanity. The poet Diderot claimed that “These reserved and melancholy men owe their extraordinary, almost godlike acuteness of insight to a temporary disturbance of their whole mechanism.
One may notice how it brings them now to sublime and now to insane thoughts” (Hershman and Lieb, 8). If it is temporary insanity that elicits such insight, then Plath and Kane surely meet the qualification. Both suffered from depression so severe that at times they were psychotic. However, the correlation between creativity and psychosis is vigorously debated among the psychiatric world. Some find it difficult to “reconcile the superior qualities of creativity with the disabilities of madness” (Claridge, Genius and the Mind, 228).
A relatively recent development is the emergence of the dimensional view of psychosis, which stresses that the association, if it exists, lies in the underlying personality and cognitive traits that creativity and madness might have in common, rather than the psychotic state that mediates the connection. As Plath said, “When you are insane you are busy being insane. ” However, psychosis can act as a motivational and emotional source for creativity, as it provides manic energy, uncovers insights lost in depressive mood, and enhances associative links in thought or imagery (Claridge, 228).
It supplies the raw material that the artist can later choose to express, and in some cases it is absolutely essential for their work. The belief that mental illness contributes to creative output is not clear-cut. After Arnold M. Ludwig’s ten-year investigation of over 1,000 extraordinary men and women of the 20th century, he found that at least 35% of those who suffered from emotional disorders experienced diminished productivity, impaired performances, or deterioration in the quality of their creative work due to mental disturbances (Arnold M. Ludwig, The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy, 169). However, he also found that at least 16% showed an improvement in their creative activity at some point in their lives in response to a mental disturbance” (Ludwig, 166). Ludwig explains that these results depend on factors such as type and severity of the mental disturbance, and thus they vary. Yet, it is the common literary belief, as expressed by the Goncourt brothers, that “Talent exists only at the cost of our nervous condition” (Hershman and Lieb, 197).
Talent, however, is recognized differently among occupational fields, and it is the qualities and nature of creative achievement that easily find relevance in or justification for insanity. In the creative arts, it is the artist’s personal vision of the world that matters most, as it gives insight into human experience and offers new ways to appreciate it. Thus, artists can look within themselves for inspiration, using their personal conflicts or the altered mental processes they experience either artificially or from illness to provide new ways of seeing nature and the role of one’s mind in perception and experience.
The insights discovered in psychosis may help people understand the irrationalities of their existence. The creative arts focus on a world of meaning and significance from the personal and subjective, rather than on knowledge and fact, and thus allow artists to transform emotional turmoil into art (Ludwig, 161). This is perhaps why so many mentally disturbed individuals are drawn to artistic professions, a suggestion that is illuminated by George Bernard Shaw’s comment that if you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you might as well make it dance (Ludwig, 10).
The creative community is not only accepting of mental illness, but in a sense encourages it with certain professions. Poets, for example, not only may be susceptible to mental illness and use their suffering as material for their work, but they also “may be influenced by the cultural expectation that they are supposed to struggle with their angst” (Ludwig, 152-153). Insights gained from psychotic, neurotic, or idiosyncratic experiences are not accepted in the scientific world because they contradict the fundamental assumptions of science, which are rooted in predictability, replicability, reliability, and testability.
Science focuses on objectivity and proof, rather than personal meaning or aesthetic appeal. It is fields that allow for more ambiguity and less structure and proof in expression and creative products that tolerate mental disturbances, and even allow those individuals to capitalize on their highly personal visions (Ludwig, 161-162). In his extensive study of eminent people, Arnold M. Ludwig found: Members of those creative arts professions that rely more on precision, reason, and logic (e. g. rchitects, designers, journalists, essayists, literary critics) are less prone to mental disturbances, and those that rely more on emotive expression, personal experiences, and vivid imagery as sources of inspiration (e. g. poets, novelists, actors, and musical entertainers) are more prone (Ludwig, 5). Among the latter he found that poets show a high prevalence of both mania and psychoses, and that poets, actors, fiction writers, and musical entertainers are more likely to attempt suicide (Ludwig, 5).
Accordingly, among a wide range of professions, poets, fiction writers, artists, nonfiction writers, and musical composers have the highest lifetime rates of depression (46 to 77%), and explorers, military officers, natural scientists, athletes, and architects have the lowest (0 to 17%) (Ludwig, 138). While Ludwig’s findings reveal that members of creative arts professions have higher rates of various emotional disorders over the course of their lives than members of other professions, it is important to note that no single form of mental illness occurs in more than half the members of any occupational group.
The prevalence of mental disorder among the artistic community suggests that artistic professions either attract those who are predisposed to mental illness, aggravate their suppressed problems because of particular stresses, life-styles, and professional status, or encourage them to cultivate certain psychopathology as a means to achieve fame and success (Ludwig, 152). Persons with emotional disturbances are drawn to the creative arts for complex reasons. Art represents an occupational haven for those who struggle with personal demons.
It allows them to contain their troubles through their creative activity. Franz Kafka found his writing to be therapeutic, saying, “The existence of a writer is truly dependent on his desk. If he wants to escape madness, he really should never leave his desk” (Ludwig, 3). Through the distraction of art, the misery of depression can be reduced (Hershman and Lieb, 15). Vincent Van Gogh similarly believed that dedication and immersion in creative activity would keep him sane, and revealed in a letter to his brother Theo, “I think this will help cure me” (Hershman and Lieb, 172).
In these cases, art serves as a lifeline for the anguished artist by enabling him to organize his emotional chaos, work out personal conflicts, or simply distract him from worrisome concerns (Ludwig, 173). Ludwig found in his extensive study that 13% of mentally disturbed individuals considered creative activity to preserve their mental health, although he suspects that the percentage is much larger in actuality (Ludwig, 173).
However, Ludwig’s study also revealed that six percent of creative individuals experienced an increase in mental disturbances due to the creative process. These artists suffered from the act of stirring painful and unresolved feelings for artistic content. Humans have psychological defenses that keep emotional conflicts unconscious so that they are able to endure their daily lives without constant anxiety or distractions.
Creative activity penetrates these defenses and prevents the artist from putting “the psychological lid back on their personal Pandora’s Box” (Ludwig, 172). Awakening painful memories is like playing with fire, as it “allows many poets and fiction writers to perceive the world with an intensity, coloration, and passion unavailable to those who avoid tampering with their emotions,” while at the same time unleashing dangerous feelings that may linger after the creative activity is finished (Ludwig, 9).
In the case of Sylvia Plath, it was her artistic endeavor that her husband, Ted Hughes, believed “set her on a trajectory toward her death” (Erica Wagner, Ariel’s Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and the Story of Birthday Letters, 37). Hughes encouraged Plath to release her inner demons in the name of poetry, because he believed strongly in her poetic genius. He taught her how to open the door to her painful past, which helped her write great poems, but inevitably destroyed her marriage and herself (Wagner, 39).
He explains that her creative work tells only one story: her Oedipal love for her father, her complex relationship with her mother, her attempt at suicide, and the shock therapy she underwent (Wagner, 36). Her work was entirely confessional, forcing her to reach within her troubled and painful past to bear its secrets, which uncovered the lid to her personal “Pandora’s Box. ” The most significant aspect of her past was the death of her father at the early age of eight.
Various developmental theories of eminence look to such traumatic events during childhood as the basis for later achievement and mental illness. Such events, which happen at a time when the individual is most vulnerable, helpless, and impressionable, have lasting psychological effects that can, in certain cases, cause them to compensate for their loss through constant creative activity (Ludwig, 35). Plath was never able to find closure after her father’s death because her mother prevented her from attending the funeral, fearing that it would upset her (Wagner, 39).
In J. Marvin Eisenstadt’s study of 573 eminent subjects who lived between 500 B. C. and on through the 20th century, he found that 25% had lost one parent by age 10, 35% had lost one parent by age 15, and 40% had lost one parent by age 20. One researcher found that about 30% of the poets studied had lost their father before the age of 15 (Ludwig, 36). The death of Plath’s father sheds light on her ambition and psychotic depression, as well as her desire to create. Similarly, Sarah Kane found creative inspiration from her suffering.
She was an “experiential” writer, seeking to transport herself and her audience from reality by experiencing a new one through her work (Aleks Sierz, In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today, 92). Her creative vision was to “descend into hell imaginatively in order to avoid going there in reality” (Graham Saunders, ‘Love Me or Kill Me,’ 21). Her plays are permeated with tragedy, in which a character finds insight through suffering (Saunders, 20). Sarah believed, “To create something beautiful about despair, or out of a feeling of despair, is for me the most hopeful, life-affirming thing a person can do” (Sierz, 91).
Art gave her an outlet for her pain. She internalized the chaos of the external world, as well as explored her own pain in her creative process (Saunders, 25). Writing for Kane was a therapeutic escape from a painful reality, however she revealed that while she has “only ever written to escape from hell…it’s never worked” (Saunders, 1). Both Plath and Kane contemplated suicide in their art, and both revealed their ambivalence and unresolved feelings towards it. In this sense, it was their art that led them to the path of suicide, as they were unable to find closure through it.
They aroused pain and suffering for artistic material, and were consequentially tortured by their lingering demons. By choosing to make themselves the subject of their work they were forced to confront personal feelings and emotions of anguish. It is no surprise then that the most likely artistic types to attempt suicide are poets, musical entertainers, fiction writers, and actors (Ludwig, 151). These types have a higher rate of depression, which can cause “morbid obsessions that dominate every waking moment of the person’s life” (Ludwig, 146), and which “distorts the sufferer’s judgment” (Hershman and Lieb, 179).
Among these professions, poets have the highest rate of suicide attempts, at 26% (Ludwig, 146). Survival analysis also reveals that artistic types are more likely to commit suicide by the age of 30, a statistic that holds true for 30-year-old Plath and 28-year-old Kane. The tragic deaths of these women are now almost inseparable to their work. Their posthumous fame has transformed people’s view of them, to what Ludwig calls, “a centaurlike fusion with their works” (Ludwig, 103). To some they are martyrs who have offered themselves up for the sake of their art (A.
Alvarez, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, 55). The idea that genius pays in suffering for exceptional ability is rooted in Romantic thought, from which poet Heinrich Heine stated, “The history of great men is always a martyrology” (Hershman and Lieb, 10). However, much of the Romantic’s feelings of martyrdom come from the paranoia and despair of depression (Hershman and Lieb, 10). Many artists may feel compelled to portray themselves as a mad genius or with eccentricities in order to increase their public appeal.
In Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood has an artist say, “If I cut off my ear, would the market value (of my paintings) go up? Better still, stick my head in the oven, blow out my brains. What rich art collectors like to buy, among other things, is a little vicarious craziness” (Ludwig, 6). While suicide may increase fame, Alvarez believes that “the suicide adds nothing at all to the poetry, so the myth of Sylvia as a passive victim is a total perversion of the woman she was” (Alvarez 55). Similarly, Aleks Sierz, the author of a study of Kane’s works, believes that her death “threatens once more to obscure her achievement.
Examining her work for clues to her mental state tends to limit the interpretation of her work, as does the tendency to sanctify a writer who has died young” (Sierz, 90). Both Sylvia Plath and Sarah Kane sought to release their personal angst through creativity. However, both fell doomed to the demons they could not free through this process. While their mental disturbances provided them with artistic inspiration, they also gave them insight into the human condition that proved to be fatal.