Glorifying dysfunction, round 296.80

Tim Kreider recently made an excellent point in his always hilarious weekly comic strip, “The Pain–When Will It All End?” In the note below the illustration, Kreider writes:

“Let the record show that the hooch did William Faulkner’s prose, health, and complexion no favors, and he ended up cowering from invisible dive-bombing Jerries; that Miles Davis mostly sat around watching TV while on heroin and only returned to making music after successfully kicking it; and that as Chancellor of Germany Adolf Hitler made some very poor policy and strategic decisions, at least some of which might be attributed to the daily injections of amphetaimes his doctor had him on after ’42 or so, and that the bad end to which he ultimately came was a direct result of his own poor judgment. Among others, he committed the most famous of the classic blunders: Never Get Involved in the Land War in Asia. A textbook meth-head move. In a clichéd denoument straight out of so many drug education filmstrips, he ended up shooting his wife and himself in an underground bunker while the Russian army closed in around his crumbling empire and his body was doused in gasoline and set on fire, and now he is the most hated person in world history.”

I point this out because I often see people classified or formally diagnosed as bipolar lauded for their creativity. Often it’s the bipolar person himself or herself making the association. From there, it’s only a short misstep to proclaiming bipolar disorder a veritable sine qua non of good artistic works and hence as a de facto asset.
Noted 20th-century novelist Graham Greene made the following observation:

“[Greene] was, he later explained to Vivien, ‘a character profoundly antagonistic to ordinary domestic life”, his restlessness and moods being symptoms of a disease. ‘Unfortunately, the disease is also one’s material.'”

Greene’s life on the whole was, not only by others’ testimony but by his own admission, a predictable morass of womanizing, poor accountability, and generally unpredictable behavior.
It’s one thing to look for unifying traits among people with troubling mood disorders and seek silver linings in those disorders. But rationalization and plain self-deceit are first cousins, and to pretend that the bipolar writer, painter, or musician requires periods of mania in order to maintain properly affected output is a load of shit. This is not only because of the poor trade-off Kreider describes, but because of simple averaging.
If a marathon coach told you to transition from weekdays of no running and Saturdays and Sundays of 35 miles each to a simple 10-miles-a-day regimen, you probably wouldn’t accuse him of robbing you of motivation. A nutritionist who advises people who fast two days in every three and knock back 6,000 calories on eating days to take in about 2,000 calories daily would probably not be accused of ruining people’s appetites. Other, equally trivial but illustrative examples abound. Yet those in the sizable community of bipolar people are often led to believe, through their own analyses or through others’, that dealing with their symptoms through pharmacology or other means spells a virtual end to creativity.
I would argue that this is bullshit. For one thing, among writers, much of what’s produced during manic episodes is undirected or misdirected garbage, nothing more than glaring evidence of someone with a keyboard and an aversion to sitting or lying still. For another, and hearkening to the analogies above, the fact that such people usually experience lows as often as they do highs spells an overall output lower than that of someone able to churn out a certain amount of material daily or almost daily. A few nights a week or month of high-octane verbosity cannot, except for the most talented, compensate for to many strings of days spend in lassitude or outright paralysis, where the whole idea of sitting before a keyboard presents as a Sisyphean task. Perhaps this “theory” would have merit if the mania added a qualitative element that was otherwise lacking, but there’s no evidence that it adds anything but energy. Vim is important, but in bipolars it comes coupled to far too many destructive patterns to be properly labeled an asset.
Clearly, the association between bipolar disorder–like any mental-health diagnosis a subjective one and hence probably applied with undue enthusiasm to highly successful artistic sorts–and creativity is real. But for every Peter Gabriel or Sting or Graham Greene are thousands of people whose lives simply suck on account of the difficulty of managing the composite of symptoms formerly labeled “manic-depressive disorder.” It is as ludicrous to paint bipolar disorder as an asset in any functional way as it is to look at the average pre-winnings incomes of lottery winners and conclude that poverty is a strong indicator of great luck.

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  1. #1 by bybelknap, FCD on February 24, 2009 - 2:08 pm

    OK, not bi-polar, but an ex addict: Compare Eric Clapton’s original After Midnight with his “clean and sober” unplugged version. One has a frenetic energy that is fantastically infectious, and the other is like one dead of hemorrhagic fever.
    Just sayin.

  2. #2 by Kevin Beck on February 24, 2009 - 2:15 pm

    Sure, but I’d argue that “After Midnight” doesn’t lend itself nearly as well to an unplugged rendering as does, say, “Layla” or “Tears in Heaven.” I also can’t speak for what BPD/chemical dependency does to one’s musical output versus what it does to one’s workaday writing.
    All of this is, of course, one big burst of personal opinion, colored by personal experience.

  3. #3 by jay on February 24, 2009 - 2:35 pm

    I think there is something to the position that some characteristics that made some people great artists also made them rather disastrous in personal life.
    Certainly not to glamorize bipolar disorder or similar conditions, but I’ve known people who could do incredible things on a manic bender, only to collapse afterward.

  4. #4 by bybelknap, FCD on February 24, 2009 - 3:49 pm

    Layla unplugged was also a pile of poo. Tears in wha? feh. It’s an embarrassment. Sorry. It is, after all, purely one’s taste in these matters.
    My original response was more tongue in cheek than serious. Drugs and alcohol consumed in moderation by performers can enhance live musical performance by reducing cortical inhibition in a way they do not help a writer at a keyboard. One might wonder also, though, how much more prolific an artist might be without D&A when they are doing the hard work of composing.
    Is there any real data regarding the prevalence of alcohol use/abuse among writers? The stereotype of the hard drinking yet prolific and brilliant author is fairly well known. But how closely does that stereotype resemble reality?
    I have a relative who has been diagnosed with a somewhat severe bit of bi-polar disorder. Unfortunately, she’s just a regular person with average abilities, so her manic phases just mean she’s agitated and angry, and her down phases mean she has a hard time getting anything done, even when medicated.

  5. #5 by Jim Fiore on February 24, 2009 - 4:46 pm

    “Drugs and alcohol consumed in moderation by performers can enhance live musical performance by reducing cortical inhibition”
    Let’s underscore MODERATION in the extreme if one is not partaking in the more mundane pop musical styles. Let’s say something like this might be a tad difficult to pull off when under the influence: http://www.trilulilu.ro/Leta/0f338a47eb76d7

  6. #6 by Jim Fiore on February 24, 2009 - 4:46 pm

    “Drugs and alcohol consumed in moderation by performers can enhance live musical performance by reducing cortical inhibition”
    Let’s underscore MODERATION in the extreme if one is not partaking in the more mundane pop musical styles. Let’s say something like this might be a tad difficult to pull off when under the influence: http://www.trilulilu.ro/Leta/0f338a47eb76d7

  7. #7 by James on February 24, 2009 - 4:49 pm

    Hitler had attention deficit disorder.
    That’s why his doctor prescribed him amphetamines. Thousands of Americans take amphetamines every day, just to get through their day. Is this strange? ALSO YOU CANNOT BE ADDICTED TO STIMULANTS IT IS CALLED DISCONTINUATION SYNDROME YOU WORTHLESS PEASANTS. Sorry, I just had to say that. Anyway, Hitler had trouble concentrating, his head always in the clouds. Therefore he needed daily doses of amphetamines, much like large numbers America’s youth, clearly damaged by poor economic performance. UNGRATEFUL SLAVES YOU MUST TAKE YOUR DRUGS AND STOP CRYING. SERVE THE ECONOMY! I AM THE ECONOMY. SERVE ME.

  8. #8 by bybelknap, FCD on February 24, 2009 - 5:22 pm

    Great King Crimson find, Mr Fiore. It is after 5 pm and I am cranking the volume UP.

  9. #9 by Lofcaudio on February 24, 2009 - 5:40 pm

    Nothing like a King Crimson hijack to add some spice to an interesting topic! While I love Larks’ Part 2, it borders on sacrilege (in my opinion) to show a clip with the Belew crew doing this number when Wetton and Muir provided so much of the magic that made the original Larks’ so good.

  10. #10 by Jim Fiore on February 24, 2009 - 7:44 pm

    Muir and Wetton were great, but one cannot refer to Levin and Belew as “sacrilege”, borderline or otherwise.
    The obvious item lacking is David Cross’ violin but I think maturity helps to fill the gap.

  11. #11 by R E G on February 24, 2009 - 8:45 pm

    Re Bipolar disorder and creativity. Here’s my interpretation. I’ve no academic credentials just a lot of first hand experience.
    Assume Scathingly Brilliant Ideas are evenly distributed accross a population. A certain % of bipolar individuals will have them and the same % of normal people will have them.
    Then what?
    If a Scathingly Brilliant Idea comes to a normal person, they will evaluate it .. well .. normally. They will consult with experts, family member and friends. They will LISTEN to their feedback and try to make well-informed choices about the future. They will evaluate the costs and benefits and decide how far to pursue it. Sometimes they will give up on good ideas, because they just can’t find the confidence.
    If a Scathingly Brilliant Idea (or any notion at all sometimes) comes to manic bipolar person, they will throw caution to the wind. They will happily burn up marriages, friendships, employment, financial security .. whatever in pursuit of it. No need to sleep, no worries about day care for the kiddies, no need to eat, no need even to stay on the right side of the law. All will be vindicated when the IDEA is proven right. Every one who tries to talk you down is jealous and petty. So … if the idea really is brilliant the bipolar individual may be just the one to see it through.
    So a few of these individuals who really do have great ideas they give birth to in a manic phase, get remembered for both the mania and the idea.
    The vast majority however are doomed to struggle on amid the destruction they have created.
    I HATE the notion that creativity and mental illness are connected. It feeds the grandiose illusions of the manic and does nothing to resolve the problems the mentally ill are facing everyday.

  12. #12 by Kevin Beck on February 24, 2009 - 8:51 pm

    There you go. I guess the “game theory” version is what I was trying to get at.
    What works (and then only in a niche sense–money, fame) for some is an abject failure for the vast majority. Being bipolar is no prescription for fun and games, but rather consigns everyone involved to a horror show.
    Thank you for your insight.

  13. #13 by bybelknap, FCD on February 24, 2009 - 9:33 pm

    There’s very little that King Crimson have done in its various incarnations over the years that isn’t quite good in general. Some is less good but it is all at least good. None of it is crap.
    One of the things I like best about Robert Fripp is his utter lack of flash on stage. Regardless of the complexity and flash of the music, he sits calmly on his stool and plays his guitar. It’s bloody brilliant.
    Sorry, can’t really tie mental illness or D&A into it. Just love King Crimson.

  14. #14 by bybelknap, FCD on February 24, 2009 - 9:33 pm

    There’s very little that King Crimson have done in its various incarnations over the years that isn’t quite good in general. Some is less good but it is all at least good. None of it is crap.
    One of the things I like best about Robert Fripp is his utter lack of flash on stage. Regardless of the complexity and flash of the music, he sits calmly on his stool and plays his guitar. It’s bloody brilliant.
    Sorry, can’t really tie mental illness or D&A into it. Just love King Crimson.

  15. #15 by Glendon Mellow on February 25, 2009 - 10:24 am

    A an artist who always got asked, “whoa –what are you on as a serious question in art school, I had enough when the same thing started to happen online.
    Art and inspiration require imagination and lots of hard work. The rest is false romanticism and quite frankly, an insult to human creativity. Terrific article, Kevin.

  16. #16 by Lofcaudio on February 25, 2009 - 10:45 am

    Kevin Beck:
    What works (and then only in a niche sense–money, fame) for some
    This is a great observation and really highlights what I consider to be an important point–that money, fame, power, career success are NOT what it is all about. Kevin points out that even for those who have been able to find some success despite (or because of, if you like) their disorder does not mean that they are even able to enjoy said success or have moments of peace and tranquility.
    Jim Fiore:
    Muir and Wetton were great, but one cannot refer to Levin and Belew as “sacrilege”, borderline or otherwise.
    Touché. (I happen to be listening to the Red album at this very moment.)

  17. #17 by Lofcaudio on February 25, 2009 - 10:45 am

    Kevin Beck:
    What works (and then only in a niche sense–money, fame) for some
    This is a great observation and really highlights what I consider to be an important point–that money, fame, power, career success are NOT what it is all about. Kevin points out that even for those who have been able to find some success despite (or because of, if you like) their disorder does not mean that they are even able to enjoy said success or have moments of peace and tranquility.
    Jim Fiore:
    Muir and Wetton were great, but one cannot refer to Levin and Belew as “sacrilege”, borderline or otherwise.
    Touché. (I happen to be listening to the Red album at this very moment.)

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