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Thread: Don't Poets Ever Go Mad?

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    Registered User beroq's Avatar
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    Don't Poets Ever Go Mad?

    Gilbert Keith Chesterton, born in Kensington in 1874 and died in 1936, once declared that poets do not go mad. In the second chapter of his Orthodoxy, he enunciates the typical paradox that madness is bred by self-confident rationality. He says:

    "Imagination does not bred insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; chess players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic; I only say that the danger lie in logic, not in imagination. Artistic paternity is as wholesome as physcial paternity."

    Large propositions of this kind require formal statment and formal support. But Chesterton offers only a rhetorical expansion of his paradox. After his decleration, he adduces two who did. Poe, according to Chesterton, went mad because he was analytical. To him, Poe went mad because of his acute logic.

    What would you say about this proposition? I don't think he is right because pure intellect which is not stained by sentimentality and romanticism is the strongest shelter against madness. Poe did not go mad because of his logic, but his confusion of logic and sensuality.
    ars sine scienta nihil

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    Pièce de Résistance Scheherazade's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by beroq View Post
    Gilbert Keith Chesterton, born in Kensington in 1874 and died in 1936, once declared that poets do not go mad.
    Yet another reason why I can never be a poet!

    ~
    "It is not that I am mad; it is only that my head is different from yours.”
    ~


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    Bibliophile JBI's Avatar
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    Christopher Smart was most certainly "mad". I can't remember what his name,but there was a French doctor who studied madness in authors in the 19th century, and came up with conclusions suggesting there wasn't really a connection with anything scientific. Perhaps the madness just comes from being a public person whose self expression either is misunderstood, or unappreciated. Though, Eliot nearly went mad writing The Waste Land, so perhaps historical context has to do with it. OR perhaps we could say that Syphilis does, at any rate, in the case of Baudelaire, etc.
    Last edited by JBI; 05-08-2009 at 07:42 AM.

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    Registered User beroq's Avatar
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    I don't see any relation between authorship and madness. If such a case really occures, as was in the cases of, say, Poe and Nietzsche, it is just a coincidance. There is one plumber I know that went mad.
    ars sine scienta nihil

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    Acting It Out Diane Havens's Avatar
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    I can't imagine that Chesterton was being literal here. I think his point was that there is no sanity in reason and no insanity in poetic sensibility. That being in touch with our souls, our emotions and metaphoric vision is much more sane than relying on analytic thinking, and how much more satisfying, how much more human it is to be a poet than a scientist. Not that it ensures one will never go mad, but that it may very well be madness to be too logical.
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    Chesterton was funny man, answering to an age of science. He is cleaver, and his point is that faith and imagination are not obssession and will help people to deal with everything, while the over-analytic logicist will be lost with his obssession because there is things that are not meant to be explained.
    Like most of his ideas, he is a cleaver argumentist, but you need to believe him before finging his arguments reasonable.

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    Asa Nisi Masa mayneverhave's Avatar
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    Yes, I'm not sure his argument is entirely sound, although the scientific/logical analysis that would be required to refute him is just the very thing he is arguing against. It is very easy to argue against analysis, as a refutation involves analysis.

    As for pure rational intellects going mad? I'm farely certain some of the most soundly logical geniuses have not gone mad - I can think of Leibniz, Bertrand Russell, etc., but the one primarily artistic (that is, illogical/irrational) philosopher, Neitzsche, who did go mad. Extreme romanticism is, in itself, a form of madness - and I'm not sure how one could argue that that rationality is mad, since the two are the antitheses of each other.

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    Registered User beroq's Avatar
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    One minute of reasoning is worth one hour of deep sentimental/romantic bemusement and more productive. There's a kind of constructive sentimentality which is called compassion. Compassion might lead one to a certain/concrete point but romanticism felt in extreme points is but a serious dent in pure intellect.
    ars sine scienta nihil

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    ignoramus et ignorabimus Mr Endon's Avatar
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    Beckett, I think, agrees with GCK. Watt apparently goes insane because he follows the Cartesian method of thoroughly analysing every single possible hypothesis to a T. Descartes, a byword for rationality, drives him mad! [interestingly, Beckett claims to have written Watt so as to not go mad. Go figure]

    Plus, and in keeping with GKC's view, in Murphy, Mr Endon, a chess player (chess, the game of logic par excellence), is in a mental asylum.

    I think that we should make a very important distinction: that between madness and "overflow of powerful feelings". A poet may be an outsider, miserable and tempestuous (indeed, prone to fits of rage), but very seldom is he mad. The only mad poet I know was the Portuguese schizophrenic genius Fernando Pessoa.

    Bottom line: imagination and expression of feeling can lead to catharsis, which actually counteracts insanity, whereas logic, as Daniil Kharms, Flann O'Brien and Beckett show, is if anything dangerous to our mental health. Here's the closer: Fernando Pessoa/Alberto Caeiro's "To love is the eternal innocence / And the only innocence is not to think".

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    There seems to be an assumption here that clinical madness arises from the interaction of the cogitive faculties in an individual, and 'the rest of the world', and that the artistic sensibility exerts some kind of antibiotic effect, to protect the poet or artist from 'madness', (which again, we have not actually defined!) It seems to me that most of the time, most human beings tramp around, like Beckett's characters, in that raggy grey area somewhere between madness/delusion and complete self-awareness and self-knowledge.

    Any clinical psychiatrists out there?

    Which comes first : chicken or egg? Mathematician or madness? A predisposition to take refuge in numbers, or a predisposition to go mad? Even if logicians are statistically less likely to 'go mad', it does not follow that it is because they incline towards logic, or if artists are less likely, that it is their art which saves them.

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    Quote Originally Posted by beroq View Post
    One minute of reasoning is worth one hour of deep sentimental/romantic bemusement and more productive. There's a kind of constructive sentimentality which is called compassion. Compassion might lead one to a certain/concrete point but romanticism felt in extreme points is but a serious dent in pure intellect.
    Chesterton, it is good to remember, is not an authority about insanity. He does not really knows what cause insanity and his own definition of insanity is absence of imagination, so, you can see, his logic is not precise.
    But I must disagree with one minute of reasoning is worth of hour of deep sentimental, etc.
    That is like saying one minute or mathematic exercise is worth of Ode to a Nightingale from Keats. It is ridiculous and everything depends what use are you be giving to your intelect. I am bringing Keats here, because the bird is immortal and all - this little piece generated hundred and hundred hours of reasoning, just trying to discover and analyse the meanings and style that he used. But also because of Negative Capability.

    In the end, Chesterton is not wrong or right, Chesterton is provocating and that was his aim. No rules to build castles in the sky and all...

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    Registered User blithe_spirit's Avatar
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    Was Sylvia Plath mad? She was certainly deepy disturbed and unhappy but I wonder if she would have been such a good poet if she had been emotionally stable and happy.

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    biting writer
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    The brain is an organ, and like any organ, can go off balance. Environment can affect this as much as genetics. I am a published poet and I have an adjustment disorder, but how much of that disorder is tied to the fact that my mother was bipolar, my economic stress, and the stress of aging with cerebral palsy, and my narrowing ability to sustain a career, and or tied to *creativity*, I couldn't say. I don't think it amounts to much, as Freud was the first to point out mental illness is a matter of degree. We can all feel anxiety, but when you cannot leave the house because of it, intervention is usually urged, and approved.

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    I can’t believe no one has quoted “mad, bad and dangerous to know” or “poets begin in gladness and end in despondency and madness.” Maybe it is like QI (the TV quiz with Stephen Fry) you lose ten points if you mention those?

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    biting writer
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    Well Neely, poets have to be more open to self-revelation than not, which is why their mental health is the academic key note always sounded in one form or another, but this is at best a lingering vestige of a pitch penny romanticism which I have little patience for, as you can find instability in religious extremists, physicists (Einstein), FBI agents, especially the one who was the purported terrorist behind the anthrax scare in the US--he was ill, and there was a debate about his guilt or innocence due to this, after he committed suicide--but we aren't here nit-picking J Edgar Hoover or your typical MI6 operative, are we?

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