Happy New Year, everyone, and apologies for the blogging holiday. Heads-up one of my favorite annual magazine issues — the New York Times’ “The Lives They Lived” series of obituaries. In it, rock essayist Chuck Klosterman (yes, him again) has a cleverly-paired write-up of Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett and Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s notorious guru Eugene Landy.
Of the age-old question of whether creativity and madness, Klosterman concludes, I think rightly: “As with Barrett, it is difficult to separate Wilson’s madness from his brilliance; the two qualities seem completely intertwined, and that can make the music both men created feel unworldly and romantic. But in the end, which quality took over: madness or genius? Which quality dictated their careers? Barrett became a man who couldn’t do anything. Wilson became a man who’d do anything Eugene Landy told him to do. Ultimately, it’s not a detachment from reality that made them geniuses; detachment made them unproductive and vulnerable. Contrary to popular mythology, you don’t made good records when you’re crazy. You make them when you’re not.”
Why this mythology persists is almost as interesting as the underlying question itself. By chance, I happened on an essay that seems to me to demolish the myth — a piece by legendary critic Lionel Trilling from his 1953 collection “The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society.”
Trilling wrote: “We are all ill: but even a universal sickness implies an idea of health. Of the artist we must say that whatever elements of neurosis he has in common with his fellow mortals, the one part of him that is healthy, by any conceivable definition of health, is that which gives him the power to conceive, to plan, to work, and to bring his work to a conclusion.”
The reason the myth was (is) so popular, Trilling wrote, was an accidental collusion of Freud-soaked art partisans and philistines alike. The partisans “eagerly accept the idea that the artist is mentally ill and go on to make his illness a condition of his power to tell the truth.” For the philistines the myth has a “double advantage. On the one hand, the belief in the artist’s neuroticism allows the philistine to shut his ears to what the artist says. But on the other hand it allows him to listen. … If he did not want to listen at all, he would say ‘insane’; with ‘neurotic,” which hedges, he listens when he chooses.”
There you have it — a rejoinder that was way ahead of its time.