Creative Illness

We now appropriately accept the facts that illness, disorders and death are intrinsic parts of life, and all of us will experience them eventually. So, is this newfound reality the end of a beautiful tale?

Not really, because an even more exiting and realistic tale is emerging. This tale is about using an illness as a source of energy for life, and especially creative life.

This story started in the seemingly abstract aspects of physics, but quickly became very practical. Physicists noticed that not all disorders in nature are necessarily a bad thing. As an example, balancing a vertical stick on the finger required “disordered” movements of the hand. Similarly, nervous leg shaking helps to calm us down. In the field of internal medicine, doctors had noticed a along time ago that intervals between heart beats occasionally varied chaotically. However, hen heart beats became unusually regular (“normal”), it was a serious warning for a break down in the cardiovascular system of these individuals, including sudden death. In these cases, chaos proved to be helpful and healthy! This is now known as Dynamic Chaos Theory.

When doctors look at human disorders, they now recognize that not all dis-order (out of order) symptoms are bad. Some of them might be compensatory, when the body actively “sets up” one system or organ to “off-set” the major trouble threatening the organism as a whole. The law of “sacrificing” one organ to save the whole organism is called the “control system theory”.

The bottom line is quite simple: the disorder might be helpful! But not in the ordinary way, and the best example is the role of illness in creativity.

For centuries people saw a connection between creativity and illness, predominantly mental illness. Do you need to be crazy to be creative, or if you re creative should you be a little crazy? This “chicken and the egg” dilemma died because not only mental but any disorder and any creativity might transfer one into other.

A physicist, Tobi Zausner, who is also a prominent contemporary artist himself, studied creativity and the associated illnesses of 21 famous visual artists from the point of view of the dynamic chaos theory. Among those artists were Botticelli, Durer, Michelangelo, Titian, Goya, Monet, Matisse, Munch Ryder and others. Art history and medicine provided detailed biographical data, and psychology offered insights into their motivation and behavior. As a mathematical reflection of behavior, the chaos theory revealed the dynamics of what Ellenberg called “creative illness” (an illness that profoundly affects the sick persons and the artwork produced), typical “disorder-creativity” patterns.

These patterns were clustered into four types. In the first, a period of physical or mental illness preceded choice of career in art (Botticelli, Marsh, Matisse, Demuth).

In the second, illness transformed the established creative style into a new dimension (Durer, Michelangelo, Goya, Monet).In the third type illness became the life’s focus for some artists, an obsession with positive or, more often, negative results (Kahlo, Flanagan).And finally, artists of the fourth type remain creative during the last terminal or severely incapacitated time of their life producing entirely different art as they rage against disorder (Matisse, Durer, Degas, Beaux).

A far more down to earth example of the positive affect of illness on work, not only of artists but in any field of creativity, is known as an “anniversary phenomenon”. The sick person believes that he/she will not die until their life’s mission is completed. It might be a writer working on the book, or scientist finishing the experiment “of his life”, or a religious person traveling to his destination.

What is the conclusion? It is rather obvious. We, the general public should learn from the artists and apply these lessons to our lives. In particular, we need to learn not only to fight with illnesses but to transform them into enhancing our creativity forces. If they can do it, so can the rest of us.

Ref: Goldberg A., Rigney D.R., West B.J. “Chaos and Fractals in Human Physiology”.

Scientific American. February, 1990:42-49.

Zausner T. “When Walls Became Doorways: Creativity, Chaos Theory, and

Physical Illness”. Creativity Research Journal.V.11,No1:21-28