Dave's Corner of the Universe

Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide

Tortured Genius


Is there a connection between insanity and creativity? Does a person who perceives reality differently than the rest of the status quo have an advantage in creating new concepts and ideas? Or is there something inherent in the creative process that pushes fringe personalities over the edge of reason?

            My first brush with this concept was a book I found on a table in the Oxnard Public Library. It was about Philip K Dick. I was fifteen and waiting for my mother to pick me up from a near by play practice. I barley knew who Philip K. Dick was, and the book was actually someone literature majors thesis paper so I am not sure why I would have been interested in it. Maybe it was the cover with a comic book style sketch of a man feverishly writing with bizarre alien menaces surrounding his work room.

            For some reason I read its first and last chapters, before my parents arrived. And the conclusion of the writer’s thesis always stayed with me. Because of Dick’s terrible and traumatic psychiatric issues, he created a body of works that the world of literature is better off for.  That concept stuck with me, for many years. Eventually it morphed in to a sense of self guilt. Was I as a reader and enjoyer of books that were written by tormented people, some kind of voyeuristic ghouls who was taking enjoyment from other’s sufferings?

            For those who do not know of him Philip K. Dick was a prolific science fiction writer, who wrote many sci-fi classics  books in the  nineteen-sixties and seventies, some of which have been made into movies  (often after changing the name of the title) such as Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report. Undoubtedly a genius the man was probably also schizophrenic,  and his condition was made worse by drug use.

            As a he grew up his best friend and closest confidant was his twin sister, Jane. He vividly remembered spending time and playing with her. His sister died six weeks after they were born.   Even he had to admit that at least to some degree his fondest memories were in reality hallucinations. His entire life was a battle with deciphering what was real and what was not. Paranoia exasperated his metal issues to a degree it concluded in near messianic visions.

            Dick is not the only writer to take inspiration from his tormented past. I recently read a review of a book that claims that H.P. Lovecraft’s literary genius was the result of mental illness. Jules Verne visions of the future were so dark due to his personal battles with depressions, that many of his stories had to have their ending rewritten by his editor, to be sellable. Ian Fleming started the Bond stories as a form of self catharsis to deal with his violent temper and misogynistic tendencies. And I can not read Poe’s Annabel Lee without feeling his pain and anguish.

            Of course not all good writers suffered from mental disorders, but you will be hard pressed to find one who was not at the best deemed a little weird, because of his behaviors. Also the genius and insanity parallel is not limited to just the written word. Vincent Van Gogh is an obvious case of a painter, who balanced (in the end unsuccessfully) between inspiration and madness. In hindsight I can not listen to Smells Like Teen Spirit without seeing it as a kind of suicide note.

            So that brings me to the revelation I received from when I was fifteen sitting in the public library, am I some kind of vampire masquerading as literati feasting the misery of others? Years latter I would come to the conclusions that these tortured genius were not forced to write what they did. In most cases they did this as some kind of release or escape from what inflicted them. So now instead of feeling shame for enjoying what their conflicts produced, I celebrate that a trouble mind could reach out and create something beautiful and in many cases inspiring.


3 comments on “Tortured Genius

  1. mrjosh876
    January 12, 2014

    Loved reading this, seems the case almost across the board that the best writers suffer from an array of problems be that depression e.t.c. My view of the problem in question was that it is because many of these writers as a result of these things viewed the world through their own particular lens, usually a result of their behavior and or past experiences e.g. Hemingway, Hunter Thompson. And that rather than their writing being some kind of call for help it is instead their way of productively using their ‘problems’ or viewpoints to do what they love and creating things rarely seen or read before.

    • davekheath
      January 12, 2014

      I shudder to think how some of their lives might have turned out if they didn’t have an outlet

      • mrjosh876
        January 12, 2014

        I was going to say 🙂 same goes for artists in general I believe, difficult to name any that didn’t have some kind of personal demon. As the title suggests I believe its in the nature of intelligence that people inherit these kinds of problems. Great Gatsby quote always seems appropriate to it “I hope she’ll be a fool–that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool”

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This entry was posted on October 13, 2013 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , .
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