Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Madness, Genius, & Chemistry

An interesting essay over at kiro5hin, concerning the effects on society - specifically the effects on its creative potential - of medicating psychological illness out of existence. The thesis is that when the threshold of mental illness is defined downwards, and the new crazy (those with depression, dysthemia, ADD/ADHD, etc) are put on drugs, we run the risk of squashing creative genius. There's something to this, I think: I have a schizophrenic friend who's always finding excuses to go off his meds, as he says it feels like his brain's made of porridge when he's on them.

On the other hand, however, the vast majority of people - and that includes the mentally ill - are not, and will never be, creative geniuses. They're just normal people, with jobs, friends, families. The benefits these people might get from being psychologically abnormal are somewhat dubious, measured next to the detrimental effects upon their careers and the pain their illnesses can cause not just them, but their loved ones. That said, I've always thought putting kids on speed so they won't get bored when the teacher's droning on about fractions is an idea that comes somewhere between misguided and criminal. Still, putting an adult on SSRIs when they're consistently, needlessly miserable is very much a good thing, if it improves their lives.

However, the point about creative squashing chemistry stands. There's something about the image of a happy, wholly sane and stable artist that just strikes me as deeply, horribly wrong.

But no one is ever forced to take their meds. Even people with disorders far more serious than dysthemia (like my aforementioned friend) can choose not to. I think, however, that it's a salient point that the choice exists at all. In the past, if you were crazy, then that was it. You were crazy, end of story. Either you died young, or became an artist of some sort, or (often) both. Happiness wasn't an option that was presented to you. These days, however, the young artist is offered a choice by society, one similar to the choice offered Achilles: a life of mundane, medicated contentment that will never amount to anything particularly memorable, or a life wracked by mental pain and occasional derangement that gives a shot at greatness.

No doubt many will choose the former. Others, however, will choose to suffer for their art, and their art may be the better for it, as they will have chosen that state instead of having it forced upon them by the great genetic crapshoot.

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