In the past few days, possibly because I'm studying for an exam in French Literature, I keep coming across these people whose mental illnesses appear to have played a major part in their creativity – which is to say, in their identity and their life.
You hear this said about these Van Gogh types sometimes – they were brilliant, but they were miserable, or their misery would contribute to and be assuaged by their beautiful creations. It always seemed a bit off to me, because what was the point of devoting yourself to art, if it had nothing to do with happiness?
The specific example running through my mind is of Robert M. Pirsig. After many years of persistent nagging, my younger brother has finally relented and begun reading his quasi-autobiographical Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Today he pointed out, quite rightly, that its protagonist wasn't really very Zen.
Which led me to think that what he is, actually, is an artist. Even before writing his two books, while he was a technical writer and university teacher and whatnot; he was an artist simply by virtue of his wanting to do things properly – critically, non-conventionally – in an insistence that put him at odds with society. Giving up this struggle, this criticism, to try and fall in line with convention was what made him bitter, torn, deadened; engaging in it essentially just made him rejected.
Rejection is unpleasant, and a much bigger deal than the platitudes would have you think in any case, but I don’t think it can hold a candle to the experience of being subjected to industrial processing.
Both experiences count as mental illness, in principle. If you stray too far and if you suffer too much you're a whack job, but in both cases your experiences would make fascinating fodder for aficionados if rendered properly.
William S. Burroughs seems to have considered his homosexuality and drug-addiction equally parts of this, as maladaptive and invigorating aspects of his life and personality. One more piece in a long chain of evidence that seems to suggest that if you want to not suck, it is inevitable that you get into quite serious conflict with those who do.
Art is an arena, or institution, where this antagonistic conduct is relatively tolerated; sometimes more or less encouraged – which may be why those are the weirdos and freaks we remember and revere, but it's fully possible that the forgotten others, in less obliging professional circumstances, led tense but fulfilling lives as well.
Sometimes, of course, art doesn't seem to have ultimately been enough. Van Gogh really seems to have been pretty comprehensively miserable (do does Cobain, who for some reason I keep thinking of when I think of Van Gogh); Flaubert, if the introductory note I read about him can be believed, on top of everything else gone wrong in his life, in the tyrannical self-discipline as well as the unpleasant subject matter involved in writing Madame Bovary, made himself so miserable he grew to resent its success.
On the other hand, there are these Zen monks, and Taoist types, presumably, who claim to be happy through a different kind of non-conformism. So what is the Zen way to maintain your motorcycle? It doesn't have to be about calm – because who the fuck is ever calm anyway? - but if you're doing things properly, I think you should be able to feel the exultation that comes from being free of bullshit, even if people around you are calling you names. Or hospitalising you.