A Short Piece

Why Do Madness and Genius Like to Tango?

Shouldn’t they share an inverse relationship?

Photo by Ralph (Ravi) Kayden

It’s a cliché now, associating genius and madness: the market is saturated with movies and shows about it. The Queen’s Gambit, PI, Whiplash — I could go on. Why does this stereotype resonate? Well, because Nikola Tesla seems to have loved a pigeon and John Nash developed schizophrenia — the stereotype is backed by evidence. But isn’t that strange? If genius is the ability to reason, and madness the inability to reason, shouldn’t they share an inverse relationship versus correlate?

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Well, the conflation of “true” and “rational” might be throwing us off, which I think could actually contribute to misdiagnosis and poor mental health treatment. If we don’t understand that madness is found in unbound rationality, not the lack of rationality, then we’ll think the solution is more rationality, when more rationality could make it worse. Also, by conflating “rational” and “true,” it doesn’t even dawn on us that anything does or even could “bind” rationality, because we think that if something is rational, it stands by itself as true.

(Moving forward, I will focus on schizophrenia, but I believe the points I make about it can apply to mental illness in general, even if not to every case of mental illness.)

As found in A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar, Louis A. Sass explains that schizophrenia is

not an escape from reason but an exacerbation of that thoroughgoing illness Dostoevsky imagined…at least in some of its forms…a heightening rather than a dimming of conscious awareness, and an alienation not from reason but from emotion, instincts and the will.’¹

I think this is critical and can help us solve the mystery. Deleuze is the great philosopher of schizophrenia, who saw potential for approaching politics anew through a way of thinking that wasn’t bound by any rigid structures, metaphors, and/or predictable associations. Personally, please note that I have no trouble with “stepping into a schizophrenic mindset” for discovering new possibilities, inspiring creativity, and the like, but to allude to “Belonging Again,” I think if doing this requires us to destroy “givens,” then this is a mindset that we cannot step into without losing the capacity to go back, which could be dangerous. Why? Because then we’ll end up like Tesla and Nash — brilliant and ruined. Yes, we’ll burn out gloriously, but we’ll indeed burn out.²

Anyway, what we learn from Deleuze is that schizophrenia makes possible radical creativity, and if it’s true that genius is more of a result of creativity than analytical ability (a key assumption here, though by no means to I mean analytical ability isn’t needed at all), then genius must flirt with going too far to go anywhere worth going at all.³ It must try to reach beyond the “givens” of the day, but if the genius does this, the genius must flirt with “the earth unchaining from the sun” (to allude to Nietzsche) and/or a “Pynchon Risk” (as discussed in “The Conflict of Mind”). In other words, to break new grounds, geniuses must question the grounds on which they stand.⁴

Genius requires risk, but how can we assure this risk doesn’t go too far? It’s almost as if many great minds went through genius into madness — how can we get great minds to stop themselves earlier (like an investor or gambler who needs to stop while they’re ahead — and please note that, given habits, this is very hard to do)? Well, being embedded in a “common life” helps, but also this suggests the critical importance of “mental models,” epistemology, learning how to think, and, critically, the importance of not conflating “rational” and “true.”

Confronted about one of his conspiracies involving aliens, John Nash claimed that ‘the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously.’⁵ This is paramount: the way madness and genius enter a human mind can be identical. It is convenient, and perhaps a hangover of the Enlightenment (and evidence of our erroneous commitment to “autonomous rationality”), for us to believe that madness develops where there is a lack of thought: if we accepted mental health could be ruined by an overabundance of rationality, well, everything would become much more difficult and complex.

We seemingly need rationality to have the possibility of being “autonomous”; we need to believe that problems develop from a lack of rationality. If it’s possible for rationality itself to cause madness, then we have to learn to handle rationality and abandon the idea that an “enlightened society” of fully rational people will necessarily be “the best of all possible worlds.” In the name of keeping this dream, we have perhaps been uneager to identify the similar cause of madness and genius: (unbound) rationality. We seemingly want to believe rationality cannot go too far, that there is no need for “checks and balances” or skepticism that anything which “unleashes rationality” (like the effacement of “givens”) could possibly turn out for the worst. Desperately, we don’t want to consider the possibility that the world today feels crazy precisely thanks to our efforts to make it brilliant.

But is that true? Don’t we associate madness and genius together? Yes, but we associate the madness with the eccentricity of the genius, and furthermore tend to think that the genius goes crazy because their rationality breaks, not because their rationality is unbound. This is a technical distinction that makes all the difference in the world: we tend to think geniuses use their brains so hard that their brains stop working, that the madness develops from a breakdown, when the exact opposite can be the case. Really, the madness results from the rationality working beyond “givens” and/or “truths,” meaning the rationality doesn’t break but goes “too far.” Generally, the very possibility of rationality “going too far” isn’t even a category in our Post-Enlightenment minds: we have ignored David Hume and the Scottish Enlightenment, and as result, due to misunderstanding, caused unnecessary suffering with mental illness.

Certainly, we need more rationality in the world today, but we cannot be certain that rationality alone will save us. Handling rationality is a much more difficult prospect than just gaining rationality, precisely because it is so hard to get people to even think in the first place, let alone “think about thinking.” Furthermore, all we have for learning how to handle rationality is rationality — a problem that seems circular and daunting. But since “rational” and “true” are not similes — a topic explored countless times in O.G. Rose — since I can think it is going to rain today and rationally bring an umbrella, only for it not to rain (suggesting I was “rational” and “wrong”) — learning to handle “rationality with rationality” is indeed possible, for I can handle one set of “truth and corresponding rationality” with a different set (x1 with x2, per se).⁶ Furthermore, there are “(un)rational” (versus “irrational”) ways of knowing — aesthetics, experience, emotions, etc. — and, generally, the problem with geniuses who go mad is that they seem to be out of balance with multiple ways of knowing.⁷

The fact genius and madness go together suggests that “true” and “rationality” are not similes, that the dream of “autonomous rationality” should die, and that “rationality” needs to be bound by “givens,” “truths,” and “(un)rational ways of knowing” to keep itself from becoming self-destructive. Furthermore, the role of “givens” becomes clearer and seemingly necessary, which would suggest a truly “just” society that doesn’t require restriction for “belonging” is impossible (the majority would go mad) — a hard pill to swallow.

Considering this, we want to be able to recognize that genius and madness correlate (we practical have no choice, the evidence so undeniable) without recognizing a causal relation. This is not to say every instance of mental illness is a result of “unbound rationality,” but it is to say some are, and that alone can kill our ideals.

As a result, to keep believing in the goodness and possibility of “autonomous rationality” — to avoid the difficulty and challenge that giving up that dream would cause us — we misinterpret the mentally ill as lacking rationality, because interpreting them correctly would require us to acknowledge the impossibility of our dream. We sacrifice the mentally ill to our Enlightenment deity, and in this way treat the mentally ill as “scapegoats” to avoid facing the reality that “autonomous rationality” isn’t possible and to keep believing in its possibility. Worse yet, we in fact use the mentally ill as evidence we need “autonomous rationality,” for we define “mental illness” as a result of broken rationality, not an overabundance.

If we properly interpreted mental illness, we could better treat it, but instead we make the mentally ill the subjects of a Girardian “sacred violence” to hold together our society. This is because our world is organized assuming the possibility of “autonomous rationality”: if the mentally ill were not scapegoated and used to affirm our world, the foundations and goals of our society would have to shift (from “bad philosophy” to “good philosophy,” to allude to Hume). But scapegoating is wrong even if it is done indirectly to maintain hope in a world where “givens” aren’t needed and yet “belonging” still possible for everyone. Every dreamer must pay a price, not the mentally ill.

What’s to be done then? Accept the injustices of “givens?” Well, to address that question, we’ll have to turn to the essay “Beauty Saves.”

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Notes

¹Nasar, Sylvia. A Beautiful Mind. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1998: 18.

²For me, Deleuze suggests a society that risks falling into Pynchonian madness. I don’t deny that this might be the only fully “just” society, but I also question if it is possible for this risk to be taken without proving disastrous (with Philip Rieff in mind). But would it be unjust not to take this risk, and isn’t it easy for the privileged to claim the risk “isn’t worth it” (which could secure their privilege)? Indeed, that’s “the tragedy of us”: it is not written in cosmic stone that the values of justice and freedom must coalesce.

³Consider the biographies of Walter Isaacson, which for me suggest that the brilliance of Einstein was primarily his ability to imagine a clocktower at the speed of light, that the interdisciplinary approaches of Newtown and Franklin unlocked their minds, and that the generalist capacity of Jobs to combine design and hardware is why Jobs changed his field forever.

⁴If that “ground” vanishes, the genius could fall forever, or they might land on “new ground” which few people occupy, contributing to loneliness, which could contribute to madness. Also, geniuses are habituated to questioning the ground on which they stand, so it’s likely they’ll eventually start questioning the “new ground” until they begin to fall — and so the cycle will repeat over and over again. If a genius isn’t “falling,” they’ll likely to feel uncomfortable, but if they’re “falling,” they could be losing their minds (a dilemma which suggests the problem of “autonomous reasoning,” as discussed in “Deconstructing Common Life”). If under Pluralism everyone is forced to live like a genius (as suggested in “Belonging Again”), regardless if they have the capacity or not, then everyone will be in this dilemma, which could make totalitarianism appealing to solve it.

⁵Nasar, Sylvia. A Beautiful Mind. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1998: 11.

⁶Considering this, I don’t deny Deleuze has a point: the mentally ill might be able to access different “sets” (x9910, y43, etc.) that otherwise would never be accessed, and this could open up creative possibilities. But where Deleuze goes too far is if he denied the need for “givens” at all, a mistake I find Hegel less likely to make, as discussed in “Beauty Saves” by O.G. Rose.

⁷It’s like their portfolio is under-diversified, which works great when the market favors the one stock they’ve invested heavily in but works terribly if the market turns on that stock pick — there’s no protection.

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