Crazy for you

Psychosis - Roy Porter welcomes the demise of the mad genius

For those of us who are meant to be sane, these are disturbing times in which to confront mental illness. Amid claims and counter-claims, we are doubly confused about what it is, and how it should be tackled. The long- standard asylum "solution" was finally discredited in the public mind in the 1960s, thanks in part to anti-psychiatry (R D Laing and Co). But with all the shortcomings of "community care", how sure can we be that the supportive baby wasn't thrown out with the bathwater? And these days, psychoanalysis, that great master theory of the 20th century, seems to be going the way of the asylum. The Freudian couch is visibly collapsing under the weight of its theoretical fantasies, jargon and scandals.

For their part, the biological psychiatrists, now securely in the saddle, keep on assuring us that the key to craziness will be found tomorrow in the wiring of the brain or the much-hyped gene for schizophrenia. But the cash value for sufferers of such promissory notes remains to be seen. In view of all this, the cynicism about psychiatry so prevalent in culture today - think of Fay Weldon's fictions or recent plays such as Blue/Orange (Joe Penhall) - has come to seem normal.

Psychiatric disorders are endemic and proliferating, not only in the home and on the streets, but also in the collective professional consciousness. Published in 1952, the first edition of the American Psychiatric Association's diagnostic manual was a slim 134 pages; the latest revision of that bible runs to a staggering 943, so many new mutations has disturbance undergone. Now we are told that one in three of us will need psychiatric help during our lifetime.

In this dispiriting climate, long-held cultural convictions about madness are falling apart. The west has always viewed insanity not just as a disease, but as a potential gift. Christian teachings prized the holy fool, and taught that the Holy Ghost revealed spiritual truths in prophetic dreams to the divinely mad. For its part, Platonism saw the mad artist as being inspired with visions transcending the realm of the senses. Ancient medicine, too, held that melancholy - that is, a surplus of the black bile humour - begat the genius: a moody, broody, idiosyncratic outsider.

All such views found classic expression in the gloomy Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) - the only book, the depressive Samuel Johnson told Boswell, that ever got him out of bed two hours earlier than he wished. Creative madness pervades the 18th century in the poetry of Kit Smart, Thomas Gray and William Cowper, and it won a new lease of life with Romanticism. William Blake, the visionary, gloried in the guise of the mad artist, recording a dream in which Cowper himself "came to me and said: 'O that I were insane always. I will never rest. Can you not make me truly insane?'"

In its turn, the fin de siecle brought a further twist: the persona of the "degenerate", the bohemian writer or artist in whom physical and mental sickness - typically induced by absinthe or opium - fired the creative blaze. Friedrich Nietzsche was the quintessence of the syphilis-tormented genius - and the model for the (anti-)hero of Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus. Martyred by the world, Nijinsky turned his madness to dance, while the poet/artist Antonin Artaud was (to use his own term for Van Gogh) "suicided" by society.

Such figures have not been unknown in more recent generations: think of Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath, whose Bell Jar portrayed electroconvulsive therapy as both a shocking assault and the spur to her poetic voice. But, for better or worse, this positive tradition ("good madness") is on the way out.

In part, this collapse signals postmodern disenchantment. It is with the deepest scepticism that the ironic, anti-Romantic mood of today approaches a genre so obviously morbid. How sick and self-indulgent to glamorise suffering in the cause of art! The writing that has emerged from Aids has been mercifully free from the egotistic posturing that the old "mad genius" image bred. The waning of a myth so conducive to exhibitionism and voyeurism must be a welcome contribution to the demystification of creativity.

The demise of the mad genius is also a product of developments on the psychiatric front. Virginia Woolf presciently resisted the impertinent claims of psychoanalysis to omniscience: Sigmund Freud's anatomy of the unconscious would dry up the wellsprings of creativity. More positively, psychotherapy has probably diverted much that would otherwise have been sublimated into fiction, and spared us a deluge of third-rate outpourings.

Visionary art has suffered a similar fate. The mad painters who produced fantastic images in earlier centuries - think of Richard Dadd - may nowadays be taught to draw according to the benign expectations of art therapy. The eccentric imagination has thereby been routinised into a tradition, maybe in an echo of how hysterical patients at the Salpetriere Hospital in Paris in the 1870s learnt how to "enact" their disorder under the baton of Freud's teacher Jean Martin Charcot, that "Napoleon of neuroses".

Today, drug fixes may or may not deprive us of works of transcendent originality. But with pains being chemically palliated and sufferers normalised out of chaotic genius, such developments will surely speed the decline of the once modish conceit of mental torment as the crucible of creativity.

A new genre is taking its place. Supplanting the model of mad genius expressing itself in sublime Blakeian visions, the confessional mode is now to the fore. Documentary accounts are appearing thick and fast: how I cracked up, or learnt to cope with depression. The offerings can be piercingly raw. Kay Jamison's Touched with Fire (1993) and Night Falls Fast (1999) are candid and partly autobiographical accounts of manic-depressive illness and suicidal urges; Fiona Shaw's Out of Me (1997) records being burnt out with puerperal insanity.

Other instances read more like apologies for self-pity. Andrew Solomon's The Noonday Demon, which came out last year, offered a maudlin "anatomy of depression" that chronicled the suffering of a wealthy New Yorker who had enjoyed a gilded youth. If Solomon deserves credit for his honesty, his book holds out no great assurance that the solipsism of depression alone is sufficient basis for insight (perhaps he was still too heavily medicated when he wrote).

We can count it a breakthrough, and a triumph of frankness over the formulaic, if tormented souls no longer feel driven to whip and rack themselves to produce works in the "mad genius" mould. The loss may be cause for relief, but it is disorienting all the same to our ways of thinking about madness.

Roy Porter's Madness: a brief history is published by Oxford University Press (£11.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2002 issue of the New Statesman, The unusual suspects