“The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / are of imagination all compact.” This famous claim from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a sort of self-diagnosis of the possible relationship between madness and artistic creativity. It is a relationship that also evidences the structural ambiguity of imagination, poised between these two often coexisting conditions.
Creativity, especially if we consider its many achievements, seems at first glance antithetical to madness. Even in the mystery of its appearance, to bear fruit requires knowledge, expressive technique, mastery of language, perseverance, even a form of asceticism and sacrifice. All are aspects that seem to dissolve in madness.
Yet the tendency to associate madness with creativity has been present since ancient times. Many Greek poems are dedicated to Dionysus (the god of impulsive and irrational intoxication). Plato sees the origin of poetry and philosophy in “a type of invasion and mania that comes from the Muses […]. Whoever arrives at the gates of poetry without the mania of the Muses, thinking that he will be a good poet as a result of art, remains incomplete.” To Aristotle is attributed the saying: “There has never been genius without a little madness.” During the romantic period the association became increasingly frequent, and it became the subject of specific investigations from the 20th century, when psychology and psychiatry begin to study the characteristics of creative people.