The figure of the ‘mad artist’ is frequent and often immortal in western culture. Misunderstood and undervalued while they live, those labelled with the term ‘mad artist’ have been simultaneously marginalised and romanticised. What can our treatment and understanding of these people tell us about our cultural conceptualisation of mental health?
You only have to look at a few artists and writers who fall under this infamous title to immediately see they are some of the most well known and loved around the world, from Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch to Sylvia Plath and William Blake.
William Blake is a complex historical figure. From his unique version of religion, how he related to himself and the world and his persistent visions. All make him a fascinating person to focus on when discussing the ‘mad artist’ and how our attitudes towards this figure has changed vastly over the centuries.
Throughout his 69 years of life, between the 18th and 19th century Blake experienced visions of angels, deceased relatives, faeries, devils and even the occasional prophetic vision or thought. In the long list of well-known British poets and artists, Blake is quite unique.
Blake didn’t attend school for any long period, wasn’t gifted with bohemian or artistic parents such as the Rossetti’s of the Romantic era, he was the son of a shopkeeper and spent his childhood developing his own way of understanding and interpreting the Bible and Greek Myth.
Blake’s visions began from a young age, possibly as early as four. However, one of the first most notable mentions of his visions comes from when he was eight. The young Blake recounted the vision to his father of a tree that was filled with angels.
On Blake’s famous and elaborate religious visions, the poet William Wordsworth was quoted as saying, “There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott.”
This comment from Wordsworth encapsulates much of the fascination we have with these highly creative, sometimes controversial artistic figures
William Blake’s works, from ‘Innocence and Experience’, ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Milton’ have become the source of infinite inspiration for many writers, scholars and creatives with boundless opportunities to learn new perspectives.
One of these people is writer, John Higgs. Higgs, an English writer, journalist and cultural historian and is known particularly for his works on artists, writers and activists from our ‘counterculture’.
This year he has published ‘William Blake vs The world’, a diverse look at Blake’s works, mythology, thinking, mind, inspirations and politics through philosophical understanding, neurobiology and even quantum mechanics.
We spoke to Higgs about the book’s perspective on Blake’s mental health, how this relates to cultural ideas of madness during his time versus the mental health awareness of the modern world and what Blake’s expansive mind can teach us.
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Was there something you found in the research or writing of your book that was particularly inspiring or interesting?
“In a letter, Blake confessed that he had recently “fallen into a deep pit of melancholy, melancholy without any good reason, a disease which God keep you from & all good men.” I think that many people who have experienced periods of depression will be able to relate to what Blake was saying here.
“I find it interesting that he recognises his experience as a disease…This feels very modern…But it was not that long ago when such a confession would have been unusual, thanks to the stigma around depression in the twentieth century. It’s a reminder that how these things are perceived changes over time - and that we can go backwards as well as forwards.”
Do you think the vastly differing interpretations of Blake’s mind from then to now can teach us how to see ‘madness’, reality, psychiatry, and its labels in a more fluid way? How?
“Blake lived at a time when we were only just starting to move towards our modern scientific understanding of mental health, and so it can seem shocking to us just how little they knew, and how mental health was perceived back then. For example, when a patient was being admitted to the infamous Bedlam hospital, the extent of their diagnosis was to simply declare whether they were ‘melancholy, raving or mischievous’.
“If we can learn anything from this, it is that our models and labels of mental health issues only show our current level of understanding – and that we should keep talking and discussing, with the hope of constantly improving them.”
In ‘William Blake vs The World’ Higgs discusses the fact that many Blake scholars, find notions of his ‘madness’ controversial and ultimately that it was used to frame his works as less valuable. We asked him about why he thinks this is the case, especially when compared to the romanticisation of figures such as Van Gogh, whose ‘madness’ is seen as ‘an essential aspect’ of his work as Higgs puts it.
“Claims of ‘madness’ were used to dismiss Blake’s work in his lifetime - the single review he received for his one-man exhibition referred to him as an “unfortunate lunatic”, for example. A lot of his work can initially seem impenetrable…early scholars who began to make sense of his work and discovered the great beauty and insights that it contained - would often make a point of insisting that Blake was not mad.
“I think we’re now at a point where we no longer have to do this…the brilliance of Blake’s work is generally accepted. This means that we can now talk about the period of poor mental health he experienced around the beginning of the nineteenth century, and not worry that this will be used to as an excuse to devalue or dismiss his work or his insights.”
Blake’s own singular views on imagination, states of being and seeing, his spirituality and his relationship with god clearly influenced his visions and what was perceived to be his ‘madness’.
In his book, Higgs delves into this and to great effect. We asked him about how Blake’s own unique worldview and state of mind can help us to understand more, keep an open mind and feel more connected to the universe.
“What’s so extraordinary about Blake’s worldview is how hard it is to map onto our existing set of philosophies or religions. He wasn’t sent to school as a child and was not taught to think or rationalise the world in any standard ways. His personal ‘reality tunnel’, then, was genuine – it was the product of a unique mind encountering the world and not being limited to how he was expected to perceive it.
“That the poetry and painting he then created appears so transcendent and affects us so deeply suggests that there is a form of truth in what he was trying to tell us – and that our own perceptions of the universe are far from complete. These are issues that directly relate to our understanding of our place in the universe, and what it means to be human, so it is perhaps not surprising that reading Blake can have a significant impact on how we see ourselves, and consequently on our quality of life.
“He is basically showing us that the mental models of the world that the rational part of our minds creates are not the full picture – that they are limited, incomplete and finite, which is why they often appear meaningless.”
In Chapter 12, of the book Higgs introduces the idea of mental health and ‘madness’ as a fluid thing, that is reactive to the societal context at the time. Higgs makes mention of the fact that many historians believe that societal changes such as the industrial revolution, empire and ‘a more scientific, rational worldview’ had a negative impact on people’s mental health, something that could have lead to the rise in numbers of people sent to lunatic asylums of the day such as Bedlam hospital in London.
The development of this scientific and rational state of mind meant that many who may have been previously seen as devoutly religious or close to god were now considered as ‘mad’
Early on in ‘William Blake vs The World’ John Higgs explores the possibility that Blake could have been experiencing an intense form of hyperphantasia that lead to what he interpreted as visions. Hyperphantasia has only in the last five years been more thoroughly researched and understood more due to interest in ‘the mind’s eye’ and its possible connections to consciousness.
The fact that this condition alone has been able to give William Blake scholars such as Higgs a new perspective on Blake’s fascinating mind proves that the reality in which a ‘sane’, ‘healthy’ or simply ‘imaginative’ mind exists is relative, and ever changing.
Rounding off our discussion on Blake, Higgs said, “Blake can lift us out of our mental ruts and rescue us from the dead ends we find ourselves in, he show us that there is more out there if we are prepared to perceive it. I can only speak for myself here, but I find this to be powerful medicine.”