Friday, August 30, 2013

Wagner Tripping - Talks on Wagner and The Ring

Well, the Ring is over and we are on the drive back home. In general, Seattle’s production was wonderful. I have my quibbles with it, but then I know there can be no such thing as a perfect Ring. Not that people aren’t looking for one; in fact, the quest to see such a thing drives Wagnerians to productions all over the world, but the quest is as illusive as chasing the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

However, as I mentioned last week, Seattle Opera has a wonderful opera education program, which greatly enriches the immersive experience of a Ring festival. While their education program in general is multi-faceted, particularly focused on youth, it is their adult education as I have experienced it at their Ring cycles that I want to highlight. I cannot imagine that any opera house in the world exceeds their standard.  So now I am going to write a bit about their educators, and then provide a contrast with less effective educators.

Speight Jenkins

Before Speight Jenkins was General Director at Seattle Opera, he was first a guest lecturer. His knowledge of and passion for Wagner so impressed the Board of Directors of the Opera house that they asked him to leave his post as the New York Post music critic to lead their company. Among many other plans to improve Seattle Opera, his vision was to create an opera education program that would inspire people to really want to go to the opera because it sounded so damn wonderful and fun (and would make some money to offset the venture at the same time). Speight provided these lectures on Wagner’s Ring early in his tenure, which were fun and folksy—his Texas twang helping that along—with captivating descriptions of the cycle. While these talks are out now of circulation and are very expensive at Amazon, if you are interested in hearing them, let me know and I can provide a copy.  This review hits the nail on the head.


Leslie took this photo of Speight at his 
"greeting spot" while I was passing by.

Speight has been at the helm of the Seattle Opera now for 30 years and has done a great job in moving Seattle from a small, regional company to one of international prominence, particularly via the most recent production of the Ring cycle. He is retiring at the end of next season, so this was his last hurrah, and he received a fitting send-off. After the last opera of the last of the three cycles was over, the cast and creative team was cheered strongly, with lots of the audience on their feet, but others, like me, remained seated, preferring to hold standing ovations for those rare and extraordinary moments when they feel compelled out of my seat. When Speight was called to the stage, it was such a moment. The entire audience erupted in a true, hearty and Wagnerian-length standing ovation to honor the job that he has done. It was a lovely tribute.1


“We must start creating and sharing Art that gives people a glimpse of God's Beauty and inspires people to live lives of Goodness and Truth!” - Perry Lorenzo from a comment within his blog

“Only Perry could make someone go from knowing nothing about opera, to not only loving opera but loving WAGNER.” - Former student of Perry's (in a eulogy)


The late, wonderful Perry Lorenzo
Speight lured Perry Lorenzo from his job as a well-regarded high school teacher to take over the educational program at the Seattle Opera in 1992, and he served as the head of the initiative—and chief lecturer—for 20 years until his sad and untimely death of cancer at age of 51 in 2009.  In this eulogy, Jenkins writes:

He took a fledgling Education program at Seattle Opera and expanded it exponentially, drawing to him a devoted core of speakers and discussing opera in many forums. He worked with students in many communities all over the state as well as in the Seattle area. At Woodinville High School, for example, he was well known as the “Opera Guy.” 

Perry was a great speaker, and seemed like a really great guy. I raptly listened to his lectures when I first arrived in 2001 and, again in 2005, when I dragged Leslie and her parents along to see him speak. The lectures were three hours per opera, so along with the 15 hours2 of actually watching the Ring, I happily spent another 12 hours listening to Perry talk about the Ring. And we each paid $100 to do so.

From all reports, he was an amazing man. Here is a typical online memorial from one student about him:

I have known Perry Lorenzo since 1990 when I became a member of the debate team he coached and later a student in his Humanities class at John F Kennedy Memorial High School in Burien. Words cannot describe his quality as a teacher and a person, but those who experienced him know how inspiring he was. He made the ordinary extraordinary and the extraordinary sublime.

And another:

Perry had coached the debate team at Kennedy and I was a competing high school debater from another Puget Sound high school. In a testament to his remarkable humanity, even as a coach of a competing team he reached out and supported me and my teammates over the years... Funny thing, I'm sure at least a thousand people felt equally loved and encouraged by Perry.

Perry Lorenzo is a legend. A man of remarkable depth: intellectual, spiritual, artistic and humane. May his memory live as a blessing and a challenge to all of us, in all of our dimensions, to strive for excellence, compassion, encouragement, love and artistic beauty.

Perry was an intellectual, and his lectures drew from a vast knowledge of art and literature. That said, there is nothing in them that is a bit snobby or pretentious. He was also a devout Catholic, and though his talks were inspired by his faith, there was nothing in them that was off-putting to me, an atheist. His belief in God’s divine presence in art was at the heart of his passion, and I found it moving in spite of my lack of such faith. He wrote this blog to explore his religious, artistic passions.

As Perry explained in his blog, the starting point for his analysis of art is: “The famous Analogy of Being sings that all Being shares four common aspects, characteristics, attributes--Unity, Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.” In this post he gives an example of his process:

Take, for example, the experience of the Beauty of a poem. We could enjoy forever beholding that poem, being dazzled by its clarity, being amazed by its structure and stricture, being healed and harmonized by its balance and daring, its symmetry and sublime expression. 
 
But then, we might venture further---how is the Beauty of the poem Good or True? How does the poem give us a glimpse of the way things really are? How does the poem ennoble human action? Does the poem inspire us? Inspire us to what? 

 
And further, how does the poem draw us, almost by a kind of erotic attraction, to the Unity of things?

His lectures, then, were informed by this approach: seeking and finding the truth, goodness and beauty in Wagner, and ultimately the unity of things within in it. At the same time, he also made clear that the Ring could also be just great entertainment, a “swell time at the theater,” he liked to say. But he was drawn to the work for reasons much deeper, and he tries to pull people into his sublime experience through this more profound route.

While his blog is, ultimately, too Catholic for my taste to explore in depth, if you happen to be a Catholic who loves art, I absolutely recommend it to you. Nonetheless, I do think his methods of exploring issues of “truth, goodness and beauty” in art are profoundly right. I don’t end up with God as he does, but I do come equally to the unity of all things. And I believe the importance he placed on art in getting to Truth (writ large) is absolutely correct. While we might all differ somewhat on what the ultimate truth is, in this quest, Perry, I and Wagner are one.

A shorten version of his lectures, focusing on broad questions and themes in the Ring, can be bought here.

There is one final thing I want to say about Perry. In this obituary, the Seattle Times writes:

Paul Hearn of Seattle, Mr. Lorenzo's longtime companion, said they met when Mr. Lorenzo gave a lecture at the University of Washington 13 years ago. Though Hearn was not Catholic, their first date was to St. James, he said. Hearn said Mr. Lorenzo brought him to the Catholic Church and broadened his appreciation of opera. The two would pray together and do morning liturgies. "We were monks in love," he said.

In case that wasn’t clear:  Perry was a chaste gay man, believing his church’s teaching that homosexual sexual expression—though not homosexual love—was a sin. There is a fascinating debate among Catholics on this issue in terms of Perry on the internet. It starts here with a blog post from a well-known Catholic blogger, Mark Shea, along with the follow-up comments.  He said that he felt Perry was both a “gay man” and a “saint” led, which to a lot of fierce debate. Shea then followed-up with another post on the debate itself, here. I must note that Mark Shea absolutely is against gay marriage, gay adoption, etc. So, we are not talking about a left-leaning Catholic here, but instead a debate among more conservative Catholics on issues of being gay.

I am so far from Catholic—and very far from thinking of sex as a sin—that I find this weird on many levels. That said, his abilities as an opera speaker had everything to do with his intense passion which stemmed from his belief in God and his church. So I love it, and respect it, at the same time.

Perry Lorenzo: A great man, a great speaker, and gone much too young.


Sue Elliot was hired in 2010 to follow in Lorenzo’s huge footsteps. We once again paid to see the three-hour-a-day lecture series, trusting that Seattle would hire someone worthy of the position. I can now report that without doubt she is no Perry Lorenzo; she is completely Sue Elliot, utterly delightful and completely following her own path. A gotta tell you, of all the people I have met who work at Seattle Opera, she has catapulted to the top as my favorite. I even like her better than Myrna Mishmash, the gal who used to get money out of me for Seattle Opera.


Leslie took this photo as Sue was leaving the Opera House
Where Perry’s lectures were very organized, with broad themes and points to be made, Sue’s are down-to-earth, much more scattershot, and very interesting and fun. She spent a good amount of time on deconstruction of small sections of the Ring, to show the ways in which Wagner made his musical effects which “broke all the rules” of the time. She geared the lecture to non-musicians like myself, working on ways for us to grasp musical concepts easily, trying to find effective analogies. I am not going to explain how she worked this into the lecture:



But anyone who manages to find a logical way to include Endora in a lecture gets an A from me.  (To make her musical point, she was actually showing the clip to use Uncle Arthur for the analogy, but I am a big fan of Agnes Moorehead who played Endora.)

Sue also gave a lot of insider information about the staging. So, for instance, we learned that to train Grane—Brunnhilde’s horse; they use a real live one—they first start by blasting Wagner’s music in its stall weeks before the performance. Lucky horse! (Oh, that reminds me of something my brother Russ wanted me to mention about his alma mater, Cal Tech. This is a little loosely related trivia. Did you know that every final’s week each morning at 7 AM sharp, the "Ride of the Valkyries" is blasted through the sound system as a kind of reveille? Now you do!  You can read about that tradition here.)

Sue also touched on many other aspects of the Ring, such as its broad themes, instrumentation, Wagner’s composition history, and so forth. Like I said, a little scattershot, but very effective.

Next time they do a Ring cycle, I might not pay to go to the opera, but I would still pay to listen to her lectures. Actually “lectures” seems too regimented a term for her presentations. “Guiding thoughts for your own exploration” might be a better, if too-long, description.

Also, I gotta admit that I would be pretty shocked if Sue has a religious blog out there (not that she might not be religious, but that is a different thing), while I wasn’t at all surprised that Perry did. And though I know absolutely nothing about her private life, I would also be surprised if she is in love with someone but yet a long-term celibate. Point being: as much as I liked and respected Perry, Sue seems to be more of my kind of "normal" person.

Good hire, Speight.

Jonathan Dean

Jonathan is yet another one of Seattle Opera's talented stable, though he is no longer one of their speakers. (I did hear him speak in the past, however, and he was also outstanding.) He has another job with Seattle Opera now, but he was very involved with the Ring in that he wrote the excellent subtitles. 

So you can trust their speakers to be good, is the point I am trying to make. Yes, they charge you. Go ahead and pay for it; it’s worth it.


Leslie snapped a shot of me saying hi to Jonathan

In Contrast

Most opera houses do not make you pay for pre-opera talks, and their quality ranges greatly. My experience is that, in general, San Francisco’s opera talks are very poor. The people who do them are often academics, but not the talented ones! I go to them because they are free and I always hope for a good one, but it is pretty rare.

The Los Angeles Opera, on the other hand, has had very good speakers in their free pre-opera talks. For example, their Ring was lousy, but the conductor, the hyper James Conlon, did the talks and I really enjoyed him. On other occasions when I have been there, it has been similar. That said, they aren’t on the Seattle level, keeping the talks too brief for any deep insight.  I'd rather pay the $10 for a pre-opera talk that Seattle charges then go to the free ones that other opera houses offer.

The Great Courses - Wagner series

Even when I don’t care for the talk from an opera, I rarely get mad at the speaker. They just sometimes have dry speakers who have very little of interest to say. But now I want to move on to the the Great Courses series on Richard Wagner featuring Robert Greenberg, which was put out this year to celebrate Wagner's bicentennial. It sucks on virtually all levels.


Robert Greenberg
Before getting into the depth of its dreadfulness, I want to point out the Greenberg is the person the The Great Courses use for their musical series. I had picked up his How to Listen and Understand Great Music course for $5 at a garage sale, and it was generally fine. He makes not-very-funny jokes, but beyond that, I enjoyed them. Thus, when they put out the Wagner series for a fairly low price, I thought it would be a perfect thing to listen to while we were doing this Wagner trip to Seattle.

The problem is that Greenberg has no in-depth understanding of Wagner or his music dramas or his prose writings, and has little understanding or sympathy for the works. The whole enterprise has a first-year college level feel to it, clearly “crammed” and completely lacking in nuance; it has the feel of "cutting and pasting" from a very limited variety of second-hand sources. If you have read a lot about Wagner as I have, you soon learn that nothing written about him should be taken on face-value unless you do the homework and go to the original source. This Greenberg clearly did not do. I know far more about Wagner than he does, and I find it pathetic that the Great Courses would put out such a course given his paucity of knowledge.

You know this saying? A man with one watch knows what time it is; a man with two watches is never quite sure. Greenburg is a man with one watch and it looks like this:

His principal source for his biographical material and analysis is pretty much plucked whole from the one-dimensional and twisted biography, Wagner: the Man, His Mind and His Music by Robert Gutman. This is the “distorted watch” Greenberg rests his course upon. Essentially, it is “junk in, junk out.” (Read here to see the failures of Gutman’s biography.) 

Both Wagner the man,  and the works themselves, are consistently described by Greenberg in a sneering, sarcastic and mocking manner. Any musical analysis—why and how Wagner is so effective at writing music of emotional depth; his use of the orchestra, harmonics, melody, rhythm, silence, and time —is almost completely absent. His excerpt choices are often bizarre, ignoring much that is a “must hear” selection and instead using minor passages. While he repeatedly says that the music is the most important part of the music dramas—a point that is universally acknowledged, including by Wagner himself—he then spends an inordinate amount of time reading libretto text, often without any point being made.

Greenberg often repeats biographical myths or half-truths, and does so in a way that a listener who does not know the biographical material is led astray. He states as FACT (his emphasis) things that are not facts, but conjectures. He consistently exaggerates his material. His understanding of Wagner’s beliefs are often completely wrong. His libretto analysis is generally crude and often without any basis in text or music.

I would love it if there were a full course on Wagner on CD. But this is certainly not it. If you are interested in learning about Wagner, it is far more beneficial to go to one of the available Ring lectures, like Perry’s or Speight’s, as I linked above. Another excellent source is here, where you can download the excellent John Culshaw lecture series about the Ring (probably my favorite of all the Ring analyses) and also a 3-part program about the Ring from the New York Met.

If you want a more general analysis of Wagner and his musical effects on a podcast, I would like to link you again to the wonderful, incisive talk by Nicholas Spice here. (You can also download it as a podcast.) 


End Notes

1. I don’t want to give a too-rosy picture. There were people very critical of Speight’s tenure. And through my many short conversations with him over the years, he showed lots of signs that he was, perhaps, not completely a warm and fuzzy guy. Whatever. I do think he has done a great job, hired great people, and the house is in good artistic shape for the future. It, like all opera houses, has had its financial struggles. Some—like this guy—lay those problems at his feet, due to what they feel are his too-grandiose visions for a small company. Obviously, Wagnerians don’t tend to be too critical of grandiosity.


2 The time for a Ring actually can vary widely. The fastest recorded Ring is about 1 ½ hours shorter then the longest recorded Ring. I don’t have the timings of these with me on this trip, but if anyone wants to know more about this, drop me a note and I will send the information once I am home.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Wagner Tripping - in Seattle

I first conceived this blog on my original car trip to Seattle in 2001 to see the Ring, as I wrote about in my introduction here. This is the final year for this particular production, thus I came to see it for the last time while completing a personal cycle (culminating in the creation of this blog) on this year of Wagner's bicentennial.

This is my third viewing of the Seattle production, plus I have been to four others nationally – two in New York, one in San Francisco and one in Los Angeles. That might seem like a lot, but it barely counts among Wagnerians, for whom traveling to Ring cycles is de rigueur. Here is a picture Leslie took Tuesday of me with Verna, who is a fellow member of The Wagner Society of Northern California (WSNC).  This is her 67th Ring!
Toasting Verna on her 67th Ring cycle.
Wagnerians are analogous to Deadheads in their enthusiasm for traveling around the country, and world, to see performances.  But Wagnerians have been doing it steadily since 1876, so we really are the original trippers.  There are some links between the two sets of travelers, in fact. Within the WSNC, there have been a number of Deadheads who felt there was a similarity between the experiences of both, as Pamela Potter wrote in the quarterly journal Leitmotive:

Wagner and the Grateful Dead demanded the very same attributes from their devotees: a tolerance for very long sequences with very little action, and the understanding that one doesn’t necessarily “get it” on the first encounter, but has to be willing to subject oneself to repeated experiences before fully appreciating the phenomenon.1 

One Wagnerian was Grateful Dead member Phil Lesh—also a one-time member of the WSNC—who convinced the Dead to cancel two concerts so they all could go to a San Francisco production of the Ring in 1988 (My friend Ian, who had tickets to that show, said it totally bummed him out when they cancelled). Jerry Garcia saw three of them, but according to Lesh, In the end Jerry didn't make it back for the final opera of the cycle, having made previous plans to take his daughter Annabelle to see Phil Collins at the Oakland Coliseum. ‘What? I asked when he told me. ‘You're going to pass up Twilight of the Gods for Phil Collins?’; If it was just me - but I promised Annabelle.’”2 

For those who are reading this who don’t know much about the Ring cycle, it consists of four operas in which the power of love is juxtaposed against the love of power, greed and dominance. The love of power tragically gains the upper hand, leading to the downfall of the Gods and society as a whole. However, the heroine Brünnhilde renounces power and embraces love though a self-sacrificing action that leads to a new beginning for the world. Oh yeah, and there is a ring involved. 

The absolutely best way to learn about the Ring while also being greatly entertained (via one of the best comic monologues in history) is to watch Anna Russell. This is the first of three parts; if you haven’t seen it, try this nine minutes. I am sure you will want to go on and watch the other parts once you have seen this much:



Originally—ten years ago—Leslie and I had planned to try to get tickets to the Wagnerian mecca, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in Germany, for their annual festival on this bicentennial year.  But then I decided another trip to Seattle was the better plan. Given the recent uproar—mostly a whole lot of booing—about the new production of the Ring coming out of Bayreuth, I think I made the right choice. 

Simply put, the Seattle Opera is the best place to watch Wagner operas in the United States, and probably the world. This is no accident. Wagner’s music is ingrained in the opera company's history, part of their explicit mission, and the musical passion of their founding director, Glyn Ross, and their second and current general director, Speight Jenkins.  

As a young opera company in 1975, Ross decided to do a very audacious thing, which was to stage the Ring cycle. At that point in the American opera history, there had not been a Ring festival—showing all four operas in the same week— since 1939. Part of the reason was the massive expense to put on the cycle; it had only been done by the major American houses before: Chicago, New York and San Francisco. For a small, very new house—it had been founded in 1963—this was just unprecedented. While some critics grumbled about the production, it was popular. Here (with a excerpt below) the company tells the story of what happened after the initial Ring cycle at Seattle:

That year was so successful that Ross convinced the Seattle Opera Board that the Ring should be repeated, and the audiences and press came from even farther away. Soon the annual summer cycles of the Ring (one in German, one in English) became a tradition and were repeated every year.  The repetition established Seattle Opera worldwide as a Ring center; it did more: it inculcated into the Seattle opera public a liking for Wagner’s works and a familiarity with them that is probably still greater per capita than in any city outside Germany.

The Seattle Opera team agrees with my general view of Wagner, which is that whatever his individual sins and peccadilloes, he composed operas of amazing depth, beauty and humanity, and therefore, productions should reflect these qualities. Wagner constructed his operas in order for the listener to be “knowers through feeling.” That is, he didn’t want the audience to intellectualize the experience but to surrender to the drama, the music. And, indeed, that is exactly when Wagner is at his most profound: when a listener can quiet a thinking brain and, instead, just be in the emotional moment. Therefore, I seek to attend Wagner performances that enhance the ability to do this. This is what Seattle Opera excels at.

In the rest of the world this is decidedly not the trend. Instead, directors impose their vision—and weird visions they frequently are—to trump, circumscribe and comment on Wagner’s works and life. These directors want you to think, and think critically, while listening. I am happy to think about Wagner’s music dramas—and his life—anytime other than when listening. When I listen, with headphones on at home or in a seat in a theater, I just want to feel. In Europe, and increasingly in America, what many call "Eurotrash"—closely linked to what is called regietheater—has conquered.3  Even Bayreuth has completely succumbed; Alex Ross, in the most recent New Yorker, describes the new Ring production that generated what is being termed the “boo-vation” as “a sprawling act of operatic Dadaism that falls between Buñuel and South Park.” Yep, that sounds like now-classic Eurotrash. 

Here is a photo from the Bayreuth Siegfried set that give you a little flavor of Eurotrash:



In contrast, here is the set for the same scene from the Seattle Opera, which is set in a forest as it was in the original production.



Speight Jenkins, who was an opera journalist before his 25-year stint as general director, has turned Seattle into one of the premier opera companies of America, and the envy of other opera houses. The city of Seattle has the highest per capita attendance of any opera house in America, and the opera house draws its audience from every state and many countries (people came from 22 different countries for this Ring cycle). Part of the reason, of course, is certainly their thoughtful, intelligent and emotional productions. But they have other draws, too. They are a very intimate company; they try to make their patrons feel like part of a big family. Speight greets you personally as you enter the opera house for both the lectures and the operas.
Here Speight greets me in my finest for the Rheingold lecture. 
At the end of each opera, he comes on stage and will answer any question that comes his way. He is the model for all the rest of the company, as every staff member I have ever interacted with over the years has been wonderful. Hell, I ended up with a personal relationship with the woman who called seeking donations from Seattle.  She—sadly—no longer works for the opera, but I used to look forward to my yearly calls from Myrna Mishmash—what a great name, right?—to catch up on life at Seattle Opera. Clearly, an opera company is doing something right if you look forward to their fund-raisers calling you.

The real thing that puts Seattle Opera above all other companies is their commitment to education, both for children and for adults. While most companies have an education component to try to introduce opera to those who are new to it, Seattle’s outreach is just spectacular in terms of quantity and, most particularly, quality. I come here as much for their lecture series as for the operas themselves, which is saying quite a lot. I will write about that more next week.

A little tidbit: the staff gets a paid holiday to celebrate Wagner’s birthday.

So far, we have watched Rheingold and Walküre and await the next two operas.  Here are two pictures from the Seattle Opera this week:
A piece of an enormous Ring mural on the sidewalk at the Seattle Opera House.
I'm heading into the fire with Grane (Brünnhilde's horse)...
Leslie (on right) and me between acts at Walküre.

End Notes

1  LeitmotiveVol 24, 3, Fall 2010, page
2. Lesh, Phil, Searching for the Sound - My Life with the Grateful Dead, pages 273-274
3I don’t want to go into the horrors of Eurotrash here, but this blogger is the one to read if you want to read more about it. He hates it! 


Friday, August 16, 2013

Wagner's Abnormal Mind - Part 2: His Formative Years

Before focusing on Wagner’s mind, I need to give enough biographical details to make his mental development intelligible.  I will do this in two parts. The first part will take us to the point he decided to become a composer, drawing the portrait from his own autobiography as well as a variety of secondary sources.1 The second part will be focused less on biography per se, but more on his emotional development in adulthood, with his own letters providing the road map, supplemented with necessary biographical information. This will be a rapid tour, highlighting those things I think important to understanding his mind, but please see both my bibliography here and the footnote below if you want a want a more extensive biography.

Wagner was born in May of 1913 into a large family of nine children; he was the second to last child in the family.2 His birthplace was Leipzig3 in the Saxony region, which was soon to be the location of one of Napoleon's greatest defeats: the Battle of Leipzig, in which about 100,000 were killed. In the aftermath of this battle, his father, Carl, caught typhus and died. While he would obviously have no memory of this time, it can’t be great for a baby’s development to have lived through the chaos of the war, along with the ensuing loss of his father and his income, plunging the family into economic woe. 

An actor, painter and playwright named Ludwig Geyer soon rescued the family by marrying his mother, Joanna, and the the family moved to Dresden. For his formative years, then, Geyer was seen by Wagner as his father, and he was given his last name. (He changed it himself at 14 for reasons I will go into below.)

Geyer, in fact, may have been his true father. It is impossible to say this definitively, but there is evidence on both sides, with more on the Geyer side of the equation. Very much is made of this issue, probably way too much. It certainly wasn’t a preoccupation of his youth, and there is no documentation that Wagner even thought about the issue until fairly late in his adulthood. Most biographers jump to all sorts of fanciful conclusions. For instance, many say Wagner was “tormented” by this question, but that is a fairly strong word for virtually no evidence of this—and significant contrary evidence—beyond opera analysis.4

For those who want to play the “who was Wagner’s father” game, some of the evidence is visual. Take a look:

His brother Albert (14 years his senior)
Step-father Geyer
Wagner at 29 as drawn by his friend Ernst Kietz
Mother Johanna
Son Siegfried
Wagner in his 50s














I came to no conclusions from the pictures.  Albert (whom we know was Carl's son) looks like Richard, but the younger Wagner has similarities to Geyer.  His son, Siegfried looks more like Geyer than Wagner does. Evidence: inconclusive. Moving on...

Wagner was a sickly toddler, and later recounted that his mother had told him that she “almost wanted me dead owing to my seemingly hopeless condition.” He rallied to health and became “a bundle of energy, ” generally wild, incorrigible and extremely sensitive, crying or screaming or otherwise emoting regularly. Geyer called him “the Cossack,” given his penchant for resisting authority and following his own drummer.5 According to Cosima, Richard said of his childhood, "I grew up in the wildest of anarchy; it had to be, for then as later no known method ever fitted me, but how much should I have been spared if I had been accoustomed to obeying! To my sister I was just a wild and forsaken being who never conformed.” (Cosima's diary, July 5, 1871)

He had a very vivid imagination and was full of fears. For instance, while he loved to look at fruit or flowers, he refused to touch them. (One biographer suggested this was because Geyer had yelled at him for touching those things while painting still-life canvases.) He had fears of reflections, such as those on the stone beer bottles as they “seemed to him to be ‘grimacing devils’, taunting and mocking him with their ‘constantly changing shapes.’” He even had a fear of bells, as he looked into what he referred to as their “jaws.”

Beyond fears, as a child he developed deep aversion and horror when seeing people and, particularly, animals, in pain. This aversion remained intense throughout his life, and the depth of his feelings in this area were frequently recounted by friends as well as a oft-mentioned in in his letters.

Because he was such a difficult child, he was often shunted off to live with others. At the age of seven, his first “exile” occurred, when he was sent to live with a pastor for more than a year, ostensibly to help with his education, but primarily due to his unruly nature.  His stepfather, in the meantime, had his own problems. According to the author Joachim Köhler, in Wagner: The Last of the Titans, Geyer “started to withdraw from his friends and seemed to sink into deep despondency. Whereas they had earlier been struck by the ‘dual aspects of his character’, causing him to veer between high spirits and melancholy, he was now in a permanent state of depression.” He contracted tuberculosis and died when Wagner was eight.

Wagner had been summoned from the pastor’s house when it was clear that Geyer was dying, but was returned to the pastor the very next day. Soon he was shunted to Geyer’s brother for ten months, and then to his paternal uncle, Adolf Wagner. At this house there were portraits on the wall which he hallucinated were alive, and he had nightly nightmares about them. In fact he was generally terrified “of inanimate objects coming to life.” According to Köhler, “[e]ven ordinary pieces of furniture could induce a sense of terror in him when he was alone in a room and fixed his attention on them. In his panic-stricken fear that they might suddenly come to life, he would invariably scream for help.”

Adolf couldn’t handle the terrified child, so he returned him to his mother. Thus, his two-year exile ended at age nine. Back at Dresden, though, Wagner’s nightmares continued. He said of them:

Until late in my boyhood no night passed without my awakening with a frightful scream from some dream about ghosts, which would end only when a human voice bade me to be quiet. Severe scoldings or even corporal punishment would then seem to be redeeming kindness. None of my brothers and sisters wanted to sleep near me; they tried to bed me down as far from the others as possible, not stopping to think that by doing so my nocturnal calls to be saved from the ghost would become even louder and more enduring, until they finally accustomed themselves to this nightly calamity. 

To the end of the days, he hated solitude—except when composing—which his biographer Newman suggests was because “solitude brought up out of the subconscious depths of him all sorts of lurking fears.”

In should be noted that his family was highly theatrical, with most of his siblings making their living through the acting or singing arts. Wagner was, therefore, a “theater brat”—he knew it as well as anything in life. Of the theater, he wrote that the world “would serve as a lever to lift me out of a monotonous everyday reality into that fascinating demoniacal realm. Everything connected with the theater had for me the charm of mystery, an attraction amounting to intoxication.” 

In his autobiography, Wagner spoke highly of his mother, but it is clear through his actions—and later letters—that he was also critical of her and generally preferred distance from her. The highly sensitive child who grew up to be a very sensual man lived as a youth in a home, as he put it, in which “there was little tenderness...particularly as expressed in caresses.” In a letter to his younger sister Cäcilie when he was 29 he said, “our good mama is utter hell for everyone around her...[still] I always enjoy seeing her once in a while: she has many charming qualities.”  What is clearly true is that he never enjoyed the parental love he craved. He told his first wife Minna that “on the whole...[I had] a miserable youth.”  The one bright spot of his youth was his older sister, Rosalie, who filled the role of early supporter, protector, inspiration and muse.

By adolescence, though relatively small,6 Wagner was physically fit and quiet athletic. He had a life-long ability and interest in acrobatics, having learned to walk a tightrope at age ten, and retained the love of such feats—and an ability to preform them—for the rest of his life. For instance, to greet—and impress—a female visitor at age 60, he scurried up a tree. Throughout his life, he enjoyed walking, includes long hikes and mountaineering. These outings helped to calm his nerves, and put him in the peacefulness of nature, which he found tremendously regenerative. He never liked the noise and hustle and bustle of cities and longed always for quiet and solitude.

As a student, he showed no follow-through for subjects he considered dull, such as mathematics. But he was an avid reader to the point of obsession with those things he found fascinating, such as the classics, particularly Greek culture and mythology.

Wagner's living arrangements became somewhat random in his early adolescence: sometimes with his family, who had moved to Prague where the breadwinner, Rosalie, had a well-paying acting job; sometimes with a Dresden family; sometimes with his Uncle Adolf, in Leipzig. By his early teens, he was quite independent. He would set off on journeys by foot of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of miles to move from place to place, occasionally with a lift from a passing coach. Such a walking trip took him to his Uncle’s house in Leipzig as a 14 year-old. This trip was a turning point towards the more cerebral, as he bonded with his Uncle, who conversed with him about ancient Greece and other wide-ranging literary and philosophical issues. It was at this time he first read Shakespeare and Goethe’s works. He learned from his uncle that he inherited a number of books from his father, and was ecstatic with acquiring the library. From this point on, Wagner viewed his uncle as the father-figure that he had been long missing. It was to please his uncle—who always hated Geyer— that he took back the name of Wagner.

His mother and the two other younger siblings, Ottilie and Cäcilie, had moved to Leipzig at this point, so Richard did live with them, but he spent hours walking and talking with his mentor, Adolph. He hated the school at Leipzig with a passion and decided to teach himself whatever he wanted to know, with the help of Adolph’s fine library and astute mind.

The 14-year-old thus ceased going to school—unbeknownst to his family— and instead hid up in the attic to write a Shakespearean-inspired blood-soaked tragedy, full of the stuff of his nightmares: ghosts, murder, rape and insanity. It’s name was Leubald. It was the kind of thing that would have gotten a school-kid in our day and age sent straight to a psychologist for evaluation and on a watch-list of some kind. When his labors were discovered, everybody was indeed quite upset, mostly that he was wasting his time on this, but his uncle reacted to the content with “shock and astonishment.” (To my mind, Wagner was trying to take control of his ghostly fears through artistic means, purging his subconscious fears, and replacing them with his creation.)

Wagner realized two things from this ordeal: First, since he thought his play was wonderful, he felt both misunderstood and alone, and he decided that the only real problem with the play was that it needed music to make it emotionally intelligible. Second, he concluded he needed to learn music to complete his great work. And so he went to the library and checked out a book to begin his musical education as his aim was now set: to become a great composer of dramatic works.

This is quintessential Wagner: highly optimistic and supremely self-confident, undeterred by criticism, systematically taking the steps necessary to achieve his dream, nay, his destiny.


End notes:

For the next two weeks I will pause this series, as I am in the midst of “Wagner tripping,” as in a road trip to—among other things—see Wagner’s Ring in Seattle beginning Tuesday. It was such a trip in 2001 where I first conceived what has become this blog. (Originally, I was going to write a book, but blogs are so much better!) Thus, I come full cycle as befits the Ring. The next two posts, then, will be from the road and focusing on thoughts and feelings on and related to this trip.

By the way, I just got legally married to Leslie, my partner of 28 years, on Monday. We had an extra-legal ceremony 18 years ago; our ceremony Monday was on our anniversary. We had this trip to Seattle planned for years, but it became our “accidental honeymoon” when the Supreme Court made it’s ruling.

We “marched,” of course, to Wagner’s "Bridal Chorus." I wrote about the history of that chorus here. For fun, our recessional was this.

Here we are coming down the aisle:

Leslie (who edits and wrote the Joyce blog) is on the right.
(photo by her sister Laura)

1 I drew this portrait from these sources: Wagner, My Life; Millington, Wagner; Köhler, The Last of the Titans; Newman, The Life of Wagner, Volume 1; Millington & Spencer, eds., Selected Letters of Wagner. I am not going to use too many footnotes in this post as I am on the road and don’t have the time. If you want specfic references for anything I assert, I am happy to give them to you. Just write.
2 He was the last child of Carl Wagner, at least that’s the story. His younger sister Cäcilie was the the child of Ludwig Geyer.
3 Leipzig was the town in which Bach served as Kapplemeister for 27 years at St. Thomas Church. Wagner was baptized in that same church, something he later saw as some sort of sign of his destiny.
4 A bunch of writers tie this question to the issue of his anti-Semitism. That is, they think he may have thought that Geyer was both his true father and Jewish (which he wasn’t), and so that is what tormented him. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that Wagner thought or worried about Geyer being Jewish. It’s a complete fabrication.  He did entertain the idea that Geyer might have been his father, but he came to the conclusion that Carl Wagner was, according to Cosima's diaries. In any case, he showed no torment over the subject to Cosima or in his letters.  The opera analysis “evidence” is that Siegfried was tormented by wanting to know who his real parents were. Beyond that, there is no one in his works with this sort of father issue. This is pretty skimpy evidence for being “tormented.”
5 They were called Cossacks from the Turkish “kazak” meaning “free man,” referring to those “who anyone could not find his appropriate place in society and went into the steppes, where he acknowledged no authority.” 
6 How tall Wagner was is variously reported from about 5’ to 5’6”. The latter is the only one with evidence, as a surviving passport lists him at that height. The reason many thought of him as particularly small is because his head was much larger than a normal person of the same size, highlighting the contrast.





Friday, August 9, 2013

Wagner's Abnormal Mind - Part 1

Wagner was very far from normal. (I’ve already outlined that here to a large degree.) Virtually everyone who met him—friend and foe—noted how unusual he was in a wide variety of ways. Many of his contemporaries felt he suffered from this or that mental illness, and the literature on what pathology he may or may not have suffered from is quite extensive. Clearly, as well, he was an incredibly gifted man. He was also well-aware of his difference from everyone else, and made frequent reference to it. Wagner, who was beset by both mental and stress-related physical problems his entire life, believed—and I will argue he is generally correct on this— that his stark differences from seemingly everyone else were both pathological and the source of his genius. Yet, whether stemming from or just coexisting with that pathology, he was extraordinary productive. His creative drive overrode whatever pathology stood in his path, as well as the multiple physical ailments that plagued him, and he succeeded in creating an incredible body of work, overcoming massive practical impediments along the way.

In the next several posts, I will be exploring all the above. I will be laying out pieces of the puzzle of his brain and, in my last post in the series, assembling all of them to try to create a coherent story. I should note that I have no particular expertise in the field. But I do feel I have a solid lay understanding of the area, as I have spent years studying the the brain and mental illnesses and have a lot of practical experience with people who suffer from a wide variety of mental challenges, disorders, differences or illnesses...whatever you want to call it.

I am going to save the issue of the connection between his particular genius and “madness” for the next several posts. In this one, I just want to give an overview of my understanding of the issues, and my assumptions and understanding about the brain, mental illness and creativity, before tackling his specific case. But everything I touch on here will come back in his unique story, so pay attention!

I would like to start by (re)emphasizing my belief that a discussion of anyone’s mind must be put in the context of modern neurosciences understanding of the brain; to wit, our free will, if it exists at all, is severely limited. I wrote about the issue of free will here, and if you didn’t read it before, I suggest that as the starting point for this section. But for a quick review, the neuroscientist Sam Harris, who does not believe we have any free will, puts it this way: Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.” David Dennett opposes this view in general but agrees that free will doesn’t exist to any appreciable degree if we are not “wired right,” that is have retardation, brain damage, or mental illness.

The Brain

First, we all have unique brains. One of the key findings of modern neurology is the plasticity of the brain. In a nutshell, the brain’s experience alters its structure, therefore each of us has a very singular brain. An interesting article about the human mind from Salon summarizes this point:
Because each life path is uniquely personal, our individual patterns of neuronal connections are likewise uniquely constructed. Far more complex than a fingerprint, the intricate pattern of synapses makes every brain one of a kind, distinguishing even between identical twins, who share the same DNA code. The 1,000,000,000,000,000 or so neuronal connections that compose each brain’s structure form its unique signature, unprecedented and unrepeatable.
These structural changes can be minimal or, in the case of intensive study and work, much more significant:
Some alterations amount to no more than heightened sensitivity of the connections between neurons. A more significant form of adaptation is the formation of new synapses, which supports longer-term knowledge and skill development. The most radical structural change entails rewiring large sections of the cortex. Although we are used to thinking about learning along the timeline of minutes or hours, wholesale brain rewiring can occur over the course of many years. We see manifestations of significant neurological “remodeling” in the neural organizations of professional violinists and taxi drivers. Such remodeling might even include brain enlargement.
I am pretty sure that Wagner “rewired” his brain to be a finely tuned emotional machine. I can’t prove this contention, of course, but one study of professional musicians gives a clue to what I am proposing. These musicians, in contrast to the control group, were shown to have an increased ability to process emotion in sound. The study’s author said: “In essence, musicians more economically and more quickly focus their neural resources on the important -- in this case emotional -- aspect of sound. That their brains respond more quickly and accurately than the brains of non-musicians is something we'd expect to translate into the perception of emotion in other settings.”1

Mental Abnormality and Mental Illness

While we are all unique, there are certainly patterns of behavior that people have labeled as “normal or “abnormal.” This whole issue is rather fraught, as more often than not the “abnormal” has been viewed as pathological. However, sometimes things that were once considered pathological have been relabeled as okie-dokie. In my lifetime, for example, my lesbianism went from being considered a mental disorder that was criminalized behavior to being seen as mentally healthy and quite legal!

Obviously, just because something is abnormal doesn’t mean it is a necessarily a pathology; instead, it could be just a part of normal human variation. That said, in the US, the the principal direction is clear: more and more behaviors are being identified as pathological. In a speech in 1939, Carl Jung noted with disgust that “we cannot stand abnormal people any more so there are apparently very many more crazy people”2

The blogger Steven Novella sums up the the debate within the psychology profession of the issue of so-called “abnormalities”:

The question is essentially how we should think about symptoms of mood, thought, and behavior. At one extreme we night consider all aspects of human mentality as being part of the normal spectrum, with differences being just that – differences. Those who follow the position of Thomas Szasz consider labels on mental differences to be largely politically and culturally motivated forms of repression.

At the other end is the obsessive partitioning of every nuance of human behavior into one or another abnormal category – the medicalization of all human problems. This may be connected to an overly reductionist approach to psychology, seeing all behavior in terms of neurotransmitters and brain function and giving insufficient attention to higher order situational and cultural factors.

Clinically speaking, if a pattern of behavior is harmful to the individual or to others in society, it is generally considered pathological. The more severe the harm to the self or others, the more the person is perceived to be mentally ill. But what if the reason the person is harming themselves—i.e. the person has developed a mental disorder or a drug dependency, for example—is because of a reaction to long-term persecution for their “abnormal” behavior? Who is the person with the real mental illness, the persecutor or the persecuted? Returning to the issue of the historical labeling of homosexuality (and other “queer3 thoughts and behavior) as a pathology, I believe that there was—and is—a pathology related to the issue. However, it wasn’t queer people who had the mental illness (except as so driven by their persecution.) Instead, to my mind, it was the people who wanted to persecute those who were different who had the true mental illness, as they had a pathological fear or hatred of the “other” (often codified in religious dogma).

I am not arguing that mental illnesses that develop from persecution aren’t real, of course. Many queer people did and do, in fact, have mental problems stemming directly from the societal taboo on their behavior or thoughts. While the relatively broader acceptance of queer behavior has helped to lessen this problem, the taboo still remains fierce in many parts of the country, particularly for those people who cross gender boundaries. The flip side is that those intolerant behaviors that should be seen as pathological are not labeled as such due to a societal cultural paradigm accepting this behavior—such as persecution of those who are different than the general population—as normal and part of “human nature.”

The etiology of mental illness is, of course, complex and well beyond the scope of this blog. But, I do want to highlight one of the important precursors to its development: stress. To be persecuted or to be poor or to have a dysfunctional family environment brings on stress. There is large body of evidence that this can both can trigger the initial onset of mental illness as well as be a factor in the continuation of the illness and relapses into severe episodes. Read here for evidence on the relationship of mental illness and stress.  As well, it is linked to all sorts of physical problems as well, from long-term problems such as heart disease to an increased susceptibility to the common cold.4 This is particularly true for chronic stress.

Creativity and Mental Illness

There has long been an academic debate whether “madness” and creativity are linked. The debate is getting tantalizingly close to consensus with both long-term studies and neurological science finding clear links between several mental conditions and creativity, including depression and bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, ADHD and autism.  For a good overview of the topic with many references to the scientific research, see here

The fact that they are linked doesn’t mean, of course, that the majority of creative people have mental problems.5 But what has been repeatedly proven is that the numbers of highly successful creative folks who have had mental problems far exceed any control group.  This is the finding that has fueled the neurological and biochemical search.

One of the scientists who is unconvinced that there is a casual connection between creativity and mental illness is Johns Hopkins researcher Albert Rothenberg.6 In Creativity and Madness, he argues that madness and creativity are functionality incompatible: “Although creative people may be psychotic at various periods of their lives, or even at various times during a day or week, they cannot be psychotic at the time they are engaged in the creative process, or it will not be successful.”7 He then acknowledges that creative thinking “involves a great deal of mental and emotional strain,” which could lead to mental problems.8 

The problem is that he is arguing against no one. Researchers who believe that creativity and mental illness are often linked are not arguing that people create during psychotic episodes, but that mental illnesses can emotionally inform those artists about the human condition through their own suffering or, for that matter, euphoria.  The idea is that they then channel into their emotional revelations into their art during periods of relative or complete sanity.

Rothenberg did show through his research that there is one universal factor for creative success: extraordinarily high motivation, that is, a strong creative drive.9 The poet Carol Ann Beeman argues in her compelling book Just This Side of Madness that it is this drive itself which is can tip over to mental illness unless it is able to be satisfied:

The drive to create is explored through an increased affectivity and sensitivity to emotional stimulation into a total, unique, and individual expression of his or her experience of life. The artist just like the rest of us becomes burdened with the affective build-up associated with any biological or psychological drive state. Creative self-expression is the only constructive means through which artist can reduce the tensions inherent in the drive state to any effective degree. Without a suitable outlet to ensure the constructive channeling of the emotional content collected from his or her reactions of the world, the artist will inevitably break-down.10

However, the strains of the “constructive” act of artistic creation itself can lead breakdown. For instance, Leonard Woolf reports about his wife Virginia: “It was mental and physical strain which endangered her mental stability....Thus the connection between her madness and her writing was close and complicated, and it is significant that, whenever she finished a book, she was in a state of mental exhaustion and for weeks in danger of a breakdown.”11

While the link between creativity and “madness” has been all but proven, the main thing to reemphasize is that the act of creation generally requires sanity and detailed control, certainly for works that require skilled craft such as creative writing, composing, etc. (I mean, there could be exceptions: Jackson Pollack’s work looks nuts to me, and I can imagine it could have been done in a psychotic state without any problem.) As Salvador Dali said, “There is only one difference between a madman and me. The madman thinks he is sane. I know that I am mad.”

Note on the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM)

Before I continue with this line of argument, I just want to interject that the whole concept of disorders as we understand them—the DSM being the standard reference for classification of mental disorders—is suspect, and there is now a large push-back to the symptom-based view of mental illness that it is not grounded in science. The recent release of the DMV-V has crystallized this debate. The new edition, though greatly criticized for some of its tweaks, doesn’t really change much from DSM-IV. The National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) has publicly criticized its approach, not because of a radical break with the past, but because it hasn’t done so, which they believe in the modern era is essential. The organization's central argument is that the new techniques of brain science—still in their infancy— are the best way forward, and the DSM way of categorizing is, essentially, without scientific underpinning and therefore a dead-end. The director of the NIMH, in this open letter writes:

The weakness [of the DSM] is its lack of validity. Unlike our definitions of ischemic heart disease, lymphoma, or AIDS, the DSM diagnoses are based on a consensus about clusters of clinical symptoms, not any objective laboratory measure. In the rest of medicine, this would be equivalent to creating diagnostic systems based on the nature of chest pain or the quality of fever. Indeed, symptom-based diagnosis, once common in other areas of medicine, has been largely replaced in the past half century as we have understood that symptoms alone rarely indicate the best choice of treatment.

He goes on to indicate his bottom-line: “But it is critical to realize that we cannot succeed if we use DSM categories as the ‘gold standard.’ The diagnostic system has to be based on the emerging research data, not on the current symptom-based categories.”

Since all brains are completely unique, that too argues against any sort of reductionist model in which people suffering from a variety of mental—and often physical—symptoms can easily be slotted into this or that disorder. That said, it is hard to even discuss the subject without referring to the dominant model—the DSM—that exists in our culture now. I am hoping to avoid reductionism, as I absolutely believe that is impossible with Wagner, but I will of necessity refer to DSM disorders when I turn to Wagner.

Creativity and the Bipolar Disorder Spectrum

The strongest evidence showing a link to creativity consists of disorders on the bipolar spectrum. These disorders are characterized by cyclical mood changes between manic and depressive states. The changes can be extremely rapid or a person can be stuck in a “manic” or “depressive” episode for long periods. Sometimes both symptoms co-exist. On the mild end of the spectrum, it is called Cylothymia disorder, with the less-severe manic episodes termed hypomania. There are various subtypes, but the most severe is Bipolar I and the relatively more moderate is Bipolar II.

Kay Redfield Jamison, the author of Touched with Fire about creativity and bipolar or depressive disorders, writes in her book, “Mania is characterized by an exalted or irritable mood, more and faster speech, rapid thought, brisker physical and mental activity levels, quickened and more finely tuned senses, suspiciousness, a marked tendency to seek out other people and impulsiveness.”12 As for the depressive cycle, it “affects not only mood but the nature and content of thought as well. Thinking processes almost always slow down, and decisiveness is replaced with indecision and rumination. The ability to concentrate is usually greatly impaired and willful action and thought become difficult if not impossible.”13

The paradox of the disease is that many people who have it like aspects of it, and don't want to lose those parts of the disease. In this small study of people diagnosed with bipolar illness most viewed it “as a gift.”  The actor Stephen Fry, who has been diagnosed with the disorder, created a film to explore this conundrum.14  (Watch it here.)  He asked everyone he interviewed who had been diagnosed with the disorder if they would push a button to make it disappear. Only one would have done so. The three folks pictured below—Fry, Richard Dreyfuss and Carrie Fisher—all said that they preferred to keep their disease.  




At the time of the film, Fry had never even treated the disorder because he actually liked his manic self, believed it was essential for his creativity, and didn’t want that to go away.  However, the depression that accompanies the disorder has led him to make repeated suicide attempts (and according to this article about a recent suicide attempt, he seems to be treating the syndrome now).

There are a number of explanations and theories from neuroscience and psychiatric literature exploring this connection between bipolar and creativity. I can only provide a small smattering of them, and I am leaving out the scientific grounding as it would require many more pages. However, please follow the links below in the footnotes to get started on the biochemical and neuroscientific literature.15

The most obvious connection is that during the hypomanic state the artist has both the drive, stamina and confidence to express their emotional insights, often gained at the depressive trough. In this article by the psychiatrist Neel Burton, he highlights a study by Jamison of artists diagnosed on the bipolar spectrum, in which the majority self-reported that the hypomanic state led to “‘increases in enthusiasm, energy, self-confidence, speed of mental association, fluency of thoughts and elevated mood, and a strong sense of well-being.’ Participants also reported a noticeably decreased need for sleep and feelings of elation, excitement, and anticipation.” That such feelings and thoughts would potentially aid the creative process seems clear.

An article on the subject in Wired puts it this way: “The extravagant high descends into a profound low. While this volatility is horribly painful, it can also enable creativity, since the exuberant ideas of the manic period are refined during the depression.”

A New York Times article on the same subject suggests, “One idea is that since there is a genetic basis for affective disorders, the same gene may also produce artists. Geneticists suggest that because the way a manic depressive episode arouses brain activity -- triggering extreme swings of emotion -- the brain may become more adaptive to synthesizing incongruous thoughts. That process -- of reorganizing disparate emotions into a new order -- may be the essence of creativity.” 

Burton cautions in his article: “Thus, whilst there can be little doubt that bipolar disorder and creative genius are associated, evidence of causation and of the direction of causation is still lacking.”  Thus, he postulated that it was possible that the creative drive and the acts of artist expression itself that could trigger the disorder in some individuals and not the other way around as is generally imagined.



End Notes

1  See here.
2  As quoted in Beeman, Just This Side of Madness, page 32. It is easy to track this trend through the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Each edition has led to an ever greater numbers of identified disorders; some of this is just refining and distinguishing but some of it is, in fact, pathologizing that which was not seen as pathological in the past. The DSM-I, from 1952, listed 106; the DSM-III, from 1980, listed 265, and the current DSM-IV has 297. The chair of the DSM-5 task force, David Kupfer, announced that the total number of disorders in DSM-5 would not increase, but subtypes were added!
3  I understand that some people aren’t comfortable with the use of the word “queer” to define the gamut of folks who are gay, bisexual, transgendered, transsexual and otherwise outside the norm of heterosexual and gender conformity. Oh well, get used to it. It’s a great term and so darned economical for writing!
4  See for instance this or this.
5  Though in the case of famous poets it is close to a majority, as a number of studies have shown the incidence of psychopathology to be around 50% for them; musicians and prose writers tend to follow with about 35-30% rates. See page 62 of Jamison, Touched by Fire and the whole of chapter 3.
6  Rothenburg, Creativity and Madness; this book came out in 1990, which in the world of brain science is in the relative dark ages.  I don't know if he has moderated his position with the changing evidence.
7  Ibid, 36 (emphasis in the original)
8  Ibid, 161
9  Ibid, 9
10  Beeman, Just This Side of Madness, 73
11  Ibid, 141
12  Jamison, Touched with Fire, 27. Jamison is both a professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins (though a trained psychologist) and has suffered from the disease herself since early adulthood.
13   Ibid, 21
14   Fry obviously likes to tackle conundrums, in that he did the previously-linked documentary exploring his love for Wagner in the context of his Jewish heritage, too.
15  For some of the scientific underpinnings of the links between creativity and madness, see here and here on dopamine and the mesolimbic and mesocortical pathways; see here where you can either read or watch a Glenn Wilson lecture covering creativity and psychoticism, schizotype, apophenia; see here for the connection of a lower latent inhibition (LI) threshold to creativity and mental illness.