The Greek Idea of Disease, Madness, and Art

Article excerpt

Modern man has a primarily negative attitude toward disease and madness. Our ideal is normality and health, and we fear illness, pain, and loss of control; we prize physical perfection, athleticism, and beauty, and cherish our rationality. Our culture abounds in metaphors of disease as the enemy, and our medical researchers are engaged in a never-ending battle against it. Yet we also value abnormality, even madness, when it's related to the creative imagination: We have our manic poets, suicidal artists, and willfully drug-crazed pop singers. Despite the efforts of Judeo-Christian thought to provide a more purely redemptive purpose for physical pain and decay, we still believe in what is essentially an ancient Greek idea: that disease is connected to artistic creativity.


Greek notions of disease and art--embodied in the work of Sophocles and Plato, and given new form in Friedrich Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy and Thomas Mann's Death in Venice--continue to influence modern writers. The Greeks regarded disease, as all else in their universe, with wonder. For them it was not necessarily evil, but a part of the complex relationship between humans and gods--a tool for working out our destiny, a positive connection to the divine. Essentially, the Greeks used disease and madness to explain and define the phenomenon of artistic creativity. They had two important and quite distinct ideas about it.

First, they believed that the artist, cursed with a physical defect or mental derangement, has fallen foul of the gods--but that his illness gives him psychic knowledge, spiritual power, and creative genius. The figures of Tiresias, the blind prophet who foretold the outcome of the Trojan War, and Homer, the blind poet of the Iliad and the Odyssey, were important examples of this type. For them art was synonymous with knowledge, truth, and insight, and it was available only to those who suffered for it--like the mythic figures Oedipus, Orpheus, and Prometheus. (In modern times Camus has given a similar interpretation to Sisyphus, the man condemned to push a rock uphill forever. His moment of insight comes when he returns to his rock and renews his suffering.)

The second, quite separate, Greek idea of the deranged artist found expression in the primitive and archaic cult of Dionysus, whose worshipers, possessed with the spirit of the god, sang and danced themselves into a frenzy. Plato expresses this concept in the Ion, a dialogue in which he equates poetic power with a state of divinely inspired insanity:

"For the authors of those great poems which we admire, do not attain to excellence through the rules of any art, but they utter their beautiful melodies of verse in a state of inspiration, and, as it were, possessed by a spirit not their own. Thus the composers of lyrical poetry create those admired songs of theirs in a state of divine insanity, like the Corybantes [followers of the goddess Cybele, who worshipped her with wild dances and music], who lose all control over their reason in the enthusiasm of the sacred dance. ... For a poet is indeed a thing ethereally light, winged, and sacred, nor can he compose anything worth calling poetry until he becomes inspired, and, as it were, mad, or whilst any reason remains in him."


Sophocles' play Philoctetes is a tragic allegory of the physically diseased hero whose suffering leads to divine knowledge and strength. The story, from the tales of the Trojan War, was familiar to Greek audiences. Philoctetes was an archer to whom the god Heracles had given a powerful magic bow. He joined the Greek expedition against Troy, but while stopping on the way and guiding his comrades to a place of sacrifice, he was bitten on the foot by a snake that guarded the shrine. His wound would not heal. His shipmates found the stench of the festering sore unbearable and his cries inauspicious. Odysseus marooned him on the island of Lemnos, off the coast of Asia Minor. …