The Madness of Art and Poetry

It is no coincidence that the advent of industrialism in the late eighteenth century was paralleled by a fascination with madness on the part of artists and philosophers. During the next two centuries, the outward expansion of human power into nature was accompanied by an ever riskier exploration of the unconscious mind and its many strange passions. With each generation, the investigation of dream, nightmare, hallucination, trance, ecstasy has delved deeper into the secret recesses of the psyche.

 Max Ernst Fireside Angel

The Romantics, who initiated this descent into the irrational, soon to be followed by the Decadents, the Surrealists, the Expressionists, were a compensatory response to the excesses of Newtonian science: “single vision”, as William Blake called it.

Blake was among the first to link scientific sensibility to the killing pressure of the new industrial technology upon the landscape. His attack upon “Satan’s Mathematick Holiness” only served to qualify him as one of the first mad artists of the modern world.

A generation later, when Percy Shelley produced his famous Defense of Poetry in 1820, the battle lines had been drawn. The dichotomies on which modern psychiatry would be built had been mapped out. Emotion against reason, the primitive against the civilized, the child against the adult, raw nature against the city, the organic against the mechanical, poetry against science.

The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world has, for want of the poetical faculty, propoertionally circumscribed those of the internal world. From what other cause has it arisen that these inventions which should have lightened, have added a weight to the curse imposed on Adam?

Shelley nominated poetic imagination as the antithesis of “the owl-winged faculty of calculation”. Poetry, he said, “is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. It is not subject to the control of the active powers of the mind.

He meant this to be the imagination’s redeeming power, but what he described was madness, as people were coming to understand the word, namely the rational mind swept by impulse, fallen to the influence of forces outside its power.

By the end of the century, Freud, seeking to bring that madness into the province of medical science, admitted that he had discovered nothing the poets had not known before him.

~ Theodore Roszak, The Voice of the Earth.
Image: Max Ernst, The Fireside Angel, 1937

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