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Humphry Knipe

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The Divine Madness
by Humphry Knipe   

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Copyright:  2011

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A discussion of the mad/genius paradox which focuses on major poets of the Romantic era.

 Madness and genius have been linked since classical Greek times. This new contribution focuses on bipolar disorder in a selection of great Romantic poets. It explains that while depression dries up inspiration and mania tends to cause overblown, chaotic productions, the condition in between these extremes, called hypomania, promotes periods of brilliant creativity.

Specially featured are Romantic poets Coleridge, Poe and William Blake.

The divine madness is a state of inspiration, elation, enlightenment. It is an upsurge of exhilaration of colossal intensity variously interpreted as spiritual illumination, a breath of life from the Muse, a descent of the Holy Spirit, possession by a creative force of superhuman potency that from Roman times has been called genius.

The divine madman sees the world transformed. He is euphoric, rapturous. The secret of the universe is revealed to him, the veil has been lifted from his eyes. He is innocent of guilt. He has transcended the boundaries of the ego, is one with God. He experiences what man everywhere reaches for but seldom finds: a heightened sense of existence.

The belief that chosen individuals are periodically possessed by spirits which confer supernatural power exists in every human community. In the western cultural tradition it was first commented on at length by Plato in the fourth century B.C. Plato wrote that the mind inspired by what he calls the divine madness was superior to the sane mind. It was “a divine release from the yoke of custom and convention’, it was the inspiration of the prophet, poet and lover of beauty and therefore the source of the greatest blessings granted to men. In his famous allegory of the Cave, Plato compares the world of everyday awareness to an underground prison in which everyday people have been chained since birth and so know no other. The divine madman is a prisoner unchained and led out of the shadow world of the dungeon into the true, the beautiful world above.

What is the divine madness? Aristotle, father of western science and pupil of Plato, gives us a clue when he writes that “men illustrious in poetry, politics and arts have often been melancholic and manic”. He cites Plato and Socrates as examples. When afflicted by congestion of the head, he goes on, “many persons become poets, prophets and sybils, and, like Marcus of Syracuse, are pretty good poets when they are manic, but when cured can no longer write verse”.

The theme of the divine madman was picked up again with the rediscovery of classical literature during the Renaissance. In 1681, for example, the English poet John Dryden penned his famous reference to the thin partition between the genius and the lunatic. Although informed men of Dryden’s generation no longer believed that the divine madness came from the gods, by the middle of the eighteenth century the question of the relationship between inspiration and insanity continued to be a topic of heated debate. In his Encyclopedie the French philosopher Denis Diderot said this about genius: “I conjecture that these men of somber and melancholic temperament only owed that extraordinary and almost Divine penetration which they possessed at intervals, and which led them to ideas, sometimes so mad and sometimes so sublime, to a periodical derangement of the organism. They then believed themselves inspired, and were insane. Their attacks were preceded by a kind of brutish apathy, which they regarded as the natural condition of fallen man. Lifted out of this lethargy by the tumult within them, they imagined it was Divinity, which comes down to visit and exercise them … Oh! How near are genius and madness! Those whom heaven has branded for evil or for good are more or less subject to these symptoms; they reveal them more or less frequently, more or less violently. Men imprison them and chain them, or raise statues to them”.

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