Madness is that low-hanging fruit in the Eden of our art and literary history.
I was going to save that line for the next in a series improvisational prose poems I want to do, but that will have to wait. The truth is that I’m not ready to do the poem today. Perhaps tomorrow. I have what we called in Journalism school, “more reporting to do” here. So, even if there is a poem in that, today I’m doing the non-fiction prose thing. Journalism. That is, reporting on Humanity’s long and sometimes misguided tradition of yoking madness with creative output.
Here goes: Van Gogh cut off his ear.
No, wait, everyone’s heard that story. Besides, the meme is problematical here. This narrative of madness-induced creativity reminds us that it sometimes ends with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The madness stopped Van Gogh’s paintings from coming. Hemingway never completed the short piece Jack Kennedy asked him to write for an inauguration reading. Old Robert Frost filled in with a reading of The Gift Outright. Same problem with Silvia Plath’s suicide, but not before she went to the trouble of letting us know that her affliction impeded her art, “When you are insane, you are busy being insane – all the time,” she said. “When I was crazy, that’s all I was.” So much for the crazy romanticizing.
Who else? Ezra Pound? He lived a long life, thanks in part to his madness having saved him from execution for treason. Some said it was feigned.
No, lets do this: There was a Florentine painter who claimed he could see a city or landscape in phlegm and blood stains. That’s crazy, no? He found these compositions on a wall that the sick and dying had coughed and spat upon. His neighbors talked, saying he lived more like a beast than a man. They could not help themselves from thinking that there was a connection with the half-human figures in the paintings. Ever since then, men and women have come and go talking about the madness of Piero di Cosimo, 1452-1521.
Novelist George Eliot was among those who talked. After living in Florence in the 1860s, Eliot could not resist writing a historical novel about Florence. Perfectly understandable, of course. While she was writing her Florence novel, Romola, she could not resist giving Piero di Cosimo a crazed speaking part, tossing into the game some colorful madman eccentricities. A girl comes to Piero’s door with a basket of boiled eggs. Piero got to where he would only eat boiled eggs. He was so afraid of fire, he never cooked. He made one exception to that rule. He had to boil glue to seal the oils on his paintings, so he braved the fire for that, and while doing so he set out another pot to boil fifty eggs at a time. I particularly like the toads in Eliot places in his living room, and also the rabbit and roosting pigeons.
Before saying more about Piero di Cosimo, lets dig a little deeper into the history of this tradition of linking this madness thing with art and creativity.
Socrates, proclaimed, “If a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet, he and his sane compositions never reach perfection, and are utterly eclipsed by inspired madmen.” Is this like, if you’re normal, don’t even bother? Stick to sales or accounting.
Poe bragged about being so touched. “Men have called me mad,” he said. “but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence.”
Freud was in the game. After observing the body language of Michelangelo’s Moses sculpture in Rome, the doctor diagnosed the sculptor as laboring under a repressed rage against his patron Pope Julius II. Freud saw all that in the positioning of Moses’ marble foot, along with the way Moses fingers his beard. That sounds like a stretch, but it did turn out that Michelangelo eventually unleashed that rage on Pope. He nearly brained Julius with scaffold planks that he tossed from his high perch in the Sistine Chapel.
Coincidence or not, Sigmund Freud published his analysis of Moses-Michelangelo shortly after reading Giorgio Vasari’s artist biographies. Vasari was commenting at length on the peculiarities of many of the artists’ personal behavior. That was in the Sixteenth Century. Freud was writing about Michelangelo’s rage in 1914.
More recently, there’s the case of Martin Ramirez too. After being confined for decades in a mental institution, Ramirez became the poster boy for artistis mental illness. In 2008 a New York times article declared Ramirez “simply one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.” Ok, he is good. Got that. Now get this, the Wikipedia article on Ramirez leads with a line that reads, “Martín Ramírez (1895–1963) was a self-taught artist who spent most of his adult life institutionalized in California.” See, Ramirez here is not an artist who happens to be mad, but a madman who makes art.
"Courtyard" by Martin Ramirez
We also have the poets weighing in their verse. Like Freud, some of them look at the art, and then think they see something of the artist’s mind.
Jean Valentine’s 2009 chapbook , Lucy, includes a poem called “Outsider Art”, about Ramirez and his art. In this case, Valentine acknowledges a whole lot more of the artist who happens to be insane, and gives him a place in our shared humanity. In the context of the rest of the chapbook, the Ramirez poem is among other poems thematically linked to “Lucy” a protohuman hominoid who died three million years ago. If Lucy is one of us, so is Ramirez.
Poet John Stone brings us back once last time here to Piero di Cosimo with “Forest Fire”, a meditation on the Cosimo painting of the same name. Just by making the painting the object of a poet’s attention, we are lead to wonder if “Forest Fire” has anything to do with Piero’s pathalogical fear of fire, or the beast-like nature that Giorgio Vasari claimed had strayed increasingly to the feral side over the course of his life. We wonder what, if anything, in the picture came out of the Rorschach visions of phlegm stains on a sickroom wall?
"Forest Fire" by Piero di Cosimo.
Vasari said Piero lived more like a beast than a man. Beast? These words have lead to speculation about the Painting, “Forest Fire.” How can you help that when the painting is filled with beasts, one of which includes a pig with a half-human face, and a person with deer-like features.
Look here. Stone walks us back to a beastly primal myth time when people and animals were more alike. Lucy’s time, perhaps. The stories and pictographs of Native Americans sometimes speak of a myth time “when people and animals were not so different.” Stone observes in the painting:
A human snout
floats in the face of a swine.
A bearded man-deer nudges his doe.
Stone says all of them are “being” and because of the fire these beings are “being” driven out as the fully-formed humans discover the uses of fire. This brings on end of Eden and it’s low-hanging fruit. And so, Stone’s poem concludes with the expulsion:
…like God, Di Cosimo
conjured up a reason
to take it away.
(Thanks to Stefano Sandano, of Romanguide.com for passing along his take on Freud’s Moses of Michelangelo)
This post is dedicated to all my writer and poet friends who I met in those crazy days at the “Writers Asylum”.