The Madness … And Genius

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In the autumn of 1797 a person from Porlock knocked on the door of a remote farm on Exmoor. He received no answer. He knocked again. Finally this nameless visitor’s efforts were rewarded, and a figure appeared at the door, tousle-haired, I imagine, his fingers stained with ink, a look of pained desperation on his face. Their conversation is not recorded. The event may not even have happened. But the figure, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, blamed the mysterious visitor for interrupting him in a moment of opium-fuelled inspiration, and by interrupting him, forever ensuring that the lyrical Kubla Khan would not be finished.Coleridge himself was one of the creators of the Romantic movement, and, in many ways, the origin of the image of the poet, fragile, brilliant, his genius half a step away from madness. The year before the event described above Coleridge had begun to take Laudanum to relieve the pain he constantly suffered from his various aliments, his toothache, his neuralgia. As he began to rely more and more on the drug, he increasingly began to attribute the flashes of poetic inspiration to his highs, and conversely, the periods of writers’ block to his lows. His dependence increased; in an age where no stigma was attached to opium use, and addiction scarcely recognized, the poet descended in a drug-induced haze which was to plague him for the rest of his life. Coleridge was not the first great artist to live on the edge, nor to be haunted in his life by the spectres of his own personality. Virgil was said to be so terrified of public adulation and attention that he would dive down alleyways to avoid anyone he knew on the street. Raphael’s serial love-affairs culminated in his death from, according to his biographer, a night of too strenuous passion. He was thirtyseven and had caused such shock waves in the art world as no-one else save Michaelangelo would for centuries. Bembo, a Cardinal and poet, wrote on his tomb, ‘Here is famous Raphael; while he was alive nature feared to be outdone, but when he was dying, she feared she herself would die.’The cult following that grew up around such figures – in the Renaissance around Raphael, and, later, Caravaggio, in England in the late eighteenth century around Coleridge and Keats (especially after his death), and in the nineteenth century around Baudelaire – gives the lie to our smug belief that celebrity adulation is a modern phenomenon. This image we have, and maintain, of the artist as a troubled genius, however, is very much a product of the romantic period, with poets such as Byron and Shelley devoting much time to surrounding themselves with an aura of mystique and danger. Even today we are ready to forgive a great artist much. If Kingsley Amis hadn’t written ‘Lucky Jim’ and ‘The Old Devils’ he would simply have been an unremarkable old soak and misogynist, and his friend Philip Larkin, without his poetic output, a rather creepy old librarian. As soon as they become artists though, they achieve a celebrity standing, and traits which would be barely tolerable in a friend, become, in the public mindset, and even in the mind of the individual artists, necessary for their creative power.This martyrdom of the troubled soul has long since moved beyond the exclusive realm of poets and painters. Just as eighteenth century opera-lovers followed the affairs and arguments of their favourite divas in the gossip rags, so we find more ink spilled about pop-stars’ tantrums and conquests than about their work. As celebrity becomes an end in itself, and fame is the ultimate height to which everyone, regardless of talent, can aspire, we are in danger of losing sight of exactly why we excuse Amis his drunken rants; we are in danger of reading his biographies, and not his novels.The fame can be beneficial. A retrospective of Derek Jarman’s films is currently being held in London for example. The first open- ly HIV-positive personality, who finally succumbed to AIDS in 1994, produced a massive amount of independent films, effectively creating art-house cinema. ‘Sebastian’ (1976) was the first gay film which reveled in its homosexuality, which actually acknowledged the freedom and fun of being gay. It’s in Latin. And it’s terrible. But, as E. M. Forster said in his posthumous forward to ‘Maurice’, before the Seventies the idea of a gay story with a happy ending was inconceivable. While Forster brought forward the agenda in his powerfully moving novel, Jarman more explicitly brought homosexuality into the public eye through his films and his lifestyle. While ‘Maurice’ is much better than ‘Sebastian’, Jarman’s life captured the imagination of the public more than the dusty, Cambridge intellectualism of Forster.The manipulation of celebrity then can be crucial, as long as the artist remembers that his fame is intimately wrapped up in his art. We respect the posturings of novelists because we love their books, and because we recognize their insight in the human condition, not because we feel that their opinion is worthy thanks only to their media status. Media attention is a great leveler. Centuries ago highwaymen could be more famous than kings; now child-killers can take up more newspaper headlines than prime ministers. When Anne Enright criticized the McCanns in a column nobody paid any attention. A week later she won the Booker Prize, yet the spotlight was shone not on her novel, but on her opinion of two Derbyshire parents. It is not an especially insightful comment, but it is one ignored again and again by the fame hungry, that the media circus, like Fortune’s wheel, rises and falls, entirely beyond the control of the subject of the glare.And this glare distracts us also from the recognition that, despite Amy Winehouse, despite Baudelaire, despite Kirk Cobain, genius is not dependent on madness. Some of the greatest figures in art have been the most stable, the most boring. Consider what little is known of Shakespeare’s life, consider just how dull Gregory Peck was when not in front of the camera. Consider how little you would actually enjoy a conversation with J. M. Coetzee, no matter how much you hero-worship him. It is a harsh reality to except that geniuses, people you idolize, can be boring, dull rude. I love Coetzee’s novels, yet given an opportunity to meet the man I would be very wary. Reality blows.What the existence of incredibly talented yet personally uninteresting people teaches us, more than anything, is that the froth, the drugs, the sex, the scandal, is not innately connected with the genius. Looking at trends in modern music, we find so many of the old heavyweights returning to the fray, keen to cash in on their name and fame. Yet, Led Zepplin, The Rolling Stones and The Who, all still touring, or at least still playing, are not, as was once the case, in the headlines because of their lifestyles. As Bob Dylan’s current renaissance illustrates, really great performers and artists don’t need the drugs, don’t need the booze, don’t even need God to create fantastic music. They have been accused recently of becoming boring, and of selling out. But in reality their keenness to conform to the image-driven stereotype of rock and roll youth was as much as a sell-out; now, content in their old age and relaxed lifestyles, musicians like Cohen and Dylan are showing the younger generation how it’s done. With substance over style.That is not to dismiss the importance of the style. In music especially style and performance are key, whether the singer or band in question is breaking down musical barriers or constructing very real walls on stage. Yet without the talent the veneer can’t hold itself up; it crumbles under its own weight. That seems to be the problem with many who are venerated as famous. Without the inner reserves of actual ability, the media turns elsewhere in search of hype. Their fame reveals itself to be as vapid as their personalities.As for real artists, it is a truism that those who see farther, and do greater things, do often live on the edge. It must be acknowledged though that they are a select few, that not every poet needs to be high, not every headlining band needs its front-man to kill himself, not every artist must bed-hop constantly. These people appear to be living the dream. They are living fast, living hard, living dangerously, and producing works of genius. But in the long run, when the printing presses of ‘Heat’ have been melted down, their work will have to stand up to inspection on its own merit. The madness will be forgotten. The genius will remain.
By Tim Sherwin

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