Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Fascination with Madness

As previously mentioned in this blog, I have lived a life shadowed by the stormy cloud of depression. Starting with childhood I was always sensitive. Moving through middle school I spent most nights in tears. But it didn't really manifest until high school and then more pointedly in college. Now, it lingers only at times and is more of a nuisance than anything. I see it. I feel it. I try to get through it as painlessly as possible. And, I come out on the other side with no big revelation or deeper understanding than before. It is more like someone finally turned off the fluorescent lights and you realize then that their high pitched buzz had been grating on your this whole time. Coming out of depression feel like a relief.

I have been fortunately enough never to have had a "break with reality" or a dangerous manic period that is so common with even slight chemical imbalances. I have seen others around me suffer from those and in some ways it makes me embarrassed that all I suffer from is the occasional blues.

But, I write only of this as an introduction to something on which I have become acutely aware in the past couple years. People are fascinated with madness and for some reason people gravitate toward madness, and I wonder why exactly that is. I see it all the time in the dance world. Dancers subjugating themselves to abusive choreographers in hopes of proving themselves worthy, as if there was something noble or romantic about this path to artistry or recognition.

The movie Black Swan gives the perfect example. I hadn't seen the film when it first came out in theaters. Of course my students gasped when they heard this, amazed that I hadn't seen it even once when they had seen it four times already. Now, having seen it, I want to go back to them and say "But she is crazy!" It makes my skin crawl that only through a horrible psychotic episode can the main character access the "depth and passion" of the black swan's character and give herself completely to the role. This movie isn't about dance; it is about a young girl who is ill and is addicted to dance. She uses dance like a drug to push herself over the edge. But rather than be seen as someone who is sick (and potentially dead at the end of the ballet), she is hailed as a heroine who finally broke through her chains and became the artist she always wanted to be.

Stop! I can't believe that an artist must be crazy to be good. And yet, looking at past artists, it seems time and time again that those who go down in the history books are those who were cursed to suffer and cause others to suffer in turn because of mental instability.

Of course "Madness" is just a label with no finite edges. The human experience is so diverse and varied that normal is relative and suffering is subjective. No one can concretely identify where reality begins and ends anyway. But, those who suffer the extremes of the human condition and ride the fine line between sanity and madness have a way of drawing us in. Perhaps because we all bump up against the line every once in a while and knowing someone else has been there gives us solace or hope that we can navigate our way through it. Or conversely, we see those around us in a manic state and we mistakenly think: "I too want such incredible joy and passion for life" but in fact that state is only temporary and behind the luster of the moment hides the dark shadow waiting its turn.

Most of my students are between the ages of 18-22. And they want it all. They seek out the pain with fervor and in turn flaunt their joys for the world to see. They celebrate the emotional roller coaster that is becoming an adult with each Facebook status update and mobile upload. And we, the sentient beings we are, must respond and thus continue this fascination with extreme emotionality.

I am not devaluing the challenges and joys of life. Those exist as they do, and we must ride those waves as they come and go. But, to seek the extremes that are home to those who are ill is not where I believe we need to go. Nor should we be told (through media, the advertisements on FB nor history books) that only through becoming crazy will we be able to attain a deeper understanding of who we are or the art the we create.

I want to believe. I have to believe that being normal and mundane is quite enough. There are enough miracles and sufferings to learn and grow from. The challenge I face from my history of depression is that I can't always tell what is real joy and real sadness or what is my "adrenaline high" and the " inexplicable blues". I don't want to think that my creativity comes from my chemical or electrical anatomy. So, I write this because I am concerned. I am concerned for the health of artists and the world as we continue to celebrate madness as a key to something beyond. It seems we are all capable of going crazy if we really wanted to. But, staying grounded in the here and now of the world seems like a much greater success.

A work of art.