Divine Madness

One of the scariest episodes that any of us will ever have to face is the moment or event that leads us to question our sanity. For many of us, this is not a one-time incident, but a recurring dilemma that often surprises us with its unwelcome sting. Facing a descent into madness, we are compelled to seek out help, whether it be in the form of addiction, fanaticism or therapy. We grasp at straws to find something, anything to hold onto, hoping to create a semblance of safety in our chaotic world. I have watched dear friends choose their salvation through alcohol, drugs, relationships, even religion, and have been tempted at times to follow a similar route in order to escape mental anguish. I feel fortunate that my first course of action…seeking therapy led me to a new way of seeing myself and the world around me, precluding the need for salvation from more extreme solutions.

To this day, I feel as if there was a higher power guiding me to choose therapy and the counselor who turned my life around within weeks, without medication or prolonged treatment. What this man offered was simple and direct, in the form of acceptance, encouragement, and choice. These gifts became seeds of thought that rooted in my mind and heart, eventually enabling me to transform my life into one that I glory in, rather than a life I merely cope with. But I often wonder what course my life would have taken if I had begun using medications at a young age to mask the anxiety and depression I was experiencing. How would I have handled a label of mental illness and the crippling effects it can have on ones self-esteem? This question has led me to study the lives of others who were driven by their passion, creative or spiritual, to the brink of madness. I am especially intrigued by the process of labeling, which often serves to define ones identity and the course of ones life. From my research, I was drawn to the lives of three artists in particular: Camille Claudel, Hildegarde von Bingen and David Helfgott, the pianist whose life is depicted in the movie Shine. Each of these artists displayed various forms of genius, eccentricity and/or mental illness, and were accepted or rejected according to society’s evaluation of the worthiness of their talents.

I first learned about Camille Claudel from the movie of the same name, an outstanding French import of several years ago. Camille was the protégé, muse and mistress of the sculptor, Rodin. I believe that the society she lived in devalued her worth and her art because she was a woman (passionate, creative and sensual), and a paramour rather than a wife. Rodin was often given credit for work she had created or inspired. When she began to assert her rightful claim for recognition, she was resolutely rebuked, by Rodin, her family and the art world. In the face of such betrayal, she became paranoid and hostile. Unable to pursue her creative passion, her eccentric habits became more pronounced, until she was institutionalized. Camille accepted her fate with some resistance, but this waned over time, and she remained in an asylum until her death, never sculpting again.

After seeing her sculptures, which embody grace and sensuality, I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness that such genius was stifled, unnecessarily, I believe, and eventually destroyed. Upon reading letters that she wrote in her confinement, I had the sense that there but for the grace of God, go I. If I had lived in similar circumstances, I could easily have suffered a similar fate. If I had not learned to embrace and glory in my creative passion, perhaps it would have driven me over the edge into ruin, as it did Camille.

The life of Hildegarde von Bingen provides an interesting contrast to that of Camille Claudel. When Hildegarde began having visions during midlife, she became obsessed with the process of translating her visions into images and music. Her journals, drawings and compositions have been revered since the 12th century, and she was canonized a saint after her death. Though the creative process of these two women was similar in many respects, the response to their art was markedly different. Hildegarde was viewed as a Christian mystic, and her art was representative of her devotion to God. Her work was accepted, encouraged, and revered. As her eccentricity and passion were allowed free rein, Hildegarde was able to develop her talents, rather than stifle them. This was possible, to a great extent, because of the value placed on religion, and on the art that honors religious figures. Without the aura of approval that was given to Hildegardes visions, she might well have appeared insane, as Camille was. Instead, Hildegarde was prolific in her creative expression and courageous in her position within the hierarchy of the church. Hildegarde developed a strength from within that only grew stronger as her creativity flourished.

David Helfgott provides still more contrast to the theme of the genius versus the mad artist. A child prodigy in music, he experienced a mental breakdown as a young man, and was warned by doctors not to play the piano, for fear it might destroy his tenuous hold on reality. And yet, years later, it was his phenomenal passion and talent that brought him back into the world, providing the means for him to become known, loved and accepted by others. Now his talent is embraced, despite his continuing struggles with mental illness. His perception of himself changed as he was valued or devalued by those around him. The level of his coping skills continues to improve as his self-perception improves. The outcome of it all is that he doesn’t seem as crazy as he did before. His eccentricities are taken in stride, whereas before they defined his madness.

Each of these artist profiles demonstrates the impact of perception and labeling on the outcome of peoples lives. They also illustrate the crucial importance of finding a center within ourselves - within our souls - to ground and guide our lives. From this center, we can determine an appropriate balance of passion and wisdom to give us more control over the course that our lives will take.

These three artists have served as inspiration for my own creative life. Camille inspires me with her passion; Hildegarde with courage and ecstatic love; and David, with a childlike sense of play. I no longer fear madness as much as I fear the loss of these qualities from my life. And when there are scary times to deal with, I know I can find help to see me through them; help in the form of acceptance, encouragement and choice. I feel blessed to live at a time when I can be sensual, passionate, creative, spiritual, playful AND wise. As we learn to embrace both the shadow and the light, we draw closer to the divine, where there is no madness. Within our sacred center, there is only love.

©1997 Marybeth Bethel