Much Madness is divinest Sense —
To a discerning Eye —
Much Sense — the starkest Madness —
‘Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail —
Assent — and you are sane —
Demur — you’re straightway dangerous —
And handled with a Chain —
That’s a quote from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson.
I’m John Fanning and this is the Create with John Fanning podcast.
How’s it goin out there. Hope all is well.
This is Episode 18 of my series of episodes on creativity, based around my book Create.
Last time I spoke about the Dancer and the Dance, about doing what you love, and today I want to talk about enthusiasm, passion and madness, because passion and madness are often seen as Walls away from Imagination and creativity when in fact they are really Doors towards it, towards creativity and Imagination.
For example, I write because of something greater than myself, what I see as this kind of passionate, enthusiastic madness inside of me. The word enthusiasm actually means “the god inside” from the Greek, “entheos,” or “en-theo”. So writing is this passionate, enthusiastic madness that comes from the god inside me. Why else would I keep secreting myself into a room on my own, away from my family and friends and fun? It has to be a kind of madness, and a passion — a suffering. This is what the latin word “passio”, where passion comes from, means, to suffer.
I used to always see this as a negative, some kind of illness, affliction, that I was unable to simply be content, to watch TV, to play outside in the snow more, like other Dads and husbands and friends. Until one day, walking through the woods, I had an epiphany — it’s okay. It’s okay to be passionate, enthusiastic, mad. Indeed, it was then that I realized that all the people I’ve ever loved have been passionate, enthusiastic people, people who are a little mad, but in a good way. Now, I see enthusiasm as a word connected to the joyful expression of creation, the fun, like a child playing enthusiastically in the sand, or a Picasso turning a rusty saddle and handlebars into a “Bull’s Head”.
In the Phaedrus, Socrates says there are four types of enthusiasm or “holy madness” — prophecy, the mystic rites, poetry and science, and the madness of love. So, when we’re enthusiastic we are experiencing inspiration, something sacred, mystical, poetic, prophetic. And how enthusiastic we become depends on how inspired we are. The point is that we understand that there’s something powerful coming from inside us that needs to express itself, Imagination, a passionate and enthusiastic madness. Carl Jung, in his Red Book, talks about this. He writes this:
Be silent and listen: have you recognized your madness and do you admit it? Have you noticed that all your foundations are completely mired in madness? Do you not want to recognize your madness and welcome it in a friendly manner? You wanted to accept everything. So accept madness too. Let the light of your madness shine, and it will suddenly dawn on you. Madness is not to be despised and not to be feared, but instead you should give it life… Madness is a special form of the spirit and clings to all teachings and philosophies, but even more to daily life, since life itself is full of craziness and at bottom utterly illogical. Man strives toward reason only so that he can make rules for himself. Life itself has no rules. That is its mystery and its unknown law. What you call knowledge is an attempt to impose something comprehensible on life.
So, what I get from that is that whatever your intuition (your in-teaching) excites, whatever excites you, from inside you, it is a form of madness, a mad enthusiasm, which is positive, healthy. The role of the imagination is to create from this healthy madness, meanings from the meaningless, to discover connections that could look obvious but were before somehow amorphous, because the Imagination begins with intuition, not thinking, the mind, intellect.
I don’t trust the mind, but I do trust that excitement, that mad enthusiasm, and I try to follow it into creation, irrespective of how mad other people see it to be. Anyway, positive madness, especially in this other form of technological and mechanized world of 24/7 madness, is not just necessary, but imperative.
I don’t mean some kind of Dionysian carnivalesque letting go, getting stoned out of your mind, or heading to the nearest bar. No, not hysteria, but ecstasy, the way the ancient Greeks meant it, to literally stand outside yourself, to remove yourself elsewhere, “ek” meaning “out”, and “stasis” meaning to stand. To stand out. To free yourself from the “normal”. It means embracing the unconscious you, consciously. To rationally “see” your emotions, the inner vision, with your eyes. To stop allowing iPhones, computers and whatever other devices creating Walls from getting you in touch with, or opening doors to the world inside you.
And what is inside you, besides organs and fluids? I call it Spirit. You could call it nothing. Again, you might call it the unconscious, the Mind, the soul. I call it Spirit, because it literally comes out of the word inspiration, “in spirito”. I’ll talk about this a lot more in a later episode, but for now what I mean is that Spirit speaks from another part of us than the mind. The battle, the Wall, is to let go of the mind, so we can listen to the quiet inspirational voice of “madness” in the mind, to get inspired. Each creator has to get “out of their wits”, to quote Plato, out of their minds, to create.
Inspiration, getting out of our wits, getting irrational, is where all great creations come from. So, let the computer, or whatever device, be a tool to extend your irrational ideas, impulses, words inside you out into the world, not to “protect” you from your inner world.
In a letter written in Arles to his brother, Theo, in 1888 Vincent van Gogh had this to say:
Ah, my dear brother, sometimes I know so clearly what I want. In life and in painting too, I can easily do without the dear Lord, but I can’t, suffering as I do, do without something greater than myself, which is my life, the power to create.
And if frustrated in this power physically, we try to create thoughts instead of children; in that way, we’re part of humanity all the same. And in a painting I’d like to say something consoling, like a piece of music. I’d like to paint men or women with that ‘je ne sais quoi’ of the eternal, of which the halo used to be the symbol, and which we try to achieve through the radiance itself, through the vibrancy of our colorations.
There is a lot in these two paragraphs. Some would call it crazy mad. I call it inspired madness, positive madness. A creator expressing his Spirit through his creations and the creations expressing spirit through him. But above all it’s his mad enthusiasm, his passion, his “suffering”, to do something greater than himself which is what gives him “the power to create”.
When you hit a Wall, know you will keep going. Passion will get you through. You will suffer through the Wall. Passion will dissolve it. Madness will dissolve it. Enthusiasm will dissolve it. Inspiration will dissolve it. It is a passion and enthusiasm for what Plato called form, or forms, to trans-form the world inside, into a new form, outside. The beauty of sunflowers into a painting, like van Gogh, the “elegance” of mathematics into a theory of Relativity, like Einstein.
Out of the chaos of passion comes the passion transformed into a creation, “trans” coming from the latin meaning “on the other side of”. The creator’s passion, by inspiration, moves beauty or elegance onto the other side, from their inner world to this outer world of objects.
You suffer through each Wall. In fact, Walls can be exciting as they give you problems to overcome which fuels your inspiration even more. Unlike the modern interpretation of passion, which usually means something romantic, passion is the drive to do what you love. Allow your passion for doing what you love to empower you to forget the modern passion for “addictions”.
Certain creators take pains to create in ways that their work can be easily understood, accessible to someone on the train into work, or bored on a beach, but wouldn’t it be wonderful to have someone be absorbed, made ecstatic by your creation, like the passion in a van Gogh painting or a Michelangelo sculpture or your favorite writer or artist or musician?
Technique and talent are important, but passion, madness and enthusiasm are fundamental.
If you start using words like inspiration, madness, enthusiasm, Spirit, people either don’t respond, or change the subject by using lexical prisons like “Oh, that’s interesting”. This demeans conversation into statement only, and dissolves your passion into flatness. How can we ever arrive at a new positive thesis, a new creation, passionately, when the response is not a response but a flat Wall?
Look for mentors, peers who use enthusiastic, inspired, passionate, mad! They’re probably black sheep like you. They don’t allow lexical prisons to be another Wall against creation. They dissolve the Walls of lexical prisons by being enthusiastic, passionate, mad, by embracing the Imagination, moving towards it, not away from it. You may not find too many of them, but when you find one they inspire you, enthuse you with passion and positive madness, because in the end mentors are like friends, like books, I’d rather have one great one than a library of bad ones.
So thanks for listening. I started with a quote from an American poet, but like last time, I’m going to end this episode with an Irish proverb. This one literally means:
The eye must drain what pains the heart.
Or, Tears must drain what pains the heart.
In Irish words are arranged differently than English so that when we say we’re sad in Irish the literal translation means “sadness is on me” but in English English that’d be a detached “I am sorry”. The same goes with this proverb. There is more emotion, and a cleansing of the suffering heart through tears.
An rud a ghoilleas ar an gcroí caithfidh an t-súil é a shileas.
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Slán libh agus go n-éirí an bóthar libh.