15. 7. 2020

English version | Tales of ordinary madness

by Ana Murcho


“Men called me crazy; but science has not yet taught us whether madness is supreme intelligence or not, if almost everything that is glory, if everything that is depth does not come from the disease of thought, in an exalted spirit mood at the expense of the general intellect.” Edgar Allan Poe lived attracted by the abyss, constantly seduced by a fantastic melancholy, a mixture of contradictory moods and extreme feelings that put him in a dangerous limbo between sanity and delirium. He was not the only one.

Now they are just breakfast cereals, but in the beginning, their objective was different - and well defined: to promote sexual puritanism, which means the decay of the soul and the body. Early in the morning. And if all of this seems excessive, and a little crazy, that’s because it is. After reading this text, you will never pick up a Kellogg’s package in the same way. Because you will know that they were designed to combat masturbation, which its inventor called “solitary addiction.” And who was its inventor? John Harvey Kellogg was born in Tyrone Township, Michigan, in the middle century, where he stood out as a thinker and doctor. His devotion to something superior was so great that he had a 40-year marriage - a 40-year marriage without sex, I mean, because all eight of his children were adopted. John believed that illness (physical and mental) and sin were intertwined and that the culmination of all addictions was masturbation.

The act was so “dangerous” that Kellogg bothered to catalog 39 symptoms experienced by those who masturbated, including acne, poor posture, epilepsy, palpitations, boldness (?) and mood swings. Fortunately, there was a way out of this evil: with a healthy diet, temptations could be eased. For him, meat and other “tasty” foods increased sexual appetite. The key to all purity would be in bland foods, supposedly libido inhibitors. For example? Corn. Legend has it that in 1894, when he was working at Battle Creek Sanitarium, his brother, Will Keith Kellogg, would have forgotten a corncob in the oven, which should be served to patients. Instead of sending it to the trash, they crushed it and obtained flakes with minimal flavor. Result: bodies and souls were halfway to salvation. Three years later, they founded the Sanitas Food Company, which would eventually be renamed the Kellogg Company when Will became a majority partner - and decided to add sugar (blasphemy!) to make the product more interesting. And, we believe, more tempting. It is said that the two never spoke again. And that if John Harvey Kellogg, part genius, part mad, was not completely beveled, he was very close to that.

"Up close, nobody is normal." The statement, which is actually a verse, is part of the song Vaca Profana, sung in two voices by Caetano Veloso and Maria Gadú, and sums up the idea that, if analyzed with a magnifying glass, almost none of us are totally sane - even if, in social terms, we are used to being seen as "serious" or "balanced" or "stable". And even if all of this is nothing more than an anthropological construction that only serves to make us feel more or less out of place compared to others, the so-called “geniuses”, those who are recognized with exacerbated brilliance, an unordinary mental capacity, a first-degree intellect and an unusual creative talent are usually placed on the same scale as the “others” - the crazy ones. How many times have we heard the expression “crazy genius”? More than we can count. Perhaps this expression is not a pejorative term per se, but it does have a truth. Perhaps the geniuses, in fact, have a background of madness, and perhaps that madness is so wonderful, incredible, and extraordinary that it justifies not only their creations, but part of their modus operandi. If so, there is no harm to this world if all geniuses are, in fact, kind of crazy. 

Take the case of Buckminster Fuller, a visionary American inventor who is remembered for developing, among other things, the “Geodesic Dome”. He had the habit of using three clocks in order to know the time in different time zones. So far, so good. But over the years, his obsession with time became more... obsessive. Between 1915 and 1983, he kept a diary of his daily life, which he updated every 15 minutes. Not very handy, given the amount of material he had to include - and the times he was "forced" to stop his activities. In any case, Fuller was determined, and the end result, with the pompous title "Dymaxion Chronofile", is an 82-meter-high pile, available for consultation at Stanford University. But does madness have anything to do with genius? At the beginning of the 20th century, the theme was one being discussed by many thinkers. "When a superior intellect joins a psychopathic temperament, the best conditions are created for the emergence of that kind of effective genius that goes into history books," said American philosopher and psychologist William James. The reason was simple. People with this rare combo would obsessively pursue their ideas and goals, and that would make them different from everyone else. However, it was only in the 70s that the subject was investigated in a scientific way. Nancy Andreasen, a neuropsychiatrist at the University of Iowa, carried out a study in which she observed 30 highly proven writers: 80% revealed regular mood disorders (down from 30% in the so-called control group) and 43% met the criteria diagnosed with some form of manic-depressive illness (whereas in the control group only one in ten people found this illness). During the intervention, two writers committed suicide, but Andreasen, who won the National Medal of Science in 2000, considered that this was not relevant to his research. The result of this work is considered, until today, the first of many proofs that there is (some) connection between a certain dose of madness and high doses of creativity.

High doses of creativity is almost an understatement (and an insult) to characterize the work of Salvador Dalí i Domènech, 1st Marquis of Dalí de Púbol, which the world recognizes as simply Salvador Dalí. Before he was born, his mother had already given birth to another child, with the same name - who died at the age of 22 months, due to a stomach infection. For better or for worse, the second Salvador Dalí had enormous resemblances to the original and the parents began to suspect that he was the reincarnation of the missing son. Creepy? Much. But there’s more. When Dalí, the future surrealist master, was five years old, his parents made a point of sharing their strange belief with him. How? Taking him to the late brother's grave. This had a huge psychological impact on Dalí, who would become a renowned Spanish painter, whose work would come to have several allusions to the dead child that he believed to be the best part of himself. This was more than enough to ruin Dalí’s childhood, one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, so when he started throwing friends from bridges without feeling remorse, nobody was surprised. The same must have happened when he ate an injured bat that was covered in ants. “Dalí being Dalí”, they must have thought. As an adult, we notice his adoration for Hitler (one of his last paintings, dated 1973, is called Hitler Masturbating) or the time he gave a lecture and insisted on wearing a diving suit - only he was about to suffocate, and when that happened the audience thought it was part of the performance. Nothing about Dalí is conventional: his eccentric appearance, his unusual marriage, his obsession with money. All of this is, in one way or another, hiding in his paintings, where nothing is obvious at first glance. How do you justify this kind of bizarre life and great art? No, it’s not with drug use. Dalí used to say, with some pride, “I don’t do drugs. I am drugs.” It is with a hint of madness, which is only accessible to geniuses.

On the opposite spectrum is Vincent Van Gogh. Less solar, greyer, tortured by countless ghosts, he had an errant existence, in which he alternated fast rhythms of production with moments of profound sadness. Many experts believe that he suffered from xanthopsia, that is, he saw objects in a more yellow tone, and that is why he intensified this color in his paintings. Truth or myth, it is certain that he suffered from depression, bipolarity and epilepsy - the latter accentuated by the excessive consumption of absinthe. Today he is one of the most influential figures in the history of Western culture, but in 1888 he was an unknown and unsuccessful painter.

It was in that year that he decided to cut his own ear (some say that, in fact, he only cut the lobe) with a razor and had it delivered to a friend (here the versions also differ, some guarantee that the recipient of the "object" was, in fact, a prostitute) as an act of sacrifice and compassion. The reason why Van Gogh committed such madness was never known. Theories multiply: some suggest that he was unable to draw his ear perfectly in his self-portrait and, desperately, decided to eradicate the problem completely; others point out as a cause a discussion with the painter Paul Gauguin; more recently, the possibility arose that the Dutchman could not bear the news, which he would have received on the fateful night, that his brother, Theo, his best friend, was going to get married. One thing is certain, the ear and Van Gogh have become synonymous, as much as the genius is confused with the painting The Starry Night. For different reasons, of course. Eighteen months after that insane act, the artist, who sold only one painting in his lifetime, would actually die, in an episode shrouded in mystery: he left the hostel where he was staying in the small town of Auvers-sur-Oise in France in the morning and when he returned, already at night, he was covered in blood. He told the owners of the establishment that he had tried to kill himself. They quickly called a doctor, as well as his brother, only Vincent Van Gogh did not resist his injuries and died on the morning of July 29, 1890. The official cause was suicide. Several biographers say that the painter tried to cover for two friends who shot him by accident. Deep down, none of that matters. The world was too cruel for this sensitive man, who left hundreds of letters with thoughts like this: “I'm not sure of anything, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.” 

Get together and go - but go to a place where the sun never ceases to shine, and where everything is good, and bright, and happy. This could be how the hypothetical book began, in which the less remarkable achievements of Edvard Munch, Francisco Goya, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath were told. Perhaps this way we would have a different ending - a better ending. All incredibly incredible artists. Is it necessary to remember that Munch, besides being the author of the masterpiece The Scream, was one of the precursors of German impressionism and expressionism? And that Goya remains, to this day, one of the biggest names in Spanish painting? And that Woolf was one of the most revolutionary writers of the 20th century, paving the way for a new type of literature written by women? And that Plath left us with the most beautiful poems ever written? Unfortunately, they all had inner demons that consumed their spirit and tranquility. We could be simplistic and decide that they suffered from depression, but inwardly it was much more than that. Munch, like Goya, had hallucinations, nervous breakdowns and was delusional. Even so, the two ended up dying when they were old. Woolf and Plath, on the other hand, lost between the visible reality and the possibility of any relief that they did not know where or how to find, could not bear the weight of the world, and both ended up committing suicide. So did Ernest Hemingway - who killed himself with the same pistol his father used to end his own life - and Mário de Sá-Carneiro, who took five bottles of strychnine arsenate to, once and for all, break free from the "labyrinth of himself." He was only 25 years old. But we do not want to end this memory piece in a deadly tone, so we want remember someone who made folly something weightless. 

He published his first work of poetry when he was only 14 years old. Usually forgotten in favor of William Shakespeare, Lord Byron was also one of the greatest figures who originated in her majesty's lands. In 1805, when he was studying at Trinity College, he intended to take Boatswain, his dog, with him, but the institution did not accept the presence of dogs. Anxious to have a pet, Byron decided to adopt a bear as a companion - which he kept in his room. In the absence of rules to prohibit the presence of the animal, the university was forced to accept the eccentricity of English man. Years later, when he was already a renowned artist, he ended up turning his house into a small Noah's Ark. According to the testimony given by Percy Shelley, husband of Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein, Byron supposedly had ten horses, eight ‘huge’ dogs, three monkeys, five cats, an eagle, a crow and a falcon. And all of them, with the exception of horses, roamed freely through the rooms, as if they owned the place. Later, Shelley added that the poet also had five peacocks, two spotted chickens and an exotic specimen that this scribe was unable to identify - one day he found them all at the top of the grand staircase of what he called “Circean Palace”. We leave you, the reader, to judge the dose of madness to give to the peculiar Lord Byron.

*Originally published on Vogue Portugal's The Madness Issue.