The Thin Gray Line

by Craig B.

“Creation is messy. You want genius, you get madness; two sides of the same coin.” – Steve Jobs

“At the edge of madness you howl diamonds and pearls.” – Aberjhani

The Ninth Symphony. The Sistine Chapel. Classical Cynicism. The human mind is a marvelous thing. We’ve gone from stone tools to quantum mechanics in a surprisingly short time. We’ve stood on the shoulders of giants. But if I was to tell you that many of Beethoven’s contemporaries described him as psychotic and unapproachable, that Michelangelo was so compulsively focused that he rarely bathed or changed his clothes, or that Diogenes had a predilection for urinating on people he didn’t like…well, you might start questioning whether they were giants or just plain crazy.

The thin gray line between genius and insanity has always fascinated me. Why are so many brilliant people so messed up? Is insanity a muse? Do epiphanies require abnormal thinking? I’m not sure I know the answer to these questions. What I do know is that the following individuals offered us something great, often at the expense of their own well-being.

In the Realms of the Unreal

Henry Darger was reclusive. In fact, he was so reclusive, his landlords didn’t know about his 15,000 page manuscript until they were cleaning out his apartment after he died. Darger’s novel, titled “The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion” has never been published in its entirety, but the illustrations for his epic have traveled the world. I saw an exhibit at the Frye Museum in 2006 and I’ve never forgotten it. Darger’s eerie innocence, abnormal iconography, and unique color palette all combine to create an aesthetic that is nothing short of haunting.

Piper at the Gates of Dawn

Syd Barrett led an erratic life. Between drugs and schizophrenia, he had little choice. His transformation, both mentally and physically, was so radical that he wasn’t even recognized by his friends when he dropped in for a studio visit several years after being kicked out of the band. When Roger Waters finally realized who Barrett was, he wept; Waters was currently recording Shine on You Crazy Diamond, an homage to the man standing in front of him. Despite Barrett’s crippling infliction, he created some of the most original and memorable psychedelic music of the 60’s.

My Inventions and Other Writings

One of my favorite Nikola Tesla biographies is this colorful rant from The Oatmeal. However, The Oatmeal fails to mention that Tesla was obsessive compulsive, haunted by visions, and conducted experiments that occasionally bordered on life-threatening. Some of the stories are apocryphal; Tesla was also a compulsive spinner of yarns. Still, he paved the way for wireless communication, remote control technology, neon lighting, and all sorts of other really cool things.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Philip K. Dick was as disturbed and paranoid as his writing, especially later in life. He would receive messages from a pink beam of light that beamed into his forehead. He sometimes thought he was living two lives simultaneously. He accused numerous people of vast political conspiracies. But, without his illness, it’s hard to say whether he would have made so many philosophically unnerving stories.

The Complete Poems

William Blake spent the bulk of his life concocting poetry, dissertations, and illustrations centered on his own mythology and spiritual pantheon. In many respects, Blake isn’t too different than, say, Tolkien or Lovecraft, with the notable exception that neither Tolkien nor Lovecraft believed they were describing reality. Blake would also recount celestial visitations and describe lengthy conversations he’d had with dead people. However he received his motivation, Blake’s work resonates with a pomp and grandeur realized in few other artists.

I hope you enjoy these titles! Be sure to comment with any additional titles you discover so I can add them to my list.


Tags: , , ,


4 responses to “The Thin Gray Line”

  1. Darren says:

    Delightful and original – thank you!

  2. Ruth Griffith says:

    Awesome blog post! Really fascinating. Thank you–

Leave a reply (comments are moderated before posting)