Book Review : Depression as Source of Creativity

Churchill's Black Dog, Kafka's Mice and Other Phenomena of the Human Mind by Anthony Storr (Grove Press: $19.95; 288 pages)

The connection between creativity and madness has long been observed and brooded about. It's probably a matter of degree. People who are a little bit different from the mainstream are considered creative. People who are a lot different are considered crazy.

But that explanation doesn't reach the heart of the matter. It simply describes the phenomenon without getting inside it. Many questions can still profitably be asked: Where do these differences come from? What accounts for their intensity? Why do some people use them as assets while for others they are great liabilities?

Anthony Storr, a British psychiatrist, addresses these questions and many related to them in three remarkably lucid and revealing profiles--of Winston Churchill, Franz Kafka and Isaac Newton, all of whom suffered severe and debilitating depressions throughout their lives but had great achievements nonetheless. The profiles are the first three chapters of his collection of essays, "Churchill's Black Dog, Kafka's Mice and Other Phenomena of the Human Mind," and they are worth the price of the book.

Storr argues that the sources of the depression of Churchill, Kafka and Newton were the same as the sources of their achievements: an extremely unhappy childhood that haunted each all of his life.

Bottomless Hole Inside a Man

The profile of Churchill is especially compelling. He was an unloved child who developed inside of himself a bottomless hole that he spent his life trying to fill with accomplishments and the roar of the crowd.

As long as he was achieving, he could hold his demons at bay, though the formula always demanded more and more accomplishments to overcome the terrible self-image within.

When the achievements were interrupted or stopped altogether, Churchill had no internal resources to draw on and fell into despair. "I have achieved a great deal to achieve nothing in the end," he said and spent the last years of his long life in his sitting room, staring into the fire.

"One salient characteristic of adults who suffer from depression is their dependence on external sources to maintain self-esteem," Storr writes. Churchill "remained hungry--hungry for fame, for adulation, for success and for power; and although he gained all these in full measure, the end of his life showed that he never assimilated them into himself, but remained unsatisfied."

Ironically, Storr writes, if Churchill had been a happier man, less driven to achieve, less driven to overcome despair with fantasy, he probably would not have been there in 1940 to rouse England to defend itself against the German onslaught.

"In that dark time," he says, "what England needed was not a shrewd, equable, balanced leader. She needed a prophet, a visionary, a man who could dream dreams of victory when all seemed lost."

It was a happy coincidence of the product of Churchill's inner turmoil and the needs of the world.

Ruled by Tyrannical Father

Similarly, in the case of Franz Kafka, the world benefited (this time in literature) from his personal unhappiness. "Kafka's writing is so bound up with the more pathological parts of his personality that, if he had become happier, his drive to write might have been greatly diminished."

The pathological parts of Kafka's personality were caused by an irrational and tyrannical father, which gave young Franz a view of the world as a hostile, uncontrollable place, a vision familiar to everyone who has read his work.

Kafka, Storr says, "described in his novels and short stories what it is like to feel oneself helplessly at the mercy of people who are not only powerful but also remote, inaccessible and entirely arbitrary in their actions."

Haven't we all had bosses like that?

Exploring Mind of a Genius

Like Churchill and Kafka, Isaac Newton also had a difficult childhood: He was abandoned by his mother (his father having died before he was born) and grew up emotionally isolated.

In another book, "Solitude" (Free Press)--a wonderful book in its own right--Storr argues that isolation is frequently associated with supreme abstract mental achievement, and here he offers Newton as a case in point.

"Newton shared his absence of close personal ties with Descartes, Locke, Hobbes, Hume, Pascal, Spinoza, Kant, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein--in short, with many of the world's greatest thinkers," Storr says.

Many Odd People

Geniuses tend to be odd people, and Newton was both a great genius and very, very odd. Though Storr's explanation of Newton is less successful than his explanations of Churchill and Kafka, his exploration of Newton's mind is revealing as far as it goes.

The remaining essays in the book are less broad-based than the first three, but no matter. There's enough thought-provoking material at the beginning to make up for the paucity at the end.

The sources of creativity and their relationship to genius and madness remain enigmatic, but Storr has lifted one of the veils.

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