Madness, Divinest Sense and This Year's Oscars

In response to John Belushi's death from an overdose of heroin and cocaine in 1982, Dan Aykroyd reportedly attempted to explain Belushi's drug use by saying, in effect, great talent sometimes requires excessive vices to feed it. Aykroyd reinforced the common view that sometimes hugely talented people are borne along by excessive desires -- for drugs, for alcohol, for sex, for power, for fame. Giving in to these desires helps fuel the creative process and yields extraordinary success.

It can also lead to tragedy. Philip Seymour Hoffman, who by unanimous acclaim was one of the most talented actors of his generation, recently died of a heroin overdose. Woody Allen's family dysfunction is being publicly fought out in the pages of The New York Times. Tiger Woods' wantonly insatiable appetite for sex destroyed his family and made a mockery of his wholesome image. The filmmaker Roman Polanski's legal entanglement in the wake being charged with the rape of a 13-year-old girl led him to flee the country. Lance Armstrong, Justin Bieber, Alex Rodriguez, Dennis Rodman, Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse -- the list goes on.

The link between talent and tragedy has ancient origins. In his play The Bacchae, the ancient Greek playwright Euripides describes an epic struggle between Pentheus, the mythological King of Thebes who represents the Athenian ideal of rational order and restraint, and Dionysus, the god of ecstasy, wine and madness, who represents the state of nature -- a world of libertine excess. As Euripides recounts the struggle, he argues that the good life ultimately requires a balance of both.

Along the way, however, Euripides firmly establishes the idea that creativity comes from being possessed by the gods, which results in a state of mind he calls madness. By madness, he doesn't mean specifically psychotic in the modern diagnostic sense; rather, he means generally being possessed by a power you can't control, at least not fully. The consequences, Euripides suggests, can be either divine or demonic: a person can become either highly creative or highly destructive -- or, ideally, find a balance. At least in the play, this balance is never found, which is why The Bacchae turns out to be a tragedy.

Make no mistake, some hugely talented people take their struggles, addictions and traumas -- depression in William Styron's case -- and ultimately use them as part of their artistic toolbox. But the struggles, addictions and traumas don't create the talent. Depression didn't make William Styron a great writer.

The bottom line, it seems to me, is that people who give in to excessive desires for drugs, or alcohol, or sex, or power, or fame -- or any combination of these -- are either giving in to excessive desires or suffering from the disease of addiction. When this happens, they are out of control -- not more creative, not more successful, just out of control. They should be loved and supported, and they should aggressively seek treatment. We shouldn't accept that being out of control contributes to their creativity or success. In fact, by doing that we are collectively contributing to their tragic downfall.

The poet in the modern era to quote on this matter is Emily Dickinson, who says, "Much Madness is divinest Sense -- To a discerning Eye." Her point, made later in the poem, is that the dominant culture -- the majority, she names it -- gets to make the call about what's madness and what's sensible. That's where the problem lies: Putting the dominant culture in charge. In our culture, creativity and success often excuse those who give free reign to excessive desires and even encourage those facing addiction to slip even further into its grip. If you're successful, you can run wild. You can have whatever and whoever you want. And the dominant culture will celebrate both your successes and your excesses. And most of the time you can buy your way out of trouble.

It seems to me that this tendency to excuse libertine excesses by talented people inverts our moral hierarchy, since it basically says that those whom we acclaim as best are excused for acting the worst. Here our behavior as cultural consumers gets called into question. We have the responsibility to champion expressions of human creativity and accomplishment that emerge from the overlap of creativity and moral excellence, not the overlap of creativity and libertine excess.

On these terms alone, we should champion depictions of moral courage, as depicted by 12 Years A Slave, Captain Phillips, and perhaps Gravity. And we should champion exercises in excess only if they are somehow redeemed or shown to be destructive, not if they are merely glorified, as in American Hustle and Wolf of Wall Street. When we honor cynically-glib depictions of human behavior at its worst, we turn tragedy into travesty. Our best talents, and our highest aspirations, deserve better.