“There is no great genius without a mixture of madness” – Aristotle
This week, we watched Man On the Moon, which featured Jim Carey’s portrayal of Andy Kaufman. I’m an Andy Kaufman fanatic, and I was so happy to get to share this with someone who wasn’t familiar with Kaufman.
From the outside, Andy Kaufman can seem to verge on the border of madness to many. Some people get him, others don’t. Madness is a tough issue to deal with philosophically. From the outside, many things can look like madness, but often these are the next “great” ideas of history. For example, heliocentrism. There seems to be a fine line between madness and genius. Nietzsche thought the “over man” or Übermensch would be the next step in the evolutionary process for man – or perhaps more accurately, as a goal the human race can set for itself. An Übermensch establishes his own values and works to enhance humanity. To others who aren’t on this level, it can easily seem to be madness, and the Übermensch can be laughed at or persecuted.
Is there necessarily a connection between madness, genius, and perhaps even (mental?) illness?
For some reason I feel compelled to tell the story of the suicidal snail. Parasitism (one organism living on or within a host at the host’s expense) plays a large role in biology and especially entomology. Acts of parasitism require vast efforts** of coevolution (**excuse the anthropomorphism, but this is a philosophy blog, and I feel like some things are expressed easier by allowing ourselves to gain the perspective of the model versus looking at it completely objectively. In no way am I indicating that evolution is an “intentional” or “designed” process). In so many ways, biological illness is a form of parasitism. Madness is often coupled with a biological illness; for F. Scott Fitzgerald it was clinical depression, for Jack Kerouac it was schizophrenia, for Kaufman it was cancer. Manet and Gauguin suffered from Syphilis and then schizophrenia (as a result of the neuro-degradation) and eventually succumbed to the disease. Nietzsche, Churchill, Hitler… all men with “before their time” or “crazy” ideas and all played very influential roles in history; all also had Syphilis and resulting neuro-degradation into what can only be considered madness.
Back to the suicidal snail. Snails infected with the Leucochloridium fluke (a worm-like parasite) abandon the shade for the sunny areas at the top of vegetation where birds (the fluke’s next host) will find them and eat their tentacles. The snail does not die as a result of its tentacles being consumed by the bird, instead they regenerate allowing for the flukes to continue to grow within the snail. The infected birds then poop spreading more flukes around the forest for more snails to consume. This video does a much better job of describing the phenomenon than I can. My point (again, my anthropomorphism caveat applies):
The snail appears “crazy” to its peers. This “lower level” creature still exhibits madness when affected by a physical disorder/biological illness. Do the other snails regard this creature as a genius? As a “crazy” snail? Before his time? Unlikely.
I’m not entirely sure I have answered your question. Biologically, I have addressed and maintain the statement that the men and women that we have historically regarded as great thinkers or artists (or both) have been simultaneously battling some sort of biological illness, and predominantly mental illnesses. If the next level in evolution was truly this idea of an ubermensch then the cause of the biological illness (which increased neurological degradation) would also need to have an increase in fecundity. Meaning: there must be a connection between the “crazy” and the production of viable offspring. For the most part, the people that I have cited in my answer died at a young age often at their own hands.
For Nietzsche, becoming an ubermensch was likely better understood as a choice than necessarily as a literal evolution, although I think this opens up some interesting areas of discussion that are bigger than today’s blog post:
- Can the mental affect the biological? I haven’t done enough research to make a solid argument, but I know I’ve read studies that at least suggest the possibility that the way we think can affect us physically (i.e., positive thinking). So the question for me might be: were these creative people throughout history geniuses because they were physically ill or did they become physically ill because of their genius?
- Does humanity still fit the evolutionary paradigm? A similar topic almost came up with the film last week, because we mentioned the movie Idiocracy in our brainstorming. Fecundity is part of the evolution equation, but fitness to survive is also important. What I’m asking is: with the extensive social network and support that humans have, are we still selecting for the most fit? We have designed systems that a do a very good job at protecting the weakest in our species. From a humanist perspective that’s an amazingly wonderful accomplishment, but what does that mean from an evolutionary perspective? Can we intentionally affect our own evolutionary path? I may need to explain that better, but I think it’s best saved for another post.
The other question that comes to mind for me when thinking about Andy Kaufman is how can we tell the difference between true madness, and great ideas that are ahead of their time? Is there any criteria we can use to make that judgment?
I don’t believe that we can identify “great ideas that are ahead of their time” – except retrospectively. Kaufman could be considered ahead of his time… but I think he was also appropriate for his time. He stood out, he was misunderstood. He was generally disliked. Most artists and philosophers of their time shared the same social outcast, excommunication, distrust, and general lack of appreciation. Current generations seek influence from the past because culture, style and movements are generally cyclical. So, the “true madness” that is exhibited can be tied to the biological illness that is pre-existing (even if undiagnosed). This does not mean that we should disregard all ideas that come from someone who is sick. It simply means that we cannot state that they are on some higher evolutionary level because of their illness. Is it a fluke (pun-intended) that we take some people in history seriously and not others?
On one level, this retrospective evaluation makes sense, but I think it’s also problematic in a way. This is just another version of “does it stand the test of time?” So much of that is left up to chance – does the work survive, does the right person see it and re-publicize it later? However, I’m not sure there is another way to do it. Can we use reason to evaluate madness?
Next week’s film: My Big Fat Greek Wedding