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The poet and the madman.

A selection from Orthodoxy by G.K Chesterton. Woven between the following paragraphs lies a lucid description of the battle I often find myself in. This tension between logic and imagination. No sense in writing it myself when I found he had already captured my thoughts with far more eloquence. Enjoy.

There is a notion adrift everywhere that imagination, especially mystical imagination, is dangerous to man’s mental balance. Poets are commonly spoken of as psychologically unreliable; and generally there is a vague association between wreathing laurels in your hair and sticking straws in it. Facts and history utterly contradict this view. Most of the very great poets have been not only sane, but extremely business-like; and if Shakespeare ever really held horses, it was because he was much the safest man to hold them. Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom.

I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination. Artistic paternity is as wholesome as physical paternity. Moreover, it is worthy of remark that when a poet really was morbid it was commonly because he had some weak spot of rationality on his brain. Poe, for instance, really was morbid; not because he was poetical, but because he was specially analytical. Even chess was too poetical for him; he disliked chess because it was full of knights and castles, like a poem. He avowedly preferred the black discs of draughts, because they were more like the mere black dots on a diagram.

Perhaps the strongest case of all is this: that only one great English poet went mad, Cowper. And he was definitely driven mad by logic, by the ugly and alien logic of predestination. Poetry was not the disease, but the medicine; poetry partly kept him in health. He could sometimes forget the red and thirsty hell to which his hideous necessitarianism dragged him among the wide waters and the white flat lilies of the Ouse. He was damned by John Calvin; he was almost saved by John Gilpin. Everywhere we see that men do not go mad by dreaming. Critics are much madder than poets. Homer is complete and calm enough; it is his critics who tear him into extravagant tatters. Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only some of his critics who have discovered that he was somebody else. And though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.

The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion, like the physical exhaustion of Mr. Holbein. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.

G.K Chesterton – Orthodoxy.


Comment from nate
Time August 27, 2008 at 4:47 pm

Great post as usual. I liked your obedience one as well, but didn’t comment.

here’s a poem for you:

A cellophane wrapper
as i read destruction
around the world
before it is balled up.
discarded into the garbage

Comment from Liam
Time December 3, 2009 at 11:46 pm

Hhmm. Interesting. I’m busy reading Chesterton’s book at the moment and this section in the opening chapter had the opposite effect on me – it has turned me off the book to some extent, especially since this forms one of the premises of Chestertons line of reasoning.

Basically Chesterton’s argument goes as follows: most poets and artists are sane; some mathematicians and chess players have gone mad; therefore reason potentially leads to insanity. This is very poor ‘evidence’ for the case he’s trying to make and the non sequiturs that provide the ‘reasoning’ that get us to the proposed conclusion are impossible to overlook. Did he not consider troubled lives of many artists or poets in history as counter examples (Van Gogh anyone ?), or the overwhelming number of scientists, mathematicians or engineers who show absolutely none of the tendencies you’d associate with a nutter (the entire list of Nobel lauriets say – there were plenty of perfectly sane great scientific minds in his day too Hamilton, Clifford, Grassman etc.) ? Did he not notice that artistic and mathematical genius are not mutually exclusive – surely Chesterton had heard of Da Vinci ?

No, Chesterton’s examples are cherry picked his reasoning laughable. It is know that certain mental disorders like Aspergers syndrome when combined with high intelligence can lead to great artistic and scientific / mathematical talent and creativity. Manic depression is also associated with creativity in the arts and science but the connection is not as well understood. In other words the correlation between some mental disorders, combined with high intelligence, and extreme talent in both the arts and sciences have to do with brain physiology and brain chemistry, not with a defect in reason itself. Chesterton saw a part of the correlation but his identification of a cause was wish-thinking.

Of course, Chesterton was writing in the late 19th century and so couldn’t have been aware of the research that would reveal the real causes of his ‘evidence for imagination and faith over reason’ as being unrelated to some inherent virtue of imagination. The best then that we could say of Chesterton’s argument is that it constitutes an argument from ignorance (I observe X and don’t know why it happens, therefore X must by due to insert-myth-or-superstition-here). This is a logical fallacy.

Anyway, a friend asked me to read Chesterton’s book, and when I’m done I’ll probably put up a blog post if you’re interested.

Comment from richard
Time June 7, 2011 at 11:43 am

mathematicia’s don’t go crazy–they’re born “crazy” or something like it. Cutting edge mathematical/scientific idea are almost necessarily hyper counter-intuitive & the minds that can wrap around these idea are usually not able to deal well with ordinary matters. Most highly talented people have problems with some simple things–like Einstein never being able to learn to drive a car. Poetry & are may be abstruse but usually aren’t counter-intuitive–you don’t have to be nuts to write great poetry–but you gotta be at least very, very weird to get a handle on quantum physics

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