Creativity Belongs to the Person, not to Disease
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Creativity Belongs to the Person, not to Disease

creativity, patho-biography, Saint Teresa, visions

In the paper, “From the Visions of Saint Teresa of Jesus to the Voices of Schizophrenia,” Cangas, Sass, and Pérez-Álvarez (2008) take an original approach to patho-biography that is very welcome.

The temptation to designate historical individuals or characters of fiction as suffering from mental disease has always produced disagreeable feelings in me. This sort of abuse of psychiatry and of the people in question is parallel to the abuse by the media or lay citizens when they describe, say, an especially violent murderer as a schizophrenic—forgetting that the vast majority of people with schizophrenia are not in the least violent. Having read Santa Teresa’s writings during my adolescence, well before I even considered entering medicine, I reacted to comments about her alleged psychiatric illnesses with uneasiness, to put it mildly. The Santa Teresa of La Vida de la Santa Madre Teresa de Jesús (her autobiography), of the Camino de Perfección, and of the El Castillo Interior was surely not a mental patient, it seemed to me. The same would apply to San Juan de La Cruz, Jean D’Arc, Don Quijote, Sancho Panza, Edipus, and Clitemnestra, to mention a few. Even van Gogh’s paintings did not seem to me the productions of a patient with schizophrenia or epilepsy. Of course all of them may have suffered, at certain periods of life, symptoms attributable to a mental disorder, but their creativity rested elsewhere, and was often manifest during healthy periods of their lives. After years spent fighting the stigma of mental diseases, and after organizing several exhibitions of works of art of people with mental diseases, we came to the conclusion that creativity and singularity belong to the person, not to the illness. Some of the diseases of these individuals may have being accidents (van Gogh’s hallucinations and psychotic symptoms, for example, were most probably due to intoxications with absinthe, then rich in hallucinogenic alkaloids such as tujone), or, together with other life circumstances, may have had unspecific influences on the person’s condition. In contrast with many other psychiatric disorders that are represented in ancient Greek and Roman literature, there are no descriptions of individuals with schizophrenia in the Greek and Roman literature dating from the fifth century bc to the beginning of the second century Ad (Evans et al. 2003), and several authors have speculated that schizophrenia did not exist before the eighteenth century (Ellard 1987).

Caution is important when dealing with mental health and religious issues in contrast with creativity. The creativity of people suffering from bipolar disorders is well recognized (Jamison 1993) and [End Page 277] the same applies to alcohol and drug intoxication. Tellenbach (1986) has also written on the creativity of depressed persons, although he refers more to the disposition of mood (Schwermut) than to clinical depression as such. The link between melancholia and genius put forward by Aristotle has often been misinterpreted. The philosopher was considering the melancholic temperament and not the melancholic illness as we would understand it today. Of the four temperaments, it is in his view only the melancholic that is gifted with creativity. The sanguine person seeks the immediate pleasures of life, the choleric one considers himself powerful and dedicates himself to manifesting this power, and the phlegmatic individual is disconnected from life and seeks to live without effort or pleasure. The melancholic temperament leads to creativity because of the predominance of doubt, reflection, and dissatisfaction with the miseries of life.

Freud’s notion of religiosity as a collective obsessive neurosis is totally mistaken, in my view. The three main themes of obsessions are cleanliness, order, and guilt. In none of these cases is the theme the goal of the action; rather, it is a strategy to contain anxiety. As a consequence, patients with obsessions and compulsions about dirt and cleanliness tend to be dirty themselves, because the real purpose of their compulsions is not in fact to be clean but rather to satisfy a ritual. When order...