The Madness in Greatness
Narratives of the greats in history often converge in key areas. For one, it is often easy to see that those who became masters at their craft dedicated their entire life to being the best. Very few remember those individuals that were locally or nationally recognized for the arts or sciences, but we tend to recognize the names of individuals that revolutionized particular fields for the entire world. Even then, there lies a large swath of influential figures that may never make it to the history books. Physicists like Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar or artists like Paolo Veronese may never touch the lips of those discussing consequential figures in the world two or three centuries from today. Why? Do these influential figures lack talent? Absolutely not. In fact, many may argue that the work done by these two and other brilliant individuals is seriously impactful and society would be centuries behind on key progressions had they not contributed to the wealth of knowledge that allows humans to prosper. Why then, are some remembered and others not?
I propose that it is the madness of an individual that distinguishes passion from personhood. This madness takes many forms in multiple stories (both fictional and non-fictional) that have affected few people. I will discuss three and explore the reasons that cause these attributes to make some individuals consequential and others, not.
Few individuals in history have been remembered as “troubled geniuses”, but there is one man that always stands out, regardless of who you are talking to.
In the last decade of his life, Vincent van Gogh created 2,100 different pieces of art. This meant that every 36 hours, he had finished a current piece and was getting started on a new one. However, van Gogh’s rapid painting and sheer brilliance was not the product of a joyful man, but rather a disturbed individual with manic depression.
Born with the name of his still-born elder brother, Vincent’s biography is truly disheartening to read. The sheer sadness that Vincent endured throughout his life often contributed to his paintings and expression as an artist. To overcome suffering, Vincent would turn to the brush. When unable to purchase new canvas, he would simply paint over old paintings that he disliked. In fact, throughout his life, Vincent considered himself a failure. However, rather than being a symptom of chronic perfectionism, he considered himself to be a failure due to the lack of demand for his paintings which dictated his perception of the painting's greatness. It is rumored that he only ever sold one painting while alive. Today, van Gogh is considered one of the most brilliant and misunderstood artists of all time. How did we get here?
Vincent van Gogh is infamous for cutting off his ear. The exact motivation behind his self-mutilation is still unknown, both to us and to Vincent, but the events that transpired are not.
Prior to December of 1888, Vincent was collaborating with another artist, Paul Gauguin. Due to the complex nature of Vincent and Gauguin’s relationship and Gauguin’s concerns that Vincent was financially exploiting him for the art that was being created, Gauguin decided to leave and end their professional relationship. Upon hearing this news, Vincent confronted Gauguin with a razor in his hand and began displaying physically threatening behavior. After this altercation, Vincent returned to his home where he was fell into a depressive episode. Historians claim that Vincent was assaulted by voices in his left ear which prompted the incision and severe bleeding.
Vincent continued to suffer from severe mental health issues and in 1889 he checked himself into Saint-Paul-de-Mausole psychiatric hospital. Over the next year, he received treatment and created the infamous painting that we know today as The Starry Night.
As a compulsive artist who painted constantly and was troubled his entire life, Vincent van Gogh embodies a soul that was immersed in the practice of painting. Troubled and frustrated, he painted some of the most consequential pieces in the post-impressionist art movement and still influences the work of artists to this day. At the hands of madness, Vincent van Gogh is remembered as one of the greatest artists of all time and his legacy continues to be appreciated in modern society.
In 2014, the Academy-award-winning film Whiplash, starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, was released to theatres. Whiplash tells the story of an aspiring jazz musician, Andrew, and his abusive teacher, Fletcher. Despite the brilliant score and jazz pieces played throughout the film (seriously, check out the album here), Whiplash is a very dark and ominous tale of a student who desires to be “one of the greats” but struggles with the discouragement and abuse of a teacher who, in a twisted way, also desires to teach the next great.
Without getting too specific in the details of the film, Fletcher demonstrates the idea of submitting yourself in your craft to become one of the greats. However, oftentimes submission is not to the craft itself but rather a version of yourself that embodies the craft. The way this message breaks down in the film is a bit more subtle to point out in individual scenes but there is one story that particularly stands out.
Fletcher and Andrew sit down to have a drink. Fletcher begins by telling a story about the great jazz musician, Charlie Parker, who was significantly influential in the creation of bebop jazz. Fletcher tells Andrew the tale of Charlie Parker and Jo Jonas; the story goes like this:
In 1936, a young Charlie Parker was performing in Kansas City with Count Basie’s Orchestra. During the session, Parker lost track of the chord changes in the middle of the ensemble and attempted to cover up his mistakes and improvise. Despite the error being minor and perhaps unrecognizable by the audience, the drummer for the orchestra, Jo Jonas, was so furious with Parker’s mistake that he yanked the cymbal off his drum set and threw it at Parker, humiliating him in front of the entire audience. Parker immediately left the stage embarrassed and returned home. However, instead of being discouraged by Jonas and the crowd's humiliation, Parker started practicing even more. He practiced so intensely for a year that when he returned to perform again, he played, as Fletcher so eloquently puts it in the film, “the best mother f*cking solo the world has ever heard”.
To justify his abusive behavior and teaching methods, Fletcher tells Andrew that he wants to be the next Jo Jonas and teach the next Charlie Parker. To this, Andrew asks Fletcher if there is a line that separates abuse from successful teaching when it comes to creating the next great musician. Andrew challenges Fletcher's teaching methods by questioning if the methods themselves could discourage the next Charlie Parker, or great musician, from even pursuing music. Fletcher, without skipping a beat, says no, because the next great Charlie Parker would not be discouraged by anything, even the abuse.
While the message is subtle in the story of Parker and Jonas, it is heavily themed throughout Fletcher and Andrew’s relationship and by the end of the film, it is clear that to be the greatest you must submit to your craft.
Not only does Andrew isolate himself and idolize Fletcher's opinion, but he submits to the devilish tendencies of Fletcher's abuse for greatness. The film identifies a trait in greatness that seems surreal and almost fictional itself, but visibly apparent in the grand finale of the film: selling your soul for your craft. Directly seeing the effects that music has on Andrew in the film makes it apparent that jazz is all that Andrew hopes to engulf himself in, but that is not enough. For Andrew to become one of the greats, he has to sell his soul to attain what he wants. This viewpoint, while sadistic, is the very madness that accompanies the distinguished greatness that differentiates the greats from the greatest.
Sir Isaac Newton was born on Christmas Day, 1942, and was small enough to fit in a quart mug. We have all certainly heard of Sir Newton before. For anybody who took basic physics or calculus in high school, Newton’s contributions to mathematics and science are arguably unparalleled to any other historic figure. The foundations of classical mechanics and infinitesimal calculus are attributable to work done by Newton. However, Newton was not the only one who contributed so greatly to mathematics and physics. Ancient mathematicians, like Eudoxus and Archimedes, laid the foundations for calculus much earlier than Newton. Many abstract principles that dictate modern classical mechanics were developed by Aristotle. While these figures have remained consequential, no other individual takes as much credit for revolutionizing physics and mathematics as Newton does. Even the unit used to measure force vectors (N) is named after Isaac Newton. Why?
Isaac Newton was not just a physicist, but rather an embodiment of the natural sciences. He was often alone, quiet, and introverted. He refused to show his work and revelations to others out of fear that he would be criticized. Newton hated being wrong, and this hatred fostered internally. As a perfectionist, Newton is historically documented to have had violent outbursts and manic depressive episodes that triggered enduring and intense productivity to escape internal criticism. While Newton did have outbursts against others, he often fostered his frustration in self-destructive habits. He would write down all his sins on paper to remember them and remorse. This was the division of Newton’s persona from his academic embodiment. There always lied a disconnect between Newton as an individual and Newton as a physicist, and that disconnect often manifested in the individual enduring the violent and destructive tendencies of the imperfect physicist.
Isaac Newton’s contributions were incredibly significant to the scientific community, but the cost at which they came was incredibly painful. Newton blamed himself for any imperfection, but he would often cut ties with those who criticized him. He was divided from most academics and opted to work alone and without the potential for feedback from others. These conditions allowed Newton to, in immense stress and madness, publish works that altered science forever.
Now, you may be asking yourself, if the consequential legacy of an individual is determined by how divisive they are between themselves and their art, how can we be sure about Newton? After all, most of the documented evidence of Newton’s odd and explosive nature is internal. This is true, and had it not been for a special intellectual controversy that is still discussed in mathematical academia today, we may have not given as much special attention to Newton as we do today.
The Leibniz-Newton calculus controversy was an argument between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz over who invented calculus first. While the argument today has ended in a merciful tie (it is accepted that both men independently developed their own findings and neither plagiarized the other) the lengths to which Isaac Newton went to cement his legacy against Leibniz explain why Newton is considered the greatest physicist ever.
The controversy began at the turn of the 18th century. Leibniz was the first to publish his works on calculus and Newton, who refused to show others his research and findings, was furious that another mathematician was taking credit for discovering calculus. In 1711, Newton accused Leibniz of plagiarism and claimed that Leibniz had stolen his work which Newton supposedly began in 1666. Beyond general accusations of plagiarism in front of the academic community, Newton went as far as creating bizarre controversies and used his followers to discredit and humiliate Leibniz. Two years after the initial plagiarism claim, the Royal Society investigated the claims put forth by Newton. However, the result of the Royal Society was not entirely unbiased. Testimony on the controversy was only given by Newton and Leibniz was never given the opportunity to prove that he invented calculus. The Royal Society ended up ruling in favor of Newton and Leibniz’s reputation was tarnished. Academia in the 18th century did not look favorably on Leibniz and he died an unpopular man, all because Newton refused to believe that somebody other than himself could be the greatest mathematician at the time. It was not until the 20th century that historians admitted that both men independently developed calculus and Leibniz was just as consequential in the development of advanced mathematics. However, by this time the damage was done. Newton had cemented his name as one of the greatest mathematicians to ever live, even if it meant developing conspiracy theories and ruining a man’s entire livelihood.
Isaac Newton was a divisive person. We remember him as a great scientist, but not many learn of his divisive personality that was a critical factor in cementing his legacy as a mathematician and physicist. Newton was hostile towards others and himself and, while his findings led to incredible advancements in science and engineering, the cost at which they came was madness.
This analysis is not to say that madness is an absolute necessity for greatness. There are thousands of individuals in history that are remembered for their achievements and contributions to society that did not go mad for their craft and did not immerse, submit, and divisively engage in their passion. However, it is difficult to argue that we do not give a special legacy to those who were so engulfed in their specialty that they were willing to go mad for it.
Motivations for this analysis came at the recent criticisms from millennials and Gen-Z of “grind culture”. There is this expectation in capitalist countries, often from conservative ideologists, that working hard is the key to success and if you work hard you will lead a happy and successful life. Skepticism of these claims has been heavy from liberals, claiming that regardless of how hard individual works, capitalist systems always push wealth upwards and make socio-economic mobility difficult for low-income individuals. While this article has little to do with the actual substance of the “grind culture” argument, it does have to do with what kind of work is memorable and what is not.
The distinction that is noticeable is between those that have a passion and those that allow their personhood to be dictated by their craft. Perhaps this is only possible through madness, perhaps not. The verdict is not absolute, but historically there tends to be a divergence of traits between those who are remembered for being one of the greats and those who we proclaim to be the greatest. Ergo, the madness in greatness.