Dr. Grossi's Blog

Bipolarity and Creativity?

Dr. Philip Grossi
Sunday, 30 January 2011

The connection between creativity and bipolarity has been widely debated for years but was publicized by Kay Jamison Redfield (herself a bipolar patient who is responsive to lithium) in the book Touched with Fire.  A number of creative people in contemporary American society are known to be bipolar. They include Jackson Pollock, Kurt Cobain, Rosemary Clooney, Ernest Hemingway, Jane Pauley, Ozzy Osburn, Margot Kidder, Carrie Fisher, Russell Brand, and many others. 

I thought it would be revealing to examine this idea in a historical personage who was a creative poet, natural scientist, and politician/statesman who wrote voluminously about feelings and mental status over a lifetime. I am referring to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who lived from 1749 to 1832.  He was active in poetry, drama, natural science,  and politics.  His long poem, Faust, is one of the half dozen greatest long poems ever written.  He wrote numerous other poems and the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther.  He also wrote about the morphology of plants and animals in the book Theory of Colours.  He was also active in political life, serving as Privy Councilor in the German duchy of Saxe-Weimar.

illustration to bipolarity creativity blogGoethe's family seems devoid of mood disorders, except for his sister who had two postpartum depressions and died shortly after the second one. Goethe's first depressive episode occurred when he was 14, following the termination of a love relationship and was characterized by withdrawal, anorexia, and indications of suicidal intentions.  He then ruminated about being physically ill. Several years later he began his studies at Leipzig, where he confessed to his sister in a number of letters that he was often depressed, felt worthless, joyless, and doubted his abilities and talents. On his return to Frankfurt at 19, he wrote of lacking drive, feelings of numbness, and lack of joy in anything which again followed the failure of a love relationship. Indeed, during the next six years he had a number of failed relationships and depressive episodes.  In 1775, when he was 25, he took office at the court at Weimar where he performed many political and administrative tasks which he performed well and these accomplishments considerably enhanced his self-esteem.  Indeed, for about 10 years while performing these political duties he was free of depressive episodes.  Only in 1786, prior to his trip to Italy, did another depression strike which he later expressed in the play Torquato Tasso.  Goethe, alias Tasso, a depressed self-destructive poet overcomes his depression through communication and artistic creation.  I believe a good literary case can be made that Werner, Tasso, and Faust are self-perceptions and represent his effort to concretize his moods and more importantly his efforts to overcome those aspects of himself that he rejected through creative production which he called his "household remedy".

After he returned from Italy and after the successful development of a love relationship in 1788, he had a long period of mental stability and coincidentally was unproductive as a poet.  In 1798 he once again became depressed and it was then that he again began to write Faust, his monumental tragedy.  The depression gradually remitted, but he was again depressed in 1802 and began work on a play about the French Revolution and his depression gradually lifted.  Subsequently he returned to work with the privy council and scientific inquiry.  In 1805 his very close friend, the poet Schiller, died and he became depressed again and used the same remedy, creative production, which eventuated in the completion of the first part of Faust.  His wife died in 1816 and in 1823 he became involved in a love relationship with a nineteen-year-old girl who rejected him. Subsequently he became depressed again and, as in prior times, he became poetically active and produced the Marienbader Elegie which is part of a trilogy that revolves around depression and suicidality. Subsequently he remained very active in literary and creative ways.  He continued to work on his own story, Faust, until the end of his life in 1832.

From a diagnostic standpoint, it is likely that Goethe suffered from a bipolar II disorder.  There are several soft signs of this disorder including the postpartum depressions of his sister, the early onset of his depression, the many recurrences of his depression, prominent suicidality throughout his life, as well as accelerated thinking and increased literary productivity when he would emerge from depressive episodes.  These are conclusions from his written letters, poems, and plays and as such are as limited as any hermeneutic analysis would be.