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Philippe Brenot

Genius and Madness

Joan of Arc, Martin Luther and Rimbaud had hallucinations; Goethe, Balzac, Nerval and Schumann all suffered from manic-depression; Coleridge, Thomas de Quincey and Cocteau were addicted to drugs; Gauguin, Van Gogh, Hemingway and Romain Gary were suicidal: the list is long of artists and creators who were inhabited by both genius and madness. Creative exaltation often borders on melancholy, on depression and on manias, as has been amply shown by the biographies and autobiographies of many artists.
Philippe Brenot examines some of these extraordinary lives in which creative elation encounters dejection and even delirium. His surprising conclusion is that madness is not as common among musicians and visual artists as it is among writers, many of whom have suffered from psychiatric disorders. One of the most famous and perhaps the most representative is Fernando Pessoa who found solace by creating multiple personalities with different names.
Brenot then asks the question: Do the highest forms of creativity necessarily lead to madness or the risk of madness? Do we admire genius in spite of its element of madness — or because it is based on madness? Isn’t the creative artist the person who dares to push to the outer limits of sanity and is willing to pay the price?

By studying a number of artists from the Renaissance to our own time who have made major aesthetic breakthroughs in literature, painting and music, Brenot examines the nature of genius, how it functions, and its secrets and limits, and gives us a powerful insight into the workings of the mind.


Philippe Brenot is a psychiatrist, sexologist and anthropologist, and the author of Le Sexe et l’Amour and Inventer le Couple.