Ars Longa

Content Creators
On December 23, 1888, Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh, suffering from severe depression, cut off the lower portion of his left ear.
By Marcus McGee
July 2, 2021

Furor Poeticus — Is it “Madness,” or is it “Art”?

Inspiration—it’s a process that no content creator can control. What is the source of inspiration, and its prodigy: genius? Inspiration comes from the Latin inspirare, meaning “to breath into.” While the Romans believed it was “an unconscious burst of creativity in a literary, musical, or visual art and other artistic endeavors,” the Greek empnefsi suggested the poet or artist would go into ecstasy, or furor poeticus—the divine frenzy, or poetic madness. He or she would be transported beyond his or her own mind and given the gods’ or goddesses’ (or Muses’) own thoughts to embody. In Hebrew thought, expressed in Greek, theopneustos meant “God-breathed.” The short answer: no one knows the source of inspiration, divine, sub-conscious or otherwise.

Inspiration can be elusive, as divine assistance and furor poeticus cannot be summoned at will. The great halls of “who-might-have-beens” are populated by unknown artists who have spent their precious little time and resources on Earth waiting on inspiration, which is beyond human understanding, and much less human control.

The artists and creators who we know and cherish throughout time, however, are a motley crew of mentally unstable, substance addicted, depressed, unrealistic, troubled, abused, incompetent and sometimes outright deranged individuals. Yet is that the key? Does a person have to fit into one of the above descriptions to create truly memorable content? Must artists sacrifice sanity, normalcy and conformity to create truly great art? Is that the price of fame and success?

Most humans, however, are too practical to be artists, too cautious to take that road less travelled, which certainly offers no guarantees. It’s a fools’ gambit at best.

Most would-be content creators, after all, never achieve “success” during their lifetimes — while posthumous success is way overrated. By popular account, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died impoverished and unknown to the world at the venerable age of 35, and he was buried in a pauper’s grave. Franz Kafka perished poor and unpublished. Henry David who? Edgar Allan Poe was an alcoholic who died unsuccessful in a gutter and made all of nine dollars for publication of The Raven.

How much easier it would be to learn a reliable and practical trade, get a common job and save a little each year to eke out a humble retirement. It’s the formula for success to the world’s masses. Is the risk ever worth the reward?

But then, what is success really? A good job? A nice house? Enough money to take a holiday once or twice a year? Not if you are cursed with “a gift.” And how do you know if you have a gift? Well, when you are really good — let me be more clear: when you are exceptional at a thing as a result of something innate, something within that comes from without and chooses you, something beyond that which you logically should be able to do, then that is the curse that is your gift, because you ultimately will have to choose what you will do with it.

To ignore it is a sin against divinity, but to embrace it is insanity. Like all things, gifts come in many sizes. If it is a small gift, perhaps a person can find ways to forge a normal, non-illustrious life while transforming that curse to a blessing in small meaningful ways. But if it is a profound gift, then freedom from the curse is not so easy. Ignored, it will gnaw at you. Exploited, it will betray you. Buried, it will bury you. Best to deal with it. Temet nosce.

Meden agan. Two things you must understand: 1) What does “success” mean to you?; and 2) What are you willing to sacrifice for it? If you understand those things, only then can you transform the curse to a blessing. Simply put: What do you want to change or achieve, and why? And what is the price you are willing to pay to accomplish the transformation?

Years ago, when I was in a low place, I wrote a short story as an exposition about “the curse of gifts.” In it a young man who has sacrificed everything for “success” is asked to make one more “substantial” sacrifice in order to achieve his ambition. While there was no logic to it, the purveyor of success demands the ring finger and little finger of his left hand. Those removed and sacrificed, the protagonist will realize uncommon achievement.

Only after the protagonist has sealed the deal does he understand that success comes at a price, and most often the desired expectation cannot exceed the demanded price. As a result, those individuals who pay the ante will always envy and resent the untalented freeloaders and exploiters who leech on the sacrifice paid. These diminished individuals form a unique “Club” of “successful” people who all are mutilated in some idiosyncratic way.

And here is where we come back to Van Gogh. In The Club, which is the story I wrote, all successful people are deformed in some way — mutilated, or more often self-mutilated. It’s the price of fame, if anyone considers fame to be success. And the price of wealth — estrangement, sycophancy and predation. Thus most who are given profound gifts can never escape the curse/blessing.

Engıa pára d’ate. The better success is to seek to use your gifts create and leave something behind greater than what you were given. In the logic of order, you were given these gifts and talents for a reason. In your life, you must grow them to enhance that order. You must not selfishly bury them so that their light will never shine.

In my experience, perhaps the most striking example of this illustration is in the life of Michael Jackson, who was self-mutilated, both within and without, and he knew it. And yet, the most profound manifestation of self-mutilation is martyrdom, or suicide, which is often the final act of Furor Poeticus. Prince was likewise cursed with his gift.

Please take the time to read The Club on this site by clicking the link. To end this blog, I’m embedding a little-known Michael Jackson song, called The Price of Fame. No further explanation required.