A fine line

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Creativity has long been associated with ‘madness’. Many a passionate artist or writer has been regarded as more or less unhinged. A new programme tomorrow night at 11.30 pm on BBC Radio 4 (and available afterwards on BBC IPlayer for those of us who can’t stay awake) looks at how female writers may have been unjustly labelled ‘madwomen’. It seems that women’s ‘inconvenient’ behaviour was often punished in Victorian times by simply locking them up. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00s0cn3

Contemporary neurologist, Alice W. Flaherty, would have been a prime candidate for the asylum had she lived in the Victorian era. As a writer she has experienced both ‘writers’ block’ and its opposite number, hypergraphia. Hypergraphia is an uncontrollable compulsion to write. (Perhaps bloggers have this?) She brings together her twin passions for neurology and writing in her book “The Midnight Disease” to explore the links between the creativity of literature and the workings of the brain.

If this sounds like a read which will deaden the soul, you’ll be surprised to find beautiful lines. Describing that feeling you get when a line from a book jumps off the page and enters your brain, Flaherty writes “Something swept me out his [C.S. Lewis’] book high into the cold air above the northern wastes.” It reminded me of a similar moment in David Whyte’s “Crossing the unknown sea” when he was a young boy reading poetry for the first time: “Reading it, I felt I had been plucked from the ground by a passing hawk.” W H Auden perhaps explained the phenomenon, saying “A real book is not one that we read, but one that reads us.”

Serendipitously, I have just started reading “Proust was a neuroscientist” by Jonah Lehrer. Lehrer explores similar territory, weaving together the worlds of neuroscience, art and literature with a deft touch.

Do the workings of the brain lead to creative madness or genius? It’s a fine line, it seems.

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