Rather than railing against a diagnosis that described him as unbalanced, Zola welcomed Toulouse’s conclusion. In a letter introducing the published results of the investigation, Zola thanked the psychiatrist for debunking his popular image as a coarse, money-hungry labourer. By positioning the writer alongside sensitive intellectuals and creative geniuses, Toulouse had endorsed Zola’s self-perception as an artist “trembling and suffering at the slightest breath of air”, who embarked daily on a fresh battle against his own inner doubts.
In the 20th century, New Zealand writer Janet Frame embraced the association her own diagnosis of schizophrenia opened up with geniuses like artist Vincent van Gogh. Frame adopted what she termed “schizophrenic fancy dress”, speaking and behaving in ways associated with the condition. Even when her diagnosis was thrown out, she initially clung to it, feeling that “the ‘privilege’ of having schizophrenia” brought her closer to great artists than her work did.
In a similar vein, 19th-century essayist Charles Lamb felt that ordinary people could only reconcile the extraordinary works produced by geniuses if they viewed their creators as mad. In this context madness replaces earlier beliefs that creativity was driven by possession and divine inspiration. But, rather than placing geniuses in a privileged position, it stigmatised them.
American psychologist Judith Schlesinger suggests this delivers a feelgood message for ordinary people. If you can never reach the heady heights of a creative genius, at least you can reassure yourself you won’t have to face their mental challenges.