Creativity and Mental Illness of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Posted on November 20th, 2015

Dr. Ruwan M Jayatunge  

I believe that in the end humanitarianism will triumph, but I fear that, at the same time, the world will become a big hospital, each person acting as the other’s humane nurse” 

— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Creativity is an important human quality upon which many achievements of humankind are based (Thys et al., 2013). It has been known for a long time that people with salient social and artistic creativity suffer more frequently from psychiatric illnesses than the average population (Rihmer et al., 2006). Extremes in mood, thought and behavior–including psychosis–have been linked with artistic creativity for as long as man has observed and written about those who write, paint, sculpt or compose (Jamison, 1989).

Previous research provides disparate accounts of the putative association between creativity and psychopathology, including schizotypy, psychoticism, hypomania, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorders (Zabelina et al., 2014). A study done by Vellante and colleagues (2011) found that cyclothymic dimension of the bipolar spectrum is linked to creativity. Based on studies Srivastava and Ketter (2010) specify that affect and open-minded and intuitive cognition may contribute importantly to enhanced creativity in individuals with bipolar disorder. The process of creativity may be connected with psychopathological features such as mood disorders, mainly bipolar, and psychosis-like thought abnormalities (Rybakowski et al., 2006).

Vellante and the team (2011) confirmed that the cyclothymic dimension of the bipolar spectrum is linked to creativity. There seems to be a connection between creativity and psychopathology in the bipolar-schizophrenic continuum (Thys et al., 2011). Janka (2004) states that comparing to the general population, bipolar mood disorder is highly overrepresented among writers and artists and it may be concluded that bipolar mood traits might contribute to highly creative achievements in the field of art. In addition Nettle and Clegg (2006) expressed that   some of the personality traits which are predictive of schizophrenia are also associated with artistic creativity. Kyaga and colleagues (2013) demonstrated that patients with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder and their relatives are overrepresented in creative occupations.

The association of creativity and psychopathology has been shown in von Goethe. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was one of the most renowned German poets of the late Age of Enlightenment (Schäfer et al., 2012). He was born in Frankfurt in 1749. Goethe was one of the most creative writers, productive scientists, and effective statesmen that ever lived. (Holm-Hadulla, 2013).

From a scientific perspective, several distinctive depressive episodes can be diagnosed in Goethe’s life. They were characterized by extended depressive moods, lack of drive, and loss of interest and self-esteem combined with social retreat. Goethe displayed diffuse and phobic anxieties as well as dysthymia (Holm-Hadulla, 2013). Nager (1991) indicates that Goethe was subjected during his whole life to extraordinary psychic threats and polar tensions often to the limits of destruction. For long periods of life he travelled in the mist of depression.

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 (Grossi, 2011).

In Goethe’s life, creative incubation, illumination, and elaboration appear to have been associated with psychic instability and dysthymia, sometimes with depressive episodes in a clinical sense. On the one hand, his creative work was triggered by anxieties, dysthymia, and depressive moods. On the other hand, his creativity helped him to cope with psychic disorders and suicidal tendencies (Holm-Hadulla, 2013). He rather faced his spiritual sorrow creatively and forced it into curative poetry (Nager, 1991).

Psychological ailments sometimes reflected in Goethe’s work. His descriptions of feelings, emotions, and mental states related to anxieties, depressive episodes, dysthymia, and creativity are unique in their phenomenological precision and richness (Holm-Hadulla, 2013). In 1774 Goethe published a novel titled The Sorrows of Young Werther, a seminal work in the literature of depression.

Steinberg (1999) states that the novel the Sorrows of Young Werther contains biographical background of Goethe. This novel was Goethe’s first major success, turning him from an unknown into a celebrated author practically overnight. Napoleon Bonaparte considered it one of the great works of European literature (Dubey, 2009).

The Sorrows of Young Werther bears highly-artistic traits. Goethe successfully exercised the epistolary form of the first person, which makes the character, Werther, tell his suffering and feeling, and reveals his ambition and sentiment (Tai, 2007). The novel is made up of letters written by Werther to his best friend. Werther writes the letters to Wilhelm and a few to Lotte and Albert revealing his emotional pain. These letters reflect thoughts of suicide that ran through Werther’s head. Finally Werther writes a farewell-letter   and shoots himself.

…..In the morning, at six o’clock, the servant went into Werther’s room with a candle. He found his master stretched upon the floor, weltering in his blood, and the pistols at his side. He called, he took him in his arms, but received no answer. Life was not yet quite extinct. The servant ran for a surgeon, and then went to fetch Albert. Charlotte heard the ringing of the bell: a cold shudder seized her. She wakened her husband, and they both rose. The servant, bathed in tears faltered forth the dreadful news. Charlotte fell senseless at Albert’s feet…. (The Sorrows of Young Werther – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe).

By writing ‘The sorrows of young Werther’ Goethe exorcised his own suicidal impulses and thoughts, thus probably saving his own life (Pöldinger, 1986). However according to Pirkis and Blood (2001) Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther had led people to take their own lives. Werther’s tragedy is the tragedy of bourgeois humanism and shows the insoluble conflict between the free and full development of personality and bourgeois society itself (Dubey, 2009).

Goethe’s play Torquato Tasso was based on actual events. This play was about the sixteenth-century Italian Renaissance Poet Torquato Tasso. In his play Torquato Tasso, Goethe narrates about a depressed self-destructive poet and how he overcame his depression through communication and artistic creation. Cabras and Lippi (2007) elucidate that Torquato Tasso’s psychiatric illness suggests the diagnosis of an Affective Disorder: “Bipolar Disorder with mood incongruent delusions” or “Schizoaffective Disorder”

Experts consider Marienbad Elegy poem as one of Goethe’s finest and most personal.  Marienbader Elegie which is part of a trilogy that revolves around depression and suicidality (Grossi, 2011). In 1798 Goethe experienced a severe episode of depressed and he began to write his tragic play Faust. Faust can be viewed as his monumental tragedy (Grossi, 2011). The play is based on Faust – an audacious man who sold his soul to the dev il, Mephistopheles. He made a bargain with the devil for enormous power over the earth. The part one of Faust was published in 1805.

I am the spirit, ever, that denies! 

And rightly so: since everything created, 

In turn deserves to be annihilated:

Better if nothing came to be. 

So all that you call Sin, you see, 

Destruction, in short, what you’ve meant 

By Evil is my true element.

(Faust -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

Faust, was an essential source for both Freud and Jung, and it played an important role in the foundation of depth psychology. Jung postulated the devil as the “missing” fourth that completes the Trinity image, associating evil with the feminine which has long been suppressed within Western culture. Jung suggested that by recovering the feminine, the individuating Self redeems the shadow side of God, (Gabriela, 2009). According to the Psychiatrist and Jungian Analyst Dr. Edward F. Edinger Faust is a prototype of modern man, whose curiosity has led him into forbidden regions of various kinds, at the risk of the damnation of the soul.

Goethe’s masterpiece Faust demonstrates the coincidence of real life subjects and objects with literary subjects and objects represented, by means of the interpretation of the paradigms, problems, dilemmas and identified cases of medical ethical-morals: dáimon, reflection-solitude, free will, good-evil, Eros, learned ignorance, genes, epistemology, medical etiquette, paternalism, anatomy of the personality, Hyppocratism, will, good sense of humor, bubonic plague (de Castro-Peredo, 2006).

Binswanger and Smith (2000) stated that Faust, representing modern man, carries out this massive project of economic progress, but Goethe also shows the existing and potential dangers associated with it.   Writing Faust was a therapeutic and self healing effort for Goethe. It helped him to battle his own demons.  His mental illness was not known to his doctors. But they suspected melancholia in him. Goethe by himself distinguished his depressive moods from poet’s melancholia” which was fashionable at his times (Holm-Hadulla, 2010).

From a diagnostic standpoint, it is likely that Goethe suffered from a bipolar II disorder. (Bipolar II disorder is characterized by the occurrence of one or more major depressive episodes accompanied by at least one hypomanic episode) 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 (Grossi, 2011).

Goethe died in Weimar in 1832, at the age of 82. Although Goethe underwent prolonged emotional suffering his life was immensely productive. He was a poet, playwright, novelist, scientist, statesman, theatre director, critic, and an artist. Goethe made a profound impact on European culture. He became a gigantic cultural icon and earned the title Gothic Shakespeare”

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One Response to “Creativity and Mental Illness of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe”

  1. LANKAPUTHRA Says:

    Dr. Ruwan M. Jayathunga, why are you not writing about Head of UN Humanitarian Department; Zier-Al-Hussein? King Abdulla’s father’s half brother? When the So called Palestinian freedom fighters (Common law terrorists) attacked the Royal Jordanian Army this man went to UN general assembly to a condemn the Jordanian Government. King Hussein was in hospital in London, UK. When he went back King Hussein got him arrested and replaced him by his son ; Now king Abdullah. This man spent time getting psychiatric treatment in a special hospital. Pressure from his family members he release him from prison. This was a dinner ticket for MUSLIM OBAMA. Obama got him a position in the UN and his first assignment was to put a Muslim as the US ambassador which he did by getting Muslim ATUL Ketchup to the position. Then get the Foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera to send all the Military men who supported MR at the last election to Geneva. And to the Prison in Brussels. It is extremely difficult to get some one out once a person is put in there. So Dr. Ruwan don’t you think you should be writing at least few lines that our war heroes lives are in danger until this mentally unstable Zeir-Al Hussein is removed from office? One of your references will have the answer. should have the answer: Not for financial gain, but for share satisfaction to see that a carefully structured economic structure broken down not by military force but by the country’s own people absorbing twisted dis-information. By the time the very people who realized a mistake was done it is too late to correct it. This model was perfected at Kennedy School of government at Howard University. Dr. Ruwan, please can I request you to write few lines about this mentally retarded Clown Zeir-Al-Hussein.

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