Creativity and Madness / The Monthly

What Was on My . . .

Screen Shot 2013-08-12 at 11.38.20 AMOnce again it is the 30th of the month, which means it is my turn up. So, if you are curious about my March, read on for What Was on My . . .

Credit Card Bill: A TGV ticket to Paris. TGV, as in Train à Grande Vitesse, one of the fastest commercial trains in the world. It can reach up to 186 miles per hour on the Geneva-Paris line, which translates into a 3-hour trip. I barely had time to push aside my cold beef in aspic (that one dish alone proof of why meat in jelly never took hold in America) and read the first few stories of Kelly Link’s Pretty Monsters, before I looked up and saw we were pulling into Gare de Lyon.

Successes & Failures of Not Appearing like a Touristy Rube: I didn’t do so bad at the obvious: no baseball cap blazed with KC Royals, no popping into the boulangerie with my sweats still on, no waving frantically to hail down a cab, instead of waiting politely at the taxi stand. But the finer points? I didn’t do so well. I forgot that mostly only tourists order café au lait. A true Parisian would order a café crème (coffee served in a large cup with hot cream) and for an espresso with a splash of milk, a noisette. I also said ‘merci’ far too many times. When leaving a shop or restaurant, a true Parisian would have simply tossed off an au revoir or bon après-midi. And last but not least—horror of horrors—I asked for ketchup with my frites. I even got the amused smile for that one. Oh well. You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl. And all that.

Tea Menu: Flavored white teas at Café Verlet, where I joined Claire Merle, Tioka Tokedira, Anne Nesbet, and Amy Plum for a writer’s lunch extraordinaire. I, of course, knew about black teas and green teas, even blue-green teas. But flavored white? I chose Edelweiss with a little nod to Switzerland, took a sip, and . . . divine. Flavored with violet, jasmine and rose, how could it be otherwise? I would send you off to the Café Verlet site to order some for yourself, but I was just there and they are sold out!

Literary Walking Tour: Père-Lachaise Cemetery—which has to be the most efficient way to pay homage to the most writers in the least amount of time—not to mention that it appeals to my love of all things brooding and melancholy. Colette, Molière, Balzac, Stein, Wilde, Proust, and the French Aesop—La Fontaine, all within 108 acres. Add in Rossini, Chopin, Piaf, Morrison, Callas, Lalique, Ingres and Delacroix, and this cemetery has to be the world’s greatest pantheon of creativity.

Musée d’Orsay Ticket: Vincent Van Gogh/Antonin Artaud: Le suicide de la société. Which has been translated, not so elegantly, to The Man Suicided by Society.

Mind: Creativity and Madness.

As I walked into the Van Gogh exhibition, I was assaulted by the recorded shrieks of a mad woman. And so, the tone was set. And soon, so was the theme of the show: Van Gogh wasn’t crazy, but was pushed to suicide by a society that rejected his work, a thesis that was originally put forth by Artaud, a poet, actor and theater director, who himself struggled with mental issues.

Well, there are many theories about Van Gogh’s mental state. Some of the most common being bipolar disorder, temporal lobe epilepsy, and schizophrenia. But others argue that Van Gogh was simply off-kilter from a dangerous mix of absinthe and excessive coffee. Still others say that Van Gogh didn’t even shoot himself—teenage boys who enjoyed taunting Van Gogh were responsible for the shot to the stomach that eventually killed him.

As I made my way through the exhibition, certain of Artaud’s observations and Van Gogh’s own descriptions of himself grabbed my attention. A Terrible Sensitivity. Extra Lucid. Painting as an Art that Heals. I was so captivated that I purchased a copy of Van Gogh’s letters, written primarily to his brother Theo, so I could learn more about how he saw himself.

The more I read, the more I became convinced that Van Gogh was born with what Carl Jung called an innate sensitiveness. You see, I’ve been reading about a minority of us, 20 percent to be exact, known as highly sensitive people. And Van Gogh’s personality—and struggles—seem to mirror those of this group. They are sensitive to subtle stimuli. Extra Lucid. They process what they see, hear, even feel at a deeper level than most people. And because of this sensitiveness and depth of processing, they tend to be more emotional and become overwhelmed easily. A Terrible Sensitivity.

A lot of noise, bright light, other people’s emotions, a strong smell—all can be overpowering for the highly sensitive person. Yet this sensitivity also creates a deep connection to the arts and music, and often attracts the highly sensitive to the act of creativity. For instance, Van Gogh’s painting as an art that heals.

VanGoghSelfPort1889NatGalWaIn 1889, Van Gogh admitted himself to an asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. During his time there, the evolution of his style reached his most distinctive. What we think of as his genius. Starry Night. Irises. His most masterful wheat fields and cypresses. 142 paintings in 1 year. It was a time of unparalleled creativity.

But he sold very little during this time. And although, I believe it is too simple to say—as Artaud did—that Van Gogh committed suicide because of society’s rejection, it is true that refusal of creative work so often is accompanied by loneliness and depression. For the highly sensitive person, it is yet another sign that he is not understood and he is different from the vast majority of society.

If you read Van Gogh’s letters from this time, it’s clear that he suffered from his sensitivity, from knowing he was different from others, and from the loneliness that both of those caused.

I shall try my best to do something good this autumn. I am working away in my room without interruption which does me good and chases away what I imagine are abnormal ideas.

He also knew of Fyodor Dostoevsky and his struggles.

A few days ago, I was reading in the Figaro about a Russian writer who also suffered from a nervous illness of which, moreover, he sadly died . . . . But what is one to do? There is no remedy, or if there is one, it is to work with a will.

Van Gogh was depressed and anxious, and his mind spun around the same, recurring thoughts. But this was before Jung and the defining of the 20 percent of highly sensitive people, and understanding how life can be overwhelming for the very sensitive. And so, Van Gogh died too early. Before the world loved his work.

Was he mad? Mad as the woman shrieking at the beginning of the exhibition? I’m not convinced. Depressed and anxiety-filled, yes. Seeking to heal himself through his art, yes. And—like many creative people—living with an innate sensitivity.


To learn more about highly sensitive people take a look at Dr. Elaine Aron’s website, her article ‘Revisiting Jung’s Concept of Innate Sensitiveness’ in the Journal of Analytical Psychology, or view a video of her defining and presenting research regarding this personality trait.

Sandra Nickel Sandra Nickel Sandra Nickel Sandra Nickel Sandra Nickel Sandra Nickel

And be sure to stop by again on April 10 for the incredible Julie Berry, author of the 5 ★ All the Truth That’s in Me.

Sandra Nickel sandra nickel sandra nickel sandra nickel sandra nickel sandra nickel sandra nickel

22 thoughts on “What Was on My . . .

  1. Wonderful post, Sandra. I love what you have to say about Van Gogh and HSP. What a beautiful analysis of the potential as well as the pitfalls for other sensitive artists. You continue to awe me as a writer and thinker. Xx

  2. Thank you, Christina. One of the greatest gifts of my adulthood was discovering the personality trait of the Highly Sensitive Person. There are explanations for why I experience life as deeply as I do. There are more sensitives around than I ever realized. And the more I look around the people who surround me, the more I discover. Isn’t that beautiful.

  3. Great post, Sandra I love the fun advice about what a true Parisian would do (the two Parisian-approved coffee orders sound wonderful, as does the flavored white tea!) coupled with your thoughtful reflections on Van Gogh and highly sensitive people. That book of his letters sounds amazing. Thanks for sharing your adventures and your insights, as always!

    • Laurie, the book I read was The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, selected and edited by Ronald de Leeww, Translated by Arnold Pomerans (Penguin), but there are other versions out as well.

      • Wonderful, Sandra. What a glorious trip this must have been. And fascinating to learn about Highly Sensitive People.

  4. Oh, this is a dangerous post for me, Sandra. Now I’ll spend the rest of the day looking for a vacation rental in Paris and imagining my husband and I ordering deux cafe creme (NOT an au lait, s’il vous plait.) When I took my kids to the Musee d’Orsay many years ago, it was precisely that self-portrait of van Gogh that my young son stood transfixed in front of. I think he could feel the “madness” coming through and, since he was such a sensitive boy, it held him there. At the gift shop, he spent the little money he had on a small print of van Gogh’s Olive Tree, from that same period the painter spent in the asylum. Lovely post, Sandra – thanks.

    • You know, Julie, I’ve always believed that sensitives attract sensitives. How beautiful that your son, young at the time, felt such a strong connection to Van Gogh.

      And if you book that vacation rental, let me know. I’d like to be the first to take you to Café Verlet. They do an irresistible café crème there. In fact, theirs looks rather like your signature photo.

  5. Good move, not wearing the KC Royals cap! I spit out my Diet Dr. Pepper laughing at that one. (Just try asking for Diet Dr. Pepper in Paris.) Kidding aside, I appreciate your eloquent discussion of sensitivity and its connection to artistic ability, depression, and anxiety. I think artistic types are as diverse as the art that they produce, but our experience with various challenges as well as special (and often interrelated) gifts in terms of perception, cognition, and expression certainly contributes to our desire to create and what we create. It also may lead to the kind of unsuitability Van Gogh experienced when it comes to dealing with the market or reviewers.

    By the way, I did a presentation for my Portuguese class last fall about the gifted bassist Champignon, of Charlie Brown Jr., who committed suicide as a result of harsh criticism of his music and his decision to revive the band after its lead singer passed away (from drug-related causes) six months earlier.

    • Yes, I’m afraid Diet Dr. Pepper isn’t to be seen in Paris. Even Ginger Ale is a tough find. But a little tip there is to ask for it as Canada Dry, since they know it not as a soft drink, but as a mixer at the bar.

      And thank you, Lyn, for your thoughtful comments on artists with special gifts, the desire to create, and the choices some make as a result of criticism of their art. I didn’t know of Champignon. A sad story.

  6. Sandra, thank you for a wonderful walk through Paris. I could never imagine you anything but elegant — never a touristy rube! And I so enjoyed your contemplations on Van Gogh and other highly sensitive people.

  7. Wonderful, thoughtful and inspiring as always, Sandra!

    I got to see Starry Night in person for the first time when I visited MoMA in NYC in February, and photos do not do Van Gogh’s work justice. It’s fascinating (and insightful) how you relate his descriptions to Jung’s work!

    It sounds like a lovely trip!

    • How lucky to see Starry Night when you were in New York, Elisabeth! I absolutely agree about experiencing Van Gogh’s paintings in person. We think we know his work so well from the many cards and posters and reproductions in books & magazines, but the vividness of it when you stand just in front of it is heart-stealingly beautiful.

  8. I loved seeing Paris through your eyes, Sandra. And wow. What a sad and glorious Van Gogh exhibit. I had the privilege of seeing a Van Gogh-Gaugain exhibit in Chicago several years ago. So powerful.
    I can’t look at a Van Gogh painting without feeling deeply sorry for the way he was treated by a society that failed to appreciate him. I think many writers can understand that sentiment!

    • Linda, the Van Gogh-Gauguin exhibit must have been intense. How fortunate for you that you got to see it! I love the work of both of them. A lot. In fact, my middle grade mystery turned around a Gauguin painting for a long time, before I switched out the painting for one of Van Gogh’s.

    • I think it’s all part of the Musee d’Orsay trying out different elements to make their shows more dynamic. As part of the exhibition, they also showed old film clips of Artaud’s acting and dedicated a dark room to an enlarged screen of one of Van Gogh’s wheat field’s with recited audio played along. In their Impressionism and La Mode exhibition, they had a huge room with garden benches and trees, along with recorded birds above, where they exhibited impressionist works set in gardens. The audio can definitely set a specific mood. Needless to say, the shrieks were a bit disconcerting, while the birds were a relaxing touch in the midst of a crowded show.

  9. So glad to experience the trip vicariously, at least. Having been in Paris with you before, I have to say that there is no foreigner who negotiates that city more gracefully than you. I’m sure you charmed them all:-)

    I was particularly taken by the images of the white tea, and the recorded Van Gogh screams.

Leave a Reply