So, I read the Wikipedia biography on Edgar Allan Poe this morning (treating Wikipedia as decent morning reading but, at best, a cliff’s notes biography) and enjoyed it, and now I’m reading H.P. Lovecraft’s biography, and a little while ago I was reading about the painter and utter loony, Richard Dadd…and what fascinates me, maybe unkindly, is how there was so much death and so much madness in these people’s lives, and the sort of work that it led to.
With Richard Dadd, it’s easy to romanticize. I don’t see it as all that far-fetched that he really did go to the realm of the Faerie, or of some otherworldly creature. At least, in his own head, he did. I think to his mind, he was probably painting portraits and scenes, not creative works. But the point is…I could see where maybe he went to Faerie and that drove him mad.
And I don’t remember where, but I know there’s always the romanticized stories about Edgar Allan Poe and the supernatural and how that drove him mad in the end, poor thing. Mostly, I don’t believe that. It’s always seemed to me that Edgar Allan Poe was a man full of big dreams for his life and, when he couldn’t cope with problems, his big dreams and difficult life just ate him alive. Nothing romantic or supernatural about that.
And there again is the same pattern with Howard Lovecraft. He wrote great and ineffable stories about creatures like Cthulu, some great beast that the human mind couldn’t comprehend…but he had a wretched life of bad turns that he couldn’t handle and only made worse and, viewed from that angle, I really think that things like Cthulu (which drove men mad through sheer incomprehension) were the equivalent of a small kid who gets beat up a lot having the biggest, toppest, most violent imaginary friend. It’s all you’ve got. You may be small but today, you’ve got the Incredible Hulk walking behind you.
It reminds me of something that Alan Moore said about the difference between madmen and magicians. That as human beings, we are looking through a window at the world around us, and that’s what keeps us sane: that the whole entire world is there, but all we see is what we see through a single window. We are limited, by ourselves, for our own good.
Madmen are people who have the window basically kicked in and are suddenly surrounded by the whole world, but have no practical method for dealing with everything that’s suddenly necessary to take in, and it drives them mad trying to fit it all inside of their heads.
Whereas magicians, he explains, go mad in a controlled fashion. They step through the window and into the same world of madness, but through training and study and belief and thought, they essentially have a big filing cabinet in which they can neatly put away all the things that they encounter, and it’s this system of definition and organization which keeps them from going insane.
So instead of seeing a man with a cat’s head, or a giant serpent with a human head and blond hair (Glycon) and going insane because you can’t cope with it, the magician says “Ah, this is the Roman god Glycon,” and whether or not this is true, it quantifies it and allows the mind to comprehend without going bonkers.