When Charlie Parker died in New York in 1955, the doctor who examined the body estimated Parker’s age at between 55 and 60; the great jazz musician was 35.
Charles Parker Jr. was one of the most innovative and influential figures in the history of jazz music. He discovered the genre in high school in Kansas City, Missouri, dropping out of school in 1935 and spending the next few years practising the horn fifteen hours a day. A brilliant player, Parker, along with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, is credited with creating the jazz subgenre “bebop” in the early 1940’s; bepop vastly expanded the melodic and harmonic possibilities for instrumental soloists and is a large part of the repertoire of many jazz musicians today. Parker composed such classics as “Billie’s Bounce,” “Confirmation,” and “Au Privave.”
Addicted to morphine as a teenager after suffering an injury in a traffic accident, Parker moved on to heroin as an adult. The addiction resulted in erratic and self-destructive behaviour, affecting his career, his health, and his relationships, and ultimately taking his life.
Was Charlie Parker following his bliss? Anyone who locks himself up for several years to perfect his art, who discovers and develops a whole new groove in jazz, and who composes tunes that are being played regularly in clubs and concert halls all over the world fifty or sixty years after his death must have been following his bliss. The pathway of bliss is a yellow brick road both filled with beauty and fraught with danger; Parker’s path was singularly fraught.
Consider the writer David Foster Wallace, “whose prodigiously observant, exuberantly plotted, grammatically and etymologically challenging, philosophically probing and culturally hyper-contemporary novels, stories and essays made him an heir to modern virtuosos like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo” (New York Times). Wallace, best known for his massive 1996 novel Infinite Jest and recipient of a MacArthur Foundation grant, often referred to as the genius award, committed suicide in 2008, following unsuccessful treatment for severe depression.
The Times also called Wallace “a versatile writer of seemingly bottomless energy” and that paper’s book critic, Michiko Kakutani, said of him, “He can do sad, funny, silly, heartbreaking and absurd with equal ease; he can even do them all at once.” It seems, then, that Mr. Wallace too, despite his “troubled soul,” was following his bliss.
In a previous article I have cited others both gifted with great talent and afflicted with intense pain and wondered why “artistic brilliance is so often accompanied by such unfathomable emotional and psychological dysfunction and suffering that the star implodes and we are left with darkness long before we have been touched by all its facets.”
It seems there is an answer.
Scientist and literary scholar Nancy Andreasen recently published an article entitled “Secrets of the Creative Brain” in The Atlantic, in which she poses one of the questions that has guided her most recent research on “the science of genius”: Why are so many of the world’s most creative minds among the most afflicted?
Working from the so-called “big C” approach to defining creativity, which “usually involves selecting a group of people – writers, visual artists, musicians, inventors, business innovators, scientists – who have been recognized for some kind of creative achievement, usually through the awarding of major prizes (the Nobel, the Pulitzer, and so forth),” Andreasen called on the contacts she had gained teaching in the English department at the University of Iowa to recruit several well-known writers for her study, including Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and John Cheever.
Basing her hypothesis on what she knew of some highly creative persons (Joyce, Bertrand Russell, Einstein, for example), i.e. that “they had personal or family histories of mental illness,” Andreasen expected her subjects to belong to families in which some members suffered from schizophrenia. What she discovered when she began interviewing her subjects, rather, was that “80 percent of them had had some kind of mood disturbance at some time in their lives, compared with just 30 percent of the control group….” She also learned that “both mood disorder and creativity were overrepresented” in the subjects’ families. Further tests, using brain scans as well as an in-depth interview, revealed the most common diagnoses among her highly creative subjects to be bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety or panic disorder, and alcoholism.
It seems, then, that for highly creative people, following their bliss involves a constant uphill struggle against forces that are determined to permanently shut the creativity down; clearly, many, like David Foster Wallace (and Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Wolff and Sylvia Plath and Vincent van Gogh and others), lose the struggle. Yet, as Andreasen notes: “One interesting paradox that has emerged during conversations with subjects about their creative processes is that, though many of them suffer from mood and anxiety disorders, they associate their gifts with strong feelings of joy and excitement. ‘Doing good science is simply the most pleasurable thing anyone can do’, one scientist told me. ‘It’s like having good sex. It excites you all over and makes you feel as if you are all-powerful and complete.’”
We of the masses who consume or benefit from the products of highly creative minds and souls often have a romantic notion of the “tortured genius.” But we do not live in their world; one suspects that the subjects of Andreasen’s study do not see their lives as romantic but rather as a struggle to balance the extremes of mood disorder and creative bliss. Andreasen, a psychiatrist, does not offer any prescriptions for managing the darker side of genius, so it is likely that more Charlie Parkers and David Foster Wallaces will appear in the world, shine brilliantly for a time, and all too soon darken forever. We can only empathize with their struggle, appreciate the gift of their creative genius, and be grateful that, for most of us, following the path of our own bliss is less fraught with suffering and chaos.
“Charlie Parker, Tommy Potter, Miles Davis, Max Roach,” by William P. Gottlieb. Retrieved from Wikipedia. Photo in the public domain.
Recent Ross Lonergan Articles:
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Four
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Three
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Two
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part One
- Bullying, Fear, And The Full Moon (Part Four)