Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets



Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


Sanity and Art*


A friend of mine, a man of far more than ordinary culture and depth of thought, said to me recently that he didn't believe the healthy normal man would write poetry; that in health the strong, rational human being is so happy that he does not need to find expression in any of the fine arts; to be alive and to do something useful, necessary work is enough for him. And Stevenson, somewhere, I think in one of his letters, throws out the hint that possibly art, after all, may be the result of a diseased condition.

Naturally every follower of the fine arts will be up in arms at such a suggestion. He will repudiate the idea of anything abnormal or less than manly in the occupation he loves so well. The imputation of insanity attaching to genius is one that has gained some credence through Lombroso and Nordau, and has ranged the world of thinking people in two camps. Probably the truth lies midway between them.

For, in the first place, it seems to me that both Lomborso and Nordau are extremists, and very often the simplest aspects of a case are contorted in support of their own view. They themselves are not quite balanced; their single idea has run away with them. But let us ask what are the aims of writing and the fine arts, and what are the conditions under which they are produced.

Now roughly speaking the aim and business of the fine arts is to represent life. Not merely to reproduce the most exact image or picture of life, but to reproduce it with something added. That something is the personal quality if the artist himself, his thoughts and his feelings about life. If, then, we consider the whole body of art, all the product of the literatures and the fine arts of all peoples, we may say that it is a very fair representation of life, and in every case a fair representation of revelation of the different races as well. Not only will each nation record the life of the world as it existed then and there; it will also reveal its own bias of judgement and emotion about that life. Also the art of a nation will fail here and there, just as life fails, but in the long run it will not fail; it will form a faithful counterpart and picture, so far as it goes, of the life of that nation.

Now the question arises, How can anything so trustworthy be the product of insanity? Sanity surely implies a capacity for seeing things as they are, and if art is born of insane conditions, it must in the long run represent things as they are not. If the fine arts are the product of insanity, then truly is man following a vain shadow.

For the fine arts have always embodied for men, not only reflections about life, but aspirations and ideals. Art has held the mirror up to nature; but it has always been a magic mirror, a mirror of the artist's own make, in which we might behold the world truly and accurately with a certain glamour or bloom added. It has shown us very truly what life is, but it has also shown us what life might become. There has ever been a prophetic quality in art. It has always been able to foreshadow standards of conduct and culture; and civilizations have always tended to make themselves over, to grow and develop, on the lines of progress laid down by their poets, seers, and artists. How then can we possibly admit that art is sprung from insanity? Would it not be nearer the truth to say that art is one of the most sane and normal things in the world?

This being so, if it be so, what excuse have we for saying that genius is touched with insanity; that the artist is never quite a normal being; or that art is the product of disease, and the healthy man would, after all, never wish to write or paint or make music? Can there be the least foundation for such a conclusion?

I believe there is art which is born of unwholesome conditions; and I believe there is writing which is certainly not the product of perfect sanity; but I do not believe that the best writing and the best art are so produced. Any of the arts requires in those who profess it an amount of technical skill which is very exacting. Naturally, therefore, all art, or at least every fine art, very easily tends to specialization.

In primitive and simple times the fine arts would not be so far divorced from common life as they are now. Being in the first place merely means of expressing universal sorrow or joy, love or hate, hope or fear, they would be used by everyone. But gradually, as one or another individual in a community gained facility and power and unusual excellence as a poet or a musician, he would devote himself exclusively to that fascinating pursuit. And so well was he esteemed, that, like our friend Ung in the ballad, he need do nothing but makes songs and music. He need share no longer in the most ordinary and necessary work of the world. Now there is, of course, in such specialization an element of danger. The man highly specialized is a variant, not a normal type. We should logically conclude, then, that the artist or the writer who is too exclusively engrossed in his art is not the person from whom the best work is to be expected. His art may be so overladen with technique that the great human emotions may be lost. The man has been swallowed up in the artist.

I believe a critical consideration of art and letters, with this point in view, would bear out the conclusion. We should find that the great works of art and literature, the works which the world has cared to preserve with loving gratitude, have been produced by men whose interest in life was greater than their interest in their art. They were men first and artists afterwards. Technically speaking there have been many English poets far superior to Shakespeare.

The truth is, therefore, that the art is not the product of a diseased condition in the individual, but rather the product of great sanity and normal health; at the same time the over-zealous and ill-regulated devotee of art may very easily run himself into an abnormal state bordering on disease.

There is all in this, if I am not mistaken, a wholesome case of instruction for the artist, and a very palpable warning against over-exclusive devotion to a single line of development. It is so easy in an enthusiasm for art to be careless about all else; so easy to neglect a due culture of all our powers; so easy to push our development in a single direction until we lose poise and become warped and distorted through specialization. A great care for our art, yes; but an exclusive and slavish devotion to it, by no means! The man must be greater than the artist; and when this is not so only a second-rate art can be the result. So that if you are a writer or a painter or make music your mistress, it is of the utmost importance that you should be something of an athlete and a philosopher as well. For the art of a people must provide the moral aims and aesthetic ideals for that people; it must, therefore, be the product of the very best spirits and minds of the race.

Upon no other class in a community, then, does the obligation of noble living rest with so unremitting a strain as on its artists, its writers and painters, its architects and music-makers. Great sanity alone can give birth to great art. Sanity of mind, sweetness of temper, strength of physique; an insatiable curiousity for the truth at all costs; an unswerving loyalty to manly goodness in the face of all difficulties; and an unashamed love of beauty in every guise; these are some of the prime qualities which go to make an artist.

It almost seems that to be an artist one must first attain a perfect personality. That is difficult. But then art is a difficult matter; it is the embodiment of perfection.

"Sanity and Art," Literary World, July 1903 [back]