Creative Self-Destruction: Axiom or Oxymoron?

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.

~Jack Kerouc

I have previously discussed the classic Rock star image of Jim Morrison, an artistic career eclipsed early by drug dependence. This contemporary example holds parallels across the artistic canon, from Vincent Van Gough to Edward Allan Poe. These artists not only share an inner despair, but also seem to draw inspiration from this despair. Is it fair to elucidate a correlation between artistic creativity and a self-destruction – or is this a fallacy?

The connection between creativity and self-destruction appears across cultures and times. In ancient Hindu tradition, for example, the God Shiva the Destroyer is also the god of art. Interestingly, Shiva is part of a triumvirate of Gods who epitomize the existential cycle of the universe – it is Shiva the Destroyer and not Brahma the Creator whom the Hindus have bestowed upon the cultural pedestal of artistry.

The Tantric school of Hindu theology regards Shiva and his wive Shakti as the flip side of the primal energy which constitutes life – the dichotomy of potential and kinetic energy, fuel and flame. Hence, in order to create light and energy, something must burn.

From Western Philosophical tradition, Georg Hegel posits a negative vision of imagination as “the night of the world” – a psychological ability to deconstruct the phenomena of reality the spectator perceives into new forms within the mind. Rather than create new forms of reality, the mind deconstructs what it has seen in order to re-constitute, or even lay bare, the reality presented before it.

More recent cultural critic Slavoj Zizek cites Hegel to argue the act of symbolizing an idea holds basis in a death drive, or desire to replace the object and transmute a piece of the author’s own life force into the symbol. The death drive draws from an inner psychological impulse to reject the stagnant cultural traditions which surround the author with new forms of expression heretofore nonexistant – an act so transgressive that it is perhaps necessarily self-destructive.

Moreover, philosophers such as David Hume have long argued not only that the artist is predisposed towards self-destruction, but also that their audiences tend to prefer tragic art – the paradox of tragedy.

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