“Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.”
While country legend Steve Earle has since walked back on the above quote, it contains a popular sentiment among songwriters: Townes Van Zandt was one of the greatest to ever do it.
With lyrics that combine witty, homespun platitudes with masterful prose, Van Zandt has influenced nearly every figure in the Folk/ Americana scene since his debut. His work has graced the top of Billboard’s Top 100, and has been featured on acclaimed TV shows like True Detective, Breaking Bad and Deadwood.
In spite of this status as one of music’s all time greats, Townes spent the majority of his life in utter squalor.
One can’t blame his upbringing. With nearly perfect SAT scores and a wealthy heritage, Townes’ parents groomed him to be a lawyer or senator. Yet as he aged, Van Zandt began to suffer mental breakdowns, after which doctors diagnosed him as a manic depressive.
Unable to fit in anywhere else in the world, Townes turned to music. His songwriting prowess was soon noticed, and after moving to Nashville, Van Zandt secured a record deal and released a series of albums in the early-70s.
Though these records contain some of the greatest songwriting ever recorded, the rest of Townes’ career fell victim to his mental illness.
Living in cheap hotels and backwoods cabins, Townes’ performances were limited to small dive bars. He became a raging alcoholic by the mid-1970s, often having to quit midway through a show because he was too drunk.
Confined to a wheelchair by the 1990s, Townes died on a friends couch at the age of 52.
Though many hold Townes as the quintessential example of a tortured artist, his genius spurs another uncomfortable question: How could a person so keenly aware of the human condition also be so terrible at navigating it?
Townes is far from the only genius to be plagued by mental health issues. In fact, it seems as though a high proportion of the world’s most innovative minds are also batshit crazy.
While it’s dangerous to romanticize mental health issues, there’s evidence suggesting “crazy” people may actually be more in tune with reality than we’d like admit.
The Denial of Death
In his Pulitzer-prize winning book The Denial of Death, anthropologist Earnest Becker proposes that everything in human life stems from the desire to conceal death. And I’m serious. Everything.
Technology, architecture, religion, art, morality, politics – society at large is designed to protect us from the uncomfortable truth that we’re gonna die.
The reasoning behind this idea is two-fold. First there’s good ole Darwinism, which posits that the genes best-suited for survival will be the ones passed on to future generations. As such, the material that makes us “us” will invariably be inclined to avoid death. It’s in our DNA.
The second reason is that we humans inhabit a world of objects and symbols.
Though we’re confined to physical bodies, our brains can also remember the past and project the future. This grants us a “symbolic” self. And since we know the physical self is gonna die, Becker argues that the object of a person’s life is to prolong the survival of the symbolic self. This quest becomes what he labels an “immortality project.”
People seek this immortality in a myriad of ways. Whether it’s having children, stamping their name on buildings, or subscribing to a religion in which they’re told they will live forever – all immortality projects are designed to convince the symbolic self that it will survive its physical death.
Furthermore, clashes between immortality projects are the source of all societal conflict. Indeed, religion and politics prove to be such testy subjects because they are key features of a person’s symbolic self. When someone challenge these notions, he can literally be viewed as a threat to survival.
If you take Becker’s work at face value, it’s easy to see how mental illness can be a rational response to the world around us.
When You Can’t Deny
Imagine a radioactive toxin is accidentally released on your town. Afterwards, doctors tell you the effects from this exposure are most certainly going to kill you and everyone you know. However, they’re not sure if it will happen today or in 50 years. How would you feel?
This scenario is the premise behind Dan Delilo’s postmodern masterpiece White Noise. The irony behind it is simple: Life is like a toxin that will eventually kill everyone.
The characters in White Noise all go crazy after their exposure to the Airborne Toxic Event. And likewise, many people go crazy after being exposed to the conditions of life.
Indeed, people suffering from depression/anxiety may actually be more in tune with the nature of reality. For instance, depressed people have been shown to have a more accurate idea about their importance, sense of control and general capabilities than their happier counterparts.
What’s the reasoning behind this depressive realism? It’s easy to understand under Becker’s framework.
Namely, depressed people are merely realizing the doomed nature of their Immortality Projects. Whether you’re a failed artist, a war veteran, or a parent who’s lost a child, any disruption to your symbolic self’s sense of immortality will expose it to the horror of its inevitable death. In turn, your mental framework will be one which centers around hopelessness and despair.
Likewise, Becker proposes that other mental illnesses are related to the breakdown of an Immortality Project.
For instance, schizophrenics attribute the voices they hear in their heads to an outside party. In turn, they lose their sense of a symbolic self, and their Immortality Projects are rendered useless. Such a degradation once again exposes to the schizophrenic to death, which often leads to him hearing voices that tell him to harm himself.
Likewise, clinical narcissists are unable to fulfill their Immortality Projects in the outside world. Therefore, they create an interior framework in which the world centers around them. While this behavior is toxic to everyone around them, the narcissist’s self-centered worldview is a necessary survival mechanism.
The same reasoning can be applied to a host of other mental illnesses. Yet the important point here is that these maladies may actually be attached to a more accurate realization of the world.
Such an etiology would both explain why so many mental illnesses are co-concurrent, and why a high proportion of the world’s great minds are batshit crazy.
I know that I’m painting a pretty bleak picture here. And indeed, Becker doesn’t offer any real solutions the problem of our doomed Immortality Projects. Perhaps there are none.
Yet even though “crazy” people may actually be seeing the world more clearly, that’s not to say one should romanticize such illnesses.
First, this reasoning fails to take into account the chemical side of the equation. After all, biological processes do affect our mental framework; doctors speculate that people who have issues regulating chemicals like serotonin and dopamine are particularly prone to mood disorders (though the evidence for this theory is controversial). Such maladies can be treated with things like medication and cognitive behavioral therapy, so one shouldn’t succumb to depressive realism without considering the effects of brain chemistry.
Second, mental illness also brings about cognitive biases of its own. For instance, some mental issues lead to what’s called “all-or-nothing” thinking, which causes a person to view situations as either completely good or completely bad.
Yet when you look a little closer, you can see the nature of things isn’t so sharply-defined.
If you’ve ever played with a puppy, scuba-dived in the Bahamas, or went drinking with a group of life-long friends, you know there are certain experiences that are irreplaceable. The problem of our doomed Immortality Projects steals nothing from these moments. And since our lives are but a mere composite of moments, they cannot be completely bad.
Thus, it is possible for one to remain sane while recognizing the absurdity of the world. People do it every day. However, to chalk up the worldview of “crazy” people to chemical imbalances or poor perspective ignores the very real existential plight they are facing.
There’s a reason so many of the world’s great minds are also batshit crazy. Perhaps the only difference between a visionary like Townes Van Zandt and your average, run-of-the mill drifter is dumb luck.
So have some sympathy for the crazy person. She’s may not be as loopy as you think.