The myth of the despondent intellectual requires no introduction.
It’s ubiquitous in the art world alone: van Gogh cut his ear off in a fit of depression. Hemingway tried aggressively to drink away his troubles. Sylvia Plath purged her loneliness and morbidity into “The Bell Jar.” All three committed suicide. And those are just the artists.
It’s pretty much become a cliche, at this point, for men and women of ideas to be morose and misanthropic, stuck inside their own melancholy heads. If you’re not bitter, you’re not a serious thinker, or so the questionable logic goes.
To be sure, there might be a few underlying scientific factors. Neuroscientists in Austria found structural similarities in the brains of creative individuals and mental health victims, specifically schizophrenics. Apparently, the creative experience more intense waves of ideation, synthesizing larger amounts of disconnected information in a manner verging on the insane.
But hard-wired brain science can’t be all there is to it. There have got to be more nuanced forces at play, many of which are social, situational and largely surmountable.
For one thing, not all gifted people fit the profile — this special brand of malaise is largely a symptom of solitude. A priori reasoning doesn’t lend itself to group projects. Philosophers and artists strive to express the way they personally see the world, and their lines of work select for mavericks who value their own perspectives over collaboration with others. Scientists, by contrast, aren’t typically thought of as jaded or antisocial. (Some physicists and biologists are indeed irritable a good deal of the time, but you would be too if you spent your weekends dealing with creationists.)
Social alienation almost definitely plays a contributing role. Historically depressed geniuses are remembered distinctly for their poor social skills and failing relationships — many of them were profoundly lonely.
Smart children realize at a young age that they’re unlike their peers, almost as if they speak a different mental language. They have difficulty describing their ideas on others’ terms or finding people who share their unconventional interests. Their peers have just as much trouble relating to them and see them as overly serious.
This inaccessibility gap makes it difficult for the critically minded to get along with others, especially since the people with whom they coexist are often those they criticize. Many of them back away from the constant misunderstandings, giving up on sociality to settle into a life of quietude.
Not only that, but brilliance requires more than a little dissatisfaction. The intelligent can easily imagine how much greater the world can be, and their idealism leads to constant disappointment.
Trenchant social criticism often requires being on the margin, which gives people perspective. People in the thick of it, swimming alongside the rest of the school, don’t have the wherewithal to make incisive critiques. The one with the most interesting and comprehensive vantage point of the river is the one sitting alone on the bank.
This is especially true of social critics and public thinkers, who occupy themselves with such manageable topics as civilization, its flaws and its discontents. The outstandingly creative are frustrated with the ordinary; that’s what drives them to do extraordinary things.
In truth, the stereotype endorses a false dichotomy between intelligence and happiness. Not only is it unfair to the people it caricatures — reducing the gravity of their perspectives to mood swings — it also perpetuates untrue and unhealthy assumptions about what it means to be smart. Were the gifted unhappy because of their gifts, or because of their lack of balance?
Being intellectual need not equate to being a pariah. Instead, the gifted might put their gifts to use to improve their own sociability, working on their emotional intelligence as a personal project. If anything, acquiring a better emotional outlook and fostering meaningful social interactions can help them to make their thoughts accessible, as well as keep a pulse on what’s really relevant.
Besides, the unsettling effects of serious thought shouldn’t necessarily be avoided. And although there are definitely self-hating intellectuals out there, many people embrace the discomfort that comes from questioning our beliefs and peeling away the layers of our own assumptions. If the life of the mind is so painful, why do they endure? Perhaps because they appreciate something that is not immediately obvious: that the truth is valuable in itself.
Truth is an acquired taste — at first bitter and hard on the gut, but something to eventually crave, with its own special caste of sweetness. Sometimes it’s worth moving beyond perpetual happiness in search of something absolute.
Jonathan Iwry is a College 2014 graduate from Bethesda, Md., who studied philosophy. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.