In Part One of The Science of Sci-Fi, Tick Style, I discussed the use of optogenetics as a possible cure for mental illnesses in the future. It is exciting science, to say the least, especially with the implications of it being a non-invasive way of giving so many people piece of mind. However — as the skeptic that I am — I can’t help but wonder about the abuse that could come out of such a technology. Where does the desire to “fix” one’s self stop? Who is to determine what exactly is a defect worthy of fixing? And if all the mental abnormalities are removed, what does that do for the creative muse?
It begs the moral question: Is the creative muse a neural defect and should it be fixed?
THE BRAIN, THE MIND & THE MUSE
My research of optogenetics not only aided me in the extensive rewrites of Tick, but also made the threat of brain alterations feel that much more real, and therefore real for my main character, Jo. Over the course of my scientific research, I had a bit of a mind-bending experience.
Let me get a little personal on you for a moment. In my formative years, I was plagued by a severe depression. No matter how brutal it was at times, I continually battled against the idea that whatever depression I was suffering was not the result of a chemical imbalance in my brain as the psychiatrist insisted. It was environmental, I argued. I was always an overly perceptive kid. People called me an “old soul” when I was 10. I knew my compulsion to create art and express myself was not just a product of an excessively emotional teenager. Still, I couldn’t function in the “real world” so they put me on anti-depressants. My mind was not my own on those drugs, those thoughts were that of someone who could care less about literally anything at all. I made no art. I wrote no music. I was a shell of my former self. After a couple of years, I stopped taking those drugs and took the time to simply grow up a little. A decade later, I am living life depression-free, but the experience has forever changed my perception of my own mind.
I tell you this not to spill my dirty laundry on you — I tell you this because a world where normal citizens can be plucked out of the crowd, deemed unfit for a life in normal society and then adjusted (as is the world in Tick), is a very real fear of mine. My muse did not speak to me while on those drugs, a muse I had grown to rely on to help make sense of things. Severing that connection made me feel less of myself and more of a sheep following the crowd. I had always been determined to go against the grain and do something important, and the more I succumbed to the notion that my dreams were not only ridiculous but harmful to my psyche, the more I began losing sight of myself. Losing motivation due to depression and losing motivation due to lack of insight are two sides of the same coin, let me tell you, and neither offer a comfortable place to sit, but at least one allowed me to create art. At least one allowed me a sense of expression and connection.
So, does it seem like such a stretch of the imagination that altering the brain to remove mental illness could possibly remove human creativity? There are a lot of people who are creative without being plagued by such darkness. But most of them — the most memorable — are. Vincent Van Gogh suffered from anxiety and depression (I mean, the guy cut off his own ear, come on). Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf all suffered from severe depression, and all three eventually committed suicide. Kurt Cobain is still heralded for having breathed new life into rock music, and as people begged for him to be more transparent, he retreated further into himself.
I can imagine the torture these individuals went through, and yet who would we be as a culture without their artistic influence? Can we honestly say, “I think we’d be better off if Cobain had been mentally healthy”? Would Sylvia Plath be Sylvia Plath without the very thing that took her life? Are we grateful for their suffering because it afforded the rest of us the opportunity to be graced with their insight? What would the world be like today had optogenetics been available a hundred years ago and doctors and government officials made laws that mentally ill people be fixed for the safety of the general public? Or, are we more willing to sacrifice a few victims to the demons of depression so that the rest of us don’t have to?
No Pain, No Gain
Recently, I listened to the newest album by Cat Power, one of my favorite musical artists. The album has many modern elements to it, from pop-synth beats to highly produced vocals. These are ingredients of most current music, so I can’t really blame Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) for changing up her sound to remain relevant, yet the new style is a far cry from the basic dirty guitar and echo drums of her early albums. The new Cat Power is fun, sure, but something is missing.
It reminded me of a story. In February of 2004, Los Angeles was going through a major rain storm, rushing floods through the streets of Hollywood (L.A. has a terrible drainage system). I had tickets to see Cat Power perform on the Knitting Factory’s back stage, and I’d invited my mom along since I needed a date and I figured the music wouldn’t be too assaulting.
We drove/sailed down the river of Hollywood Boulevard, stood in line for an hour, got an excellent standing position in front of the stage and watched the show. It was just Chan, a piano, a couple guitars, and a full glass of liquor. She spent more time fondling that glass than the instruments. She couldn’t make it through an entire song without stopping or fading off in the middle of it before moving to the next song. Chan hardly noticed the audience; she was in her own mind-space. It was painful to watch as she was an artist I admired greatly. Even my mom was disappointed, especially since we made the treacherous trek through the pouring rain, and I was sad my mom couldn’t experience the music as I loved it.
Some years later, Chan Marshall came out in public and admitted she’d had a drinking problem and serious depression issues and that she was on the road to recovery. Good for her, I thought. Everyone deserves to be emotionally healthy. And then she came out with a new record. Her music had changed. It lost its edge. It lost a lot of the pain and angst and desperation. The emotion was gone. In Chan’s process of recovery, she removed from herself the inspiration for what made her music that of Cat Power. And as difficult as it was to watch that show in 2004, the moment was true. It was real. I watched that woman bare her soul on a stage. The music I fell in love with came from a battered and broken human being, not a healthy person. What came out of her darkest times was beautiful and honest, and for a moment I resented her for changing that. I resented her for healing herself.
Gimme gimme gimme some more
This is not an uncommon experience. So many artists and musicians and actors and writers have suffered from mental illness or addiction, and the art that comes out of those dark times is often what defines the creators themselves. It’s a selfish concept to expect and demand that those artists remain in that dark space in order to continue creating the work we love, yet we do it anyway. They crawl into the darkness so that we don’t have to. They reveal the filthy truths so our hands can remain clean. They create something tangible that can be turned on and shut off as we please to prevent us from having to live in that space continually; it’s there when we need it, and tucked away when we don’t. The same can’t be said for those creators. In order to continue, they must keep that muse at arm’s length, they must keep their hearts open for a beating so that they can feel every pinch of nerves and then redefine and express those sensations into their medium of choice.
And you know what? We want them to bleed for us. Humans feed on pain and suffering for a number of reasons. Maybe we want to feel superior to it. Maybe those brief sensations of pain breathe life into us. How many times have you watched a sad movie just for the sake of having a good cry? And when those moments are missing from our lives, we seek them out. I came of age in the grunge era, I am hard-wired to enjoy grit in music, and in the post-9/11 years I felt alienated from the new brand of happy-go-lucky aka don’t-piss-anyone-off music and entertainment. The censorship was infuriating. As Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney said in 2005, “where’s the fuck you / where’s the black and blue?” I craved those dark revelations. I combed the internet for indie music because that’s where the real feels were (and this was back before iTunes and “recommended artists” was a thing). And when none of my friends connected with the music I listened to, I figured they just didn’t get it.
Maybe it was because they were normal. Maybe they didn’t see anything wrong with the world because through their mentally healthy minds I was the messed up one. Society had told me enough times that I was an oddity and that the problem was within me, not the world. Yet, when I come across people who wish they were more creative and envy my muse, I don’t have the heart to inform them of the side effects, of what goes along with being creative, of the years of pain I endured to become the adult I am today. Perhaps wisdom and insight comes from those revelations in the dark.
And that’s what concerns me. That’s my fear. The artistic muse may in fact be synonymous with mental deformities, and maybe we can’t have one without the other. Who’s to say who the next great artist or writer or musical genius will be, and what if, sometime in the future, that potential creator is determined unfit for society and is fixed before they can reach their full potential? Problem is, we may never know.