Literary Lunacy: The Suffering of Great Minds

“Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.” – Edgar Allen Poe

Ever heard the saying about there being only a thin line between a genius and a madman? Well in the case of a vast amount of my favourite writers, it’s not far wrong.

According to the OED, to create is ‘the action or process of bringing something into existence.‘ To imagine something, from nothing seems mysterious and amazing – how can someone concoct something from nothing at all!? Obviously it’s a little far-fetched, writers will always have inspiration, even subliminally, but the notion remains that when pen is put to paper, something akin to insanity happens. Poe’s quote, above, reflects the dream-like processes which go into creating a piece of fiction.

“I am terrified by this dark thing/that sleeps in me;/all day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.”

I’ve read nearly everything Sylvia Plath has ever written, including her journals. (Yes, I love her work that much.) Part of me wonders what would have happened had Plath been living in this day and age, an age in which mental illness is better understood. Perhaps she would have received more help, or at least more understanding. But another part of me doubts that ‘Ariel’ would exist in that scenario? And if that were the case, what of the many works the poetry collection has inspired?

Plath’s writing reflects every bit of emotional trauma she underwent during her lifetime. It’s tragic, hard-hitting and graphic; and it’s undeniably genius. Even the title of her most famous novel ‘The Bell Jar’ captures a lifetime of horror. Imagine living life trapped beneath a bell jar, shut away from the world and yet simultaneously forced to be a part of it.

“My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me. /Speak to me.”

T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ shifts rapidly between satire and prophecy. There are slippages between speaker, location and time. It seems apt then, that this poem was composed during a time of great difficulty for its creator. Eliot wrote ‘The Wasteland’ when his marriage was failing, and both he and his wife were suffering from nervous disorders. The line quoted above is one that bears great resonance with me – in just ten words, Eliot expresses the fear, hysteria and panic that individuals struggling with anxiety, depression and other mental health problems face on a regular basis. Since its release in 1922, the poem has been considered a touchstone of modern literature.

‘What a lark. What a plunge.’

When discussing mental illness in literature, we can’t forget about Virginia Woolf. Like ‘The Wasteland,’ ‘Mrs Dalloway’ is increasingly modern in its narrative approach. With constant shifts from one perspective to another, and bizarre, sometimes incomprehensible thoughts from characters such as Clarissa Dalloway, the novel captures the erratic and frightening mindset of individuals plunging in to mental illness.

Between Plath, Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Lord Byron and Lewis Carol, a large percentage of my literary heroes were openly plagued by suffering. Byron’s bipolar disorder is undeniably reflected in the play ‘Manfred.’ Carroll’s struggle with conflicting emotions concerning his muse Alice Liddell inspired ‘Alice’s adventures in Wonderland’ and ‘Alice through the Looking Glass’ – two of my all time favourite reads!

“We’re All Mad Here.”

. . . Well, we are aren’t we? 😉 

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