Posts Tagged 'madness and literature'

The “Borderlands of Madness”: Jakob Lenz Debate

In 1835, Belgian social scientist Adolphe Quetelet introduced the idea of the “normal distribution” to the study of man, suggesting that many human traits followed a statistical Gaussian curve, with the bulk of the population situated within a centre block showing minimal deviation from each other, and smaller populations at either end. Such a model was eagerly adopted within medicine. Concepts of health shifted from a disease-based model (which regarded health and illness as entirely separate states) to a quantitative model, whereby health became the mid-point on a normal distribution. As this distribution was increasingly used to explain disparate human concerns, the very meaning of the word “normal” changed, from a mathematical term suggesting a median point, to something that was considered desirable. To be healthy was to be normal; not to be normal was to be pathological.

Such a paradigm shift had obvious ramifications for mental, as well as physical, health: the remit of which appears to have expanded ever since. Thus, a recent debate organised by the English National Opera encouraged some attention to the slippery distinctions between madness and sanity. How do the ideas of normality, madness, genius and sanity interconnect? What do we mean by these terms, and how do we judge them?

The debate was part of a series of events connected to the first performance in English of the opera Jakob Lenz, to celebrate the 60th birthday of German composer Wolfgang Rihm. The opera itself, a powerful Expressionist piece (with an impressively muddy set!), focuses on the real life mental breakdown of Romantic poet, Lenz. As Lenz hurls himself into pools after actresses we assume are phantoms, and his friends debate his state of mind, the overwhelming orchestra lends an ominous air to the short piece, which, the publicity claims, asks: Where does genius end and madness begin? How does it feel to cross the borderline between imagination and insanity?

Although these questions might appear somewhat clichéd (and presuppose certain possibilities of definition) the debate itself encouraged a more nuanced discussion. In addition to our Friends Secretary’s contribution around the history of the so-called “borderlands of insanity”, Radio 3 presenter Stephen Johnson reflected on his own experiences of bipolar disorder, and in what ways these did – and, perhaps more importantly, did not – relate to the questions posed. Journalist Jon Ronson, meanwhile, covered some interesting material from his recent book, The Psychopath Test, reflecting on his interview with Robert Spitzer (editor of DSM-III) about the massive expansion of classifications in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association. A refreshingly un-dogmatic medical perspective was provided by Professor Gill Livingston, of the UCL Mental Health Sciences Unit, and encouraged very varied questions from the audience about a topic that one hopes will continue to inform discussion.

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An Extraordinary Life II

The thesis of a direct link between ‘madness’ and ‘creativity’ is a supposition that cannot stand much scrutiny, any more than can that of one between ‘madness’ and ‘religion’, we argued in reviewing Antonia White’s The Hound and the Falcon. Correlations such as these, however, might be considered congenial to the modern (as well as the postmodern) mindset, insofar as their plausibility rests on an assumed disjunction between rational and numinous (religious or otherwise transcendent) modes of apprehension. Perhaps this helps to account for their enduring appeal.

The most down-to-earth comment we have recently read on the subject is that by the anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, who writes in her book Of Two Minds (Vintage, 2001): “Being mad probably does not make you creative, but if you are creative, glimpsing the depths of human despair and then reaching the heights of confidence with infinite energy probably enhances your ability to use your gift.”

Staff here at the Archives & Museum would love to be flies on the wall at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, Ontario, on 26 April, to witness a roundtable discussion on creativity, madness and religion, each of which played their part in the biography of William Kurelek (19227-1977), one that was no less extraordinary than that of Antonia White. Kurelek’s work features prominently in the Archives & Museum’s displays, and he is currently the subject of a major retrospective exhibition that is currently touring Canada.

Closer to home, BBC Radio 3 is scheduled to broadcast the reflections of the author A.L. Kennedy questioning “the clichéd link between madness and creativity” together with a range of conversation partners, including Bethlem’s own Archivist And Gallery Co-ordinator, on Sunday 22 April 2012. In addition, tomorrow evening our Friends Secretary will take part in a free panel event connected to the English National Opera’s production of Jacob Lenz, debating the topic ‘Madness and Sanity are often two sides of the same coin’ with other guests including journalist and writer Jon Ronson and Radio 3 presenter Stephen Johnson. To book, call the Hampstead Theatre box office on 020 7722 9301.

Book Review: ‘Human Traces’

Back in March and April we posted reviews of books with mental health themes. Now we are pleased to add another review, written this time by a work experience student who was recently with us:

‘In the days leading up to, and during, my work experience placement at Bethlem Archives and Museum, I read Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks. I found the book of particular interest at this time because of the ways in which what I was reading linked with all that I was learning and experiencing at the Archives. The book is set in the years around the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and is about the attempts of two fictional doctors, Thomas Midwinter and Jacques Rebière, to make some kind of breakthrough in understanding and treating mental illnesses, back in a time when very little was known about these sorts of disorders.

‘On the first day of my work experience placement I sat in on an educational visit from a school to the Archives. This began with a talk about the history of the hospital and how, in the past, the Bethlem has tried to treat and cure patients. Once again, I found myself making connections between this and Human Traces, especially in terms of the descriptions of the wards and of the use of ‘occupation’ to try and keep the patients busy and distract them from their problems. For example, nineteenth-century Bethlem had a library, sewing, sport teams, a choir and other activities which were available to the patients. All this was also around the time in which Thomas Midwinter, in the book, was working in a large county asylum which also offered its inmates such employment as sewing, gardening, working in a laundry, kitchen or workshop and farming. Another example of entertainment which Bethlem would provide was a monthly ball, an occurrence which is also found within Human Traces, although only once at the county asylum – at Christmas time.

‘During my time here, I have been able to look a little bit at some of the case books for patients admitted in the early 1880s – the same time period within which Human Traces is set. It was possible for me to examine in contrast the real patients and those created by Faulks and see how each were treated in Bethlem in comparison with the attempts of the doctors and alienists at the same time in Human Traces. I found this the most interesting of connections as it seemed that some of the characters in the book could have been taken directly from the doctors’ notes in the casebooks. The case books also provide another connection with Human Traces as Thomas Midwinter, whilst working in the county asylum, was concerned at the lack of records of the patients and so painstakingly wrote up case books of his own, such as the ones kept at the archive.

‘The book Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks is one which I have really enjoyed reading and its vivid descriptions offer a fairly accurate view of the development of the understanding of mental health around the turn of the 20th Century. It is concerned with the development of psychiatry to such an extent that this rather dominates the book; however, there are many sub-plots which relate to less scientific and more conventional themes such as love, family and friendship.’

The Book of the Series

UK-based blog readers may be interested in the Woman’s Hour Drama to be broadcast each weekday next week on Radio 4 at 10.45am (repeated at 7.45pm, and available for a limited time thereafter on iPlayer). It will be based on extracts from two limited-edition books compiled by David Clegg of The Trebus Project from interviews with dementia sufferers. The first print runs of Ancient Mysteries and Tell Mrs Mill Her Husband is Still Dead are almost sold out – they might be collectors’ items by this time next week – but readers of this blog who are quick to contact the author using the details available on The Trebus Project website  may not have to wait for the reprint. The alternative, of course, is simply to tune in to the dramatised broadcasts for a series of narrative insights into living with dementia that promises authenticity and poignancy without heavy-handedness.

Book Review: ‘Beyond the Glass’ and ‘The Vet’s Daughter’

Following our call for book reviews from our readers back in February, Michelle Kopczyk contributed this post from Canada, which coincidentally builds on our recent In the Spotlight on novelist Antonia White:

“Clara Batchelor is twenty-two. Her brief, doomed marriage to Archie ended, she returns to her parents hoping for comfort. But theirs is a strict Catholic home, and its confines form a dangerous glass wall of guilt and repression between Clara and the outside world. Clara both longs for and fears what lies beyond, yet when she escapes into an exhilarating and passionate love affair, her fragile identity cracks. An extraordinary portrayal of a woman’s descent into madness.” May Quartet

Beyond the Glass is the last book in a trilogy-sequel to Frost in May (which I feel is White’s strongest novel).

The central theme in Beyond the Glass is the main character’s (Clara) mental deterioration–absence of identity, depression, great exultation, delusions, incarceration–and recovery. White experienced this in her early twenties, an affliction that revisited her a few times during her life.

The story is tragic. It is about loss and the reluctant acceptance of it. It also evokes a strange sense of hope, that Clara is moving towards developing a sense of self. In contrast, Barbara Comyn’s novel The Vet’s Daughter is similar in feeling, but it has a fantastical element that, unlike Beyond the Glass, mitigates the sense of tragedy for the central character and reinforces, what I believe to be the Vet’s Daughter‘s central theme, the sense of doom of being a human being. White’s novel is unbridled and hard to take in parts—on my third try, I got through it.

White, A. (1980) Beyond the Glass, Virago Press, London

Comyns, B. (1981) The Vet’s Daughter, Virago Modern Classics, London

Visit Michelle’s blog

In the Spotlight: Antonia White

Philip O’Connor, the writer highlighted in last month’s In the Spotlight, wrote of his sense that “a thick glass pane…had been fixed between [him] and the world” upon his departure from the intense, even ‘intellectual’ environment of the Maudsley Hospital.

To another author of the same generation, who experienced the equally heightened atmosphere of the wards of Bethlem Hospital, the divider that mattered most was not a metaphorical one that separated her emotionally from others, but the window pane of her room at hospital, through which “she could see into a garden” in which “women and nurses were walking…like figures cut out of coloured paper”.

“And she could see birds flying across the sky, not real birds, but bird-shaped kites, lined with strips of white metal, that flew on wires. Only the clouds had thickness and depth and looked as clouds had looked in the other world. …They would take shape after shape to amuse her, shapes of swans, of feathers, of charming ladies with fluffy white muffs and toques, of soldiers in white busbies.”

Upon her departure from Bethlem, her perspective was reversed to that of someone on the outside looking in. “She no longer belonged to the world beyond the glass. There were moments when she almost wished she did. … Beyond the glass, however agonising the nightmare experiences, they had had a peculiar intensity.”

These quotations are from Beyond the Glass, the last novel in a trilogy of autobiographical fiction written by Antonia White (1899-1980). Nine months’ residence at Bethlem in 1922-23, when the hospital was located in Southwark, is vividly represented in this novel. This is not the place to attempt a summary either of the work or the life of its author. The dust-jacket of Jane Dunn’s 1998 biography of White promises a study of a “single parent and working mother” who “wrestled with the large questions of faith … Catholicism … being a woman and an artist”, not to mention “the threat of madness” (Antonia White: A Life). This is sufficient reason, we think, to read White’s novels (maybe Dunn’s biography too). In them White gives evocative, and at times searing, accounts of her experiences in and out of hospital.

Then for the short story ‘Surprise Visit’ (published in an anthology entitled Strangers), White drew upon her experience of returning, out of curiosity, to the Southwark site of her hospitalisation, some time after Bethlem had relocated to Beckenham and the Imperial War Museum had moved in. There White attributed to her protagonist the “peculiar satisfaction” she no doubt felt “to measure how far and how successfully she had travelled since that deplorably bad start”.

Antonia White

Used by kind permission of the National Portrait Gallery

Madness and Literature: I Never Promised You a Rose Garden

Remember we asked on this blog for your thoughts on books showing insight into mental health issues? We’d still love to hear from you, on this blog or by email, but here is our friends secretary’s review of one autobiographical novel.

First published in 1964, I Never Promised you a Rose Garden is a fictionalised account of the experiences of the author, Joanne Greenberg, portrayed in the novel as the character Deborah Blau. Aged just sixteen, Greenberg was admitted to the Chestnut Lodge Sanitarium in Rockville, Maryland, where she was treated by the (at the time) renowned psychoanalyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann (the novel’s Dr Fried). The thoughtful insight into life at Chestnut Lodge, for patients and doctors, is one of the novel’s many qualities: indeed, the sympathetic treatment of those around Deborah (in stark contrast to, say, Sylvia Plath’s contemporaneous The Bell Jar) is perhaps one reason as to why the autobiographical nature of the book was for a long time debated (written under a pseudonym, it was not for several decades that Greenberg began to speak publicly about her work).

Of course, Greenberg’s positivity is understandable, given the conclusion of her story: discharged from Chestnut Lodge after three years as an in-patient in 1951, she continued a close friendship with Fromm-Reichman until the latter died in 1957. Indeed, the novel itself had originally been planned as a collaboration between Greenberg, her mother and doctor. What’s more, Greenberg has remained well since her discharge, leading to an incredible variety of re-interpretations of her illness following the novel’s publication. An increasing emphasis on psychotropic medication, and tendency to view schizophrenia as a purely biological disease, meant that many doctors denied Greenberg had ever had schizophrenia at all: for, they argued, she could not possibly have been cured of this disease with psychotherapy alone. On the other hand, the anti-psychiatry movement has obliterated in the minds of many the notions of “therapeutic community” that Chestnut Lodge claimed to represent: for many, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the paradigm for the post-war psychiatric hospital, with its suggestion that illness is reinforced, not cured, by in-patient treatment.

While this is not to say that the experiences of many (we should, in particular, note that Chestnut Lodge was a private hospital) may certainly have been more Cuckoo’s Nest than Rose Garden (indeed, many elements of Deborah’s treatment may appear more disconcerting to us than they seem to have done to Greenberg, who portrays seclusion and “packing” as less constricting than her illness itself), this is rather to miss the point of the book. The account is, after all, one of survival: thus Greenberg emphasises the purpose of many aspects of mental ill-health, as well as their possible cure (something psychotherapy can indicate in a way drugs never can). Beautifully detailing Deborah’s refuge in the incredibly intricate world of Yr as a means of survival in an aggressively anti-Semitic post-war world, the importance of Dr Fried’s promises become clear: she will not have to give up her refuge until she is ready and, when she does, there will be something there to take its place. Cure cannot simply be a demolition of all that is perceived as unhealthy, it is something has to be created: a trust – in the world? In a future? It is clearly significant that the words of a Jewish doctor, forced to flee Nazi Germany in the 1930s, form the title of the book. Anyone who struggles to reconcile themselves to the realities of the twenty-first century world will find much of import in the words of both Dr Fried, Deborah Blau, and Greenberg herself.