Mental Illness And Creativity: A Codependent Relationship?
October 12, 2018
It is but natural that their affliction impacted their thought and influenced their work. Sylvia Plath, perhaps one of the most accomplished and admired poets of the 20th century, took her life at the age of 30 by inhaling gas from a kitchen oven. Her poetry regularly touches upon shock treatment, suicide, self-loathing and dysfunction — all subjects with which she was well acquainted. While still in college, Plath plummeted into depression and was hospitalised and treated with shock therapy. She described her hospitalisation as a “time of darkness, despair, and disillusion — so black only as the inferno of the human mind can be — symbolic death, and numb shock — then the painful agony of slow rebirth and psychic regeneration.”
It was during her undergraduate years that Plath began to suffer the symptoms of severe depression that ultimately lead to her death. In one of her journal entries, dated June 20, 1958, she wrote: “It is as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative—whichever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it.” A particularly eloquent description of bipolar disorder, she turned her experiences of a breakdown and recovery into fiction with her only published novel, The Bell Jar. However, it was only after her death that she garnered accolades for it, and her poetry collections The Colossus and Ariel. In 1982, Plath became the first person to win a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.
In many cases, mental illness has also inspired writers to produce poignant and thought-provoking work. Leo Tolstoy, a Tsar of Russian literature, is known for his novels War And Peace and Anna Karenina. Lesser known but certainly more telling was his novel, A Confession, in which he explored his own depression and general discontent toward his world. Ruminations form the cornerstone of major depressive disorders. Correlation studies show that both those in the creative arts and those with depressive disorder spend an inordinate amount of time contemplating their own distress. In the literary world, ruminations serve as fodder for writers. Tolstoy relied heavily on his ruminations which accounted for his evolving ideas on philosophy, life and art. Even though signs of depression didn’t strike Tolstoy until middle age, the illness eventually came on with a vengeance.
Virginia Woolf, on the other hand, had her first bout with depression at the age of 15, battling it throughout her life — even being hospitalised in 1904 to treat the illness. Her mental state often compromised her creativity which was punctuated by sleeplessness, migraines and auditory and visual hallucinations. Hallucinations, accompanied by a migraine, can often lead to bizarre visual phenomena and can serve as inspiration for many artists. While there is no clear connection between Woolf’s hallucinations and her works, she did allude to her mental illness in her creative work through the criticism of medical establishments in Mrs Dalloway, which may reflect her own ineffectual treatments during the 1920s.
While Dick’s lucidity at the time of writing his experiences is suspect, Joanna Greenberg’s fictionalised account of her self-described descent into and recovery from schizophrenia in her novel I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, draws you into her private battles and makes her struggles as tangible to you as a reader as they were probably for her:
“Enveloped in the dark inner kingdom of her schizophrenia, sixteen-year-old Deborah is haunted by private tormentors that isolate her from the outside world. With the reluctant and fearful consent of her parents, she enters a mental hospital where she will spend the next three years battling to regain her sanity with the help of a gifted psychiatrist. As Deborah struggles toward the possibility of the “normal” life she and her family hope for, the reader is inexorably drawn into her private suffering and deep determination to confront her demons.”