Avital Carno examines the relationship between the arts and mental illness, and how it has influenced the creative output of some of our most revered writers and artists.
Trigger warning: The following contains discussion of suicide.
‘The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n’
So says John Milton’s newly fallen Satan, as he opens his eyes in hell. This quotation is testimony both to the extraordinary power of the mind, and the inherently subjective way in which we each experience our own version of ‘reality’. If we are to define ‘art’, very loosely, as an artist’s interpretation of their personal experience of reality, then mental health can be seen as a hugely influential factor within the creative process.
Mental health has long been a preoccupation of some of the most famous works of literature: the canon is littered with portrayals and interrogations of suicide, depression and insanity. Female madness, for instance, is a recurring literary motif, from Virgil’s tragic, suicidal Dido (9 BC) to Lady Macbeth’s bloodstained hands (1606), or Cathy’s furious, hallucinogenic, desperately nostalgic episode of ‘brain fever’ in Wuthering Heights (1847) and Mr. Rochester’s imported and imprisoned bride burning on the rooftop in Jane Eyre (1847). (What with our feeble and hysterical temperaments, how else could women respond to adversity but by descending into insanity, eh?)
Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth, alongside Michael Fassbender in the titular role, in Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth (2015)
As more female authors rose to prominence and just acclaim, and society’s attitude towards mental illness began to change, portrayals of the ‘madwoman’ became more nuanced and psychologically credible. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) gives a voice and a story to Rochester’s Creole bride, Antoinetta, portraying her entrapment within a marriage and a lifestyle and eventually a new country (England) and a new name (Bertha), from which she is entirely alienated.
Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963) is narrated by the character of a young woman suffering from depression, and vividly evokes its protagonist’s claustrophobic, despairing, exhausted existence—as well as the horror of electroconvulsive therapy. Increasingly, literature in the 20th century began to portray mental health struggles from the perspective of those living with, and suffering from, them.
Throughout the centuries, writers and artists have responded to older creative depictions of mental illness. The voice of Shakespeare’s Ophelia re-emerges in Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ (1922) in a London pub at closing time, ending a discussion of abortion pills and implicit adultery with the poignantly resonant ‘good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night’. In 1852, Sir John Everett Millais completed his painting Ophelia, showing the drowning woman garlanded with flowers, in a pose that has been alternately interpreted as saintly and erotic. Both Hamlet’s famous ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy and Plath’s poem ‘Crossing the Water’ (1971) are taut with the same tension: a despair and weariness with life and yet a simultaneous, innately human terror of death’s ‘undiscover’d country’.
Jeremy Irons and Eileen Atkins read Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ (1922)
In addition, many prominent artistic minds suffered from unstable mental health themselves, and writers’ own psychological turmoils repeatedly bleed into their works. These struggles can take shape in allusions or preoccupations with mortality, and affect everything from the psychology of their characters, the perspectives they convey and their way of depicting the world.
In ‘The Waste Land’, an unnamed voice tells us that ‘by the waters of Leman I sat down and wept’. This allusion to the Biblical Psalm 137 is also Eliot’s own description of writing the poem; it is a brilliantly crafted flood of weeping for a shattered world in the aftermath of World War I, composed as he recuperated from a psychological breakdown near Lake Geneva (‘Leman’ in French). Rhys was an alcoholic, briefly a prostitute, and spent time in asylums; her novels are often seen as studies in female sadness. Plath’s alleged clinical depression can be read as manifesting itself in repeated references to suicide throughout her poetry and in the subject matter of her only novel—until her own suicide in 1963.
Virginia Woolf also battled crippling mental illness, posited by, among others, Thomas Caramagno in his 1992 study The Flight of the Mind, to be bipolar disorder. Woolf’s drastically unstable moods are, it can be suggested, reflected in her evocations of rapidly interchangeable highs and lows through a stream-of-consciousness style. The exhaustion which Woolf described feeling after finishing a piece of work is shared by her character Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse—often read as the figure of Woolf herself—who ends the novel by ‘laying down her brush in extreme fatigue’.
Nicole Kidman won the 2003 Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance as Woolf in Stephen Daldry’s The Hours, alongside Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore
Mental illness has had an equally large impact upon artists. Pablo Picasso was rumored to have suffered from depression, and Vincent van Gogh experienced epileptic seizures as a result of absinthe, and his letters show patterns of apparent depression followed by periods of passionate determination. The latter’s Wheatfield with Crows (1890) invokes a sense of overpowering melancholy, and it was in a wheat field that he shot himself later that year.
Many of Francisco de Goya’s portraits, such as The Count of Floridablanca (1783), are quite frankly bizarre. These unflattering, aesthetically displeasing works could be interpreted by as emblems of absurdity, a symbol of Goya’s depression as reflections of the absurdity he saw in the world around him.
The link between creativity and mental illness is striking. Psychologist Mark Millard offers several explanations, claiming that ‘creativity is uncomfortable’ as it is artists’ ‘dissatisfaction with the present that drives them on to make changes’. Millard also argues that ‘creative people, like those with psychotic illnesses, tend to see the world differently to most’. Regardless of the science, it is undeniable that mental illness has preoccupied artists and writers from classical times through to the present day.
Mental illness has also contributed towards producing some of the most original, evocative and enduring pieces of art and literature, by inciting abnormal extremes of emotion within artistic minds. This gives rise to a deeply disturbing question: is possible to be simultaneously creative—really, masterfully creative—and happy? And if so, why does there seem to be such a strong connection between mental illness and art?
These are works which must be cherished, ‘all the more dearly’, M. H. Abrams wrote in 1971, ‘because of the fearful toll exacted for beauty stolen from another world’.
Featured image: John Everett Millais, Ophelia (1851–1852), oil on canvas
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