In the wake of the 50th anniversary of “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath, Natalie Holborow discusses the “mad genius” and asks why we seem so certain that mental illness and creativity go hand in hand.
Allen Ginsberg was reportedly a frequent user of narcotics to induce his poetic visions. Sylvia Plath was famously a sufferer of severe depression, and her psychological state is often closely speculated by critics in relation to her work. My own homeboy, the Swansea-born Dylan Thomas, had a little bit of trouble with the old whiskey shots (and certain critics, particularly David Holbrook, often use Thomas’s personal problems as a way to attach stigma and accuse him of writing “meaningless” drunken words). Virginia Woolf was another writer suffering with psychological illness: she was reported to have spent 3 years in and out of Burley House in Twickenham, described as “a private nursing home for women with nervous disorder.”
Taking all of this into account, is it fair to assume that in order to be a creative genius, one has to be suffering from some form of mental illness? So often, people with mental illnesses are regarded as visionaries. And so often, people with psychological disorders are stereotyped in society. Will everybody relate you to visions of men in white coats because you aren’t the “right” level of happy? Are you somehow “not normal”? Is this simply part of being creative?
The link between creativity and mental health has been much speculated in the media in recent years. I know I am prone to having moments during exams and creative writing assignments where I feel I am one more poem analysis away from being discovered cowering in the library, screaming and covered in egg. If I succumbed to this urge to have a casual breakdown in the Shakespeare section, would I in fact be crossing the moors like King Lear in the storm to the Arts and Humanities office to hand in a portfolio of poetic masterpieces? Or would I just be suspended from my course?
It is tempting to romanticize this image of the struggling genius. For decades, films and documentaries on the lives of writers, poets and artists have served as proof to our cultural fascination with the life of a creative genius. And so often, it is because their lives are extraordinary and they are fascinating people.
But then there’s the danger of taking the work in the context of the author’s own life, rather than allowing the piece to stand on its own. Take for example arguably the most stereotyped poet of all, Sylvia Plath. I remember discovering in a poetry anthology specifically aimed at dealing with mental illness, the fantastic “Beyond Bedlam”, edited by Matthew Sweeney (I highly recommend it; he does well to challenge this prejudiced and outdated view of those suffering with mental illnesses) that poets in particular are 20 times more likely to suffer mental illness than the rest of the population. With poetry being the avenue I want to pursue creatively, I might as well pack up my copy of Ariel and try the straitjacket on for size. If we look at Plath’s poem Elm:
“I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root;
“It is what you fear.
I do not fear it: I have been there…
…I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets.
Scorched to the root
My red filaments burn and stand, a hand of wires.”
The danger of knowing Plath’s mental history is that suddenly we pounce upon the poem as entirely her own experience and in doing so, we limit the potential of her work and make it in some ways less accessible. The universal appeal of writing diminishes and the poem’s possibilities are stifled. With “I know the bottom”, many critics have linked this to specific times in her life related to this depression- chiefly her experience of living in a cold flat with her children after finding out about her husband’s infidelity. Likewise, “a hand of wires” may be attributed to her experience in McLean Mental Hospital. No longer does the poem have so many multiple meanings, it becomes autobiographical. Any philosophical, universal aspect is significantly limited as we attach only one definition to the image of the elm.
Are we judging the writer? As previously mentioned, Dylan Thomas was often criticized for his drinking, and his words to some critics appearing to be simply drunken ramblings. Yet if we read his poems as they stand alone, would they be perceived differently? While it is true that alcohol can sometimes help the writing process in releasing inhibitions and self-doubt that pervades our minds in sobriety, I do not believe one has to be permanently intoxicated to write great literature. It has unfortunately become a cultural assumption and misconception fuelled by our morbid fascination with the darker aspects of a writer’s personal life, and the judgement of their behaviour which gets projected onto their work.
In a 2010 BBC news report on scientific studies as to how the mind works, “brain scans are said to have revealed striking similarities in the thought pathways of highly creative people and those with schizophrenia. Both groups lack important receptors used to filter and direct thought.” This is apparently a clue as to how creative people are able to think “outside the box”.
Whilst studies are conducted and results often found to point towards a strong link between creativity and mental illness, it is important not to romanticize psychiatric disorders. While it is true that some people do find that their psychology enables them to create visions, it could also be that creativity is a great therapy and I myself have often turned to art and poetry when I am struggling. Like any experience, creating something out of it can give a sense of self-confidence and achievement and I am a strong believer in art therapy as opposed to anti-depressants. But everybody is different, choosing medication does work for other people – we are individuals.
And this has to be borne in mind when dealing with the idea that “all artists and writers are mad”. Are they? Or have we just become so fixated on the personal profiles of the famous that we instantly pick out any personal details that might feed into this stereotype? Just as musicians such as Amy Winehouse are judged on their personal life, we do the same to writers. The truth is, everybody knows somebody with a mental illness. It does not mean straitjackets or padded cells or ten packets of pills every day.
The checkout girl serving you. The boy sitting next to you in the library. The smiling old lady on the bench. Your cousin. Your dad. You. According to mentalhealth.org.uk, 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem this year. That’s 5 of us in a class of 20. Yes, there are the links. Yes, some writers wrote about their psychological problems. But just like the rest of us, they are still human, still people doing their job and producing work. No, not all writers are psychologically ill. And for the ones who are, it doesn’t mean that they are constantly shouting at the walls. I know plenty of people with various conditions ranging from depression to bipolar disorder and they certainly do not fit this image of the neurotic: they are very normal people managing their conditions. For the most part it is only our prejudiced attitude towards mental health that gives them this unfair image and pervades critical response to a writer’s works.
A poem is there to be enjoyed as a piece of work in its own right, not speculated over whether it was written after smoking something exotic or in a fit of depression. And as far as I’m concerned, “Fern Hill” wasn’t about whiskey.
By Natalie Holborow