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The Bell Jar Shattered: ‘Mad Genius’ And Creativity-Illness Psychiatry

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Using literary and artistic references and personas, Romesa Qaiser Khan, Asnia Latif and Ali Madeeh Hashmi explore creativity, melancholy and various facets of mental health.

Why is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly of an atrabilious (melancholy, irritable) temperament? (Aristotelian Problemata XXX.1)

So is phrased Aristotle’s theory of melancholia about the link between creativity and mental illness where it is hypothesized that individuals who possess any form of genius are relatively more prone to illness and depression than the average person.

The darkness is visible in the mysteries behind society’s famous deaths. The Pulitzer Prize winners- Ernest Hemingway (1961) shot himself and Anne Sexton (1974) died by asphyxiation- while the Dutch influential painter Vincent Van Gogh (1890) chopped off his own ear and icon of third wave Feminism Virginia Woolf (1941) drowned herself to death. The list of examples supplementing Aristotle’s theory is by no means exhaustive; extensive researches across the medical field establish that creative writers are more susceptible to mental illness. Anton Chekhov, an accomplished writer and doctor, adeptly employed this very concept by creating an intellectual gifted but mentally ill protagonist in his story “The Black Monk”.

However, when it comes to absolute proof, research on this subject (i.e. the correlation b/w creativity and suicidal tendency etc.) is flawed. Personal biases, an inability to define either creativity or mental illness concretely, and a tendency to limit creativity to mere literary prowess all hamper the credibility of such endeavors to establish links with melancholia.

The life of Sylvia Plath, the American poet, novelist and short story writer who chronicled her struggle with lifelong depression in her semi-autobiographical novel ‘The Bell Jar’ is an interesting example. She committed suicide at the age of 30. The novel gave rise to what has come to be known as “the Sylvia Plath effect” – the phenomenon that poets are prone to suffer mental illness and even more so if they are female. What makes it so poignant are the parallels Plath draws between Esther, the heroine’s life and her own, albeit with a vastly different conclusion- her protagonist, unlike Plath, makes a full recovery from her depression and goes on to live a normal life.

An excellent student and gifted writer from a very young age, Plath’s first encounter with emotional instability came in the form of her father’s death at the age of eight (he died from complications following the amputation of a diabetic foot). It caused a split in her life she was clearly able to demarcate. In one of her last prose pieces, Plath commented that her first nine years “sealed themselves off like a ship in a bottle—beautiful inaccessible, obsolete, a fine, white flying myth”. Her poem “Daddy” captures the root of her angst perfectly:

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Bit my pretty red heart in two.

I was ten when they buried you.  

At twenty I tried to die

And get back, back, back to you.

I thought even the bones would do.

 College provided a temporary respite, although it would not last. Her dissatisfaction with her undergraduate internship and subsequent rejection by a Harvard literature program she had hoped to be accepted into, marked her first failures in professional life. They brought her buried unhappiness to the forefront, planting seeds of self-doubt that grew into a full blown identity crisis. The disparity between the academic and the real jarred her; she spiraled into depression, lost motivation and became emotionally withdrawn.

Amidst this turmoil, she contemplated suicide by starting to self-harm, setting a precedent for future attempts. Esther, her protagonist, personifies this struggle- she is unable to work or sleep and feels trapped as if under a bell jar unable to breathe. She tries repeatedly to die, eventually overdosing on sleeping pills and crawling into a closed off tunnel in her basement.

Plath’s first documented suicide attempt in real life occurred the same way. Her mother had sought electroconvulsive therapy for her ailment but improper administration of the treatment by her psychiatrist prompted her to overdose instead. She was found after three days and resuscitated, just as Esther is in the novel, and spent the next six months in psychiatric care. With her subsequent recovery and release, the timeline of ‘The Bell Jar’ ends. Esther concludes that the treatment felt like “lifting the metaphorical bell jar in which she has felt trapped and stifled.”

Plath’s own life in its entirety turned out to be not so simple- her marriage with renowned poet Ted Hughes went sour shortly after she finished her novel in 1962 and led to her second suicide attempt by reckless driving. The subsequent separation from him caused her depression to return in full force. Alternating between anger and passivity, optimism and negativity, she was unable to maintain her emotional stability. She continued to work though, and became a renowned author and poet. Her inner turmoil went undetected, other than sudden weight loss and an inability to sleep. She again actively sought therapy and was prescribed antidepressants. However, over three weeks it would take for the pills to come into effect; Plath succumbed to her ailment and committed suicide in February of 1960. She locked herself in the kitchen with wet towels around the door preventing the carbon monoxide she had asphyxiated herself with from seeping through the apartment to her kids.

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While it is believed by many that creativity is a compensatory advantage to those who have mental illness – the peak of creativity coinciding with the periods of early recovery -raises many questions: Is there actually such a thing as a “mad genius”? If there is, is it their sensitive and observant nature (a prerequisite for being creative) that renders them vulnerable to mental illness or is it truly the compensatory advantage? Can we intervene to prevent harm? Will curing the illness equate to depriving the person of his/her creative power?

Sylvia Plath’s life and work serve as reminder that the answers reside somewhere in between. Creative people present a special challenge to doctors. By virtue of their intelligence, they can be valuable assets in the path to recovery, a doctor’s best allies. By the same token, they can be headstrong and willful, unwilling to follow instructions passively or sometimes ignoring them altogether.

In addition, psychologists and mental health researchers have investigated various aspects of mental functioning in great detail. We know a lot about memories, perceptions, behavior and many complications about the mind. But what we call the ‘higher mental functions’, things such as the human will, creativity and motivation have not been studied in as much detail. We know even less about how a person’s social conditions and their environment affect a person and how, in turn, a person’s actions in a given environment affect that person’s mental functioning. Human being interact with the world around them and change it; this has been a constant in human evolution. But the world in turn also changes us and this dynamic process continues endlessly.

Mental illness and it’s more positive twin, creativity, cannot be studied in isolation. There is ample evidence that creativity arises from melancholy, from a restlessness about the world around us and our desire to change it in some way. Those, like Plath, who cannot find a way to change it to their liking, suffer and ultimately might perish before their time. It is an important task for all of us to not allow that to happen. Aristotle had said ‘there is no great genius without a touch of madness’. We must do all we can to protect and preserve our ‘mad geniuses’. They show us the hidden potential that resides within each of us; the power to change each other and the world around us for the benefit of the entire human race.

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