There’s a line I love from the short story Eleonora by Edgar Allan Poe. It’s about madness. And who better than the macabre mind who brought us such gibbering, eye-shivering tales of horror as The Telltale Heart and The Pit and the Pendulum to weigh in on the subject of insanity? The quote goes like this:
“Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence– whether much that is glorious– whether all that is profound– does not spring from disease of thought– from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect.”
I take that to mean, coarsely translated – “maybe the reason so many brilliant people go a bit off their heads is because insanity is only one step past genius.”
Another quote, this one from John Dryden, supports this theory:
“Great wits are sure to madness near allied - And thin partitions do their bounds divide.”
Right. So the line between superior intellect and mental illness is a thin, wobbly one. Not entirely surprising news, is it? We look at the Edgar Allan Poes, the Vincent Van Goghs, the Sylvia Plaths and the Ernest Hemingways, who bring us brilliance that shines long past their own lifetimes, and it seems difficult to argue.
We can chicken-or-egg ourselves to death trying to ascertain whether mental illness drives us toward drugs and drink, or booze and drugs invite the mental illness. But the fact remains that as a society and a culture, mental illness is not uncommon, and we have the pharmaceutical receipts to prove it.Mental illness runs the gamut of everything from mild depression to seasonal affective disorder, to bipolar disorder, to obsessive-compulsive disorder to schizophrenia and psychopathy and beyond. We hate it, we’re afraid of it, and we rail against it, trying everything from denial and a stiff upper lip to electroconvulsive therapy, artificial light and chemical compounds to combat it.
And naturally we're fascinated by it, and try everything from talking about it, to conducting extensive studies, to clinical trials with placebos, to of course writing about it to understand it.
The go-to diagnostic tool for mental disorders is The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, commonly referred to as the DSM, published by the American Psychiatric Association. The DSM was first published in 1952, and was born of the necessity to compile statistics and facts around mental disorders in the United States, particularly in the military. The most recent edition is the fifth edition, or DSM-5, published in May of 2013.
Beyond the scientific and diagnostic, there is still an endlessly deep pool of writing about mental illness. For true, old-timey madness, one need look no further than the aforementioned Edgar Allan Poe for a dose, or, of course, good old Shakespeare, who wrote more than his fair share of tormented characters losing their way and descending into madness – King Lear, Lady MacBeth and Hamlet’s Ophelia are just three of the countless characters struggling with wavering reality in Shakespeare plays.
Still in the realm of fiction, but less over-the-top dramatic, perhaps the best known is Ken Kesey’s classic novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, detailing the experience of a cocky, gregarious man named Randle Patrick McMurphy in an Oregon psychiatric facility.
Also very well-known and under the fiction category is the poet Sylvia Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar, detailing a young woman’s bouts with intense, recurrent and crippling depression. It’s tough to call this one fiction, when by all accounts, the story of protagonist Esther bore an uncanny resemblance to Plath’s own journey, with the notable and sad exception that Esther’s story ends on a hopeful note, and Plath took her own life in 1963.
If it’s non-fiction you’re after, but less dry and clinical than the DSM, an interesting read is Jon Ronson’s 2011 book The Psychopath Test, in which he examined psychopathy from all angles, including discussions with those diagnosed with (or suspected of having) psychopathy. He also conducted extensive interviews with psychiatrists, psychologists and Robert D. Hare, the author of the now famous Hare Psychopathy checklist. Originally a 16-part test, the checklist is now 20 parts, and the most commonly used critera to determine psychopathy. It's a fascinating read, but probably best avoided by those with hypochondriacal tendencies.
Whether it’s simply a good story you’re after, or just information, there are as many books dedicated to the subject of mental illness as you could ever hope to read.
This selection, a mixture of old and new, fiction and fact, is just a drop in the bucket.