Literature │Madness and the Artist:
A review of Marya Hornbacher’s Madness: A Bipolar Life
By Zehra Mustafa
(published in Avrupa newspaper)
“…if a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the Muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet, he and his sane compositions never reach perfection, but are utterly eclipsed by the performances of the inspired madman.” This quote from Plato’s Phaedrus is one that is used over and over again to describe the relationship between madness and creativity. The dialogue with Socrates, Plato’s protagonist is written in such a way, that it is designed to make us look at madness from a completely different angle, we are meant to be more accepting of it, after all how bad can madness be? Some of the most famous creators of our time suffered from it, the most iconic and famous must be Vincent van Gogh’s and the infamous self inflicted cutting of the ear, and stories of how he ate his own paints and attacked Gauguin in the street with a razor, surely this great artist who painted the famous sunflowers can not be the same person? But they are, they are that very same person.
The real question is, where does the concept of the starving, mad artist come from? One of the main creators of this image is that of Thomas Chatterton, as seen above. The story of Chatterton was known by all and loved by poets during the romantic era, they saw Chatterton as an outcast, and that was how they saw themselves, they felt that they stood outside of society and relished in the concept of it, Byron’s epic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: A Romaunt indulges in the life as an outsider (autobiographical) and the enjoyment that comes with being anti-social Byron once wrote about himself and his friends “We of the craft are all crazy”. But in the cold light of day, there is nothing beautiful about suicide and death as portrayed by Chatterton who was a child genius and a manic depressive, which is now more commonly known as Bipolar Disorder. Chatterton, like many poets that followed wished to shake and shock the literary establishment, and at the age of sixteen after being caught for fraud, he was living alone writing poetic satire whilst starving. He was the first to project a poet’s life of being one of solitude and despair, but like most things in life, this image of the poet was nothing but a myth. The matter of the fact is, most poets of the time were fantastically social beings, who attended many gatherings in order to discuss and portray their ideas. But how many people out there have been sucked in by this image and belief that the artist must be mad in order to create? The answer is many, and I too was one that believed in this image for a long time, until I realised otherwise. It is true, maybe the madness somehow allows one to see things that others do not, although their perception tends to be somewhat askew, but the truth is, the best creations are created once the fog of the madness has cleared up, and this is what Marya Hornbacher writes when discussing her illness, Bipolar disorder.
Marya Hornbacher, one of the confessional writers, wrote Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia (1998) at the age of 23 depicting her years with eating disorders which had nearly killed her, the book ended with her getting married and coming to terms with the fact that food would always be an issue. Most readers such as myself longed to know what happened after, well the next thing we knew was that she had written a novel The Centre of Winter (2005), but how was Hornbacher herself? Well, in fact, not so good, as portrayed in her latest book, Madness: A Bipolar Life (2008) which she described as an “attempted advocacy for mental health, against stigma as well.”
Marya uses her brilliant, yet skewed witty humour to tell her story, she is not only a skilled confessional writer, she is also a sharp and talented story teller. This book is a long awaited completion to her first novel, more so for Hornbacher then for us, as her diagnosis of Bipolar II explains a great deal of her behaviour witnessed in Wasted. What makes Hornbacher’s writing an addictive read is her ability to bear all to us and those close to her, whilst changing the meaning of the language that surrounds mental illnesses. She discusses her intent with language in an interview with Edie French saying that she wanted to; “Punch a hole in the stigma of it, if I own those words and say hell I’m crazy, it’s a lot easier to think about the days when in fact I’m crazy. It’s a lot easier for me to deal with the darker side of it; I can keep an eye on the humour, the absurdity and the language that does bring some lightness to it.”
We follow her like the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, swerving in and out of severe episodes of what is termed as madness in a dark and foreign mind. In many of her manic periods, she is able to write chapter after chapter, but what she realises when she comes out of the fog is that she has written nothing but awful dribble that should never surface. Her first fictional novel was written whilst her alcoholism began to spiral out of control, the book was The Centre of Winter which was written during the period of her first diagnosis in which she refused to listen to doctor’s warning as she was in a state of denial. The Centre of Winter had to be completely re-written as it was as disjointed as her mind at the time. Whilst people believe that they would be more creative if they were a little more unhinged, Hornbacher writes, “A peaceful mind is a great gift. Those of us who don’t have them long for them-unless we are still caught up in our own, usually young, self-mythologization and romanticization of our own work, identity and life.”
The novel takes on a journal-esq quality as it follows her treatment and many stints in mental hospitals, always reminding us that she is one of us, and that we could have easily been her. By taking us into a foreign mind which can be confused and terribly distorted at times, her illness becomes more real and not the stereotypical image of the madwoman speaking to herself whilst pushing around a shopping trolley, however, there are times when we realise that such an illness can make you act in very strange ways. There is a brilliant comical scene when Marya’s husband takes her to the emergency room, in which she ends up climbing up on top of a cabinet whilst speaking wildly in a manic state. When the doctor asks her why she is up there, her husband answers “Because she’s crazy” this tragicomedy element of the book makes you feel guilty for letting out a chuckle, but as you move up and down with Hornbacher’s moods, you can not help but feel exhausted and all you can do is laugh. But take this warning seriously, if you are after a book where everything gets neatly wrapped up at the end, and everyone lives happily ever after, then this is not a book for you, this is was makes Marya’s account of her life important and real. It does not end with her saying everything is peachy just because she is on medication and it is going to be alright, every day brings with it a different struggle, as her mind endures rapid cycles of instability. She is a very clever and talented woman who had endured an undiagnosed illness for many years, as many others have, and she is saying to us, look, this is my life, an there is not much that I can do about it, but I am going to try my best, after all, as the English say, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Hornbacher writes “I am who I am”, and for a moment, we too are Hornbacher, and are able to understand for a minute about what it is like to be on the other side. There is a whole new light shed on the subject when reading what Henry James said about the subject of creativity, “We work in the dark, we do what we can, we give what we have, our doubt is our passion. And our passion is our task. The result is the madness of art.” But we now know that the genius does not have to be a madman. A madman can simply be and ill man, or woman trying to get on with their life.
© Zehra Mustafa
Madness: A Bipolar Life by Marya Hornbacher is available from Waterstones £6.74