Writers on the edge

by David E P Dennis

When I was a lot younger than I am now and sitting in the French language class at Hastings Grammar School, the tutor, wearing his university gown and coloured mantle, produced some French literature and asked us to translate it. Cluelessly I staggered through it. I remarked aloud that it was quite difficult to understand and the tutor, or master as he was called, explained that it was not surprising as it had been written by a madman.

Up to that point I had not realised that some people were ‘mad’. Now I am older I realise that one in four of us may at some time be considered unable to cope because of severe mental problems, which common parlance calls, insanity, nervous breakdown, mental illness, or impairment.  There is no reason to think that the mind is any more capable of resisting disease than the rest of the body. We accept a broken leg after skiing but we shy away from problems with the mind.

So who was this French writer who ended up in an asylum? It was Guy de Maupassant, considered one of the fathers of the modern short story. He was born on 5th August 1850 at the Château de Miromesnil (Castle Miromesnil, near Dieppe). Maupassant was a protégé of Flaubert, which says a great deal for those of you who have read Flaubert’s ‘Salammbo’ where the Carthaginians hurl their first-born babies into the fiery furnaces of Baal to prove their loyalty to the state, much as we do now in a thing called ‘war’.

Maupassant’s stories (he wrote some 300 short stories, six novels, three travel books, and one volume of verse) mostly describe the futility of war and the innocent civilians whose lives are deeply affected by events beyond their control. His skill at devising clever story plots was copied by Somerset Maugham, O. Henry and Henry James and he himself learned from Balzac. He had become acquainted with the concept of madness by attending lectures by Jean-Martin Charcot in the then new discipline of psychiatry.

Maupassant’s work is much respected and he is honoured to have had an essay on his work by no less a figure than Tolstoy. Maupassant’s stories also inspired the film Citizen Kane.

Another legendary intellectual, Friedrich Nietzsche, mentions him in the following text:

‘I cannot at all conceive in which century of history one could haul together such inquisitive and at the same time delicate psychologists as one can in contemporary Paris: I can name as a sample – for their number is by no means small, … or to pick out one of the stronger race, a genuine Latin to whom I am particularly attached, Guy de Maupassant.’

It was life that killed him. He was paranoid. His need for solitude, deep concern for self-preservation, and terror of death were all caused by the mental inroads made by the syphilis he had contracted in his youth. On 2 January 1892, he tried to commit suicide by cutting his throat, and was committed to the private asylum of Esprit Blanche at Passy, in Paris, where he died 6 July 1893.

My early experience of the work of De Maupassant stayed with me. I began to admire writers who had a terrible time – either suffering madness or struggling to gain understanding from a critical public. There is a serious problem with those whose ideas are so advanced, so far into the future that their ‘science or words’ seems like magic.

Another writer considered by some to be ‘mad’ was Franz Kafka who wrote the famous short story – Metamorphosis in which ‘he’ awoke to find he was now a cockroach.

Wikipedia reveals that Pérez-Álvarez (Pérez-Álvarez, Marino (2003) The Schizoid Personality of Our Time”. International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy) claimed that Kafka may have possessed a schizoid personality disorder. His style ‘appears to show low to medium-level schizoid traits’, which explains much of his work.

Kafka’s mental anguish can be seen in this diary entry from 21 June 1913:

‘The tremendous world I have in my head. But how to free myself and free them without ripping apart. And a thousand times rather tear in me they hold back or buried. For this I’m here, that’s quite clear to me.’

And in Zürau Aphorism number 50:

‘Man cannot live without a permanent trust in something indestructible within himself, though both that indestructible something and his own trust in it may remain permanently concealed from him.’

Ronni Monkcom at the University of Portsmouth has written a paper on madness and writing related to Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf, as well as Agatha Christie –  here’s the Abstract:


‘This dissertation examines whether or not madness accompanies brilliance in iconic female writers; with specific focus on Virginia Woolf, Agatha Christie and Sylvia Plath. All three were boundary breaking female writers of the 20th Century. However, Woolf and Plath both took their own lives, despite their various literary successes and Christie performed a disappearing act just as her sixth book came into public acclaim. The question posed is simply why – what made these brilliant women fall so far?

To do this, the dissertation deals with various works from all three writers, picking out key examples that are helpful as evidence for answering the question. Discussions and comparisons of certain plays against my own creative artefact allow the opportunity to present the creative process underwent, and discuss ideas used in regards to the parallels between madness and brilliance. The main focus throughout this essay is to portray in the clearest way possible how the three writers in question suffered madness due to their work.’

The literary link site Muse has many essays on madness in writers.

In fact, they pose the question – are writers mad simply because they write? Do they let their minds stray into creative territory that is in fact destructive to their mental health? Do they get enticed into dream worlds and are no longer capable of seeing reality as a sensible and necessary place to inhabit?

As someone who loves to write and to imagine remarkable things, I am sure that I am sane. But then sanity is not something which I can internalise because I could be fooling myself. Others must tell me and they hope I will heed any warnings.

In this respect Wikpedia has much to say:

‘It has been proposed that there is a particular link between creativity and mental illness (eg, bipolar disorder, whereas major depressive disorder appears to be significantly more common among playwrights, novelists, biographers, and artists).

An association between mental illness and creativity first appeared in literature in the 1970s, but the idea of a link between ‘madness’ and ‘genius’ is much older, dating back at least to the time of Aristotle.

The Ancient Greeks believed that creativity came from the gods, in particular the Muses (the mythical personifications of the arts and sciences, the nine daughters of Zeus (the king of the Greek Gods). Romantic writers had similar ideals, with Lord Byron having pleasantly expressed,

‘We of the craft are all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched. Individuals with mental illness are said to display a capacity to see the world in a novel and original way; literally, to see things that others cannot.’

However, for me the main aim of writing is not self-satisfaction in some closed world of narcissistic pleasure in cleverness, but to try and show real and imagined worlds to others for their pleasure and interest. We are told even today on Twitter that ‘writing should glow like a ball of light’.

Like artists, many writers only become famous after they are dead. I’ll leave you with a link to H.P. Lovecraft: who seldom went out until it was dark, had severe mental problems, and lost his mother and father to deaths in mental asylums. He suffered from parasomnic nightmares, which he called ‘Night Gaunts’.

He had a strange and troubling life and scarily vivid imagination but ended up as a paragon of his genre – horror fiction.

Writers must keep hold of their sanity to be in control of their product. If they lose control to the ‘other’ in their mind then there’s no guarantee of safety from illness. Sometimes, as in the case of Guy De Maupassant, disease intervenes and madness cannot be controlled.

We all as writers can only aspire to help each other, to be good at our craft – but to be brilliant at writing is surely in the gift of the nine daughters of Zeus.

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