Mental Disorders Portrayed in Literature Summary


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

In ancient Greek works, people are driven to madness by circumstances or the gods, but the inner processes of madness are unexamined. A true psychology began with later Greek philosophers. The biblical king Nebuchadnezzar, driven from his people, entered an animal-like state. Many of the cures by Jesus, seen as the casting out of demons, may have involved hysterical illnesses or mental disorders. In medieval Arthurian romances, Tristram and Lancelot have breaks with reason, distress, and guilt.

Until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe, supernatural explanations for disordered behavior and thought predominated. Mentally disturbed and handicapped people were sometimes seen as touched by God, and other mental illnesses could be signs of demoniac activity. Most cultures also believed in natural explanations and medical cures, no matter how crude. Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) discusses causes of melancholy (depression) such as stale air and too little sunlight.

Religion and mental problems, like madness and artistic genius, have long seemed linked. Indeed, in the eighteenth century, religious fervor was sometimes defined as insanity. Before then, religious ecstasies or fears were considered either as genuine contact with God, as deceptive acts of the devil, as natural healthy actions, or as nonsupernatural illness. The fifteenth century autobiography of Margery Kempe alternates religious passion with self-doubt; many of her contemporaries considered her mentally disordered. Thomas Hoccleve, also of the fifteenth century, was deeply aware of his own mental problems, which religion solved only temporarily. John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666), though cast in supernatural terms, may seem to twentieth century readers to depict bipolar (manic-depressive) illness.