Patrick McGrath: Writing Madness
June 12th, 2013
It’s a very great honor to be invited by Beatrice von Rezzori to deliver this year’s Lectio Magistralis at the Festival of Writers, here in Florence. Several distinguished friends of mine have stood in this same place, and have spoken with pride of being here. I’ve visited Italy many times in the last 20 years, almost always with my wife, Maria, and we’ve been overwhelmed by the warmth of Italian hospitality. But this visit is special. I come, first, as the guest of my dear friend Beatrice, to give this talk in association with a great prize, the Premio Gregor von Rezzori-Citta di Firenze. That should be enough for anyone! But, in addition, I come as a lover of Italy and of all things Italian who has never set foot in Firenze! How could this happen? Other cities have beckoned and seduced us, Rome, Naples, Mantua, Milano, Capri, and of course our beloved Venice. Firenze, it seems, has saved herself until the last, until this moment when we’re old enough properly to appreciate her beauty. So here we are in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, in what must surely be the finest baroque room in Italy, painted by the great Lucca Giordano, and I’m very pleased and honored. Thank you.
I’ve chosen for my theme tonight the writing of madness.
A psychiatrist introduced me to ideas of madness when I was eight years old. He was my father. For twenty-five years he was medical superintendent of Broadmoor, a top-security mental hospital near London. I’ve never suffered from schizophrenia, but as a young boy I learned much about the illness from him. I say “illness.” Schizophrenia is now thought to be a cluster of related symptoms rather than a single unified pathology; a syndrome, not an illness. It was once believed to involve a split personality, but my father explained to me that the schizophrenic was more properly regarded as having a shattered personality. It may have been that conversation, or one like it, that set me on course for writing madness.
I remember once, in my childhood, being with him at dusk, crossing a yard inside the walls of Broadmoor. A scream came from a high window in Block Six. More than fifty years later, the words “block six” arouse an echo of the dreadful fascination I once felt for that building. It was where the most disturbed male patients were housed. New admissions went into Block Six, men who in most cases, while psychotic, had committed acts of great violence, often murder. But it wasn’t a scream of demented fury I heard that evening; it was a scream of the most wretched misery.
“Poor John,” said my father, and I understood that he understood what his patient was suffering, and the fact that he understood it robbed the scream of its terror for me. In order to write madness you must recognize first the humanity of the one who suffers, and then establish why they suffer.
My early reading was largely horror fiction. I devoured the stories of Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James and Sheridan LeFanu, and later Ambrose Bierce and Edgar Allan Poe, who aroused in me an enduring taste for gothic literature. I later came to the conclusion that with Poe a pivotal moment in the history of the gothic occurred, when the genre that had been identified largely with supernatural phenomena turned toward psychological dysfunction, and discovered in the disintegrating mind a vein of black gold. For with Poe it became the special talent and function of gothic fiction to expose the workings of the unconscious mind. A world of nightmares and phantoms, of sublimation, regression and displacement, of doppelgangers and other monsters of the Id was extensively mapped for more than a century before Freud organized the material in a theoretical format, and wrote madness from within a scientific paradigm. Psychoanalytic theory and the case studies underpinning it are the continuation by other means of the gothic novel.
In his tales of horror Poe gave the world a fine collection of neurotics, paranoids and psychopaths. In particular I think of the demented narrators of “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat,” and also of Roderick Usher and William Wilson. But I don’t believe any of Poe’s characters is quite as chillingly mad as Montresor, who narrates “The Cask of Amontillado.”
Montresor’s account of his soured friendship with a man named Fortunato opens, in the first line of the story, with a threat. “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.” What a wealth of pathology is revealed in these words!--for it soon becomes clear that the “thousand injuries” Montresor mentions are less harmful to him than the “insult” he claims to have suffered.
What are they then, these thousand injuries? Are they slights? Innuendoes, perhaps, hints and whispers? As the tale unfolds, with growing unease we begin to understand that it’s on account of these slights, and the insult that follows, that Montresor has bricked up his friend in the vaults of a crumbling Venetian palazzo, and left him there to die. This is writing madness of a very high order.
It’s also a good early example of the unreliable narrator at work. For having drawn us into Montresor’s paranoia with his very first sentence, Poe will not let us escape. Like poor Fortunato we too are walled up in a suffocating structure from which only death-—or the end of the story-—can release us. Until that moment we are imprisoned in a logic that is entirely sound, but for the fact that it’s erected on a false, mad premise.
My own dabbling in the black art of writing madness properly began with a novel that bore some faint echoes of Poe. It was intended to be the simple tale of a London plumber who murders his wife so he can move his mistress, a prostitute, into the house. I hit on the idea that the plumber’s little boy should narrate the novel. I then decided that the boy would remember these events as an adult, but that what he recalls is not what happened. It then dawned on me that my narrator was not merely unreliable, he was psychotic. He suffered from schizophrenia.
This is when the problem of writing madness first announced itself to me loud and clear. Fictional narrative and psychotic illness are mutually exclusive entities. My plumber’s son didn’t possess the chilling intellectual rigor of Poe’s Montresor, but he was no less insane, a disorganized creature whose thoughts jumped and drifted at the whim of the world around him and the apparently random associations it sparked in his untidy brain. Nicknamed “Spider” by his mother-—before her untimely death--his unmedicated mind was an incoherent construct of irrationality, hallucination and bodily delusion.
The novel, however, as I then understood the form-—this was only my second--demands a kind of swelling narrative progress grounded in causality that ultimately offers a clear design. The task became to render the wildly fluctuant chaos of psychosis within the ordered frame of the narrative, without either misrepresenting the illness or obscuring the clear movement of the story.
Closely imagined accounts of madness in literature are more rare than you might think, outside of Poe; and in the 19th century they tended to be gothic. “Wieland” is an outstandingly bleak early American novel involving murder followed by suicide. Written by Charles Brockden Brown, it was published in 1798 and narrated not by the madman himself, but his sister. It depicts a pathology all too familiar to us today, “voices” instructing a confused man to make a fatal strike against his own family.
While “Wieland” had some bearing on Spider’s tale, more useful for my purposes was a short story written almost a century later, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The author was a feminist, a philosopher, a socialist and activist, and she was inspired to write the story after undergoing what in late-19th century America was called the “rest cure.” This was a treatment prescribed for women diagnosed as hysterical, and was invented by Silas Weir Mitchell, a distinguished Philadelphia neurologist.
By her own account Gilman became so desperate, deprived for three months of books, work and other forms of stimulation that she saved her sanity only by resuming her writing; her story was intended to convince Weir Mitchell of the error of his ways. It’s narrated by a woman whose physician husband won’t let her leave her bedroom, where it’s intended that she recover from her “temporary nervous depression-—a slight hysterical tendency.”
She starts to go mad.
Of particular interest to me was the precision with which Gilman’s narrator depicts the stages of her own breakdown. She’s unaware throughout that what she’s describing is a rapid descent into a psychosis, one that involves a bizarre cluster of delusions narrowly focused on the yellow wallpaper in the bedroom that’s become her prison. Without question there’s method in her madness, and each stage of the descent follows with an inexorable logic from what came before. And as with Poe’s Montresor, it all makes sense--but for the initial mad premise.
I imagined my own character, Spider, descending into madness also by stages, and under the controlling influence of a flawed assumption. I imagined him returning to the East London neighborhood where he’d grown up, a threadbare, mumbling man who in his lonely wanderings finds his eyes drawn irresistibly to the looming circular structure of a gasworks, a not uncommon sight in that part of the city. And it fills him with horror. I also imagined that many years earlier his mother had come home late from the pub, then passed out in the kitchen and died from gas inhalation. The reader won’t learn of this for some time, however.
One night, as Spider sits in his shabby room at the top of a local boarding house, he detects an unpleasant odor. He realizes it’s coming from himself, and it smells like gas. He tears open his clothing and yes, there can be no doubt of it-—gas!
My reader will understand that for this disturbed and fragile man, gas has an awful significance. But why? That night Spider takes the sheets of yellowing newspaper that line the clothes drawers in his room and ties them around his torso with sticking plaster and string. When he’s bound in newspaper from neck to groin he puts his clothes on, all his clothes, the better to suppress the appalling smell.
Later he will come to believe that he stinks of gas because he’s going bad inside. His organs are shriveling and rotting, starting to disappear-—and so it goes on. By this point I hope my reader is seeing Spider not as a monster of unreason, nor even a mere sorry instance of common abject lunacy. No, I want the reader to be decoding Spider’s torment, understanding that the belief that one stinks of gas must be connected to a profound conviction of one’s own badness, one’s guilt. It sounds like very crazy stuff, and so it is. But no psychiatrist who’s treated schizophrenia will be surprised by these florid somatic delusions.
While researching schizophrenia for the book I came upon a phrase in R.D. Laing’s “The Divided Self,” perhaps the best account of schizophrenia ever written, that provided the key to understanding the character I was trying to bring to life on the page. The schizophrenic, said Laing, is “dying of thirst in a world of wet.” I saw a man living in a London neighborhood but so isolated, so profoundly separate that he’s unable to make a human connection and know love, or even friendship, or even the simple warmth to be had from common daily interaction with others. He’s dying of thirst in a world of wet, and for the writer of madness this was a priceless insight.
The novel of madness in the 20th century is often characterized by a kind of naturalism that’s absent in the more stylized genre fiction of the earlier period. It marks a shift away from the gothic, although it tends to follow Charlotte Perkins Gilman in her focus on the disturbed woman at the mercy of a man, whether a doctor, a husband, or just men in general. Three outstanding novels of madness, all written in the 1960s, and all by women, explore the theme of madness in often excruciating detail. In “The Bell Jar,” Sylvia Plath’s devastating story of mental breakdown, a young woman becomes alienated from all that is familiar to her, and drifts rather than plunges into madness, growing increasingly isolated, and subject to bizarrely skewed perceptions. At one point she glimpses in her friend’s mouth an evil spirit, a dybbuk, that has invaded her body, and speaks through her. Later the young woman attempts suicide and is hospitalized. “I felt as if I were sitting in the window of an enormous department store,” she writes. “The figures around me weren’t people, but shop dummies, painted to resemble people and propped up in attitudes counterfeiting life.”
She continues to think constantly about suicide. Will she slit her wrists, she wonders. Will she drown in the sea? She undergoes her first bout of electric shock therapy: “... and with each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant.” The horror of insanity, and of the methods used to treat it, is rendered all the more vivid for being described with such sharp clinical lucidity. In the end it’s the simple image of the bell jar that most perfectly expresses the hell of the suffocating woman: “... wherever I sat... I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”
Sylvia Plath’s story was mirrored with cruel precision in the facts of her own brief life. When the book came out in England, where she was then living, she was in a bad way. Her marriage to the poet Ted Hughes had collapsed. She had no money. She was living in a bare flat with her two small children during the coldest winter in a hundred years, and all three were sick with the flu. The bell jar again descended, as she always feared it would, and she sank into a profound depression. She killed herself by means of gas on February 11, 1963. She was thirty years old.
A contemporary of Sylvia Plath’s was the New Zealand writer Janet Frame, whose novel “Faces in the Water” gives an even more terrifying picture of psychiatric incarceration and electric shock therapy. The novel takes place entirely in a women’s mental institution, and of all the horrors of the place, the narrator finds herself “dreading more and more the sound of the trolley and the stifled screams as it moved from room to room, nearer and nearer. And suddenly the brightness of Ward Seven seemed to burst into a glare of chaotic vegetation, as if it existed now merely to camouflage the movements of deadly reptiles and poisonous insects...” The trolley contains the equipment required for the administration of electric shock therapy.
But then comes an extraordinary variation on the theme. Jean Rhys was a writer whose work was widely read in the 1930s, but who’d so completely disappeared from sight that she was thought by many to have died. But she had one last book in her, “Wide Sargasso Sea,” and in it she takes Charlotte Bronte’s great gothic novel “Jane Eyre” and tells the story, not of Jane, but of Mr. Rochester’s mad wife, Bertha, who’s locked in an attic of his great house. Jean Rhys imagines Bertha’s early life, when she lived on the Caribbean island of Dominica as Antoinette Cosway, a Creole heiress. Torn from that life, and carried off by a man she has come to hate to a cold and distant land, she goes mad; and in her madness destroys her husband’s house. Charlotte Bronte’s novel is thus turned on its head, as our attention shifts from Jane’s tribulations to an understanding of the madwoman imprisoned in the attic, of what she has suffered, and why she burns down the great house, destroying herself in the process.
The novel of madness has frequently been put to work in the service of a feminist attack on male power, as “Wide Sargasso Sea” in particular makes clear. But let me finish with a novel less remarkable for the suffering of the madman who narrates it-—there’s no evidence that he suffers at all--than for his wildly inventive delusions. The novel is “Pale Fire,” the author is Nabokov, his protagonist is one Charles Kinbote, an academic, and the book features a poem of 999 lines titled “Pale Fire.” In his foreword to it Kinbote allows the alert reader the first of many glimpses of his faltering grasp on reality. At one point he mentions in passing “a certain ferocious lady” who accosts him in a grocery store. “’You are a remarkably disagreeable person,’” she tells him, and then: “’What’s more, you are insane.’”
A flag goes up. We suspect the worst. The poem, “Pale Fire,” by Kinbote’s greatly admired neighbor and supposed friend, John Shade, is reproduced in its entirety in the novel and takes up 36 pages, in my edition. Kinbote’s commentary follows, and takes up almost 230 pages, most of them devoted not to an exegesis of the poem but rather to Kinbote’s claim that he is the king of a distant country called Zembla, and that he’s been forced to flee his palace after being placed under house arrest by Extremists, and has then made a daring escape over the mountains, finally fetching up on an American university campus, all the while pursued by a violent thug called Gradus, commissioned by his enemies, the Extremists, to assassinate him.
We are without question in the presence of florid madness here. Grandiosity is the key, expressed in magnificently deluded thinking. For in John Shade’s poem, which is an extended reflection on mortality, the possibility of an afterlife, and the death of the poet’s daughter, Kinbote discovers extensive references to his own life as the monarch of distant Zembla. “By the end of May,” he writes as a comment on John Shade’s line 42, in which the poet is talking about his rather unremarkable house, “I could make out the outlines of some of my images in the shape his genius might give them; by mid-June I felt sure at last that he would recreate in a poem the dazzling Zembla burning in my brain. I mesmerized him with it, I saturated him with my vision, I pressed upon him, with a drunkard’s wild generosity, all that I was helpless myself to put into verse.” And when John Shade is murdered, Kinbote knows that the killer is Gradus, the man employed by the Extremists to kill him, the king, and whose bullet hit the wrong man.
Interpretations of the novel abound. Many believe that Kinbote is the alter ego of an insane Russian professor, V. Botkin, to whom John Shade and the rest of the faculty condescend; that Zembla does not exist; that the assassin was an escaped lunatic called James Gray, whose bullet was intended not for Kinbote, or for John Shade either, but for the judge who committed him to an asylum, and for whom he mistook John Shade. That this simple, tragic tale should be transformed into a richly spun yarn of attempted regicide is a tribute to the power of the mad professor’s delusional invention. This is madness in the service of a large, bleak joke: laughter in the dark.
The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan once described the verbal production of schizophrenics as “language without discourse.” This is a useful formulation, but for the novelist it’s not enough. A discourse-—a coherent story-—must be discernible within even the wildest ramblings of an insane narrator, like Poe’s Montresor, Rhys’s Bertha Rochester, or Nabokov’s Charles Kinbote.
Technically it’s a highly demanding form of fiction to write. But it’s not without rules and structure. Madness is never arbitrary, never random in its manifestations, or its causes. The reader who’s been successfully enlisted as a kind of psychiatric detective will find herself engaged, in novels like these, with minds as rich in complexity as any in our literature. That such minds operate largely blind to their own dysfunction only compounds their terrifying unpredictability.