Franz Kafka, The Trial
Kafka suffered from depression and social anxiety through all of his life. In addition to that, he had severe migraines and insomnia, accompanied with tuberculosis and other health issues. Kafka surrendered to the state of neuroasthenia, which led him to fall even deeper into a depressive state of mind as he began to engage in self-destructive behavior. His complex identity left marks on his self-awareness, as well as his relationship with his strict parents and his position in the family, where he felt like a stranger, or even a foreigner.
Kafka’s personality was fragile and beautiful, and it can be read through his contemplations (preserved in his letters and diaries, but in his works of fiction, too), his working ethics, and his sensibility. Of course, you can find out more about him through his relationships with women and others, especially with his well-known friend, the fellow writer – Max Brod. Kafka was very hard on himself and highly self-critical. During the gradual failure of his tuberculosis treatments and other health issues, Kafka knew he was approaching the end of his life, as he was getting weaker every day. He wrote a letter to Brod in which he pointed out his last request: he wished that all of his works – diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches and so on, could be burned without ever being read. Luckily for humanity, Brod ignored this request and published Kafka’s works, which got Kafka his well deserved eternal (though tragically – posthumous) literary fame.
Kafka’s The Trial is his best known literary work. It is his unfinished novel, although it can be read and understood despite the missing chapters and blanks in the text. It undoubtedly contains autobiographical elements through the description of Josef K.’s unusual character and even stranger, disturbing events that occur. Without any explanation, Josef K. is arrested on his thirtieth birthday and led by invisible forces towards his trial. During all of this time, K. tries to find out what his guilt is and the reason he is being prosecuted. Through every step of the process, K. feels lost, insecure, and frightened. These emotions intensify when he starts realizing that he is fighting a much bigger and stronger opponent, although he could never point a finger at him. The weight of absurdity crushes down on him as he starts believing he in fact is guilty and must obey. In a conversation between K. and a priest, the question of guilt reaches its peak:
But I’m not guilty,” said K. “there’s been a mistake. How is it even possible for someone to be guilty? We’re all human beings here, one like the other.” “That is true” said the priest “but that is how the guilty speak.
Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls
Hemingway suffered from depression and severe mood swings, bipolar disorder, and a narcissistic personality. He tended to put himself in life- threatening situations (sailing into the deep sea, hunting wild beasts, participating in wartime service) and was prone to heavy drinking. He belonged to the lost generation – a generation of people who lived and created after the First World War and felt a serious lack of any orientation and direction, as well as meaning in life. Hemingway committed suicide in 1961.
Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls was published in 1940. In the focus of the story is the character of Robert Jordan, an American who takes part in the Spanish Civil War, fighting against the fascist forces of Francisco Franco. The novel was inspired by the author’s personal experience, since Hemingway participated in the Spanish Civil war, although not as a fighter but as a reporter. The novel deals with major themes, such as the loss of innocence and the dehumanization that war brings, as well as the absurdity and pointlessness of it. Important contemplations in the storyline are connected to the notion of suicide. In this phase of his life, in his early forties – Hemingway thought suicide was an act of cowardice. Or that is what we conclude – if we choose to believe that Hemingway gave his thoughts about suicide through the voices of his characters. Robert Jordan thinks about it during his contemplation of war, and is marked by his father’s suicide. He could understand the act of suicide, but he does not justify it. In the conversation with Maria, Jordan shows no sympathy towards the idea of suicide:
“My grandfather was on the Republican national committee,” Robert Jordan said. That impressed even Maria. “And is thy father still active in the Republic?” Pilar asked. “No. He is dead.” “Can one ask how he died?” “He shot himself.” “To avoid being tortured?” the woman asked. “Yes,” Robert Jordan said. “To avoid being tortured.”
In 2013, Hemingway’s granddaughter, Mariel, created a documentary titled Running from Crazy, in order to crush the stigma of mental illness by exposing the intimate story of her own family and their curse. Hemingway’s family recorded a total of seven suicides, and Mariel underlined the importance of talking about these issues and empowering others to share their stories, too.
William Styron, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness
Styron was a recognized writer, maybe best known for his novel Sophie’s Choice, published in 1979. This incredibly powerful book focuses on the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, but offers a somewhat different perspective to it, stating that it was a crime against all of humanity, not just the Jews. Even though this masterpiece definitely deserves your attention, in the context of this weekend’s recommendations, we propose that you take a look at Styron’s non-fiction, autobiographical writing – Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness.
This is a short work, but a very revealing one. Styron was suffering from depression, and he openly wrote about this experience. What started out as a feeling of melancholy turned into deep and heavy depression – and Styron does not hide any part of it. The author’s situation began crumbling when he traveled to Paris in 1985, in order to receive a prestigious literary award. The sudden realization of the dark shadow that was upon him, made him rationalize the state he found himself in and ask for help as soon as possible. He also started reading as much as he could about depression in order to inform himself, although it was not widely discussed back then:
In my reading I had learned, for example, that in at least one interesting respect my own case was atypical. Most people who begin to suffer from the illness are laid low in the morning, with such a malefic effect that they are unable to get out of bed. They feel better only as the day wears on. But my situation was just the reverse. While I was able to rise and function almost normally during the earlier part of the day, I began to sense the onset of symptoms at mid afternoon or a little later – gloom crowding in on me, a sense of dread and alienation, and, above all, stifling anxiety.
Styron also contemplates the progression of his depression and realizes how strange it is that people in the arts world are so prone to it. What’s incredibly warm in this reading is the fact that it’s completely honest and open with its readers. The author exposed himself completely and showed how vulnerability can be a sign of strength. What’s more important, he sent a strong message that mental health was something that must not be stigmatized. Literature in this case – truly is a powerful means of communication.
Zelda Fitzgerald, Save Me the Waltz
Zelda Fitzgerald is (unfortunately) best known as the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, although her semi-autobiographical novel Save Me the Waltz has unique value, as it stands as a semi-fictional testimony from real life. This writing is precious because it preserved her voice, the one that has been too frequently ignored even in our time.
After the success of Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald became famous and were a true personification of the unrestrained hedonism of the Jazz Age, which led to increasing turbulence in their marriage. In 1930, Zelda’s mental health started collapsing, which resulted in her being diagnosed with schizophrenia and treated with institutionalization. Zelda struggled with mental health for the rest of her life. However, in her novel Z: a Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Therese Anne Fowler questions the label Zelda was given during her lifetime. Zelda was a disturbed woman for sure, and she suffered from depression and severe exhaustion. But Fowler does not believe she was schizophrenic.
Nevertheless, here’s what you can expect from Save Me the Waltz: it gives you the other side of the Fitzgeralds’ marriage and their lives together; it shares with you Zelda’s passions that included ballet and painting, although everything is masked in fiction; it reveals the decadence of the glamour, but also an unapologetic attitude – you feel the Fitzgeralds would never have lived their lives any other way, even if they had had a chance to do so. It is a great story of love, in all its tainted glory, its complications and quarrels:
So much she loved the man, so close and closer she felt herself that he became distorted in her vision, like pressing her nose upon a mirror and gazing into her own eyes. She felt the lines of his neck and his chipped profile like segments of the wind blowing about her consciousness. She felt the essence of herself pulled finer and smaller like those streams of spun glass that pull and stretch till there remains but a glimmering illusion. Neither falling nor breaking, the stream spins finer. She felt herself very small and ecstatic. Alabama was in love.
The novel got really negative reviews; and according to Sally Crine (the author of Zelda’s biography), Zelda was put down by Scott many times, which worsened her depression and pushed her further into despair.
Sylvia Plath, the Bell Jar
read for free
Sylvia Plath was an extraordinary woman, an amazing author who sadly suffered greatly under the weight of severe clinical depression. Plath attempted suicide several times before succeeding in taking her life, in 1963. She had earlier described her emotional burden as owl’s talons clenching my heart.
The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiographical novel that depicts the mental difficulties Plath had been going through. The title of the novel is actually extracted from Plath’s description of how it felt to go through depression: it felt like being trapped under a bell jar, with no air whatsoever. As a young woman, Esther Greenwood (the protagonist in the novel) experiences lack of enthusiasm in life, as well as insomnia and feelings of disorientation. She does not know in what direction to go, since the life paths that open in front of her after college – seem uninteresting and unsatisfactory. Her mother plays a significant part in her struggle: firstly as a support, then somewhat as a burden. She encourages Esther to see a psychiatrist, and then comes the uncanny dialogue between the mother and the daughter. Mother’s unconsidered words leave Esther feeling more isolated than before:
My mother smiled. “I know my baby wasn’t like that.”
I looked at her. “Like what?”
“Like those awful people. Those awful dead people at that hospital.” She paused. “I knew you’d decide to be all right again.”
Esther is prescribed antidepressants and electric shock therapy. The treatment seems to be working, and the novel ends with an interview in which the heads of the hospital must decide if she can be released from the hospital and go home. Unfortunately, Plath’s real experience of depression had no such bright and hopeful ending. The Bell Jar, however – remains a true work of art and one of the most significant writings of the twentieth century.
Psychology has helped a lot in revealing a connection between literature and mental instability. American psychologists have often pointed out signs of suffering and mental inconsistency in artists and have tried to explain them as a way of compensating for discontentment with basic desires and needs. Creating works of art in the grey area between sickness and health most certainly has resulted in great masterpieces, but we as the readers must ask ourselves – at what price?