The Issue of Mental Health (I)
Do we understand historical or fictional figures better if we give them a mental illness diagnosis? And would that diminish their significance for us or mobilize our empathy for deeper appreciation?
According to a professor of counseling at a university in Missouri, Henry David Thoreau suffered from a mild case of Schizoid Personality Disorder. This diagnosis indicates a person who is extremely hypersensitive and has a fear of being “marginalized and appropriated” by others. Protecting themselves from this fear, they turn away from others and turn inward, finding a more reliable source of security and solace there, this professor says. In this view, Thoreau’s years at Walden Pond represented an ideal compromise between his pathological need to withdraw from society while staying near enough to it to feel safe.
Armchair psychologists have likewise diagnosed poet Emily Dickinson in retrospect with agoraphobia, depression, social anxiety disorder and bipolar disorder. These labels purport to explain the feelings she expressed in such well-known works as “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” as well as her refusal to engage socially with people outside of her household. Apart from the issue of exactly which type of pathology Dickinson suffered from, this line of thinking portrays her as unquestionably mentally ill in some way. Her behavior clearly wasn’t normal and nor were the sentiments delineated in many of her poems, according to these analysts.
Isaac Newton, dubbed the greatest thinker of all time by many historians, mathematicians and scientists, has also been evaluated as having experienced psychosis (perhaps due to mercury poisoning), Asperger’s syndrome or bipolar disorder, including delusions of grandeur. Newton himself acknowledged that he’d had some sort of nervous breakdown in 1693, but attributing his dogged pursuit of the alchemists’ fabled “philosophers’ stone” or his close study of the biblical Book of Revelation to mental illness is another thing altogether.
Fictional characters have been subject to scrutiny for psychological abnormalities, too. While researching Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, I came across something called “Madame Bovary Syndrome.” Called “bovarysme” in French, this consists of “chronic feelings of dissatisfaction, hopelessness and despair” due to lack of control over one’s life, as well as “unhealthy coping mechanisms.” The syndrome includes “addiction to romance,” pursuit of “impossible relationships,” constant disappointment when a romantic partner fails to live up to their illusions and an “excessive need” for emotional attention.
The malady afflicting Shakespeare’s character Hamlet was not mere indecision and melancholy, some say, but acute depressive illness. In the eyes of New Zealand professors A. B. Shaw and Neil Pickering, Hamlet “is not a study of indecision. It is a study of a [severely depressed] man unable to make himself do what he knows he must do.” Other commentators have pegged the fictional Prince of Denmark with schizophrenia (since he harbors delusions about his father’s ghost) and borderline personality disorder, among other diagnoses. In contrast, I agree with psychiatrist Alan A. Stone, who has served as an expert witness in mock court trials of Hamlet: “The soliloquies reveal the kind of insight, judgment, and reality testing we do not expect from patients with serious mental disorders.”
For some people, such diagnoses make the struggles and achievements of real and fictional figures more interesting, enabling us to marshal appropriate compassion for them. Others delight in holding off disturbing people by placing them in demeaning categories. Throughout my Introvert Book Club discussion of Hamlet, I refused to go along with this tendency, whatever its rationale. To me, diagnosing people (whether actual humans or literary characters) at a distance as mentally ill cuts them down in size and prevents us from understanding them as we understand most of the people we interact with throughout our lives. If they were mentally ill and we regard ourselves as not, then we would have much less to identify with and much less to learn from their life stories.
On this issue, I think of a man I met years ago when I met clients for consultations on writing or marketing in a downtown Boston office on the sixth floor. He called from the security guard’s desk on the ground floor and said he was on his way up. I went out to meet him at the elevator, but I saw him emerge instead from the stairwell. A bit out of breath, he cheerfully explained that elevators made him panic. “So I walk up.” He shrugged, conveying the idea that this was not a huge adjustment for him and much simpler than trying to dismantle his distressing reaction. He had my complete and utter respect. And respect is what I most fear gets lost when confident experts slap a mental-illness label on others, putting them in a box apart.
In a later post I explained why this is a particular concern for introverts (in addition to it impinging on our understanding of Thoreau, Dickinson, Newton, Emma Bovary and Hamlet, all introverts).
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