Method to the Madness (on Poe, madness and Jean Rhys)

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Patrick McGrath, whose novel “Spider” was published in 1990 and made into a film by David Cronenberg, writes about Gothic Horror in Poe and other writers, including Jean Rhys (section in bold) in this article for The New York Times. His most recent novel is “Constance.”

In his tales of Gothic horror, Edgar Allan Poe gave the world a fine collection of neurotics, paranoids and psychopaths. But none are quite as deranged as the narrator of “The Cask of Amontillado.” His name is Montresor, and his story opens 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; it becomes immediately 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? Innuendoes, perhaps, hints and whispers? As the story unfolds, with growing unease we begin to understand that it’s on account of these slights, and the insult that follows them, that Fortunato has been condemned, by Montresor, to be bricked up in the dank vaults of a crumbling palazzo. This is writing madness of a very high order.

It was in the mid-19th century that the Gothic, a genre that had been concerned largely with supernatural phenomena, turned its attention to psychological dysfunction, and discovered in the disintegrating mind a vein of black gold that it continues to exploit to this day. But “The Cask of Amontillado” is also a superb early example of the unreliable narrator at work. 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 premise.

My own dabbling in the dark art of writing madness properly began with a novel that bore 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 prostitute girlfriend into the house. I hit on the idea that the plumber’s little boy should narrate the novel. I decided that the boy — nicknamed Spider by his mother before her untimely death — 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.

That was when the problem of describing mental disturbance announced itself, 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. His unmedicated mind is an incoherent construct of irrationality, hallucination and bodily delusion. The novel, however, as I 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 chaos of psychosis within the frame of the narrative, without either misrepresenting the illness or obscuring the story.

Closely imagined accounts of insanity in literature are rarer than you might think, and the best tend to be Gothic. “Wieland” is an outstandingly bleak early American novel involving murder and suicide. Written by Charles Brockden Brown, it was published in 1798 and narrated not by the lunatic himself, but by his sister. It describes 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, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The author was a feminist, a philosopher, a socialist and an activist, and she was inspired to write the story after undergoing what in the late 19th century was called the “rest cure.” This was a treatment prescribed for women deemed hysterical, a diagnosis invented by S. Weir Mitchell, a distinguished neurologist. By her own account Gilman became so desperate, deprived of books, work and all other stimulation for three months, that she saved her sanity only by resuming her writing; her story was intended to convince Mitchell of the error of his ways. It’s narrated by a woman whose physician husband won’t let her leave her bedroom, where she’s supposed to recover from her “temporary nervous depression — a slight hysterical tendency.”

Instead, she starts to go mad.

Of interest here is the precision with which Gilman’s narrator depicts the stages of her own breakdown. She’s unaware 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 is a 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 deranged premise.

The best novels of madness in the 20th century tend to follow Charlotte Perkins Gilman in her attention to disturbed women at the mercy of men, be they doctors or husbands. In “The Bell Jar,” Sylvia Plath’s harrowing story of breakdown, a young woman becomes estranged from all that is familiar to her, and drifts rather than plunges into mental illness. Eventually she attempts suicide and is hospitalized. “I felt as if I were sitting in the window of an enormous department store. The figures around me weren’t people, but shop dummies, painted to resemble people and propped up in attitudes counterfeiting life.” Soon after, she undergoes her first round of electroshock therapy: “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 excruciating for being described with such clinical lucidity. In the end it’s the simple image of the bell jar that most concisely expresses the hell endured by the suffocating woman: “Wherever I sat — on the deck of a ship or at a street cafe in Paris or Bangkok — I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”

Almost contemporary with Plath was the New Zealand writer Janet Frame, whose novel “Faces in the Water” gives a sustained and intense picture of psychiatric incarceration and electroshock therapy. The novel takes place entirely in a mental institution, where 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 shock therapy.

And then comes an extraordinary variation on the theme. In her last novel, “Wide Sargasso Sea,” Jean Rhys takes Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” and tells the story of Rochester’s wife, Bertha, locked in an attic in his great country house. Rhys creates an early life for Bertha, as Antoinette Cosway, a Creole heiress in Jamaica. Torn from that life and taken to a cold and distant land, she goes insane and destroys her husband’s house. “Jane Eyre” is thus turned on its head, as our attention shifts from the heroine’s trials, and later relationship with Rochester, to the madwoman in his attic and what she suffered to become so, and why she burns down his great house, destroying herself in the process.

The verbal production of schizophrenics and other psychotic individuals might sound like language without discourse, 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. Technically it’s a tough thing to get right. But 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 with minds blind to their own dysfunction, which makes them as rich in complexity as any in our literature.

For the original report go to

Image: 4_Cycle-Blue Sargasso Sea (from the Wisdom Series) 36×48 acrylic, charcoal, saral transfer, and pastel on canvas 2012 JAAP

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