The Art of Madness

“Insanity in individuals is something rare — but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.”- Friedrich Nietzsche 

From late September to mid December, we as a nation of students, live, sleep and breathe together in our own utopian version of reality. At certain times of year this student existence can feel claustrophobic and act as vacuum for time and space as we feed off each other’s apprehensions and anxieties — often resulting in a feeling of loss of control and loss of sanity, which creeps in amongst the student body and spreads like wildfire. Here and now for many students is that time of year; the clocks have changed, the days feel shorter, the coursework is rolling in, Christmas is near, yet not near enough.

It is a well-known fact that the changing of seasons can have a positive or negative effect on one’s behaviour. And as we drive ourselves quite mad over the looming exams and constant pressures that are imposed on us students, where do we find relief from our isolation? Where do we find an outlet to help us comprehend and compartmentalise the stresses at hand?  Many turn to the arts for such relief, to guide and reassure them through times of heightened stress and pressure.

It is not simply an old wives’ tale but a tried and tested concept published recently in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, that involvement with the arts, be it receptively or creatively, is not only for personal satisfaction, but can act as a deterrent of anxiety and depression.

When looking at the arts in the broad sense, the topic of madness, both the physical state and psychological is recurrent. For us, reflecting on these representations can act as a therapy. In the chaotic and disruptive worlds created by artists and authors alike, we can also find beauty, peace of mind and a calmness to bring us back down to earth.

Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Plath’s The Bell Jar are both novels that resonate with isolation, futility, and the struggle to connect with one’s immediate surroundings and the people within them. Having read these in second year recreationally, they acted as a respite. It was reassuring to see written down so succinctly in black and white, emotions you could relate to and comprehend.

Sometimes we are driven mad through our own making; in obsessing over the smaller things in life, they can manifest into an unmanageable monster as in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven. We see how a seemingly simple and insignificant thing as a raven, with its constant presence pecking away over time, can tip anyone over the edge: “And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting.” Whether it is being driven to madness by the nagging knowledge that you have an essay to write or simply by some head-phone-wearing idiot on the supposedly silent fourth floor, who, on a phone ever flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting, I think that this sense of frustration is something we can all relate to.

The tell tale signs of stress will be on many a face in Hallward in the coming weeks. An artist famous for his use of strained facial expressions is Edvard Munch, most notably his Scream. Munch admitted in an interview that he was stretched to the limit when painting and at times believed that he was going mad. The Quay Brothers similarly use distorted faces of dolls in their animations and silent films, creating visions of madness and existential distress.

One of the most extreme cases of art reflecting life is found in Sarah Kane, a well-known playwright who committed suicide before the unveiling of her play 4.48 Psychosis. Throughout her life, she suffered greatly from clinical depression. The play was showcased in London 2000 and has been critically acclaimed for providing an insight into the lives of people who suffer bouts of depression, insomnia, isolation and dependency.

Many artists like Kane and Plath draw upon their own problems to serve as inspiration, and although they don’t always overcome their demons there is inherent positivity in promoting awareness. In that sense, the arts can become an outlet of prevention and release.

Eleanor Boddie and Melanie Solomon

ArtsThis Issue

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