The Loneliness of Insanity
Two hundred years of psychiatry in novels and stories
The idea behind The Loneliness of Insanity is so simple and obvious that it seems surprising it has not been tackled before. By comparing scientific studies about insanity with literary descriptions of deranged souls, psychologist and journalist Ranne Hovius demonstrates that writers and psychiatrists ask exactly the same questions, however much their aims may differ.
In Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, why does Wilhelm send the harpist, who in a fit of madness tries to kill a child, to a clergyman rather than to a madhouse? What persuaded Jean Rhys, a hundred years after Charlotte Brontë, to write a novel about the madwoman in Jane Eyre? Why did Nabokov waste no opportunity to make derogatory remarks about Freud?
Hovius finds the answers in developments in psychiatry across the full two hundred years of its existence. Since antiquity, writers have always been interested in what drives people mad. They have kept a close eye on the insights provided by psychiatry – which have varied greatly over time – and incorporated them into their work, whether approvingly or critically.
In The Loneliness of Insanity Hovius takes the history of psychiatry as manifested in fiction by authors including Balzac, Hoffmann and Jonathan Franzen, and interweaves it with the standard works on psychiatry by Pinel, Charcot, Freud, Laing, Sacks and others. What makes Hovius’ study so clever is the way she reconstructs the literary works of authors like Charlotte Brontë, Emile Zola and John Wray as psychiatric case studies. She focuses on the insane characters in their novels, enabling the reader to gain a more profound understanding of their tragedy. Hovius believes we need to place madness in the context of individual life stories if we are to summon the empathy that is indispensable to a proper understanding of mental illness. In the cool, rational approach of psychiatry, that empathy is often lost.
Hovius also discusses the portrayal of the psychologically disturbed in films, including the impact of the work of Alfred Hitchcock and of films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on the public perception of madness.
The Loneliness of Insanity is richly detailed, clear and immensely readable, and it takes us right up to the present day. DSM-5, the updated manual of mental disorders, has just been published to a storm of controversy. Hovius’ book, with its many subtle distinctions, is an indispensable contribution to the debate.
- Describes the history of psychiatry based on novels and stories about mentally disturbed people.
- Shows that it is not theory but the personal perspective that does most to make insanity intelligible.