Thoughts on Scribbling from the Apple Loft: Madness and Work in Various Texts

Of Shakespeare’s sister that Virginia Woolf imagines in A Room of One’s Own, Woolf speculates: “Perhaps she scribbled some pages up in an apple loft on the sly but was careful to hide them or set fire to them.”  For some scholars of women’s literature, it’s fairly common to assume that there was a vendetta against the combination of women and work in Anglo-American history, and that stifling the ability to work– often forbidding, particularly, artistic expression – resulted in concomitant madness for oppressed women.  It’s a common trope, although there were some significant historical exceptions to the rule.  I’m not an expert on the subject, but I’ve heard that Jane Austen had to hide her manuscript whenever a guest entered her room.  And one must wonder, as VW did, what happened to the likely expansive throng of brilliant, would-be  productive women who weren’t given a voice prior to, say, the Romantic or Victorian eras – or later.  As an unrelated heads up, there will be spoilers throughout this piece!  

Virginia Woolf

                I thought that starting with a quote from VW’s A Room of One’s Own would be appropriate, because (spoiler alert) at the end of Woolf’s imaginary narrative, Shakespeare’s sister (if I recall correctly) commits suicide after repeated attempts to make a creative name for herself in a man’s 17th century world and has become, as such, one of those sort of iconic cultural embodiments of creative repression associated with mad behavior.  I’m not the vehement detractor of the trope of the artistic, stifled madwoman, but I think we can take things just a little bit further, and I’d like to start doing that in this post.  I may not reference solely horror films in this piece (despite the fact that my blog is a horror blog) because I’ve decided to expand my blog to encompass all of the topics I’m studying for my comp exams, including madness in literature. 

                And so, today I’d like to write a little about the nexus of madness and so-called “idleness,” or to ponder the relationship of madness and work – in texts on both the narrow and the broad lists for my comprehensive exams.  I have no thesis for this essay; indeed, it’s not a formal essay.  I plan on jumping, in fact, fairly sporadically from one interesting example to another, in an attempt to reach some degree of insight without arriving at overarching, sweeping conclusions.  I should note that I was inspired to undertake this examination while reading Foucault’s Madness and Civilization for my broad list and listening to his account of the virtue associated with work in 17th century Europe and the resultant banishment of so-called “idle” individuals from the confines to the margins of society vis a vis the “Hopital General” (France) and workhouses (England).  Work, Foucault contends, had transcendental value in 17th century Europe, and those who didn’t work – criminals, madmen, the unemployed, and so forth –were all lumped together and banished to a location of cultural exteriority –to confined spaces where they were expected to work, so that beggars wouldn’t populate the streets of Europe, and so that their souls would be, in a sense, “purified”or saved through miscellaneous, often excruciatingly difficult labor that was deemed inherently morally correct.   

                Now, I’m just getting to the part in the text where Foucault discusses how these practices effected the insane, specifically, but I’m interested, nevertheless, in forming some of my own conclusions about the relationship between work and madness – or, conversely, between idleness and madness – in film and literature– both older and newer works – before I read how Foucault situates the concepts.  I imagine the relationship may be more complex than just iterations of the repressed woman-artist, and I’d like to start literally moving through some works on my comp list and examining those relationships.    

                The first thing that occurs to me is that madness manifests in almost infinite forms in literary and cinematic works, and these myriad forms might all have different relationships to idleness and work.  Let’s take a particularly controversial example to start out with: Medea.  When I told my sister that I was adding Medea to my comprehensive exam list on female madness, she was a bit aghast. “But Medea’s not mad” she asserted. But does stating that Medea’s not mad imply that there is a sort of condonable logic or reason to her decision to kill her two children to avenge her husband?  It might.  To me, Medea’s act is a quintessentially socially deviant, borderline mad act, and we must at least examine her as if she might possibly be mad instead of leaving her off the list completely.  I think, sometimes, the reason we assume Medea isn’t mad is because Medea does logical work, and we assume that logic (and maybe, that work) are opposed to madness. Medea needs to carefully scheme and plot to make her deed come to fruition – must figure out how to poison the King and his daughter, how to escape after she’s killed her children. She is not just smart; she is calculating.  And, depending on one’s definition of madness, a calculating person can’t be mad.

                But is madness always a loss of touch with reality, a loss of reason, a loss of thought, an absence, or can it be an unbridled, overwhelming fountain of passion that thrusts the possessor into a berserk sort of frenzy and provokes actions that are shocking and often heinous, if not still seamlessly executed?  For certainly, Medea is nothing if not furious during most of the play.  She believes her husband owes her for the help she’s given him, and she’s livid that his “repayment” comes in the form of marriage to another woman.  But is it antithetical to her careful planning to assert that she was experiencing a fit of passionate anger?  Can careful, pre-meditated action exist neatly next to a state of heightened passion? Perhaps it can; perhaps our contention, that madness is mindless, that the mad cannot work, is a problematic presumption to make.  Or perhaps, as Foucault suggests, associating madness with passion is a byproduct of much antiquated 17th-century thought.  Nonetheless, I’m not ready to submit to the notion that Medea’s act was completely separate from what we would call “madness.”

Jason and Medea – John William Waterhouse

                If we assume that Medea is mad, then, we must also admit that Medea works in the service of her madness.  Her work, rather than provide her with a productive outlet, is work that feeds her desire and fuels her rage more.  The only qualm I have with my own argument about Medea’s work is that I can’t imagine Medea ever having regrets.  Indeed, if she kills her children in a fit of passion, is not her action something she would regret later on?  And yet, I can’t imagine Medea ruing her decision.  Her conviction is too fierce, too unwavering.  And so, examining Medea’s work – the calculating she does to fulfill her mad design –yields the question, “is such conviction (when not in the service of delusion) antithetical to an act born of madness? Is there some unspoken connection between madness and caprice in our conception of insanity?  If so, is this connection problematic?”

                To consider this question, we could turn to an ostensibly very different work – M. Night Shyamalan’s film The Visit.  In The Visit the two main characters, Becca and Tyler, are going to visit grandparents who they’ve never seen before because of a long-standing feud the grandparents have with Becca and Tyler’s mother.  The grandparents are admittedly bizarre, and do things during the visit that are both strange and frightening.  Ultimately, Becca’s mother gets a glimpse of her parents – Becca’s grandparents – via skype, and informs Becca, her voice trembling with terror, that the old people she and Tyler have been staying with all week aren’t her grandparents.  As it turns out, they’re two patients who have escaped from a psychiatric institution.  When Becca’s grandparents, who volunteered at the local psychiatric hospital, told these two patients about the imminent visit with their grandkids, the patients decide to kill the real grandparents, pose as them, and then, presumably, kill Becca and Tyler after the week-long visit.  The situation never escalates to that point; Becca and Tyler find their real grandparents dead in the basement, but they survive the ordeal. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to consider how much work, how much calculating, goes into this act, despite the fact that the patients are ostensibly mad.

 The Visit

                Of course, I’m working off some fairly rudimentary definitions of madness.  In Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, he describes 16th century madness as an attachment to an image – an imaginary truth – grounded in otherwise solid reasoning, a phenomenon Foucault labels delirium.  In other words, a patient believes something untrue, but the reasoning to arrive at the delusion falls under the category logos and is often rather advanced, rather complex rationale.  By this definition, the inmates at the mental institution – whose names, interestingly, I don’t believe we ever learn – wouldn’t necessarily be mad to begin with, so it’s not surprising that they can carry out such an exacting plan and make it work perfectly.  These patients are well-aware, despite other bizarre behaviors, that they aren’t Becca and Tyler’s real grandparents, and only this awareness of truth – instead of what Foucault would call the nothingness of madness, the absence of truth – allows them to reason and calculate in order to execute their plan successfully.  And yet, they do a series of bizarre things –the “grandmother” stands in front of a wall naked and scratches it at night, and frequently drifts off, glassy-eyed, during conversation, or gets angry suddenly.  And both grandparents talk of small creatures hiding in the backyard well that can capture human beings.  Indeed, it is a delusion they seem to believe in, despite being otherwise in touch with reality.  Madness is complicated in Shyamalan’s films –at least, in this one.  It may or may not be a partial delirium much like the one Foucault suggests, but with an accumulation of other bizarre behaviors.  Still, madness is not detrimental enough to prevent the imposter grandparents from “working,” in a sense, toward some end goal – the elimination of the real grandparents and a week spent with Becca and Tyler.

                If madness is delirium – reasoned delusion – then Medea isn’t mad, and perhaps neither are the grandparents in The Visit, so it’s not surprising that both parties can calculate and execute a murderous scheme to its completion. Medea does so because her husband is leaving her to marry another woman and she wants revenge.  The characters in The Visit seem to do so for no apparent reason – just because it would be fun to visit with someone else’s grandkids (with the later intent to murder). We know very little about the people who pose as Becca and Tyler’s grandparents, except that they’re “beneficiaries” (sarcasm) of a modern version of the confinement phenomenon Foucault describes that permeated Europe in the classical period – a tendency that is less prevalent now that madness has been medicalized, but still present, nonetheless. Shyamalan presents the grandparents less as “sick individuals” and more as emotionally capricious, idiosyncratic lunatics, but the fact remains that they’re able to get pretty far in their series of devised machinations before being caught. 

The Shining

                Of course, I chose two sort of odd examples to begin with.  It is, undoubtedly “work” to plot a murder –especially a double murder, or a triple murder – but it’s not work in the sense that we classically conceive of the word.  The Shining – at least, Stanley Kubrick’s film version of King’s novel –  seems to indicate not that the lack of ability to work induces madness, but that madness precludes the ability to do meaningful work.  Indeed, in The Shining, Wendy goes through Jack’s pile of writing one day and realizes that hundreds upon hundreds of pages are littered with the repeated phrase – typed in different formats – “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”  In the case of this film, then, Jack’s antithesis to work – his repetitious typing –becomes a sort of metonymic harbinger of greater madness to come.  His madness is, in a sense, embodied in his manuscript, which has been a mad endeavor from the start and which will foretell the complete onset of Jack’s particularly malicious brand of insanity.  Work, in The Shining, and writing, in particular, cannot save us from madness.  Indeed, writing, in the artistic sense that we usually regard the word, exists in the absence of madness, and becomes a canvass that reflects the artists madness back at an unknowing audience.  Jack’s writing is like Dorian Gray’s painting: it is where he keeps the secret of his madness before he goes visibly mad, the way Dorian hid a visual representation of his malevolent deeds.  But such “writing,” a lengthy series of repeated phrases, seems to suggest, to the viewer, that art, in any sense of the world, rather than be a derivation of madness (which Kay Redfield Jamison and others much earlier have speculated) is mutually exclusive from it.  Perhaps this observation is unique to the type of madness that the evil Overlook hotel provokes – not a sort of productive, delusional euphoria, but a state of nothingness, an emptiness of the soul.    

                While some sort of writing can be the byproduct or recipient of madness, 18th and early 19th  century texts also positioned writing as the impetus of madness. In Don Quixote, the title character imagines himself a knight errant because of all the chivalric romances he’s read.  He interprets his surroundings by the rules of the romance novel instead of seeing reality as it actually is and fights with a field of windmills as if they’re overpowering beasts.  He comes to be able to interpret reality accurately only as he is dying, a fact which suggests the futility of his epiphany and the detriment of his apophany (a word Louis Sass uses to describe delusion in Madness and Modernism), even though his escapades are rather amusing – indeed, sometimes downright hilarious– to the reader.  The Female Quixote, written a full 137 years later, is a Don Quixote parody based on a woman, Arabella, who reads too many French Romance novels and comes to imagine that she is a heroine in one.  Like Don Quixote, she sees reality through the lens of one, pervasive, overarching delusion, and like Don Quixote, the written word is the impetus of the delusion.  Both texts suggest an interesting distrust of the written word, in a way that we might distrust technologies like television or video games today.  This seems especially relevant in the Female Quixote, in which novels, a fairly new medium for 1752 (at least, depending on who you ask), are the exact source of Arabella’s quixotism.  Jane Austen then uses the Female Quixote as a source of inspiration for Northanger Abbey, a book in which unlikely heroine Catherine Morland gets invited to Northanger Abbey by the father of her romantic interest, Henry, and his sister Eleanor.  Inspired by late 18th-century gothic novels, Catherine’s mind creates an elaborate scheme of machinations happening at the abbey that bear no resemblance to reality, and she must share her delusion with Henry in order to disrupt it. While Austen extols the creativity and intellect involved in writing a  novel in different parts of the text – through the voice of both her narrator and her characters – the novel form, indeed, the work of reading, is seen as a purveyor, not a reverser of madness,at least when combined with Catherine’s active imagination and relative naivety.

Don Quixote by Pablo Picasso

                All of this deliberation brings us, finally, to the question of The Yellow Wallpaper, a text in which the narrator is advised not to write, shut in a small yellow room, and forced to “get well” through her own agency, despite her declining energy and her ultimate departure from reality.  In The Yellow Wallpaper, the narrator does profess that her husband doesn’t like her writing and she must hide her writing from him, but her idleness might, nonetheless, be a byproduct of her madness, not of her husband’s restriction.  She does not stop writing, after all, because she is caught writing. She stops writing because she becomes too tired, and then more interested in the women she sees moving behind the wallpaper than in her own prose.  I would contend that a combination of circumstances led to the narrator’s madness in this text – not just her inability to work – and that as in The Shining, meaningful creative work is mutually exclusive to madness.  The narrator stops writing in her journal as she loses touch with reality, and starts, instead, creeping around the room like the women she sees behind the wallpaper. Indeed, The Yellow Wallpaper was Gilman’s commentary on the 19th century rest cure for women invented by Weir Mitchell, a means of treating madness that relegated women to infantile status and prevented them from doing much of anything, let alone creative work.  In fact, one could argue that the narrator’s subtle writing in The Yellow Wallpaper ultimately can’t save her from the madness that overcomes her, just as Jack’s writings cannot save him.  At least in The Yellow Wallpaper the narrator does write sensible, meaningful lines before lapsing into complete madness – a clue, perhaps, that at the beginning of the text, she is not as mad as she would have us think. 

Scene from a YouTube rendition of The Yellow Wallpaper

                There are many more examples to examine, but this seems like enough of an undertaking for today.  In fact, I kept feeling like this post was going nowhere, so it took me an extraordinarily long time to write, as opposed to the fairly short amount of time I usually spend on a post.  Ultimately, as both a cause, consequence, and antithesis of madness, writing has a complicated relationship to insanity.  Indeed, in the texts examined, work that involves great planning and scheming may be done by the so-called mad person, but meaningful creative work is harder to produce.  In the end, however, work cannot prevent madness; a combination of factors influence the individual to provoke it.     

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Thoughts on Scribbling from the Apple Loft: Madness and Work in Various Texts

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