Mad, mad, mad…

In a literary age when knowledge of mental illness was primitive and misguided we often find at a personal level examples of kindness towards the afflicted; whereas in one of greater understanding the afflicted often want to speak for themselves. I can’t help feeling that the condition of Charles Lamb’s sister, Mary (so severe that she stabbed their mother to death with a serving-fork then buried it in her father’s forehead) speaks more eloquently, in praise of her brother, than Robert Lowell’s tiresome promotion of his own ego, however disturbed (‘No-one’s here’), particularly as Lamb looked after his sister despite the obvious dangers to his person, and Lowell’s bouts of derangement were but the sharpness of a tendency towards manic self-absorption. Like a spectre, madness does the rounds, brushing Schumann in music, Van Gogh in art and any number of writers; but I find that Lamb’s experience, the spectre a smidgen off-target – visiting the room it thought Lamb was in, as it were – just as telling a phenomenon at one step removed. Of all a writer’s different lives, the writing one is but a part. Shadows are cast by the others. Who can consider Finnegans Wake without constantly bearing in mind that Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, sometime boyfriend of Samuel Beckett, was contemporaneously a drowning schizophrenic whom her father tried to cure on his own (‘I can psoakoonaloose myself any time I want’) by resisting all clinical orthodoxy? He and Nora failed to cope, and the pathetic and often violent Lucia was committed to an institution at Ivry, just outside Paris, where her father visited her every week without fail. In 1951, ten years after his death and in the year of her mother’s, she was transferred to St Andrew’s Mental Hospital in Northampton, where she died in 1982. Lucia is believed by some to have been Joyce’s muse for Finnegans Wake. (‘The half-licked dead as moose’?)

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