The Russian, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, has been oft-described as one of the first “psychological novelists”; followed up, some would say, by the 1890 publication of HUNGER by the starving, post-tubercular Norwegian, Knut Hamsun.
Tough books, coming from the toughest of experiences/life stories…nothing precious about Dostoyevsky or Hamsun.
They both seemed to set down the facts/details of a decade of suffering and survival in a first book: Dostoyevsky in HOUSE OF THE DEAD, Hamsun in HUNGER.
But, this done, they would tend to let the imagination and spirit soar in the following books…the facts and details of their histories still embedded there though, felt, sensed, like psychological rock strata, unyielding.
D. H. Lawrence, the English miner’s son, took on the “psychological” penetration of that rock strata next, delving deep, fusing the exploration with elements of impassioned drama and story which brought such a potent mix of public acclaim/disapprobation.
While, in Czechoslovakia, almost on the same timeline, Franz Kafka, son of a successful, hardened businessman (himself the son of a Jewish shochet/ritual slaughterer), was investigating the same existential meat of the mind, with glorious results.
There is no doubt that, behind the curtain there, at least to an extent, lay the joint influence on the European mind, of the founding fathers of modern psychology, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud.
This influence was not confined to an intelligentsia, or any one social/economic class…the starving artist or miner’s son could be infected by it, just as surely as by the tuberculosis that also seemed to fell half of the writers in the first half of the 20th century.
These things, for good or ill, were just “in the air”…
The plan to supply universal education to all classes of British society, which George Bernard Shaw had opposed so vigorously, had gone ahead, and now the working class had been taught letters en masse, and who knew what beyond-the-pale literature some of them might end up reading…there were even libraries for them now…
As often happens though, following upon the opening of those doors in the first half of the 20th century, the second half of it saw a sinister closing of those same doors.
By the 1970s, the controversial Scottish psychiatrist, R. D. Laing, would insist that if Franz Kafka were to enter the 1960s Glasgow psychiatric system he would be instantly diagnosed, even if only on the basis of the texts he had written, as paranoid schizophrenic, and given the appropriate regimen of drugs and electric shock therapy to the brain popular in the day.
THE TRIAL and THE METAMORPHOSIS would no longer have been art/analogy for Kafka in 1960s Glasgow…through chemicals and electricity he would have experienced them for real.
Slightly earlier, in 1951, an inmate at Seacliff Lunatic Asylum in New Zealand, a post-drug and electro-convulsive therapy patient, diagnosed with schizophrenia, Janet Frame, had recently published her first book with Caxton Press, a short story collection entitled, THE LAGOON AND OTHER STORIES.
This did not stop the hospital scheduling her for a lobotomy, though, an operation to remove part of her brain surgically for “therapeutic” purposes.
But, as happenstance would have it, Janet Frame’s book won the Hubert Church Memorial Award for fiction that month, one of New Zealand’s most prestigious literary prizes.
The hospital therefore had to cancel the lobotomy for public relations reasons, and they released her from Seacliff Lunatic Asylum only four short years later, from whence she left New Zealand for England, where a doctor at the Maudsley hospital in London told her that he believed she had been wrongly diagnosed with schizophrenia and had never had the condition.
In 1962, Ken Kesey published ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, the result of his experiences working night shifts at the Menlo Park Veterans’ Hospital in California (interestingly, he worked night shift there with Gordon Lish, who would later become Raymond Carver’s editor)…and, of course, in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST it is Randle P. McMurphy whose antics are finally sorted out by Nurse Ratched via lobotomy, as the chemically-coshed inmates look on.
Surely, for acid-fuelled Kesey, this was a case of “There But for the Grace of God Go I…”
A sensing in fiction of what societal dangers could lie in wait for the artist’s mind…if the artist didn’t watch out…
In 1974, Robert Pirsig’s ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE was published.
Between 1961 to 1963, Pirsig had been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic and clinically depressed, receiving a great many electric shock treatments to his brain during those years, which he later wrote about in his book in great detail.
Finally, he decided the only way to escape the hospital was to behave as the staff wished him to behave, speak as the staff wished him to speak.
After several years of post-hospital recovery, Pirsig then wrote his book, about the psychiatric profession in part, and his own view of “insanity as the new heresy”, scientific logic having replaced centuries of religion in the collective mindset of modern man.
Pirsig believed that to challenge the mind-set of society was to risk being punished as a heretic, a modern disbeliever; assent to the societal norms or be punished by the burning/neutralising/neutering effects of the electricity…the new fire to which the heretic, out of touch with the logos and mythos of their times or peers, may be put legally in order to force their recantation.
(Interestingly, it is not quite true that ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE was rejected by 121 publishers, as Pirsig once noted in an Afterword to an edition of the book. Later, in an online interview, he gave more detail…a careful man, having learned not to waste time, he had written only the first few chapters of the book, early in the morning before his day job, in cafes, and had then sent this sample out to 122 publishers…out of these, four publishers replied, expressing interest in seeing the finished book…but only one editor kept in close contact with Pirsig throughout the four years it took to write the book, reading it and suggesting revision as the book progressed, and it was this editor who finally published the book, though he did not believe it would sell well, and certainly he never anticipated it becoming a 1974 bestseller.)
Recently, a friend left this link on my Facebook page:
A 3.09 recording of a talk by the philosopher, Alan Watts.
“What do you desire…what makes you itch? Let’s suppose…What would you like to do if money were no object? How would you really enjoy spending your life? Let’s go through with it…what do you want to do? You do that, and forget the money. Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing, than a long life spent in a really miserable way. And, after all, if you do really like what you’re doing…it doesn’t matter what it is…you can eventually become a master of it…it’s the only way to become a master of something, to be really with it…and then you’ll be able to get a good fee for whatever it is…so don’t worry too much….somebody’s interested in everything…and anything you can be interested in, you’ll find others will…”
A reminder then, for us all, that art has healed minds, and authors’ lives have been saved, or healed, or prolonged, or made joyous, by the writing of the books, time and again, not to mention how many untold readers’ lives have been enriched, healed, saved, and enlightened by those very same books.
The production of the books being an important act, in and of itself, and a delightful one.