On the romanticisation of trauma and bad mental health in literature.
Trigger warning: suicide, mental health.
Writing by Maina Flintham Hjelde. Illustration by Berenika Murray.
Since Dürer painted his brooding self portraits in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the tortured artist has been a recurrent figure in Western Art. From the likes of Vincent Van Gogh to the Sylvia Plaths of the world, there seems to be a desire to take deeply traumatic life experiences and emotions and turn them into art. It’s true that there are very few people, if any, who have successfully managed to live their entire lives in a comfortable bubble of joy and laughter but why do artists have the reputation of being the most hopelessly tortured members of our society? Have we grown so used to seeing art used as an outlet for pain that when it’s made by happy and content people we find something lacking?
There is something inherently problematic with the way pain and anguish are fetishised and commodified through art. It creates a supply and demand chain for suffering, potentially deterring people from seeking help when they need it for fear of dampening their artistic spirit. This is further exemplified by the long-standing misconception that taking anti-depressants or going to therapy can somehow dull a person's ‘sparkle’. Is this because the erratic behaviours of those suffering from mental illness have been seen as quirks of character, rather than damaging symptoms in need of treatment? The fact that people are (thankfully) becoming far more open about mental health in recent years is eroding this misconception, and the ever growing waiting lists for mental health services point to larger chunks of the population acknowledging and treating mental illness. So would it not be more radical to create happy art about happy things?
I will admit that happy art created by happy people sounds incredibly dull, but it is interesting to think about why we perceive it as boring. Perhaps it is because we want to be moved by art that explores emotional or circumstantial turmoil that we have, or suspect we will, at some point, face ourselves. There’s no meaningful experience or perspective to be gained from looking at art that’s generically chirpy without depth or intrigue or reading books where the characters do not have to face adversity of any kind. Nobody wants to be patronised by Positive Polly and it's often a lot more fun to wallow alongside our favourite romantic poets and suicidal authors. Is this a healthy coping mechanism? Probably not- and we do run the risk of over romanticising poor mental health.
I think that as long as we are able to hold some level of separation between the art we consume and our overall happiness, dramatic art by tortured souls isn’t such a bad thing. As long as we actively encourage unwell people to reach out to others and make sure to sprinkle our sad girl Spotify playlists with the odd Taylor Swift song when things get too dark.