Diagnosing Literature


Friday, April 23, 2010

The Takeaway's panel of novelists at the Miami Book Fair International. (Mythili Rao/WNYC)

Was Bartleby the Scrivener depressed? Did Clarissa Dalloway need lithium? Today's English lit students seem to want to medicate away the problems of classic literary characters. Studio 360's Eric Molinsky explores this phenomenon with help from NYU professor Elayne Tobin and novelist Michael Cunningham.

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Eric Molinsky

Comments [3]

Leslie Patterson from Colorado

This segment tied in wonderfully with one that I recently listened to on BBC Radio 4 where famous literary mad women in the attic were diagnosed by a variety of members of the literary and psychiatric community. Their conclusions: the first Mrs. Rochester suffered from symptoms caused by her position as a displaced person, and Emma Bovary was not mad but simply bored.

Of course it is easier to take a lighthearted look at the ailments of literary characters rather than real people. I know that when I was a teen, I provided Bartleby's answer to many of my parents' requests, and I suspect that my mimicry showed that I was both depressive and had a sense of humor about my ailment. As for whether modern pharmacology could have saved Virginia Woolf or Sylvia Plath from suicide? I can't speculate. Nor can I say whether their creativity would have flourished under such a regime. I do suspect, however, that our present society may be too willing to apply labels and prescriptions to a wide spectrum of behaviors at the expense of allowing for self-expression, and I hope that we can continue to enjoy art in all its forms for its representations of both "normal" and "aberrant" personalities.

May. 12 2010 03:58 PM
Toby Saunders from GA, USA

I hate the idea of valuing sorrow! How completely backwards to value pain... I believe sorrow is something to be overcome. The ends do not justify the means, so depression is not justified by 'great' art, -that's my opinion, I value ethics and I love my life (I'm not saying everything that lead to my existence was ethical though, for sure!).

p.s. I believe certain strains of cannabis are more appropriate for depression than dangerous stuff like lithium and indeed wish depressed poets had safe access to it

Apr. 29 2010 09:02 PM
Cambra from Brooklyn

Isn't the appeal of literature that it works as a prism for the reader, so s/he can further reflect upon the "real" world via what's printed on the page? I don't see what's so terrible about younger readers applying their generation's knowledge, scientific or otherwise, to texts they read. The professor and the author interviewed seem to have problems with the idea only in that it overturns their own generation's notion of what literature and character "are." Heaven forbid your students have a different opinion! I also think it kind of sucks to say things like, "but if Virginia Woolf had been on Lithium, she wouldn't have written this amazing prose!" Um, but she also might not have killed herself. So what's the trade-off? Today's society (and its youth) think the individual's peace of mind is more important, while yesterday's would rather allow suffering in the interest of tomorrow's summer reading list? I don't really get what the big deal is. I have to go take my Prozac now.

Apr. 25 2010 11:48 AM

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