Sanity, Neurosis and Psychosis in the Modern History of the English Narrative



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S anity, Neurosis and Psychosis in the Modern History of the English Narrative

Sanity, Neurosis and Psychosis

in the Modern History of the English Narrative
A casual glance at the history of modern culture reveals that the problem of mental illness gained popularity during the 20th century. The purpose of the present paper is to examine how this phenomenon has been reflected in the three basic conventions of modern narrative literature. Realism, modernism and postmodernism – both via their subject-matter and via their form, i.e. in terms of formal narrative techniques adopted in each convention – might be said to reflect the three basic psychic states – sanity, neurosis and psychosis, respectively. I would also like to consider whether this hypothesis might remain in other than purely incidental relation with another hypothesis I examined in my paper, “The Three Stages in the History of the Novel – Realism, Modernism and Postmodernism: A Reflection of the Evolution of Reality in Karl Popper’s Model of the Three Worlds,” that each of the three conventions is primarily occupied with one of the three worlds distinguished by Karl Popper (realism with World One, i.e. the material world, modernism with World Two, i.e. the world of consciousness, and postmodernism with World Three, i.e. with products of the human mind). The above hypotheses are summarised in figure 1.


The narrative convention

The primary mental state of man depicted therein

Man’s primary environment

Man’s primary environment located in the narrative structure (an extension of the previous column)

Realism

Sanity

World One – material reality

Characters’ interaction

with external reality



Modernism

Neurosis

World Two – consciousness

The narrator’s and characters’

consciousness and introspection



Postmodernism

Psychosis

World Three – products of the human mind

The author’s, the narrator’s and characters’ creation

Figure 1

My use of the terms sanity, neurosis and psychosis may depart from the strict psychiatric taxonomy. In fact, the words are taken colloquially to refer to the state of psychic well-being, a relatively mild psychic impairment and an acute form of psychic affliction, respectively.

By sanity I will understand the state in which internal, i.e. psychic problems do not seriously impoverish man’s ability to cope with external reality. If a sane man is unable to enjoy life and to work (to borrow Freud’s criteria, Freud 408) that is because of unfavourable circumstances of his/her existence which remain beyond his/her control.

To differentiate between neurosis and psychosis I would like to quote an epigram of Jerome Lawrence. The epigram draws a distinction between a neurotic, a psychotic and a psychiatrist (and is, I am afraid, unappreciative of the medical profession). “A neurotic is the man who builds a castle in the air. A psychotic is the man who lives in it. A psychiatrist is the man who collects the rent” (qtd. in Cohen and Cohen 197). The saying renders the layman’s view of neurosis and psychosis, suggesting that what both conditions share is strained contact with (phenomenal and objective) reality, while they differ in that the psychotic person, unlike the neurotic person, takes his/her misperception of reality, his/her misconceptions, at their face value, i.e. for real.

Neurosis, in other words, is the state of psychic strain which diminishes, but does not cancel, one’s ability to cope with everyday life. The neurotic’s ability to act efficiently is limited in proportion to his/her preoccupation with himself/herself, in proportion to the attention and energy consumed by his/her inner conflicts. The state of psychosis is, by contrast, highly destructive both to the person in question and his/her environment. It combines a loss of “objective” perception of reality, with an experience of emotions inadequate to the situation, with a, temporary at least, unawareness of one’s condition and loss of control over one’s life.

I realize, of course, that psychiatry knows finer distinctions between sanity and insanity, not to mention the distinction between various kinds of mental disturbances. For the purpose, however, of a brief discussion of their representation in the modern narrative these simple definitions will suffice.

The modern history of narrative may be perceived in terms of the three major conventions: realism, modernism and postmodernism.384 This is true not exclusively of the modern English narrative. However, my examples being confined to the English novel, I will limit the scope of my hypotheses accordingly. The names of the conventions may be employed with reference either to historical periods (realism flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries, modernism dethroned it in the early decades of the 20th century, postmodernism has been gaining in popularity ever since World War II), or ahistorically to refer to certain narrative techniques, themes and views of life which, though once typical of an epoch, have also a perennial dimension. The latter use of the terms is justified especially in the face of the fact that at the moment all three conventions coexist in the modern English narrative.

The question is whether the three conventions on the level of theme and form correlate in the main with one of the three states of the human psyche. To investigate this question with reference to the thematic level one need survey the realist, modernist and postmodernist fiction classifying their characters and/or narrators in terms of their mental health. In figure 2 below the titles of books representing a given convention have been compiled on the basis of their traditional classification.






Sanity


Neurosis

Psychosis

Realism




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