“I felt the narrowing of my life to a very fine point. A hard triangle of a life over and me sprawled at its peak, hopeless and lost.” – Russell Brand, describing a mental breakdown.
This ‘narrowing’ of life is something that resonates with the intensity and inexorably singular atmosphere of mental illness. Yet, the ‘hard triangle of a life over’, for Brand, was perhaps a life over, but not life over, and the triangle ultimately widened again, opened up to the waxing and waning vicissitudes of a life continued in recovery from mental illness. Yet, this solipsistic image of experience under the influence of mental disorder, is one that recurs throughout literary thought.
Sylvia Plath, in The Bell Jar writes;
“If Mrs. Guinea had bought me a ticket to Europe or a round-the world-cruise, it wouldn’t have made one scrap of a difference to me. Wherever I was sitting – on the dock of a ship or outside a street-café in Paris or Bangkok – I would still be under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air. The bell jar wadded around me, and I couldn’t stir.”
The oppressive image of the bell jar and the vacuum of mental illness is perhaps the most effective and poignant description of this aspect of the human condition to have ever been penned. Yet Plath’s novel was frequently described as her “usual use of ‘every facile bit of her own experience’ or a ‘horrific autobiography’”, with Plath herself describing the work as “a potboiler”.
Such authorial dismissal of literary creation, coupled with the efforts of Ted Hughes and Plath’s mother, caused her work to become obscured under a cloud of author-criticism. Biography became the explanation for Plath’s texts and critics have seen her work as a quasi-diary which fails to move beyond self-record into the realms of literary merit. Worse still, mental illness in Plath becomes explained away as merely a vessel by which other, ‘more important’ (and thus surely the intended subject matter), social and cultural phenomenons are explored. Esther Greenwood’s depression becomes a symptom of societal oppression of women, of her disrupted relationship with the father figure, and most cuttingly, even her own genius. Inherently, we should balk against this. When the images of suffocation appear again and again in Plath’s work, such as in Ariel, where she described the “stasis in darkness” of depression, how can we not seriously consider the reality of depression as just that, a reality?
A similar problem reoccurs in literary works today. The works of millennial poets such as Charly Cox and Rupi Kaur cause mental illness to become subsumed and lost within the expansive layers of modern society. The recent rise and undeniable success of ‘insta-poetry’ signals only a new method of blame displacement in the presentation of mental illness through literature. Just as Sylvia Plath’s work was debased by a refusal to acknowledge and accept the reality of mental illness within her work as an entity in its own right, insta-poets such as Charly Cox present mental illness as consubstantial with today’s society, and thus diminish its significance.
Although the new-found prevalence of mental illness in literature does help to dismantle the stigma around it, the presentation of this work against the background of technology and modernity raises issues. By synthesising the reality of mental illness with the medium of social media, these topics inherently become presented as interweaved with the society that propagates platforms such as Instagram and Twitter. Perhaps such a perspective in itself is one that merely applies context criticism and by doing so, misses the point of these poems. However, when the success of poetry relies upon and is intrinsic to the aesthetic form in which it is presented, the form becomes just as critically important as the words on the screen.
Instagram in particular, problematises this issue. The beautiful images of poems set against the marble background of a coffee shop table, the camera just allowing into the frame the feminine image of a vase of roses, perched delicately next to a perfectly prepared flat white, is the world against which these poems are backdropped. The world these poets choose is very much the modern one and this necessarily entails current society and all its issues and vices. So, when Cox posts images of her poetry, beautifully scrawled and nestled amongst stylised pictures of her and her London Gen-Z lifestyle, she presents her poems, and thus their content as a mere facet of modernity. Instead of achieving the critical perspective of poems such as T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, on modern society, her poetry becomes synthesized with the medium of social media and so does her presentation of mental illness.
This ultimately begs the question, is mental illness a symptom of society? Many would say yes, arguing as Eliot did that today’s vacuous society is leading to the breakdown and disintegration of human relationships. But does this cause mental illness? In my opinion, no. It might worsen it, but it does not predicate it. For me, the logical fallacy here brings us back to Plath. Mental illness might not be helped circumstance, perhaps even triggered, but it is a veritable reality within itself, not a mere symptom. Plath surely would always have suffered the breakdowns that she did, irrelevant of circumstance, as would have her fictional creation Esther Greenwood. And so, to present mental illness in such close proximity with society, is to do what critics did to Plath; to blame, and to move away from the truth of mental illness that we are still unprepared to accept as a society.
Plath, Brand and Cox all have the same mental discordance in common, they all sought or seek to express and describe the experience of mental illness, and this in itself points to the intrinsic and ever-present nature of mental illness. Historically, it has always existed and will continue to do so. It will not simply disappear through social discourse as writers such as Cox suggest is possible. Maybe, by sharing an image of one of her many poems unravelling depression she gives comfort to someone experiencing similar emotions. But, by participating in a dichotomy of innovation and reaffirmation of existing norms, by balking against intolerance but doing so within a medium that thrives off the issues Cox raises, her sentiments become trivialised. Ultimately, in poets like Cox’s work, through the use of form, mental illness becomes a derivative of something else: our dissatisfaction and disillusionment with modern society. What we must remember however, is that it is this disillusionment that constitutes the brand that influencers like Cox exploit (remembering that she is, after all an influencer and not just a poet). In many ways then, Cox is no better than influencers like Florence Given; those who sell an ideology, however appealing and fitting to their following, to the swathes of followers that buy into their message.
Cox tells us to not allow social media to define us, to depress us in its unrealistic expectations. But in the next post, she gets hundreds of likes on a picture of her in a beautiful dress or advertising her latest collaboration. Which Cox do we listen to in this situation? The majority listen to both, thinking that they are rejecting the disposable lifestyle and image Instagram can promote, whilst styling themselves on the poet herself and perhaps even purchasing a pair of poetess endorsed high heels. Maybe, if we were to read Cox’s poetry without looking at her Instagram, there might be a different line of argument to take. But when most of her readers have become aware of her poetry through her Instagram, that’s a hard challenge to undertake. The difference between Cox and Plath, is that Plath never asked for her biography to be interlinked with her poetry, but Cox readily associated it through the medium she chose.