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Submitted Literature

Fictions Madenss

By Liam Clarke


I recall Kenneth Calnan (then the chief Medical Officer) at a conference in 1996 asking the audience which was the best introductory text to read about public health.  Several delegates named reference books, but Calnan said as far as he was concerned, Charles Dickens was the best place to start.  Sometimes fiction can reach depths or convey issues in a way that no text book can.  Take for instance Sylvia Plath’s (1966) Bell Jar; an insider’s account of the descent into the suicide offering an essential case study.  Psychoanalysis in particular has taken literature as a way to convene a sort of psychological circuit training.  For instance, Freud (1907) studied Jensen’s novel Gradiva, which was a short story about a young archaeologist working in Pompeii who dreamt about the eruption of the volcano.  The charts the descent into madness of the young archaeologist who, upon waking from the dream, can still hear the victims of the volcano calling for help.  Freud took the novel as a template to advance hypotheses about psychotic delusions and the psychotic twilight between sleeping and waking.  Another one of my favourite literary studies is Bettelheim’s (1976) Uses of Enchantment which examined how fairy tales illuminated the emotional hurdles that children face.  Winnicott said children’s literature worked at a level of; ‘the world in small doses’, in other words, life trials such as facing fear and loss could be described in telling ways, emotionally resonant for children without being too traumatising.   Michael and Margaret Rustin’s (1994) Narratives of Love and Loss similarly takes children’s literature as a point of departure using a psychoanalytic lens to account for the meanings behind tales such as Five Children & It and The Borrowers.  Later, in Mirror to Nature Rustin & Rustin (2002) brought mental illness into sharper focus with a study of more ‘grown-up’ literature like Shakespeare and Beckett, positioning literature as an essential adjunct to advance our understanding of psychological truths.       

It is in the trajectory of the examining how literature can enlighten us that Fiction’s Madness enters the fray. When I can, I’ve long been a reader of most anything that Liam Clarke writes; his commentaries, papers, chapters, or books.  He writes always writes with a combination of verve and nerve.  Fiction’s Madness is a clue to Liam’s success.  The lesson seems to be:  if you want write well you, first you must learn to read well.  Taking twelve works of classical literature, from Shakespeare to Kafka to Kingsley Amis, Fiction’s Madness mines mental illness and how understanding can be rendered from stories.  Clarke admits that using literature as a learning tool might not be well received in an age of empirical evidence, but he asserts that there is a type of reflective democratic psychiatric knowledge that can is accrued from shared reading and discussion among learners and scholars.  He argues that essential truths can be unfolded by authors who offer their experience and their skills of narration.  In this way works of fiction can provide evidence that definitions of madness ought not to be the sole preserve of professional elites and their text books. 

The book has some spice with snippets of Clarke’s personal biography, see for instance his first encounter as a client with a psychotherapist; “I mean, can a psychotherapist who wears socks inside sandals be taken seriously...” (p50).  And then other times he filters his opinion about paradigms and dogma’s, for instance he takes issue with Carl Rogers’ reduction of the political self to a psychological one; “Universally revered by today’s helping professions, the darker implications of Rogerianism were concurrently shunned.  For example its Protestant, Calvinist ethic of accounting one consciousness before God – Luther declaration: ‘here I stand, I can do no other’..., an unashamed commitment to putting private emotional ambitions ahead of everything else” (p136).  He later refutes the Rogerian notion of being ‘to thine self be true’ as an excuse of for self centredness and Macbeth is presented as an emblem of this damned pursuit.  Finally, Clarke searches for his own illuminations of entangled tales, and I particularly like his account of Kafka’s psychotic Gregor in Metamorphosis, though it is not so much that Clarke provides answers or interpretations to literary knots, rather the value is hewn in more questions to debate.          

Fiction’s Madness is timely because there is a growing interest in consolidating the way in which literature can be used to inform the learning and preparation of mental health professionals.  Clarke mentions the Madness & Literature Network which has emerged from the University of Nottingham which has been bringing together scholars and clinicians to explore how literary studies can inform education and clinical mental health practitioner preparation.    Clarke’s target audience might appear to be those engaged in the sharper end of mental health practice, the themes are intensely psychiatric; asylum, psychosis, suicide, homicide and so forth, but I would have no hesitation in recommending this book to anyone who has an interest in the mind; professional or lay.


Key Themes:

  • Education

Significant Quotes / Pages


Bettelheim (1976) The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York.  Knopf.


Freud, S (1907) Jensen's ‘Gradiva’ and Other Works.  The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume IX.  London. Hogarth.


Plath, S (1966) The Bell Jar.  London.  Faber & Faber. 


Rustin, M & Rustin, M  (2001)  Narratives of Love and Loss: Studies in Modern Children’s Fiction.  London. Karnac. 


Rustin, M & Rustin,  M (2002)  Mirror to Nature: Drama, Psychoanalysis & Society.  London.  Karnac.   



Reference: Liam, Clarke. 2010. Fictions Madenss. PCCS Books, 2010


Gary Winship
Date Review Submitted: Tuesday 3rd August 2010