To portray something -to make it believable- there has to be at least some understanding by the audience of what is being portrayed. Much in the sense, I suppose, that was suggested in the 1974 paper in The Philosophical Review by the American philosopher Thomas Nagel, asking what it would be like to be a bat. Not so much how it would feel to have the added sense of sonar, or be able to fly in the dark, but more about the consciousness of itself. As Wikipedia explains Nagel’s thinking: ‘an organism has conscious mental states, “if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism—something it is like for the organism to be itself.”
This is a roundabout way of wondering whether an audience could ever know if an actor is representing something realistically if they cannot imagine what it would be like to be that thing.
Mental illness seems as if it is sufficiently prevalent that most of us would be expected to understand whether or not the author, or the actor, has captured its essence accurately, and yet, for those of us who have not experienced the wide panoply of its manifestations -the majority of us, I suspect- we might be easily mislead. The more gripping or sensational portrayals of illness, might well come to stereotype the lot. To stigmatize the condition.
I was scrolling through the BBC Culture section when I happened upon an article that discusses some of these same issues: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20180828-how-cinema-stigmatises-mental-illness
‘… the film industry has generally shown a shaky vision of mental health … It’s not that cinema evades ‘taboo’ themes here; it’s more that it tends to swing wildly from sentimentality to sensationalism.’ To attract an audience -i.e. to make a profit- ‘creative drama is drawn to the complexity and fragility of the mind – but mainstream entertainment still demands a snappy fix. And the definition of ‘insanity’ is inherently problematic.’
I am reminded of the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s book Madness and Civilization -subtitled A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. He felt that the concept of madness was evolving over time: in the Renaissance, (as a thoughtful summary in Wikipedia puts it) the mad were portrayed in art ‘as possessing a kind of wisdom – a knowledge of the limits of our world – and portrayed in literature as revealing the distinction between what men are and what they pretend to be … but the Renaissance also marked the beginning of an objective description of reason and unreason (as though seen from above) compared with the more intimate medieval descriptions from within society.’
Later, however, ‘in the mid-seventeenth century, the rational response to the mad, who until then had been consigned to society’s margins, was to separate them completely from society by confining them, along with prostitutes, vagrants, blasphemers and the like, in newly created institutions all over Europe.’ (The Great Confinement).
‘For Foucault the modern experience began at the end of the eighteenth century with the creation of places devoted solely to the confinement of the mad under the supervision of medical doctors, and these new institutions were the product of a blending of two motives: the new goal of curing the mad away from their family who could not afford the necessary care at home, and the old purpose of confining undesirables for the protection of society. These distinct purposes were lost sight of, and the institution soon came to be seen as the only place where therapeutic treatment can be administered.’
But, back to the BBC Culture depiction of the role of cinema, ‘our mainstream perceptions of ‘madness’ are still fixated with movie scenes – much more emphatically, in fact, than the novels or memoirs on which they might be based. A classic film like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) seals the impression of a soul-destroying psychiatric asylum, where livewire convict RP McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) feigns insanity to escape prison labour – yet is ultimately crushed by the system. The dramatic depiction of patient treatment, particularly its brutal electroconvulsive therapy sequences, had far-reaching impact. In 2011, The Telegraph went so far as to say that the film was responsible for “irreparably tarnishing the image of ECT…’
Unfortunately, unlike many art forms, movies usually require a conclusion, a wrapping up of the story, and a realistic depiction of mental illness may not fit into that convenient format. There may be no black or white: not all characterizations can end either pleasantly or sadly -some are palimpsests, to be sure, but many can reach no definitive conclusions that would satisfy the average moviegoer. Hence the temptation to exaggerate, or at least frighten audiences into an odd manifestation of satisfaction.
The temptation, in other words, to see mental illness as alien, separate -like a creature we could not possibly understand because it is so different. As different, perhaps, as Nagel’s bat. But is it? Or was Foucault really on to something in his analysis of the way ‘madness’ seemed to be viewed in Renaissance literature and art -a view which accepted that at least some of the vagaries, some of the stigmata of mental illness, were merely variations of mental states that any of us could exhibit at times? And indeed, that occasionally intimated unique views on a world from which we might learn some important lessons -a world, though, that we might now discard, or shun as too bizarre. Too frightening. Too… real.
On the other hand, there is a danger of romanticizing the past, of airbrushing its naïveté into soft and reassuring colours; of assuming it was what it was because it had not yet been exposed to the unforgiving exigencies of current knowledge. A time when imagination and reality were sometimes allowed to merge. Encouraged to conflate.
It’s difficult to be certain where present day arts can be placed on this spectrum of understanding mental illness -not the least because it is difficult to know where it should be placed. But, suffice it to say, the more fully the illness is portrayed in all its complexity, the more we might be able to see it as a small, but important part of the tapestry of existence -a fragment of the struggle that marks all our days. And, as for any vicissitude, where there is suffering, we must provide succour and relief, and where there is dissimilarity, offer understanding and acceptance. Tolerance. The soul, says the poet Kahlil Gibran, walks upon all paths. The soul walks not upon a line, neither does it grow like a reed. The soul unfolds itself like a lotus of countless petals.