Requiem for a scream

Edvard Munch turned his mental struggles into spectacular work. But do artists need to be tortured to achieve greatness?

Look out for the quiet kids who hide in the school library. They’re looking for answers — and if you’re not careful, they might find some. My school had a huge old library full of recesses where an enterprising reader could stay out of sight of the big kids. That’s where I went to work out my mad moods in the best tradition of pretentious teenagers everywhere. Like any fretful pubescent who ever had an anxiety disorder and more black eyeliners than friends, I felt alienated, ashamed — and utterly convinced that nobody in the history of the human race had felt quite the same way. Until I found the books that told me otherwise.

There’s sorcery in that sudden sense of kinship when you discover a piece of art or writing by a stranger from a different time who nonetheless knows exactly how you feel, especially when you’re at the age of accelerating into adulthood with the rickety thrill of a rollercoaster you can’t get off.

Crazy dead poets really got me. Or at least, I got them. They may not have known the indignities of having to wipe the spit off your hair after another morning on the school bus, but they knew what it was like to feel like your body did not belong to you, to be overwhelmed by nameless dread in the middle of a normal day, or to wonder if you were going bonkers.

So I read Sylvia Plath. I worshipped Francis Bacon and Arthur Rimbaud. I kept a postcard version of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” tucked into my school diary, next to my list of what to do when I thought I might be about to hyperventilate myself to death, including memorize three French verbs and find a novel dark and weird enough to hide inside.

The attraction was obvious, and it was ordinary: those tortured artists made the torture seem, well, rather artistic. I came away with the impression that mental illness was a necessary adjunct to genius. That it made you somehow special. That it was a little bit cool. The really serious writers I loved all seemed to have had bipolar disorder: I found myself wishing that maybe I could have it, too.

Shortly afterwards, I was diagnosed with an entirely different disorder, and ended up in hospital.

I never wished for mental illness again. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

It didn’t make me an artist. It didn’t give me special insight. It just made me very sick, and very sad, and came close to making me very dead.

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