Thursday, April 8, 2010

Judith Shakespeare

I recently re-read Room of One's Own and find there the same claims about women and madness as Olive Schreiner and Phyllis Chesler make decades later--the idea that giftedness that goes against the tide of cultural expectation places a person at risk for madness. Woolf says that "any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half-witch, half-wizard, feared and mocked at. For it needs little skill in psychology to be sure that a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty." Woolf herself certainly would have known.

Woolf says something similar about the effects of women enjoying lively sexuality: "Chastity had then, it has even now, a religious importance in a woman's life, and has so wrapped itself round with nerves and instincts that to cut it free and bring it to the light of day demands courage of the rarest. To have lived a free life in London in the sixteenth century would have meant for a woman who was poet and playwright a nervous stress and dilemma which might well have killed her."

We still in the twenty-first century have to consider the connection between giftedness and psychospiritual breakdown--for women and for men. And we have to consider the crazymaking capacity of every social imperative that causes us to live restricted lives. I am not in favor of complete personal anarchy: it didn't seem to help the writer Djuna Barnes or or the artist Elsa Von Freitag-Loringhoven avoid breakdown. But their breakdown was, at least, accompanied by significant creative power. It may be that a certain degree of antisocial behavior is the price of creative potency.

1 comment:

  1. Boy oh boy, how I love madwomen--have you seen Tom & Viv? About Yeat's wife? She was crazy in all the right ways. And very much part of what you're talking about--a pattern of repressed creative energy coming out as antisocial behavior. Great post!