“One sheds one’s sicknesses in books —repeats and presents again one’s emotions, to be master of them.”
—D.H. Lawrence (The Letters of D.H Lawrence)
The idea that literature can provide solace, that it can help to ‘master’ the bleak places of the head and the heart and banish some of their wearying shadows, is nothing new: Plato believed that the arts were given to us by the muses to help us find harmony within ourselves, like a sort of handy creative auto-tune, and it is common enough to hear that someone’s grief was made a little bit more bearable by reading Tennyson, or that Meredith’s Modern Love offered solidarity in the middle of a divorce. The NHS have recently taken steps to solidify this notion, elevating it from a vague semi-universal truth to an almost medicinal level: bibliotherapy, the provision of services that quite literally prescribe certain literary works to patients suffering from afflictions like anxiety, stress and depression, has become increasingly ubiquitous, with almost every local healthcare authority in the UK now running versions. The schemes are, on the whole, experiencing a positive response, with most studies concluding that bibliotherapy is at least as effective as more acceptable modes of treating depression. Literature, then – or, more accurately, emotional engagement with literature – can clearly have a powerful effect on our mental health.
So far, so obvious; but if literature can strengthen our mental state and alter long-ingrained mental markings, the question really ought to be considered the other way round: does the literature we immerse ourselves in, particularly in our formative years, have the power to influence the way our patterns of behaviour and personalities actually form? Nick Hornby famously asked in High Fidelity “which came first, the music or the misery?” and this can be applied with just as much relevance to literature. Do we choose to read the things we do because we’re miserable (or argumentative, or content, or anything) or are we more likely to be these things because of what we have read? It is important here to clarify that by ‘reading’ I’m not talking about the huge variety of material that we casually consume every day, but the texts that we really engage with and invest in.
Being university educated in particular means you are likely to be surrounded by people whose heads are bursting with all the different representations of a human life that they have absorbed over the previous twenty-whatever years of their own lives, with the ones that have resonated the most remaining scored deeply into their minds. The echoes of this are unconscious, and leave an imprint on us as invisible and integral as our subconscious lives: even my own phrasing here echoes that of a book I loved intensely in my teenage years, Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, with its talk of its protagonist’s first sexual fever as something that “scored her mind as a long drill scored the crumbling sods of a brown, still May,” an image that has embedded itself into my mind at some unobserved level and forever altered my perception of the verb “score.” Part of the reason for this could be that before we reach adulthood and have a fighting chance of actually experiencing something of the world, the most exciting emotional experiences offered to us are more likely to come from within the pages of a novel than the minutiae of a school day. This isn’t to say that the events of our actual
lives aren’t the key factors in our emotional development, but more that the sheer excitement of literary examples can shape the way you deal with the things that really do happen to you: I’ve never buried an unbaptized illegitimate child in my back garden or lost the man I loved to Brazil and then a murder charge, but when I was sixteen the hours I spent sobbing into Tess of the D’Ubervilles were directly proportionate to the time spent doing the same over boys I kissed fuelled by Caribbean Twist in other people’s parents’ houses who never texted me back.
Literature has long been charged with the ability to corrupt, usually to do with – as Lady Chatterley’s Lover and copious others illustrate – sex or death. In the 18th century, this is best evidenced by the way the phenomenon of ‘Wertherism’ seized the public imagination in a thoroughly contagious manner: Goethe’s 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther became a veritable craze, and according to Eric Lane in his introduction to the text its popularity soon “led to a Europe full of young men wearing blue coats and yellow breeches and suffering from melancholy,” a delicious image that indicates both the glamour and the ubiquity of the trend. ‘Wertherism’ held a nigh-on hypnotic appeal for both men and women, as although Werther himself is a young man, the object of his suicidal affections, Charlotte, is never given a voice, meaning women could identify with the melancholy of the protagonist without the constraints of gender.
The Werther phenomenon has often been blamed for provoking a spate of suicide attempts, and although this too simplistic, the sheer popularity of the novel did allow its legions of readers to see that their mental disquiet was not as unique or as bizarre as they had previously thought, and provided them with a method of expression. This is something that has occurred time and time again, in varying modes, but the level at which people engage is the same: the feeling of seeing the way you feel spelled out in linguistic fireworks takes hold of both your mind and your heart in the same utterance. The popularity of The Smiths in the 1980’s made being lovelorn and lonely and a little strange more acceptable, just as the phenomenon of The Sorrows of Young Werther did, and people fell in love with lyrics like “Is it wrong not to always be glad? No, it’s not wrong – but I must add: How can someone so young sing words so sad?” in the same way people had with Goethe’s effusive prose two hundred years later.
The idea that the emotional effects of text on a reader can be used to ascertain the true value of a poem or a novel was challenged with Wimsatt and Beardsley’s ‘Affective Fallacy,’ but inverted it can be used to explain some aspects at least of the choices people make and the behavioural patterns they exhibit. Particular traits accumulate over the years and are most often picked up from those around us, whether our parents or our peers, but an early infatuation with Sylvia Plath could certainly cultivate a tendency towards introspection just as an obsession with Jack Kerouac could entice someone towards a nomadic lifestyle rather than a desire to settle down.
I grew up fascinated by books and plays and poems that revolved around female characters who could be categorised, reductively but tellingly, as ‘strong and difficult women,’ from the obligatory pre-teen identification with Hermione Granger (such an irritatingly smug demeanor! Such terrible hair!) to a pseudo-academic obsession with Charlotte Brontë: for a while, I think I genuinely believed in my heart of hearts that I was the modern day equivalent of Jane Eyre. Most significantly, I fell in love at around about the age of fourteen with Beatrice, the indisputable heroine of Much Ado About Nothing, by way of the 1993 film (thanks for that, Emma Thompson) and somewhere along the line my affection for “dear Lady Disdain” developed into a deeply-rooted belief in the association between strength, attraction and argumentativeness. Even now, several years and many, many more library fines later, my immediate reaction to any situation in which I feel vulnerable – whether it’s meeting new people, intimidating social events or romantic relationships – is an argumentativeness that doesn’t even do a particularly god job of walking the tenuous tightrope between ‘stimulating’ and ‘abrasive.’
Yes, reading is a mental rather than physical event, but most of us spend far more time in our heads than anywhere else. As Lawrence wrote and as ‘bibliotherapy’ hopes, we can indeed “shed [our] sicknesses in books,” but the relationship between what we read and what we feel is more complex than that. Perhaps literature is not just important in efforts to improve our mental state, as the ‘reading cure,’ but can prove integral in laying the foundations of its construction in the first place.