Friday, June 12, 2009

Literature, Mental Illness, and the 1970's

This week, I finished rereading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, one of the books on my 2009 reading list. I first read it in 1981 or 1982, in high school. I might have read it again in college; I don't remember, but I know that my spouse, who was my boyfriend in college, read it, and we were the type of college people who, if one person in the group was reading something, we all talked about the ideas in the book. I looked forward to returning to the book. A motorcycle road trip and a tour through some of the great ideas of Philosophy--what could be better?

The philosophical ideas in the book have held up very well since 1974, when the book was first published. I still find the ramblings through the state of education and the student to be very relevant. Likewise, the musings on technology. We're still wrestling with the idea of Quality and what makes good work--I'd have liked more of that in the book.

What I found disturbing is the book's approach to mental illness. It's clear that the narrator has had a significant mental break, and that these philosophical ideas were the cause of the break. It's clear that the pre-teen son of the narrator also has mental problems. It's clear that the narrator is heading towards his next mental break, as he and his son careen through the American landscape on a motorcycle.

And then, we come to the end. The narrator is about to send his son away, and then, just like that, they decide that neither one of them is crazy. They hop back on the bike, and we're told that everything will be just fine. The narrator assures us: "We've won it. It's going to get better now. You can sort of tell these things."

How lovely for them. Just decide that the rest of the world is crazy. Just decide that you'll be fine. How very 1970's.

I think of so many of the books I read in my teen years and early 20's, how many of those books were written in the 70's, how many of them had this same approach to mental illness: it's not you that's crazy, it's this crazy society that labels the great artists and free thinkers as crazy that's the problem. Think of all those movies that came out of the late 60's and 70's with the same message.

It's important to stop and remind ourselves that some of the revolutionary medications that we use to treat mental illness hadn't been released for general use yet during that time. From what I've read about some of the prominent medications and treatments that were used to treat mental illness in the 60's and 70's, the cure could be as bad as the illness. Maybe worse.

Many people have pondered what Prozac will mean for artists. Do we need our mental instabilities to create good art? I suspect that most people who are treated for their illness will go on to be much more productive than those artists who aren't treated. It's important to remember how many of those artistic lives, pre-Prozac, ended in suicide.

I wonder if anyone has written about the landscape of literature, post-Prozac. As I reread Zen, I thought, if these characters can just hold on, in 15 more years they'll have some great medications that will help them cope. This kind of thinking used to drive some of my grad school professors nuts; they'd say, "Kristin, they're characters in a book; they're not really alive. They don't exist after the end of the book." I'll spare you the rest of those philosophical conversations. I'll just say, in my defense, that some of us get lost in our reading and some of us can't leave our analytical selves behind. If a book doesn't convince us that the characters are real, still alive in some alternate universe, has the author done a good job? I would say no. But I'm biased.

I don't think I'll be returning to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance again. Life is short. I'll go back to some quintessential 1970's work again and again, like the work of Marge Piercy, written during that decade. I should reread Woman on the Edge of Time, Piercy's sci-fi novel of ideas that revolves around a character with mental illness to see if I have some of the same objections. Or maybe I'll just reread Vida, one of my favorite Marge Piercy novels of all time.

I've just ordered Matthew Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft. I think it will dovetail nicely with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, with its questions of quality and work and what makes a good life. I'll let you know.

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