Ernest Hemingway And The Psychiatric Disorder(s)

HemingwayOne day I came across one of those inspirational pictures people post on Facebook, saying that one had never met an exceptional person who had not had a difficult past (or something like that). Realizing that many internet phrases may be a slight exaggeration of facts (for if we completely invalidate those phrases, we risk losing their inherent truth), I believe rather that experienced difficulties can serve in some cases to mature a person.

I reflected then on the association between mental illness and artistic activity, the difficulty that these people had due to such disorders and how they could transform it into art, especially in the case of writers; Virginia Woolf and Tolstoy suffered from bipolar disorder, Franz Kafka from depression. It seems that there is a high frequency of mental disorders among writers. But among all these stories, what most caught my attention was that of Ernest Hemingway.

In an article entitled “Ernest Hemingway: A Psychological Autopsy of a Suicide”, Christopher D. Martin reviews several Hemingway’s biographies from a psychological point of view. The first fact that stands out is the extensive family history of mental illness of the author; several relatives had affective disorders, and besides that, his father, a bankrupted alcoholic, killed himself still a young man, with a shot in his head. So, Hemingway went through several emotional abuses in childhood, with the absence of a father and a mother who dressed him as girl and feminized him. This caused him to develop an intense and abiding hatred for his mother, who he generally referred to in bad names while talking to friends (“that bitch”, etc.). Another important fact was that his life was characterized by phases of intense mood swings, presenting periods in which predominated depression, with feelings of capital loss and lack of energy, and other phases of extremely elevated mood, grandiosity, deprivation of sleep and irritability, which characterized frankly manic phases, denoting the presence of a bipolar affective disorder. A third fact that strikes the eye in his history is frequent reports of head injuries; he would have traumatized his head severely at least three times. In one time, after a plane crash, he became confused and was reportedly pouring cerebrospinal fluid from his ears because of a fractured skull. He spent several months with confusion, double vision and tinnitus till he returned to normal. Finally, alcoholism was a constant in his life. It seems that he sought to alcohol to relieve his symptoms of humor, but in the end he had just actually worsened them.

One of the questions to ask is why writers present psychiatric disorders so often. Of course Hemingway’s unfavorable genetic background should be taken into account, but one hypothesis is that creativity is a risk factor for depression; scholars say that creative thinking, because it is unusual characteristic, can not find easy social acceptance generating thus feelings of exclusion and consequent self-reproach and low self-esteem. Another often-quoted hypothesis is the dependence that these people create towards the opinion of others; they rely on their readers’ critics, for example. They are at the mercy of the evaluation of their work and often shake-face negative repercussions of their doings with which they have a very emotional connection.

Also, to account for so much anguish, writing itself is seen in Ernest as a defense mechanism, according to the author of the article. What may suggest the idea that those with existential issues and conflicts are more prone to become writers. Many aspects of Hemingway’s work are similar to his own biography, which makes this hypothesis plausible. Also, many actually see in writing a form of elaboration of personal conflicts. But here a myth should be dispelled, namely that mental illness can be reversed completely into art. Many say that treating mental illness inhibits creativity and ends with inspiration, possibly silencing potential artists. Hemingway, in the end of his life, and close to suicide because of the chronicity and recurrence of the disease, went into increasingly severe episodes of depression. These phases prevented him from writing; once he became hospitalized, having to undergo electroconvulsive therapy sessions, a procedure still very stigmatized in the current days but with high effectiveness for depressive disorders. After he had completed the sessions, Hemingway describes that he had obtained great improvement, and so he entered a very productive period of his life, returning to write with great enthusiasm. Nevertheless, years afterwards a relapse occurred and he finally ended his life following his father’s path, committing suicide with a gunshot to the head. Anguish can be transformed into artistic activity, but exceeding a certain limit, it no longer turns into sublimation and becomes disease, which should be treated.

It’s amazing how a person with so many problems in his life and many psychiatric comorbidities has been able to translate part of his suffering into works of immortal global reach. What gives a point to the corny set phrase of Facebook discussed at the beginning of the post. But there remains the regret that another great master was in the end defeated by mental illness.

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