The life of an author — particularly an author of fiction – is necessarily connected to that which is most dangerous: our consciousness. It is often through the exploratory process of creative literature that we touch the exciting possibilities and subversive consequences of our capacities as a species. Yet for all of the grandiose ways in which writers may achieve greatness, the flipside is a dangerous flirtation with the unknown, the unacceptable and the insane.
10. Leo Tolstoy
Author of literary mainstays War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy was known for creating deep and far-ranging plots, whose casts of characters — numbering in the hundreds — were largely a way for him to escape the inner struggles he experienced when trying to reconcile the more difficult questions of the human condition. Tolstoy suffered from increasingly serious, frequent and suffocating depressive episodes, and finally resolved to become a wandering ascetic during the eighty-third year of his long life. Tragically, he only made it as far as an isolated train station before collapsing and dying from pneumonia shortly afterwards.
9. Jonathan Swift
Jonathan Swift, the Anglo-Irish author of the classics Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal, amongst others, led a life which slowly dipped into insanity over a fairly long period. In fact, while Will Durant has written that “[d]efinite symptoms of madness appeared in 1738,” there is no real consensus on when he crossed the threshold. What is certain, however, is that by 1742 his psyche had far exceeded the bounds of rationality and stability. Durant describes, for example, how “five attendants had to restrain him from tearing out his eye,” which was inflamed, an episode after which he fell silent for an entire year.
8. Philip K. Dick
In late February of 1974, sci-fi writer and heavy amphetamine user Philip K. Dick, whilst resting in his home following the extraction of a wisdom tooth, experienced a set of powerful psychological visions. These continued throughout the following month — vivid geometric patterns intermingling with ecclesiastical imagery to create new and insightful interpretations of religious and literary history. “I experienced an invasion of my mind by a transcendentally rational mind, as if I had been insane all my life and suddenly I had become sane,” Dick said of the episode’s onset; also claiming that he began to lead a double life, with one half of him a persecuted Christian from Ancient Rome. This period of Dick’s life inspired writings such as Radio Free Albemuth and the VALIS trilogy.
7. H.P. Lovecraft
Horror, fantasy and sci-fi writer H.P. Lovecraft’s mental state was conditioned by both internal and external influences. He suffered from a traumatic sleep disorder, thought now to be a rare variety of parasomnia, or night terrors. As well as experiencing these nighttime destabilizations, his finances were mishandled, leading to a steep and sudden decline in his family’s standard of living. Lovecraft suffered from extreme depression — he was suicidal for some time and suffered what he described as a “nervous breakdown” — and this tortuous life spun even further into the void when he was diagnosed with intestinal cancer and Bright’s disease, determining the intense pain in which he would spend the rest of his life.
6. Jack Kerouac
When Jack Kerouac wrote his most famous work On the Road, it wasn’t a standard, ten-chaptered novel that he had in mind. What was produced was a continual stream of consciousness, typed on one continuous reel that runs the length of a large hall. This unique approach to literature is perhaps less surprising when you consider the fact that Kerouac was under the influence of a cocktail of mind-altering substances, among them alcohol, marijuana and the amphetamine benzedrine. Honorably discharged from the US Navy on grounds of a “schizoid personality,” Kerouac embarked upon the American highway for a lifestyle fueled by jazz and speed with the now-legendary Dean Moriarty.
5. Ernest Hemingway
One of the canonical figures of modern American literature, Ernest Hemingway’s psychological well-being was fraught with problems. He indulged in infamously heavy drinking for the large part of his life, which likely led to his mental deterioration, as it has to so many creators of great art. Commentators have outlined several other probable diagnoses, from bipolar disorder to traumatic brain injury to narcissistic personality traits. After undergoing as many as 15 bouts of electroconvulsive therapy during 1960-61, Hemingway awoke early one July morning, picked up his favorite shotgun and blew his brains out.
4. Marquis de Sade
The Marquis de Sade led an undoubtedly eccentric life. His cultural significance lies at the confluence of revolutionary ideas of total sexual and moral freedom, expounded on in many literary works exploring deviant, subversive themes of sexual domination — from which we bequeathed the term “sadism.” In 1803, not long after incarceration without trial on the order of Napoleon Bonaparte, he was declared insane and placed in Charenton asylum. However, ever the “libertine,” de Sade’s life in the asylum was not an uneventful period, as he was permitted to perform several plays and had numerous illicit sexual liaisons until his death in 1814.
3. Sylvia Plath
Author of the roman à clef The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath depicted the descent into mental instability in her work in ways that strongly paralleled the vicissitudes of her own life. Her clinical depression resulted in her undergoing the rather unrefined electroconvulsive therapy techniques being used at the time. After her first series of treatments, Plath experienced a breakdown and attempted suicide. This attempt failed, ushering in a great deal more psychiatric intervention. Then, after a series of further attempts to take her own life, the thirty-year-old Plath was found dead in her flat, her head lain cold on the bottom of her kitchen oven, with the gas still flowing.
2. Edgar Allan Poe
Known for elucidating the shadows of mankind with such macabre tales as “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Edgar Allan Poe’s work also parallels the demons he fought in his own mind. His self-declared tendencies toward insanity textured his life with an ominous refrain akin to that which we find in his most famous poem, “The Raven.” After his wife’s death, Poe declared: “I am constitutionally sensitive—nervous in a very unusual degree. I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.” In October 1849, found in a state of delirium on the streets of Baltimore, unable to articulate anything with much meaning or explain how he had ended up there, Poe died in a local hospital in the early hours of the next day.
1. Virginia Woolf
The scorching prose of Virginia Woolf foretells not just of a unique and creative spirit, but also of the tortuous spins and turns that her life underwent. Bereaved of her mother and half-sister Stella during her early teens, Woolf also faced subjection to sexual abuse by her half-brothers. Throughout her life she struggled with bouts of deep depression and several nervous breakdowns as her fate meandered through different hardships — famously, for example, losing her London home during the British Blitz of World War II. On 28 March 1941, packing her overcoat’s pockets with stones, she walked into the nearest river to her home and was lost to the world.