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Bipolar Disorder & Virginia Woolf

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Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.


This book examines Virginia Woolf's bipolar disorder (mood swings) and her fiction in light of recent and exciting medical discoveries about the genetic and biological nature of manic-depression --findings allied with drug therapies that today help nearly one million American manic-depressives to live happier, more productive lives. In the real world of the clinic, treatments using lithium, anti-depressants, and anti-psychotics have revolutionized psychiatric care for mood swings and produced miracle remissions for cases that thirty years ago would have been considered hopeless. But in the rarefied atmosphere of literary academia, many critics still cling to the outmoded and simplistic Freudian model of this disorder as a neurotic conflict that the patient is unwilling (either consciously or unconsciously) to resolve. I challenge the past and often disparaging evaluations of Woolf's life and art, setting limits for the practice of reading all symptoms or texts as neurotic disguises supposedly obscuring a causative origin. Freud was a great pioneer in the study of the human psyche, but it is time to move on--as certainly he would have done, given today's new knowledge about the brain--incorporating his best, enduring insights with ongoing research in contemporary neuroscience. We literary scholars can no longer afford to remain comfortably ignorant of the mechanisms of the brain. When we automatically blame the victims for their illness, we simplify our work by reducing their work.

The biological realities of manic-depression limit the critic's freedom to tie any event in Woolf's life to symptoms that seem metaphorically similar. Her fiction was not produced by hypothetical unconscious conflicts, her supposed flight from sex, or her morbid preoccupation with death--all the favorite Freudian themes that coincidentally fulfill sexist assumptions about the nature of the creative woman. I argue that a responsive and insightful Woolf wrote her novels--hardly a surprise since most people suffering from bipolar disorder are thoughtful and perceptive when they are not ill, just like "normal" individuals. Bipolar disorder (mood swings) is periodic; it comes and goes, and when it is gone, individuals are not sick or insane (unlike neurotics, whose unconscious conflicts seep into and determine even "normal" behavior). By remembering this, we can hear what Woolf wants to say without thinking it must somehow be implicated in a twisted desire to remain ill.

Chapter One places Woolf's disorder in an historical context: how biological and psychological models manic-depression have changed since Woolf's time and how outmoded attitudes have infected biographical approaches to Woolf. Chapters Two and Four present current knowledge about mood swings, their genetic transmission, symptoms, and cognitive distortions. Chapter Three discusses the implications of biology for psychoanalytic criticism, the function of bipolar cognitive style in creativity, reader-response theory, and the principles of literary modernism. In Chapters Five and Six I argue that Woolf learned important object-relations lessons from her experience of mood swings and that she used this knowledge creatively in her theories about fiction, thinking, and the structure of the self. Previous studies of her life and work by psychoanalytically inclined literary critics often reduce the surface "multiplicity" of her fiction, imposing coherence upon what seems deliberately incoherent or disjointed, in the service of a psychological model that is no longer relevant to her illness. I contend that her work is not a neurotic evasion or a loss of control but an intelligent and sensitive exploration of certain components of her mood swings that undermines our traditional approach to reading a text, inviting us to question how we construct "meaning" from a text.

Chapters Seven through Eleven deal with five of Woolf's novels. Her novels dramatize her creative struggle to "read" her perceptions and establish a bipolar, inclusive sense of identity rather than the narrow, purely rational model offered by her doctors. Her understanding of her bipolar disorder was also influenced by her parents' responses to loss and by her own childhood traumas. Woolf's lifelong quest for a "moment of being" aimed to integrate divergent thought patterns, reconciling conflicting patterns in family relations and in modern art. In assuming the role of mediator between fictionalized representatives of her family and her divided self, Woolf discovered the power and self-understanding that creativity brings to the artist. By imagining and mastering psychic fragmentation in fiction, she restored form and value to her self. Today's research into how the two hemispheres of the brain interact suggests that the same may be true for readers who respond to a text by successfully entertaining other selves and various reading strategies in order to explore and enjoy the brain's potential for multiple domains of consciousness.

Copyright 1992 - ISBN 0-520-20504-9         
by Thomas C. Caramagno
Available in paperback for from

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