In The Weird and the Eerie, Mark Fisher writes that “the human condition [is] grotesque, since the human animal is the one that does not fit in”. Fisher was a political and cultural writer who worked at the University of London, and The Weird and the Eerie was published not long after his suicide in 2017. According to Simon Reynolds, Fisher was of the opinion that the “mental anguish that afflicts our time cannot be properly understood… if viewed as a private problem suffered by damaged individuals”. Feeling like an outsider, not only from other people but from the world at large, Fisher reportedly struggled with depression for much of his adult life and argued that mental illness is a political issue.
I feel that the quotes above can help us clarify and understand works of art that seem borderline-mysterious in their origins and meanings. Franz Kafka, the Czech-Jewish writer born in 1883, is often cited as an author who wrote about bureaucracy and strange socio-political systems, with surreal and anxious elements prevalent throughout his works. Kafkaesque is the buzzword used to describe his writing but, similar to Lovecraftian, is used predominantly by people who haven’t actually read the texts – or read them with a pre-existing interpretation.
Kafka wrote about bureaucracy in the same way that Lovecraft wrote about big scary monsters; he did, but it’s only a tool to explore a deeper feeling. For both of these writers, it was a feeling of being alone, not just in an uncaring world, but being alone within oneself. Of being on a knife edge. I’m of the opinion that Kafka, much like Lovecraft, wrote about ideas that feel disturbingly modern – mental illness.
The WHO reports that suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-29-year-olds, and that depression is a “leading cause of disability”. Globally. Over the past two decades, there has been a perceived increase in the prevalence of mental health conditions, but that’s like believing transgender people started existing in the 2010s. England’s first ‘mental health institution’ was Bedlam Asylum, and a quote from 1403 notes that there were six inmates who were mente capti, a Latin phrase often meaning insane, during the reign of Henry IV. On this level, we’ve been aware of mental illness as a concept for much longer than we’ve been aware of gravity.
Don’t Edit Your Own Soul
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka
Kafka grew up in a middle-class family. In Letter to My Father, he writes directly (though not to his father’s face) that “my writing was all about you… to bemoan what I could not bemoan upon your breast”. Across almost a hundred pages, Kafka paints a pic\ture of a father who was narcissistic and controlling of the household, demanding and authoritarian, and it’s easy to link the anxiety and disorientation Kafka felt as an adult back to his childhood. There’s an academic theory, though obviously unprovable, that Kafka lived with Schizoid Personality Disorder – characterised by an apathetic, solitary lifestyle and a disconnection from oneself. When reading Kafka’s personal diaries, published after his death (sorry, Franz) at the age of 40, it becomes clear that he felt physically and psychologically unappealing in the eyes of other people, and he remained single throughout his life.
Interpersonal issues, not societal or political ones, are at the core of Kafka’s writing. His protagonists move through the world as terrible, confusing, and darkly humorous events befall them. His novel The Trial is about a man, K., put on trial for a crime that he’s clueless about. It opens with the line “someone must have been spreading slander about Josef K., for one morning he was arrested, though he had done nothing wrong”. The court accusing him operates out of a decaying tower block, and a female resident of the apartments is clearly attracted to him – but K. believes she is trying to manipulate him as part of the trial. Kafka wrote superficially about strange and confusing political systems but, as a Czech-Jew living in Germany with a fraught childhood, more deeply about a feeling of complete detachment from those around him – and also himself, as is clear from his most famous work The Metamorphosis, where the protagonist wakes up having transformed into a huge insect. He wrote as an abhuman, disgusted and confused by himself and others in equal measures. An outsider.
Things Have Learnt to Walk, That Ought to Crawl
…someday the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.The Call of Cthulhu, H.P. Lovecraft
One of Lovecraft’s most famous works is called The Outsider (1926). The narrator is alone in a castle, and ventures to the town below, where everyone reacts to them with disgust and horror. The protagonist looks into a mirror, and sees a foul monster staring back at them. Disgust at oneself, at the human body – or at the very least, a feeling of otherness represented as body horror – is prevalent across many of the works in this article. The human animal, for all its self-awareness and emotional intelligence, does not fit in.
Lovecraft, comparable to Kafka, had a tough upbringing. Born in Rhode Island in 1890, his father spent the last years of his life in Butler Hospital after a psychotic episode. Later, at around five years old, Lovecraft suffered from nightmares which would “whirl [him] through space at a sickening… speed”. One of his less popular works, The Dreams in the Witch-House, features a protagonist whose nightmares consist of “limitless abysses of inexplicably coloured twilight and bafflingly disordered sound”. He’s moving through strange and impossible landscapes – vistas not meant for human eyes.
In a note to an editor about The Call of Cthulhu, he says “all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human… emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large”. The opening of that story starts with a description of a time when disparate scientific discovery will reveal such huge truths about the universe and our place within it, that humanity will regress back to the dark ages. He is less of a confessional writer than Kafka, but the basic idea through much of his work is that the lives and feelings of individuals (his protagonists, additionally, are often author surrogates) are laughably irrelevant in the grand scheme of the universe. In a family dominated by grief and mental illness, this must have been a thought that he returned to often. Found comfort in, perhaps.
Oranges, Fruit Loops, and Glass in the Soup
Your kiss was such a sacred thing to me/I can’t believe it’s just a burning memory.Heartaches, Al Bowlly
There are endless songs about mental illness. Angst, pain, and fear are easy to portray through music. Orange Juice, a song by American singer-songwriter Melanie Martinez, explores disordered eating and distorted body image. Lyrics such as “shoving clementines and orange bacteria/down your throat…” crop up in the first verse. There’s a disgust at the process of eating, painting food as bacteria as opposed to nutrition, and the chorus’ imagery of turning oranges into orange juice describes the process of inducing vomiting. As if the digestive system is just a living juicer, taking ingredients and churning them back out, vitrified. Once again, a disgust at the human body. Strange imagery from the music video portraying the swapping of eyes, and filling empty heads with oranges, colours this idea abstractly.
Between 2016 and 2019, English musician The Caretaker released Everywhere at the End of Time. Over six studio albums, Leyland Kirby attempts to demonstrate the progressive deterioration associated with dementia by slowly corrupting looped recordings of ballroom songs. Kirby, a former collaborator of Mark Fisher, presents a soundscape which “could be heard as the faint, faded memory-fragments of once-beloved tunes as they waver on in atrophying minds” according to Reynolds.
The work totals in at over six hours long, so I can’t recommend that you listen to it all. But regardless of your personal exposure to the illness, listening to a few select tracks from Everywhere at the End of Time may help you appreciate the lived experience in an intangible way. The causes and possible cures of dementia remain a terrifying medical mystery; right now, the only positive change we can make is to act with a bit more understanding.
To end, I’ll mention an artform that I haven’t up until now. 2014’s The Babadook often attracts ire from filmgoers. Complaints regarding its focus on the emotional state of a broken family are thrown around often, most likely due to the initial marketing implying the film to be a terrifying no holds barred horror movie. Bastion of intelligent film critique Cinemasins asks why the Babadook, being chained and fed in the basement at the end of the film, can’t decide to “terrorize some other vulnerable family”. This ignorantly-literal argument ignores the basic point of the movie as a portrayal of grief, mental illness and trauma.
It isn’t something that heals, and it doesn’t decide to leave you. It will make you feel hopeless and isolated. Like a pariah, victimised by people and systems that can’t understand you – and you can’t understand them, through no lack of trying. You may feel disgust towards yourself, your personality or your body, as a result. You feel wrong and out-of-place. But you adapt to it. You play the hand you’re dealt. You keep it fed in the recesses of your mind, living your life in the knowledge that it’s there and it’s dangerous. But hopefully, on a good day, you’ve got it on a leash.
Now that is Kafkaesque if you ask me.