Literature and Mental Health: Heartbreak

Heartbreak Moor
Long walks on heather strewn moors a literary cliché?

Heartbreak was the subject of week two in my Literature and Mental Health course. The reading reminded me of a TED talk I watched a little while back about the language of love.

The metaphor of a broken heart feels eternal and the course started by talking about people who have been together for a life-time and then one of them dies. Perhaps the metaphor if more apt than I’d supposed. It turns out that there is a medical condition, named after a Japanese octopus trap, which occurs after the sudden intense emotional stress of losing a loved one. It’s also known as broken heart syndrome and does in fact, temporarily in most cases, break one’s heart.

The misshapen heart looks like an octopus trap.

Heartbreak through the eyes of Jane Austen

In Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, a freshly heartbroken Marianne reads to fuel her misery:

In books too, as well as in music, she courted the misery which a contrast between the past and present was certain of giving. She read nothing but what they had been used to read together.

I can totally imagine it. The reliving of the memories again and again. The constant looking backwards instead of forwards. I keep my diaries out of reaching distance for they are as harmful as they are helpful.

In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, the heroine Anne Elliot counsels long time heartbroken, wallowing Captain Benwick to read prose in addition to his much beloved melancholy poetry.

…he showed himself so intimately acquainted with all the tenderest songs of the one poet, and all the impassioned descriptions of hopeless agony of the other; he repeated, with such tremulous feeling, the various lines which imaged a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness, and looked so entirely as if he meant to be understood, that she ventured to hope he did not always read only poetry, and to say, that she thought it was the misfortune of poetry to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly.

Apparently, there was a phase in English society between 1750-1798, where acting openly emotional was seen as the best way to live. Sense and Sensibility is set in the last decade of the 18th century but was published a little later in 1811. Marianne is in part a stereotype of this overly emotional, gushing, unrestrained character of the Age of Sensibility, whereas her sister, by contrast, is reserved and closed. Elinor is terrified of the effect that exhibiting how she feels will have on her family and social standing, but also, to me, she seems to feel that because her love was unofficial and in hindsight impossible, that it lacks the validation that Marianne’s open love affair has.

Of course, since this is Jane Austen, Elinor, Marianne, Anne and Benwick all end up happily married.

Heartbreak Moor
There are stone books scattered on my moor in homage to the Brontë sisters. I haven’t read any of their books.

Romantic novels

Unfortunately, there are too many bad novels out there – by which one means, novels that do not give us a correct map of love, that leave us unprepared to deal adequately with the difficulties of being in a couple. In moments of acute distress in relationships, our grief is too often complicated by a sense that things have become, for us alone, unusually and perversely difficult. Not only are we suffering, but it seems that our suffering has no equivalent in the lives of other more or less sane people.

Alain De Botton, (in this amusing article)

It’s this sense of being alone which Jack Lankester talks about in his interview within the course. The way, he says, that he eventually stopped feeling alone, was by reading the poetry of Philip Sidney who was writing about the same grief of being broken-hearted as Lankester was feeling.

I believe that poetry can snap you into a new perspective. My moment of realising I wasn’t alone, after a horrible break-up some years ago, came through the song Paint It Black, which was sung, beginning to end, by someone who seemed to see me completely.

Not-so-romantic novels

Romantic novels have never played a significant role on my bookshelf. Much less than several friends seem to believe. Some of the historical fiction I’ve read has romantic aspects, characters that are infatuated, but I think I prefer books where there’s more at stake than a break-up.

This doesn’t seem to have protected me from delusional fantasies of what love can achieve.

I don’t want to read about perfect love, because I can’t believe in it.

Instead, the failures of relationships so often depicted in novels seem more real. For some reason, I find myself thinking of An Edible Woman, by Margaret Atwood, in which the heroine becomes more and more aware of the sensation that her life with her fiancé is following an unswerving pattern of consumerism. A way of living which she’s quietly manipulated into by the expectations of society. Trapped in the status quo. And it’s a consumerism, which in her role in at an advertising agency, she herself reinforces.

Perhaps I’m just disenchanted.

 

Do you think romantic literature can give us harmful ideals?