While trying to find a language for the painful and inaccessible emotional states my novel Hystera’s main character, Lilly, felt as she floated in and out of reality, I stumbled on a book called Sorcery and Alchemy. Inside were wild etchings drawn by early alchemists in the Renaissance which, more than our contemporary psychological vocabulary, seemed to capture the inner chaos and dissolution of the psyche during a psychotic break. Dream-like, sexually ambiguous, and enigmatic pictures and symbols of the body represented people engulfed in a dangerous inferno of desires and confusions. Neither male, nor female, the figures were drawn with ambiguous genitalia – males spawned large oval eggs, dropping from penises like sacs; the pubes of women sprouted rods and long snakes. Hermaphrodites possessed acacias for genitals that shot up with pulp-red flowers into the heavens. There were also symbols of citadels with towers on the pages; drawbridges over long wavy rivers, hawks, green lions, lambs, people with yellow solar faces and skulls. The rich and disturbing imagery was the closest I had ever seen in capturing the disorder of a delusion, a psychosis, or even just an emotional depression where one might feel the universe as topsy-turvy, nonsensical, splintered, and overwhelming.
The alchemist (like a person experiencing emotional and mental illness), could no longer tell “the psychically real from the physically real,” the book explained, but engulfed by their subconscious, the alchemist fell without boundaries between reality and imaginings, no longer able to function as a whole person in the world. Because many of the feelings were inexplicable and often impenetrable, their emotions became part of a quasi-mystical experience. By fracturing inside, the alchemists had found themselves unified with larger oceanic passions, much as one would feel when entering a cathedral, mosque, or synagogue during mourning, moved and comforted by ancient and archaic images from the Bible which were primal: bloody, sensual, immediate, and ineffable. This is not to romanticize mental illness or say one is “with the Gods” during a breakdown, but, perhaps, to suggest that falling apart, madness in itself, can bring on these quasi-mystical moments. One can begin to feel a connection to the imagery of long ago, a timeless and universal human language expressing being in the grip and firebrand of a subconscious self.
These states are what Freud called “archaic remnants.” Wikipedia defines this phenomenon further as “mental forms whose presence cannot be explained by anything in the individual's own life and which seem to be aboriginal, innate, and inherited shapes of the human mind.” These “archaic remnants” can be powerful to someone experiencing a psychotic break, connecting them to a universal and timeless identity and humanity, bringing them the comfort of knowing they aren’t as isolated as they feel. Other psychologists have recognized these depths as well. Jung made reference to a “collective unconscious,” the contents of this broadened idea of the unconscious psyche is also similar to Levy-Bruhl's use of collective representations or représentations collectives, as well as the mythological motifs, and “primordial thoughts” noted by other psychologists, less famous perhaps.
In my novel Hystera, my main character, Lilly, has a psychotic break. She also, like me, finds a book on the ancient art of alchemy. Finding herself connecting with the wild images depicted in the alchemy book, as if her unconscious had finally found a country that spoke the same language as her mental breakdown, she begins to write in her notebook. Lilly invents characters from different historical times in her notebook – from the ancient Egyptians straight up through the Middle Ages to the 1950’s – who parallel her own mental illness and journey. All of them are lost as she in the archaic remnants and shapes of their subsuming subconscious. I wanted to track the map of this psychotic woman as she rummages through the lost attics of history, finding solace and identification with those outcasts from long ago who were also banished into mental hospitals, asylums, (and in one case put on an actual “Ships of Fools” to sail away on the open sea.) The unexpected shock of recognition between what Lilly was experiencing and the symbols throughout centuries she read in her alchemy book gave Lilly moments of peace and comfort.
The startling contrast Lilly’s fables made with the cold clinical language of the contemporary mental hospital were fascinating to me, a weave of allusions one could feel juxtaposed next to the psychological jargon of the modern mental ward, the prescriptions for valium, the calls from the nursing staff to just “express your feelings,” and pedestrian questions like, “Are you angry today?” Unfortunately, many of the histories Lilly wrote (through me) didn’t end up in the finished book. A failure of skill – I couldn’t find a way to integrate them into the story – but I kept all of them in my own notebook.
In the five separate stories Lilly invents, all the characters are fictional but, after doing a lot of research in texts as far back as Babylonian and Egyptian times, I was able to base the practices on facts and on personages who were known to be our first “doctors” and psychotherapists. What was to be gained by finding these remnants was, in the end, as mercurial and mysterious as the symbols themselves – a sense of sanctuary and identification and sometimes just company. Or, as I wrote in the novel, “How was it possible for Lilly to feel alone and crazy when there were pages and pages filled with voyagers of the self like her, centuries of them packed, as if in a telephone book full of phone numbers she could make calls to in her despair. How was it possible to feel hopelessness when despair itself ‘facilitated a unification of the limited with the unlimited’ as the Alchemy books explained.”
Causes Leora Skolkin-Smith Supports
Israel/Palestine issues women issues Mental Health system