Madness and Literature: What Fiction Can Do for the Understanding of Mental Illness


Philosophers have considered the relation between madness and literature since Plato’s Phaedrus. Mental illness has been a favorite topic for great authors throughout literary history just as psychologists and psychiatrists like Sigmund Freud and Karl Jaspers have been interested in and influenced by literature. Pioneers within philosophy, psychiatry and the world of art share the endeavor to explore and explain the human mind and behavior, including what a society deems as being outside perceived normality.

In this course, we will read great books about madness by e.g. Sophocles, Shakespeare, Goethe, Dostoyevsky and Woolf as well as contemporary poetry and graphic memoirs (autobiographical comics) about the topic. In addition, we will compare the representation of madness in literature to its depiction in the visual arts (e.g. Goya, Delacroix, Bacon) and the cinema. Theoretically, the course will provide knowledge about psychopathology, the history of madness literature, narrative medicine and the health humanitites, bibliotherapy, and central concepts of narrative theory and poetry. We will discuss both the topos of the author as a mad genius as well as consider the potential instrumental use of literature in psychiatry didactics. In addition to close reading of the texts, students will engage in creative writing exercises. The academic program will be complemented by a social program, which includes movie screenings and a visit to Museum Ovartaci (the local museum for outsider art and the history of psychiatry). ​

Course description

Find full course description in the course catalogue