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Mind Over Pop Culture: Diary of a Madman

Mental health conditions are as old as human beings, maybe older. As a result, humans have been talking, singing and writing about mental health for as long as we’ve existed.  Stories like Nikolai Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman” are a good reminder that people have been talking about mental health for a long time, if not from their personal experience.

Written in 1835, “Diary of Madman” tells the story of Poprishchin, a minor bureaucrat. In love with his boss’ daughter, he is first gripped by a delusion of her dog and another dog writing letters to each other. He intercepts the letters in hopes of learning what she thinks of him, and gets angry at what he reads. He eventually believes that he’s the King of Spain, stuck in Russia, and loses his job when he breaks into his boss’ house. At the end of the story, he’s put in a mental hospital, where he believes he’s at the court of the King of Spain. He briefly realizes his illness before becoming delusion again at the very end.

I was surprised by this little story. I haven’t read much Russian literature, and no Gogol before it, but in a few short diary entries, he was able to paint a vivid picture of someone becoming delusional. The parts about the letters that the dogs write each other are quite funny, even though you know they signify a mind about to lose itself. Lines like “letter is pretty legible. However, there’s something sort of doggy in the handwriting” is a great image, and his interactions with the dogs are generally funny. The power of the story is how they are juxtaposed with his interactions with his boss’ daughter (the dog owner) and his co-workers, which border on violent. By the end of the story, when he believes himself to be the King of Spain, you genuinely feel for this man, who is so obviously sick. When he writes in the last diary entry “mother, save your poor son! Shed a tear on his sick head!...There is no place for him in this world!” it’s striking how little that sentiment has changed over the almost 200 years since it was written.

In fact, the story felt a lot like a shortened version of Clifford Beers’ A Mind that Found Itself, which wouldn’t be written for over 70 years. The fact that the narrator’s logic could be followed, even though it ultimately made no sense, was just as interesting here as it was in Beers’ longer work. The narrator is trying to deal with the disordered thoughts in his head without support or understanding. He realizes that he’s sick by the end, but even then, it’s a fleeting understanding. For the reader, knowing how bad mental healthcare was in 1835, it’s a tragic story. In Beers’ work, knowing that he was able to get well and use his experience to help others gives his story a more hopeful feeling. This story feels like Gogol stopped with his narrator in the mental hospital because that’s where the narrator’s life likely would have ended. It just adds to the terrible bleakness of it. In addition, the first person aspect of Beers’ work makes it much more powerful (though Gogol is believed to have struggled with depression).

This is a short story with a lot to say. I got my copy from the library and read it in one sitting. I recommend you do the same, especially if you read A Mind that Found Itself. I highly recommend it.

Next week, we’ll actually review The Snake Pit. Have you read “The Diary of a Madman”? What did you think?

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