Fictions of Madness: Shattering Minds and Worlds in Modernist Finnish Literature
“Fictions of Madness” is a study about the forms and functions of representations of mental illness in literary narratives. It focuses on experiences of shattering and distress in a corpus of first-person narrated modernist Finnish novels, and examines them through four sets of questions: 1) the narrative construction of shattering minds and experiential worlds, 2) the ways readers are invited to engage with the minds and worlds created in the texts, 3) the ethical problems and power relations inherent in storytelling and in reading about mental distress and illness, and 4) the ways in which fiction generates knowledge and understanding about experiences of pain and suffering.
Drawing on a wide range of narrative theory, phenomenology, enactivist theories, and feminist theory, the study shows how fictional portrayals of “madness” employ and challenge their readers’ personal, cultural, and scientific understanding of psychiatric disability and experiences of distress. Instead of portraying minds and mental illness as disembodied or disengaged from the world, the novels discussed—Helvi Hämäläinen’s “Kaunis sielu” (The Beautiful Soul, 1928/2001), Jorma Korpela’s “Tohtori Finckelman” (Doctor Finckelman, 1952), Timo K. Mukka’s “Tabu” (The Taboo, 1965) and Maria Vaara’s “Likaiset legendat” (The Dirty Legends, 1974)—conceive them as bodily and embedded in the world, enacted in intercorporeal and intersubjective relations with other people and with the world, and entangled in socio-cultural norms and narratives that shape identity, gender, and sexuality. Furthermore, the novels emphasize the aesthetic and constructed nature of the fictional portrayals of shattering: the sense of experientiality evoked in the first-person narration is a carefully planned literary effect.
The analyses reveal how fictional stories can resist fixed cultural narratives of “normal” and “abnormal,” “natural” and “unnatural,” and “healthy” and “pathological” through their ambiguity and complexity. The discussed novels invite readers to ask aesthetic, ethical, and political questions about our views of psychiatric disabilities and persons suffering from them, and about the fictional portrayals and techniques of representation: How can we approach unusual and unsettling experiences without pathologizing or stigmatizing them? How can we honor the complexity of the experiences of others and cultivate an openness to difference?
The study participates in the work done in the field of critical medical humanities and offers a Nordic perspective to representations of mental illness in literary fiction. It contributes to the understanding of how fictional narratives evoke and convey experiences of illness and distress, the role of narrative empathy and aesthetic immersion in understanding unsettling experiences, and how narratives create understanding about the experiences of others. From a literary historical perspective, the study also sheds light on the ways the mind, consciousness and mental illness were discussed in Finnish literature throughout the twentieth century, and situates the Finnish modernist works in the international modernist tradition.
Keywords: fictional minds, illness narratives, Finnish modernism, psychiatric disability, phenomenology, enactivism, narrative theory, feminist theory, critical medical humanities