I finally read one article of the frequently-mentioned Thomas Caramagno. The article was “Manic-Depressive Psychosis and Critical Approaches to Virginia Woolf's Life and Work”. It was a very interesting read in that it actually traces out Woolf’s mental illness and talks about it in context of the time during which she lived.
Caramagno begins by discussing critics that have been very quick to define Woolf by her illness. He discusses the paradigm of the artist-neurotic, as in, an artist because neurotic, which according to him is false, albeit very popular among critics. Through this paradigm it is easy to see Woolf’s suicide as an artistic act and her novels as suicide notes. It also reduces the artist to the status of a sick child and elevates the critic to the role of an adult. This is because of a view of art inherited from Freud – art is reduced to infantile fears. Also, Freud believed neurosis to be a regressive illness. Woolf was misdiagnosed as a neurotic by her doctor and both he and Freud instilled the notion of her own inadequacy, her own defects into Woolf. Dr. Savage believed mental illness in general to be a “defect in the moral character” of a person.
However, Caramagno continues to say that manic-depressive disorder is not considered a part of neurosis any more. Thus, Woolf was not neurotic, but simply manic-depressive, a disorder that ran through her family from her father’s side. Caramagno stipulates that Laura, the invalid sister from A Sketch of the Past was a case of childhood schizophrenia and mentions that Vanessa was the only healthy child of Leslie Stephen and that madness had run in his family for generations – Caramagno brings up various examples of people in the Stephen family that fell into and often died because of their illness.
In the end, Caramagno discusses how the illness affected Woolf and her writing. He does not view her like the critics he talks about in the beginning of his article. To him, Woolf merged, needed to relate, the two states of her being – the sane and the insane Virginia. She incorporated this into her writing by placing the disorder into it through moods of perception and a comprehensive structure of self, sane and insane together (Mrs. Dalloway Clarissa and Septimus; The Waves multiple selves). She realized that the self is not given, but constructed through wondering about the reality of any feeling. She gave voice to her madness, to her illness and thus, authorized the self and at the same time, did not reduce complexity to simplicity by eliminating the meaning of complexity. She did this through drawing the reader’s attention to the act and need of clarifying and systematizing complex texts, which she does not do herself, she merely suggests, leaving the interpretation to the reader.
Caramagno, Thomas. “Manic-Depressive Psychosis and Critical Approaches to Virginia Woolf's Life and Work.” PMLA 103.1 (1988): 10 – 23. JSTOR. Web.