Can one give too much of oneself into a work to the extent of losing one’s mind and become mad?
If so, Montaigne seems to think it a waste, to destroy oneself in such a way. Torquato Tasso, the Italian poet, who produced “Gerusalemme liberata(The Liberation of Jerusalem)”, had lost his mind and was confined to a madhouse. The exhausting literary industry strained his health, and the poet presumably suffered from something that appears to be schizophrenia.
To quote Richard Holmes, “To find your subject, you must in some sense lose yourself along the way.”
In that case, Tasso more than found his subject.
Or what about Douglas Day, Malcolm Lowry biographer who, later, ended his own life in the same way(a suicide) as his subject Mr. Lowry has done?
I spent quite some time discovering some bits about Liberation of Jerusalem by Torquato Tasso today. This English version was translated by Max Wickert, and according to Mr. Wickert, the translation process began in 1997 and was completed in 2004. After seven years of labor, he completed translating this epic poem while successfully recreating much of the structure of Tasso’s language. Just thinking about all the structuring process the translator must have gone through is enough to trigger my own mental breakdown.
There’s also another warrior such as a retired professor Richard Whitaker who embarked on his own odyssey when he translated Homer’s Iliad into South African context. It took him more than 10 years to complete his bold task.
So what triggers the poets, translators, and writers to embark on such a grueling journey? Were they merely fulfilling their curiosity? No, the sacrifice is too big to reduce their motives to mere curiosity. What they pursued was to understand the subject, and to help others understand. So compassion was the key rather than passion, I hope to think. In a way, they built up their own kind of hermitage, a desert of Compassion.
Thomas Merton notes:
“What is my new desert? The name of it is compassion. There is no wilderness so terrible, so beautiful, so arid and so fruitful as the wilderness of compassion. It is the only desert that shall truly nourish like the lily. It shall become a pool, it shall bud forth and blossom and rejoice with joy. It is in the desert of compassion that the thirsty land turns into springs of water have discovered.”
In his words, I sense the same kind of hermitage that certain writers and poets have lived in. What was desolate and dry to the eyes might have been quite joyous and fruitful to them. But some must have experienced the extreme thirst from this dry land they have created. They had dried up their own minds, their minds mimicking the cracked dry lands. Or their minds were not strong enough to endure the solitude heat of the desert.
Henry David Thoreau famously has said, not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves. Some, however, begin to lose themselves in the process of understanding others. What is the glory in losing oneself if one cannot complete the journey? What is the point of becoming so frenzied that one could never write again?
Tasso, after being tossed around by his passionate nature, inner conflicts and social structure, ended up in Rome under the protection of the pope in the end, and died the day before he was to be crowned as poet laureate. It was as if he was speaking out loud through his death: The worldly crown is not worth it. The real crown is your own mind. Don’t lose it.