Is Psychodystopia real?

I started higher education very late in life, graduating in 2014 aged sixty-two. Since then I have completed an MA, and I have just qualified as a teacher of English at Further Education level. I had expected to spend the remainder of my working life teaching English to GCSE students, which I have to say did not fill me with overwhelming enthusiasm. Well, I’m delighted to say that I have been reprieved. I recently applied to do a PhD in Creative Writing, and my proposal has been accepted. I start at the University of Hertfordshire in early autumn.

My research will be on dystopia, particularly from an individual perspective. Through extensive reading of dystopian fiction I developed an interest in the concept of dystopia not just as a very bad fictional place, but as a real, terrible condition, relating not just to society, but within the human psyche, within the mind of an individual. I have begun to use the term ‘psychodystopia’ to describe this; psychodystopia being a condition in which an individual’s struggle is within a mind in which everything is as bad as possible, where the individual loses self-control leading to personal chaos and catastrophe.

Psychodystopia can often paradoxically manifest itself even when the individual lives within a society that is a largely ordered, tolerable and seemingly far from dystopian. However, the sufferer, the psychodystopiac, must deal with internal brutalism and chaos often exemplified by alienation, isolation and moral degradation leading to intolerable behaviour and overwhelming self-destructive urges, in most instances fuelled by chronic and potentially fatal substance (usually alcohol) addiction.

In his novella Through The Panama (published posthumously in 1961) Malcolm Lowry writes of one of the characters, “Perhaps his tragedy is that he is the one normal writer left on earth and it is this that adds to his isolation and so to his sense of guilt.” Lowry could have been, indeed probably was, writing about himself. He was a tortured soul who led a chaotic life almost from his adolescence, becoming alcoholic in his teens and subsequently spending time in Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital in New York, then imprisonment in Mexico, and ultimately only just avoiding a lobotomy while undergoing psychiatric treatment in London. His death in 1957 in typically chaotic circumstances ended a life that was the epitome of self-destructiveness. Lowry will be the starting point of my research project, since he is a perfect example of the psychodystopiac, and he is also renowned chiefly for his psychodystopian novel Under the Volcano (1947).

Just cursory research into Lowry’s lifestyle leads one to question how he managed to live as long as he did (he died aged forty-seven). He seems to have had a death-wish, and there are many other instances, like Lowry, of literary figures succeeding in achieving, through whatever means, the death wish that was first described in 1920 by Freud in his essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle (BtPP). In the essay, Freud described the urge towards self-destruction, the death impulse, and Freud cited several behavioural examples such as ‘mechanical concussion’ victims of rail crashes, and veterans of the horrors of World War One.

Within the literary world we find potential exemplars of the death impulse. Malcolm Lowry is just one among other literary figures like: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Hunter S. Thompson, Sylvia Plath and many others who potentially prove Freud’s hypotheses. I’m looking forward to the next three years of extensive reading of the works of the above and many others.

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