It is tempting to believe in the theory that modern advancements in mental health would have robbed us of most of our greatest works of art and literature had they existed hundreds of years in the past. Hearing this theory sends a chill to travel up the spine of most art lovers. You get this feeling that all of history existed on a long thread that extends from our lives at this moment to five-thousand years ago. One small variant could snap that thread, kicking us back into the stone-age.
On the surface this theory seems logical. Take, for example, Walt Whitman. That remarkable poet lived his whole life at the very edge of a precipice. From that high point he could view whole worlds and shout back to us in poetic verse the wonders he saw. That same strange communication with nature showed itself elsewhere in his family. It unfortunately spiraled out of control in his brother though, taking him past that breach that separates the sane from the insane. Walt Whitman’s brother had to be locked up in a special room of the house to keep him from hurting himself or others.
So what if you take Walt Whitman and give him an antipsychotic? Maybe he sits by the window all day and internalize nature’s wondrous beauty but never lifts his hand to pick up a pen. He may be more interested in keeping track of his finances or cultivating friendships. He may even set his mind on developing connections with people at high positions who could give him a hand up into elite society and big business. He works hard to get rich then disappears from history, only to reappear here and there as a drone. Is his famous book of poems, ‘Leaves of Grass,’ ever written? These verses never had a chance to be formed except in his mind. Thank modern medicine. Now it has punctured a hole in history.
So that wraps it up, right? Surely Mother Nature can put up more of a fight than that. Perhaps she can fight back through this law of physics called ‘displacement.’ We see displacement at work in nature on a daily basis though we may not recognize what is at work behind the scenes. Ever wonder what happened at your place of employment after you quit and moved on to another company? You might’ve thought you were irreplaceable, but chances are they found another competent worker to fill your position. This law of displacement is at work everywhere. You get up to refill your plate at Thanksgiving and another relative is there to steal your seat. If you were to be incinerated, a rush of air would quickly fill the ridiculously small vacuum you left behind.
So maybe Walt Whitman wasn’t around to write ‘Leaves of Grass.’ But say he feels sorry for his brother and makes an extra trip to the pharmacy to fill a prescription for the poor guy. Excited about the new status of his mental health, he’s ready to heal everyone. Or maybe he just doesn’t want to be saddled down with a crazy brother that can’t take care of even his own basic needs. So he starts popping these wonderful antipsychotic pills into his brother’s babbling and foaming lips each night before he goes to sleep.
The antipsychotic pills normalize Walt Whitman so he doesn’t write poetry. Now he is just another cell in the anonymous wall of humankind. Walt’s brother is far sicker than Walt and can’t normalize from the pills completely. He does normalize enough to be let loose from his prison. This once insane man, who we will call ‘Walt Whitman II,’ is apt to still be sick, but not nearly as sick as he has been his whole life.
So the original Walt goes on his merry way, happy to live a peaceful and normal existence. His brother though shaves off his toe-length beard while he draws little pictures on his foggy mirror. He also jots down little observations that fill him with curiosity. He picks up one of his brother’s notebook, dusts it off, and starts to record his unique view of nature in a rambling and friendly literary voice.
Eventually Walt Whitman II steps into Walt Whitman I’s shoes. Walt Whitman I just disappears into oblivion. He’s more concerned with his job, house and significant other than etching poetry onto the word pressed leaves of his diary.Bingo! This is cause-effect watching its own back. History and the integrity of literature are saved.