Alden Nowlan, the schizotypal poet

Shane Douglas Neilson, MD
McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

I suspect a psychiatrist would have pronounced me a victim of dementia praecox or some such thing1 –Alden Nowlan

Applying a psychiatric diagnosis to the dead is a mug’s game. Alden Albert Nowlan (1933-1983), the critically acclaimed Canadian poet, novelist, and playwright, might agree, if one considered the bitter evidence of his poem of the same name. In “A Mug’s Game,” he describes an incident in which he is serially patronized and misunderstood:

The man from the CBC, who said: “Of course, you’re staying
at the YMCA” and thought he was humoring me
by acting impressed when he found out I wasn’t,

explained: “The purpose of such readings is to give writers
from unlikely places like Hartland, New Brunswick,
the chance to communicate
with others
of their own kind.2

I am not sure, though, that Nowlan would consider any attempt to characterize his mental health as despicable and revisionist quackery. I hope to present Nowlan as a man partial to elaborate fancy, prone to spending large blocks of time on creative, purposeless pursuits not named poetry. Rather than call my college regulator through the intervention of a medium, Nowlan might poltergeist my house, encouraging me to go further with my DSM-V-inspired diagnostic folly. Perhaps he’d decide I wasn’t making him look crazy enough. “Say I’m manic-depressive,” he’d mouth from a mirror’s reflective pane. “And say too I’m a narcissist with delusions of grandeur. Now did you know I have a tinfoil hat in my closet that I save for occasions like this? Go look in your closet. There’s a tinfoil hat hanging on the hook.”

Posthumously, Nowlan will have to settle for my much milder evaluation. I believe there is a whimsical case to be made that Nowlan, a man who in the estimation of American poet-essayist Robert Bly was the greatest Canadian poet of the twentieth century, could be given a diagnosis of schizotypal personality disorder. Nowlan’s Hartland from “A Mug’s Game” is indeed an unlikely place to hail from, but we are all from unlikely places. If Nowlan is in heaven, then I trust he’ll permit me the only kind of diagnosis I can make of him: a suitably ridiculous one for the great, deceased bear who crowned himself both king of Fortara and Nicaraugua.3

***

All writers are quirky in some respect. Most, forgoing the pursuit of financial gain for the precarity of a career in aesthetics, lead lives viewed as unconventional on that point alone. Quite a few from that demographic are misanthropic to some degree, leading circumscribed social lives. Fewer still, however, exhibit a spectrum of traits that constitute a genuine personality disorder. Although the rates of addiction and major mood disorders do seem to be higher in the writer population, there is no literature to suggest that the incidence of Axis II psychopathology is higher among writers than among any other group.

The incidence of schizotypal personality disorder is pegged at 1% in the population. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-V),4the schizotypal personality type (code 301.22) is described as:

A pervasive pattern of social and interpersonal deficits marked by acute discomfort with, and reduced capacity for, close relationships as well as by cognitive or perceptual distortions and eccentricities of behaviour, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

  • ideas of reference (excluding delusions of reference)
  • odd beliefs or magical thinking that influences behaviour
  • unusual perceptual experiences, including bodily illusions
  • odd thinking and speech
  • suspiciousness or paranoid ideation
  • inappropriate or constricted affect
  • behaviour or appearance that is odd, eccentric, or peculiar
  • excessive social anxiety that does not diminish with familiarity and tends to be associated with paranoid fears rather than negative judgements about self.

The gist of the diagnosis is that the patient has interpersonal deficits, appears and sounds unusual, can be quite paranoid, but isn’t psychotic to the degree of schizophrenia. Nowlan possessed the requisite five of these fascinating traits. Perhaps the last item on the DSM-V list is perhaps the one that emerged first:

1. Excessive social anxiety that does not diminish with familiarity.  

Nowlan’s circumscribed social skills were apparent in early childhood and persisted throughout his entire life. Born in Stanley, Nova Scotia, in 1933, Nowlan grew up in brutal poverty. He left school before the end of Grade 5, going to work in the local sawmill alongside his father. He was part of an endemic pattern: the abandonment of education by young males for manual labour. Yet Nowlan as a boy never seemed to fit in with his surroundings and his peers; as far back in his life that the record allows, he suffered from a debilitating shyness. Patrick Toner, Nowlan’s first biographer, writes that Nowlan “start[ed] preschool in September of 1939 and was painfully shy around other children. Marty Walker, his teacher that year, remembers having difficulty drawing him out of his shell and protecting him from schoolyard bullies.”3 This shyness was so overpowering that several neighbours were unaware of the boy’s existence in his early years. Indeed, as he got a little older, his social functioning was so poor that he was taken to the Nova Scotia Hospital in Dartmouth for a psychiatric evaluation, where he was admitted for several months.

Social avoidance continued into Nowlan’s adolescence. He deliberately chose a job that would minimize his contact with others: that of night watchman at the local sawmill. Despite the position’s relative lack of opportunity to fraternize with other men, Nowlan couldn’t avoid social contact completely. Toner writes of the period, “He got along with his fellow workers no better than he got along with the other children when he went to school.”3 The DSM-V adumbrates Nowlan’s reported childhood experience with these supplemental descriptive sentences:  

Schizotypal personality disorder may be first apparent in childhood and adolescence with solitariness, poor peer relationships, social anxiety, underachievement in school, hypersensitivity, peculiar thoughts and language, and bizarre fantasies. These children may appear ‘odd’ or ‘eccentric’ and attract teasing.

2. Odd beliefs or magical thinking that influences behavior. 

Instances of Nowlan’s habit of magical thinking were many and began at a very young age. His skill at fashioning intricate worlds of fantasy surpassed that of the typical child indulging a capacity for whimsy; there was simply too much fantasy to place him within the normative range. (“Ha!” Nowlan-Poltergiest interjects. “I am crazier than you say!”) The first instance that Toner provides of Nowlan’s magically inclined mind at work occurred when the future poet was just five years old: “From his earliest years he exhibited a haunted imagination. At five, he went through a period when he believed that God was going to end the world by dropping clouds on people’s heads, and for a while he would only walk outside on clear days.”3

In addition, Nowlan fantasized about leading a coup and becoming king of Nicaragua when growing up. He also developed a detailed, chivalric realm he named Fortara that he populated with knights, lords, and ladies. This fantasy that persisted into adulthood, and records show that he toyed with the details of this world throughout his life. Indeed, Nowlan’s mature years provide numerous examples of magical thinking and behaviour to support this argument: (1) he christened one of his residences “Windsor Castle”; (2) he decided that a friend was the true lost heir to the British throne and so started the Society for the Restoration of the Rightful Monarch; and (3) he was a founding member of the Flat Earth Society, an academic group with worldwide membership whose sole aim was to prove that the earth was flat. The most colourful recorded instance of engagement with Nowlan of this sort comes from Leo Ferrari, a former professor of English at St. Thomas University and a great friend of Nowlan’s. Ferrari remembers that

[o]ne thing that Alden detested above all others was physical exertion, especially in the form of exercise.” Nowlan was pressured to exercise by his friends, but he’d refuse; because of his “firm refusal, his athletic friends eventually decided that vicarious exercise was better than no exercise at all. As a result, they would phone Alden and request him to lie down as they told him how much exercise they had done for him that particular day.

Nowlan always received this news prone, in a mock post-exertion state.5

The adult expression of Nowlan’s inner fantasy life retained a sane, sober element of arch defiance; his dedication to restoring to the throne the “rightful” King of Scotland began as juvenile fantasies that converted into ironic adult campaigns against propriety and staidness. Nevertheless, it would be hard to find a Canadian poet (or anyone you know!) who participated in such elaborate games for such a long time.

Nowlan rattles my windowpanes at this point. “What, boy?” he rails. “Clearly, restoring James Stewart to the throne is much crazier than living out my life reading about the sex lives of the Queen of England’s dissembling brood. Or consuming Kim Kardashian videos. Why do you soft-pedal it so much, doctor? Give it to them straight! Tell them if I’m mad or not!”

I go to the closet. There, on a hook, is the tinfoil hat. “We’re all mad here,” I say with real conviction as I put on the hat.

3. Behaviour or appearance that is odd, eccentric, or peculiar.  

Poets often possess an unusual appearance. After all, this is a profession that boasts memorable presences like the fulminant Ezra Pound, the dandified Oscar Wilde, and the dishevelled Milton Acorn. But even in this company, Nowlan’s bearing could be considered exceptional: his countenance is the stuff of legend in New Brunswick.

After arrival in Hartland at the age of eighteen, Nowlan began working at the Observer, the community newspaper. He made a distinct impression there. The first man to meet him after his arrival in the small community, Jim Murray, described him thus: “When Al got off the bus, he was just tall . . . [H]e had high water pants on, half way up his knees. He had an old pair of dress shoes on. Charles Allen, the publisher, would just shake his head and wonder how he ever landed him here.”1This reaction represents a trend throughout Nowlan’s life—no one who ever met him could disregard his appearance. Toner mentions Nowlan’s unconventional attire and unkempt nature four times in his biography, and summarily on one occasion: “Hygiene, fashion, and nutrition were not so much normal habits as bothersome concessions to civilization . . . Nowlan knew he stood outside fashions and trends, in terms of temperament, intellect, and appearance.1

This is a man who, according to an anecdote Brian Bartlett heard and recounted to me in conversation, was once standing in line with his wife Claudine at a long buffet. Some distance ahead, the poet Milton Acorn, drunk, could be seen dipping a bare hand into a potato-salad bin. Two elderly women were just ahead of the Nowlans. On seeing Acorn helping himself to the salad, one of the women whispered loudly to the other, “That’s Alden Nowlan!” Nowlan chuckled to himself and Claudine, but didn’t correct the women. There are worse ways to look, I suppose.

As can be seen in the voluminous correspondence he conducted with others and in the many interviews he submitted to, Nowlan considered himself a bear of a man; in fact, he often advised those about to meet him for the first time that they should look for a human version of a bear. The ursine comparison isn’t a stretch: at six foot three and being morbidly obese, Nowlan was physically imposing. He wore thick glasses over a bushy moustache and goatee, and was lax about matters of grooming and dress. In his later years, he cultivated an affinity with the British television character Rumpole—obese, dishevelled, disputatious.

After twelve years of newspaper reporting, Nowlan left Hartland for a writer-in-residence position at the local university in Fredericton. He would serve in this capacity for the remainder of his life, writing the major poems on which his reputation now rests. Despite the change in occupation, going from a socially circumscribed job—the lone reporter—to a now very public position, Nowlan remained a reserved man, displaying what could be considered an “inappropriate or constricted affect.”

4. Inappropriate or constricted affect.

By Toner’s account, Nowlan’s reserve manifested early: “[Nowlan] developed from an early age the ability to watch events in his life with a dispassionate detachment.”3 In part, this attitude resulted from growing up an intellectually gifted child in a community that expected its men to abandon school early for a life of toil. Nowlan often remarked that the people of his place of origin treated him as if he were “retarded”—not because he was stupid, but because he preferred activities like reading books over socially sanctioned pursuits like drinking with friends.

This reserve likely served his writing well, for it enabled Nowlan to become a consummate observer. Not unexpectedly, this faculty did not ingratiate him to others, who often found him diffident and standoffish. Al Purdy, a poet and a contemporary of Nowlan’s, wrote in his autobiography,

He was a younger guy, twenty-six or twenty-seven I guess, about my size but with an imposing presence I don’t have. I kept feeling expectant of him, hoping for the marvels of intimate human converse; then I looked away, thinking I’d made him nervous. But if he wasn’t, I was . . . I don’t know, I don’t know. Mere simplistic shyness? No, that couldn’t be. Not this marvellous lyric poet I loved and was now beginning to hate for putting me though a torturous boring endless era prior to human speech.6

Purdy was not alone in this assessment; even Nowlan’s closest friends were aware of a strangeness that somehow set him apart from normal conversation. Nowlan’s otherworldliness had a further dimension, which was his strange capacity for “unusual perceptual experiences, including bodily illusions.”

5. Unusual perceptual experiences, including bodily illusions.

Closely related to his tendency to think magically, Nowlan’s experience of bodily illusions counts towards the diagnosis of the schizotypal personality type. An illusion is defined in the psychiatric literature as “a misperception or misinterpretation of a real stimulus”1 such as when one misattributes, for example, a loud noise to gunfire. In Nowlan’s case, the sensation of flying is a possible candidate for a bodily illusion. Here he is in adulthood reflecting on this sensation as he experienced it in adolescence:

But the sensation of flying: yes, I used to have that and it was so strong a sensation that only my common sense prevents me from believing I didn’t really fly. In other words if common sense didn’t tell me it couldn’t have happened I’d include it with my other memories of actual events . . . it was a very physical sensation, almost a voluptuous sensation . . . I never went far nor very high and I couldn’t always do it. Usually it seemed I was, oh, twenty feet above the ground at most, and I don’t think I ever got farther than, say, 1,000 feet from my starting place.1

There were also instances when Nowlan experienced the sensation of flight as an adult, such as during a hospital stay for thyroid cancer. It is difficult in both cases to ascertain exactly what physical sensation Nowlan misinterpreted to cause him to feel as if he were flying; the alternative to the bodily illusion hypothesis is that he was experiencing a true hallucination (where an imagined stimulus is interpreted as real) as a result of a post-surgical delirium. His writings never really make this point clear, but fortunately for this diagnostician, his writings offer other candidates of perceptual disturbance. In the following passage, taken from a letter to a friend, Nowlan clearly documents the hypnagogic hallucinations that would plague him throughout his life: “I feel as if I were being smothered . . . and wake up with nightmares in which there’s a red coffin standing upright in the corner and a monk sitting at the foot of my bed. Truly.”1

To this point I have avoided marshalling Nowlan’s art in order to support the diagnosis of the schizotypal personality type because a writer’s writings, used as “evidence” to support a psychiatric diagnosis, is a dangerous enterprise. Who except the creator can tell where biography ends and fiction begins? For this reason I have so far limited myself to the facts of Nowlan’s life and ignored his work, yet I now point out that Nowlan’s writings show him as a man fully equipped with a vigorous fantasy life that transcends mere play or imagination. It seems appropriate here to consider at least one snippet of Nowlan’s poetry as an instance of aesthetic corroboration. The apparently confessional poem “Disguise” is one of these:

This is the amazing thing
that it is so easy
to fool them—
the sane bastards.

I can talk
about weather, eat,
preside at meetings
of the PTA.
They don’t know.

Me foreign as a Martian.
With the third eye in my forehead!
But I comb my hair
cleverly so it doesn’t show

except a little
when the wind blows.7

Characterizing himself as alien and alienated was a frequent Nowlanian theme, never so well articulated as in this fanciful poem in which the poet refers to himself as a Martian with a third eye, inherently different from others. Of course Nowlan was making a playful simile; of course it’s ridiculous to consider him a Martian, but it’s also fair to interpret the Martian comparisons as demonstrations of his sense of being different. In this short poem, Nowlan satisfies three of the criteria for the schizotypal personality type: the poet persona indulges in a little Martian magical thinking; he writes as if from a consciously detached persona; he has an odd appearance that is disguised by his hair; and by implication—he refers to other people as “sane bastards”—characterizes himself as insane!

I feel Nowlan’s poltergeist impressing itself upon my brain at this point in the case history. I hallucinate a bear calling itself Nowlan, militating for Martianness. “We are all Martians!” the bear says. “We are all Martians before we are ourselves. A little bit of Martianity is not the same as insanity!” Whenever I try to answer him, the bear responds with, “It is so easy to fool you!”

The epigraph to this section of the essay is strangely prescient: in the face of recent evidence coming from genetic studies, the latest edition of the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual broke with tradition and allowed schizotypal personality disorder to be characterized as both personality disorder and as part of a “schizophrenia spectrum disorder,” meaning that Nowlan was right: his “dementia praecox” is an antiquated term for schizophrenia as formulated by Emil Kraepelin, the Russian psychiatrist who invented biological psychiatry. The doctors have finally got you now, Alden!

Well, not really. It’s the poetry that matters. Nowlan’s work—an achievement of the first rank in Canadian letters—was generated by his personality. Given the evidence of his wonderful poems, can one really believe that Nowlan was disordered? Nowlan’s poetry transcends reductionist fantasies about personality conducted by this speculative diagnostician—and even when keeping Nowlan’s eccentricity in view, one has to acknowledge too that he had a great sense of humour and a knowing wink about that same eccentricity. Still, there is something remarkable about Nowlan’s life that’s more than just a formula of talent and dedication, more than transcendence and resilience, more than poor boy makes good. Nowlan is one of Canada’s best poets because he was misaligned with the larger world. He’s the original Martian, or what the authors of the DSM-V would call “schizotypal.” Partial to elaborate fancy, prone to spending large blocks of time on creative, purposeless pursuits not named poetry. He possessed the requisite five of the eight traits required to make the diagnosis. Like most everyone else, I think of him as a rural refugee first, not as a psychiatric case, but nevertheless I also consider him to be a poet at odds with a world that didn’t know how much it would agree with him, if it only stopped fantasizing, too.

References

  1. Cook, Greg. One Heart, One Way. Alden Nowlan: A Writer’s Life. East Lawrencetown: Pottersfield Press, 2003.
  2. Nowlan, Alden. “A Mug’s Game.” An Exchange of Gifts. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1985.
  3. Toner, Patrick. If I could turn and meet myself. Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 2000.
  4. Adapted from: American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 5th Ed. Washington: The Association; 2013.
  5. Ferrari, Leo. “A Few Evenings at Alden Nowlan’s Place.” The Antigonish Review #129.
  6. Purdy, Al. Reaching for the Beaufort Sea. Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 1993.
  7. Nowlan, Alden. “Disguise.” An Exchange of Gifts. Toronto: Clarke Irwin, 1985.

Acknowledgment

The author would like to thank Brian Bartlett for permission to quote him.


SHANE DOUGLAS NEILSON, MD, CCFP, MFA, MA, is a poet from New Brunswick. In 2009 Biblioasis published Neilson’s Meniscus and his Complete Physical (PQL, 2010) was shortlisted for the Trillium Poetry Award a year later. In 2015, Shane won the Robin Blaser Award and published On Shaving Off His Face (PQL) as well as two books on M. Travis Lane’s work: How Thought Feels: the poetry of M. Travis Lane (Frog Hollow Press) and The Essential Travis Lane (PQL). A Vanier scholar, Neilson is currently completing a PhD at McMaster University where his dissertation work focuses on representations of pain. His most recent article in the medical humanities is “Pain as metaphor: metaphor and medicine” in Medical Humanities.