Radical Psychology
Volume Seven, 2008

Madness or Illness?

Jason Bernard Claxton [*]

The following essay is a thought experiment. Taking a kind of folk-conception of ‘madness’ that can be seen in certain classic and popular works of literature as a starting point, the author, in the spirit of Ernst Bloch’s utopianism, attempts to tease out positive and potentially liberating aspects of this ‘lay’ view of the ‘insane’, emphasizing possible advantages and sympathies for the position of the ‘mad’ that this naïve view may have over clinical concepts such as ‘mental illness’. As a thought experiment, however, this effort to think through the best possible aspects of the popular association of madness and genius, so deplored by certain advocacy groups, is purely tentative; no conclusions are reached and no positions are final.

1. Madness and Illness

As children we may be shocked by many things, but one’s first encounter with ‘madness’ must be one of the most profound. Maybe we meet a neighbor, a member of the family, or some strange person wandering the streets; and suddenly we are confronted with something utterly alien, yet in such an intimate form -- something completely different, but with arms and legs and a face much like ours -- that we are transfixed, frozen in a mixture of fascination and fear. Perhaps I am abstracting too much from my own childish reactions -- but when I grew older, I found, in literature, that I was not the only one fascinated. In the Grimms’ tales, for instance, the ‘Wild Man’ who lives in the woods, feared and mocked as a fool, is redeemed, turns out to be a true king of a world that only he new all along, and those who denied him become the real fools (Grimm and Grim, trans1987). In the Arabian nights:

To my way of thinking, the mad have a more subtle understanding than the sane. They behold differences and affinities which are hidden from common men, and are often visited by strange visions…’ (Anonymous, 1990, p. 55).

Of course there is Don Quixote, Hamlet, Oedipus and Orpheus, each consumed by passions or delusions or overwhelmed by grief to the point of madness. In one of Chuang-Tzu’s inner books, it is the madman who gives the illustrious but pompous Confucius the simple, essential Taoist insight to know one’s place (Chuang Tzu, trans 1962, p. 221-2). In Nietzsche, it is the madman that first realizes the death of god -- He is mocked by the villagers he tries to share this insight with, but after ten years in a mountain cave, emerges as ‘Zarathustra’, Nietzsche’s prime example of the ‘over-man’ (Nietzsche, trans 1974, p. 181). Even in Plato, in the Phaedrus, arguably the most representative of his dialogues, we find Socrates explaining that it is a kind of ‘madness’ that overtakes the philosopher that inspires the love and pursuit of ‘truth’ (Plato, trans 1997, p. 522).

With this, we form the common notion of the ‘madman’, still full of our childish wonder: He lives in the woods or closed up in a house, maybe he walks the streets shouting at demons, scaring children, howling at the moon. He is like a wild animal. Haunted, tormented -- maybe he laughs like a hyena or is obsessed with repeating some menial task. Believes he is the chosen one. He is out of control and lives life as if in a spell, seeing things that aren’t there, believing things that aren’t true. The madman is overtaken by something, bewitched by some spirit, maybe evil. -- And yet the madman is not so simply just a perversion. In the way that our ears may over-compensate for the loss of our eyes, whatever overtakes the madman, in throwing him into a dark world of confusion, also unveils truths that we are blind to. Madmen are prophets and oracles. Their visions are visions of a reality we have no access to. When we speak of madmen, we are not simply dealing with hallucinations and delusions; visions can carry a potentially grave weight -- and, so possessed, the mad can sometimes create works of an intensity or depth that the sane cannot experience. If we are religious, we may interpret the madman’s visions as revealing spiritual truths. Maybe the spiritual world is seeping into our own. Maybe it always does, but it takes the influence of some evil spirit, some devil or witch, a ruler of some dark place, to unveil it. Or maybe those spirits only appear evil to those who do not yet have enough awareness -- as one sighted individual would be ‘mad’ on an island of the blind. Madmen are outcasts, true -- but they are witch doctors, shaman, holy men, also.

We grow up, though, and realize that ‘madness’ isn’t such a popular word anymore. It was used in a time, like our own childhood, under the influence of superstitions and snake oil. We know too much for that now. There was the scientific revolution, and Bacon and Descartes and the other moderns purged the occult forces -- ‘exorcised’ them, even -- from the old Christian-Aristotelian Scholasticism of the ‘dark’ ages. Now, there are no more un-seen forces. The apple doesn’t drop because it is ‘actualized potential’. It falls because the world is a taught, well ordered machine in which every action corresponds to an equal and opposite reaction. Eventually even ‘reason,’ the last divine concept, was demystified, and ‘Truth’ became ‘sufficient reason’ -- what explains, what works, and nothing more. We all know the story, we get it in our elementary school science classes; There aren’t mysteries in the world’s getting underway -- there are rational and publicly observable reasons for everything, and nothing is accepted until it is shown that any ‘rational’ person can follow steps that deliver us to a certain conclusion. Here the madman is no longer seen as the expression of alien forces -- from there on out he is simply a broken system, a malfunctioning machine; in clinical terms ‘schizophrenic.’ What once were visions are now ‘hallucinations’, what were revelations are now ‘delusions’. ‘Bizarre’ and ‘inappropriate’ behavior becomes symptomatic of physical deficits and deformities, and any fascination once inspired by the ‘madman’ turns to pity and regret for a poorly calibrated mechanism that ought to be taken to the clockworks and tuned up.

My own childhood does not seem so long ago that I can’t remember that uncertainty I felt the first time I saw a ‘madman’ playing in the yard as if he was a child himself. It frightened me a little, I admit, but that was over as soon as my parents told me that he was ‘sick’. Because that meant doctors and nurses and his family would take care of him, someone would watch him; and illness is just some tragic thing that happens that we have to cope with. It was somehow comforting for me as a child to know that it was an unfortunate accident that had occurred to an individual whose basic nature is settled and not seriously subject to revision -- my hope, now, would be to grow out of that comfort without growing afraid of the uncertainty I will have thereby landed in.

2. Myths of Science

And so, we were ‘wrong’ as children -- and the entire world, apparently, was wrong in the past. The scientific revolution was hundreds of years ago -- so long ago that it is obvious that few scientific ‘facts’ have been so for too very long, barely any for more than a fraction of human history. Nowhere do we find basic notions are just what they are, and our most intimate convictions, universal laws and ‘eternal’ truths, everyone must know, have grown and changed into what they are now only after their hidden and latent incubation in societies’ various phases and states. We all know that for a long time, in our tradition, it was more important that we interpret the world in a way that fit biblical scripture rather than scientific research, and that all changed -- but it is by no means certain that some similar state will not happen again, should a certain faith gain enough influence. Nor are we sure that some new, unaccounted for and unprecedented worldview may come to dominate in a way that would make our present one seem like as much of a superstition, as much unquestioned convention, as what we now see in the past. Maybe this much we could even take for granted. If throughout history nothing has stayed the same, how justified could we be to think that now we have finally arrived? For many this seems an obvious point, but for many others, ‘Science’ is still believed to, in some vague way, act as an ultimate foundation for our modern values. Here a kind of folk-myth about ‘Science’ -- that it give direct observation of an objective reality -- is basically just as much a superstition as what a scientific rationalist may call religion; for all intents and purposes, there has been no ‘objective reality’, even for most academics and philosophers, since eighteenth century. In reality there is no ‘Science’, only ‘the sciences.’ And any scientist, even, would hesitate to suggest that any one science should act as a sovereign over all the others. We may replace ceremony and sacrifice and myth with functions and policy -- but in doing do we replace the motives for the creation of myth and ceremony and sacrifice as well, or is there not an extent to which that desire for replacement is in actuality only another instance of the original desires, and thus a change in content but not in form? And even though the correspondences between physical instruments and physical bodies may be relatively stable from observer to observer, it is not that fact itself that told us this was valuable, nor that the study and documentation, systematization and categorization of such correspondences should form the basis our belief system -- instead it was a whole host of psychological and cultural pressures and practical necessities that chose for us, ahead of time, so to speak. The work of the sciences is to categorize and classify publicly shared events registered on arbitrarily fixed frames of references through fixed standards of measure, sometimes for the purposes of creating statistical projections for predicting events and coordinating behavior. But this has to arise out of a cultural preference for these ‘impersonal’ facts as opposed to personal revelation and decree -- and that preference is at the mercy of a notoriously fickle public opinion. The fact is that just as the sciences can give the ‘how’ of the world (that is, it can describe how things interact, how processes go down), but cannot describe the ‘why’ (why processes go down the way they do, rather than some other way, or why there is anything at all rather than nothing), they can tell  us ‘how’ to accomplish goals (which is, to be sure, very important), but not ‘why’ to go after any of them. In the end even the desire to be alive, that we should value life, cannot be discovered through any strictly logical argument. And so if we are living in a large society we are still always dealing with alien forces -- that is, the power of public opinion; all those other people out there, making their strange, foreign, unpredictable decisions, following their own alien whim.

3. Plurality

Anyone familiar with the history of ideas and societies must be impressed with the abundance in the plurality of human values and ways of life. And yet, read over the shoulder of a commuter on the subway, a Christian text -- ‘everybody, beneath all the superficial differences, are essentially the same, have the same needs…’ It is important that we note that this was a Christian text, since what it implies is that all people really have the same needs and desires, it is just that not all people know it -- some people do know what is best for those who don’t, and it is their duty to show them the way. This was the rationale of the crusade. Now ‘humanism’ adopts it (all humans have these inalienable rights -- particular rights which necessarily exclude some others…), and they have Freud on their side (there are basic psychic structures, drives). Rousseau, surely a major influence on any idea of universal human rights, wrote ‘man is born free, and yet everywhere he is in chains’ (Rousseau, trans 1997, p. 41). But even this goes too far. When we look back over the course of history, we can find societies without any concept of ‘natural’ rights for every person, societies in which such a concept would simply have no place in the worldview. Where people can’t even think that they should be free, where people have no idea of a right to personal freedom to even aspire to, then freedom is not only not a valid possibility, but could potentially be a loss of cultural identity, as well as a destruction of people’s most sacredly held beliefs. (Incidentally, when I worked with juvenile sex offenders I noticed that a popular justification for the offenders’ molestation of others was based on a similar idea that all people are the same -- the offender assumed that the person they took advantage of either really wanted the sex that the offender forced on them) because they believed that, like them, everyone really wants sex all the time), or, on those occasions where the offender had ‘consent’ from someone much younger than them, assumed that the victim had the same cognitive or emotional development as they did. ‘We are all essentially the same.’) People who say these things are at once so certain about what we are, as if we are all finished and have nothing else left to grow into, while at the same time implying that we are not yet there and ought to become a certain way.

For the less puritanical of us, there is far too much variety out there for us to have recourse to an idea of our abstract identity. There are the various Hindu and Buddhist philosophers, who on a basic level recommend detaching from the world, as it is only a distraction from the one truth of non-dualism. There is ample documentation of the Native Americans, who existed on an equal level with their natural surroundings (and the settlers who only saw this as a justification of their own superiority over them, as well as the animals they coexisted with). There was, in the middle ages, a certain religious sect often called ‘Free Spirits’ -- a group who believed they needed to die in pain to attain salvation, and asked friends to torture them when they came close to dying. (Rexroth, 1974, Ch 3, Paragraph 26) And recently, there are stories of people who, though they show no other signs of ‘mental illness’, have an inexplicable desire to amputate a limb. (The limb they want gone never changes -- it is always just that one limb, and at a very specific place. Those who aren’t driven to suicide by this persistent desire, will often, given that doctors cannot amputate healthy limbs, attempt to amputate the limb themselves. Some are fortunate enough to survive. There is a documentary about this phenomenon called, interestingly, ‘Whole’ -- One person interviewed said that, after he successfully removed his limb, he finally felt ‘whole’) (Gilbert, 2003). We have the liberal who believes that each of us should be able choose our lives for ourselves -- and against this, the fundamentalist who thinks that we are not ours to do whatever we want with, but God’s own property, and should act in accord with his revelations, and for whom democracy and the humanist notion of the ‘right’ to individual sovereignty may exclude the ‘natural’ right to be governed by a religious leader, in a determined way, in a religious state.

Even a skimpy, random sampling, such as this, of all that is out there is already enough to show that in taking any one of these varied types of humanity as exemplary or prototypical, we unavoidably neglect others. It would be ridiculous, pompous -- and more importantly irresponsible -- to look back on the record of civilizations and the history of ideas, in face of such a variety of manifestations of human life, and attempt to identify simple, core qualities, present in every person, throughout every society and stage of history that could stand for a ‘human nature’. As soon as we reach a certain level of cosmopolitanism, rather than trying to average out human variety and cancel out anything but the lowest common denominator, with respect for other forms of life, we must begin with a pluralistic notion of human nature -- some sort of value relativism must be the starting point.

But there is a sad exclusivity within most societies. If we imagine ourselves in other scenarios we can also imagine how an individual may thrive in one society and be eaten alive by another. And it is against this background that we must re-examine our ideas about madness, or mental illness. We are old enough now to know how horribly people have been treated in the past by others who had the best intentions. It seems the simplest thing in the world to say that these people are ‘sick’, ‘obviously’ suffering, and in need of ‘help’. It seemed just as simple a thing for the builders of the Indian schools of the old west to say that the poor savage children needed to be ‘rescued’ from their heathen lifestyles. The result was of course genocide. And don’t forget that during the Middle Ages it was seen as an act of Christian love to torture criminals sentenced to death, in order to inspire in them the proper level of hatred of the flesh and worldly things, so that they might attain salvation (Augustine, Letter 158, especially Ch. 2, paragraph 11). At some point, when working with the mad, we will have to decide where our allegiance lies, with the crowd or the individual -- that is, with the common or the exceptional. Good intentions are not enough, and we can never be sure how many injustices we neglect, not because we couldn’t do anything but simply because we overlooked them.

4. Delusions of Sanity

It is a cliché point that the sober do not generally try to convince you that they are not drunk. But neither do the sane, by analogy, have to stomp their feet and shout that they are not mad. And yet isn’t it true that any of us who have never second-guessed ourselves must already be insane? There are madmen with the education and credentials of any highly esteemed professor. World leaders, intellectuals, some of our most exemplary geniuses and artists have gone mad. Surely there was a time when they were slipping, before they knew it -- maybe they never knew. And if our best could succumb to it, why not any of us? We ask -- What is madness? -- but who can answer? What qualifies one to say? Unfortunately the only people with first hand experience cannot be trusted -- they are ‘crazy’. And yet is it not healthy, to an extent, to suspect a mental illness in ourselves, even if only in lonely, pensive moments, when we try to take stock of ourselves? It could all be wrong, this world we believe in. It’s a possibility -- admit it. Wouldn’t it be insane not to? Surely, approached honestly and fully, the question of one’s sanity is the question of the reliability of the world one counts on, which is ultimately a question we each must face as we face our own deaths -- no credentials or public accolades will prepare us or cushion the blow, should madness come. Indeed it is a problem that has a unique way of putting one’s own competence into question while immediately undermining any answer. We feel certain we are sane. But we may feel certain even if we are not. In face of the mere possibility, the slightest suspicion ensures us that we could never unequivocally, categorically label ourselves sane -- though the absence of suspicion is no assurance either. To what, then, do we appeal when the ‘schizophrenic’ says to us ‘I am not crazy, you are’ while we bite our tongues and think, ‘no, I am not crazy, you are…’?

Today, generally, the madman is dealt with through a medical model, in which he simply suffers from the ‘illness’ of ‘schizophrenia’. The goal of the therapeutic team that works within this model is to help the individual ‘recover’ from the illness. The recovery process involves reintegrating that individual into a community -- which means encouraging that individual to embrace all of the social practices and behaviors necessary for living a normal, fulfilled, life. (See the NAMI ‘Roadmap for Recovery’ (NAMI, 2004)) This seems to be a very reasonable goal, and undertaken with the best intentions, but, again, good intentions are not enough. Rather than take things at face value, we should examine for contradictions, asking questions that may in no way be new or revolutionary, but that still, apparently, have not been asked enough.

One question that should immediately arise is -- where does the model of normalcy, this ideal, come from? Where can we go to find normalcy? There is nowhere, because it is an abstraction. The character of a society, at its most rational, is a matter of statistical modeling. But statistics, as static representations of a process constantly undergoing change, are like snapshots of waterfalls, and may actually never represent the particular life of any one person or community. An idealized ‘normal’ commits us to the same fallacies as the cheap tabloids that advertise to tell what ‘men’ really want in bed, or what ‘women’ really want in a man -- the abstract is personified, and taken as a thing with desires and motives, when in actuality categories have no wants or preferences.

To a certain extent the real society behind that ‘generalized other’ that stands for normalcy is more irrational, whimsical, and harder to pin down than any schizophrenic. Sanity, in relation to this background, could be seen as a special, derivative case of the more fundamental insanity that is the will to live -- and the amount of beauty we find in that original absurdity is surely a good barometer for the amount of beauty we are able to see in the ‘officially’ insane.

But even if we could find some stable definition of normalcy, to say that a person should be normal is to assume that a person is, or should become, the kind of thing for which normal values are best -- which would be to ignore the values that emerge from the other person’s perspective. And before we begin to standardize people, we should ask ourselves if it is not possible that the life that is designated as normal is precisely the life that drives some of us mad? On one level it is obvious that the madman -- especially in schizophrenia -- is a person who does not eat when it is time to eat, but only when he is hungry; who does not sleep when it is time to sleep, only when he is tired; who, essentially, does not relegate his own whim and interest to the proper times. How often is madness, even in schizophrenia, nothing more than the inability, or unwillingness, to postpone inspiration, to delay gratification, to have a thought and be able to put it off until later, until the lunch bell, or until the train stops, or until the movie is over, or until the weekend, or until we retire? In thinking about madness, should we not investigate the extent to which societal norms that are potentially to blame for our horror at the madman? That is, if sexuality were not as taboo as it is for so many, would the madman’s ‘bizarre’ sexual fixations be seen as a ‘symptom’ of ‘illness’? If we were not upset by certain taboo vocabulary, would we be shocked by the swearing in the madman’s rants? Similarly, if we were not disgusted at ‘trash’ culture, if we were not sick of the spiritual wasteland that the media has turned our marketplaces and cities into, would we find it so sick when the madman incorporates images from pop media into his ‘delusions’? That is, if we were incorporated into a world that we found worthy of reverence and respect from moment to moment, rather than one that seems about to fall apart any second, would the madman seem so mad? When schizophrenics feel that they must talk to a certain famous business mogul or movie star, we may laugh. (And not only because we know that they would not help; we also know how miserable the stars might be, how unworthy -- at least judging by what we know of most of them -- of personal respect). But if we lived in ancient Greece, we may not laugh off the madman’s obsessions so easily when he tells us that he feels he must meet Zeus, or Prometheus on his stone; or when he feels that he must find Shiva; or when we might interpret ‘poor’ hygiene as an expression of the Aghora faith. We may wonder if, in an uninhibited world, there would even be a madman. It may also be worth making the obvious point that, if there is such a thing as ‘normal’, being the average life that most people live, then in respect to the present state of the world this ‘normal’ life has lead us to, which almost everyone agrees is alarming (and this is an understatement), maybe ‘normal’ is the last thing anyone should be encouraged to become.

One could easily here defer to ‘pragmatism’, and say that a person just has to follow a certain schedule if they are going to survive the present society. But this immediately brings in political considerations. Those privileged enough to provide funding for services for the insane (many still depend a great deal on private funding) are, naturally, generally going to be sympathetic to, and want to uphold, the norms that put them in the position to help in the first place. This may lead to a vested interest in which the madman’s desires are subordinate. One might also observe, though, that, in a world on the brink of ecological crisis and facing the reality of mass starvation, if social work were really pragmatic, then the accumulation of gigantic amounts of wealth by a relatively microscopic amount of individuals may be diagnosed as a mental illness, a perversion, anti-social, socio-pathic behavior that should be diagnosed and treated, even if against those few individual’s protests. (Perhaps, just as we should be able to allow the insane to enjoy their own alien worlds (when that does in fact seem to be what they want) while still stopping someone from committing violent acts against others, we can allow those with extreme concentrations of power to keep their own insanities, irrational obsessions and eccentricities, but not to the extent that they consume resources frivolously when it means doing so at the expense of the more basic needs of others, as is so often the case. But surely we can measure these things by degrees rather than in all or nothing terms).

At any rate, a double bind seems to arise here, if the ability to function in society becomes the only thing that gives one the right to reject it. How does an individual prove that he or she is capable of making a decision that jeopardizes his or her life -- say, by climbing Mount Everest, or becoming sexually active, even of living an ascetic life of poverty and material denial? Individuals are deemed capable if they can show that they are ‘of sound mind’, and what does this mean but that they could function in society. Would it be impossible for a person to reject society on the grounds that the person cannot function in it? The question is: why should we try to prompt an individual into assimilating him- or her-self into a culture that is so callous and sick as to cast him or her off for not living on its terms and meeting its standards? Is there not the possibility that isolation is better than conditional community and fair-weather friendship? And why would the social worker (which in luxury cases amounts to a professional friend) -- who knows the society is sick (why else would there need to be social workers?) -- try to mold the odd into a life of banal normalcy that most obviously dislike and secretly probably resent (even mock?) as well?

Here the question turns back on us, so that it is not only for the benefit of the madman that we should reconsider our relationship to madness. We have to ask -- Why is it that we may respect (though we may not find it the right way for us) and even marvel at, for instance, religious ascetics in India who chain themselves to trees, or wander the woods alone living off roots for the rest of their lives, or twist their necks back so that they can only consume liquid, depriving themselves on their paths to enlightenment; but when a  ‘schizophrenic’ wanders the streets of our cities following the voices that call, wrestling with the demons that haunt, there is nothing but pity for a malfunctioning machine, and offers to change in the form of treatment? Why is there no respect for the madman’s lot? Is it only because, unlike religious ascetics, they cannot have their life validated by a group or installed into an accepted, standardized belief system? Of course this is not to suggest that we should return to, say, a medieval treatment of ‘madness’, or any other in the past. It is doubtful that there has ever been a time when the world was not corrupt, and those who long for the past must obviously feel more of an affinity with the kings than with the slaves; that this could be such a mundane fact and still not cause us to reflect upon the witch hunts and inquisitions that may be going on under our own noses seems odd. This is why the question of madness is a question about ourselves as well, and not only because we may all be mad. When we ask about the outcasts, we ask about our own limits -- we ask what we are able to be, and what we are unable to be without censure.

Let us, then, ask ourselves if the hallucinations of the schizophrenic could not only just be tolerated, but could even be infinitely more beautiful than normalized, officially sanctioned reality; if, in face of the boredom and prevailing sense of being generally unfulfilled, it could not be a challenge to us to rethink what the madman is; let us ask if his delusions may not be greater than our sanity? Thoreau said that hunger and cold are more agreeable to him than most peoples’ means of fighting them off (Thoreau, 1854). And during an uprising in the streets of Paris in 1968, students wrote on the walls of their university -- ‘Who wants to live in a world in which the only insurance against dying of starvation risks dying of boredom?’ (This quote, on p. 18, and other slogans from Vaneigem, 1967) Might the madman not feel the same?

We may protest: ‘But the madman didn’t choose to be mad . . .’ The madman is under a kind of spell, thrown around by the whim of an alien power greater than himself; or, more likely today, we say that he is sick. But neither did any of us choose to be born, and it is ultimately by chance that any of us are here at all. It seems that the Judeo Christian God -- totally self determined and unconditioned by any accident -- has been a model for too long. Maybe we should return to a polytheistic outlook, one that will be more suited to our multi-valued societies -- or better yet something new altogether. Our own lives are not things we could have given ourselves. That ultimately irrational surge and thirst for that life, which gives birth to the things we need to see just by providing reasons to see them, is in the end just as alien, strange and inexplicable as any spell or sickness. If we say that a person must choose everything about life for him- or herself, we not only contradict ourselves, we remove any respect we may have for the tragic aspects of life and repress a whole realm of experience -- loss and hardship become mistakes and unfortunate glitches in the mechanistic order only, rather than a tragic drama we have the privilege to play out.

We say that schizophrenics lack ‘insight’ into the ‘disease’ when they do not interpret their ‘delusions’ and ‘hallucinations’ as symptoms of that disease rather than as a real and valid part of their existence. But we must realize how strange it is that some people are marginalized or medicated or both for having ‘delusions’ in a country in which eighty million evangelical Christians honestly believe that a man will come back from the dead to save anyone who holds one proposition to be true and condemn the rest to burn forever. It rarely occurs to many that they may not have their religion if its founders were around today. It is too likely that anyone who claiming to have spoken to god in the form of a burning bush would be labeled a schizophrenic and encouraged to take medication to deaden these kinds of visions. But for some reason we can picture Moses imprisoned in Bellevue easier than we can see those in Bellevue as prophets already. Still, the will to exist, to live and feel and go on, and to do the things that will sustain us -- and to do so in the most rational, efficient way possible (instead of the most beautiful, or in the way that adheres to certain religious symbolism) -- is no more than a religion itself. Again; the will to live rather than die is not the conclusion of any rational argument -- it is the necessary precondition for rational argument. ‘Delusions’ and ‘hallucinations’ are not any more irrational than common opinions, but are the expressions and symbolisms and dreams of individuals and minorities that happen to stand on the debit side of public opinion. And our ‘sane’ delusions can be very real, very active in our lives, and don’t have to be so ‘out there’, even when they are not bound to any religion. How else did diamonds become valuable but through an irrational desire for rare but unnecessary things? How does one body type come to be viewed, for a time, as more attractive than another? How does one religion, or other mode of life, come to dominate? If we took away all of our irrational desires and predispositions, we would lose every culturally biased preference, and would end up taking away the desire to go on living rather than let ourselves rot into our beds. We would never need to create rational systems if it weren’t for the already existing and ultimately irrational desire, lust, for life.

Despite the best intentions, social workers cannot reconcile the contradiction that though they respect religious differences in theory, they do not in practice anytime they actively dissuade an individual from interpreting what is clinically recognized as a delusion or hallucination as anything other than a genuinely religious experience. Lack of ‘insight’ is a refusal of a certain categorization, a certain interpretation of experiences. Almost every ‘psychosis’ has a corresponding symbolic figure in some religious belief system, and with just a little imagination we could imagine any ‘insane’ person who is not already similar to a god becoming one for some future religion. Every madman is a potential saint. It is here where, for social creatures such as ourselves, truth as ‘what works’ can seem alarmingly similar to ‘might makes right’. Do we have so much faith in the majority that we are willing to standardize all the outcasts? Do we have such a weak imagination that we cannot see just as much value in a life actively consumed in battles with demons and spectacular manic epiphanies as in a life passively consuming meaningless commodities, rote schedules, and minor conveniences? Thoreau also said superfluous wealth can only buy superfluous things (Thoreau, 1854). Poverty is not a curse in and of itself. Haven’t many more geniuses and visionaries already been marginalized and even killed than we’d like to admit? How many ‘St Francises’ were burned at the stake before one was given an order? Are there ‘Heraclituses’ we are scaring into the hills? Are there ‘Soctrateses’ in our own prisons? Nothing makes it easier to sanction, imprison, marginalize people than the idea that we are doing it for their own good, that we know better for them than they do. When one is sure about what a human is, sure what would be best for the world, what would be best way for people to live, what would give people what they really want, what is really best for them, whether they know it or not, one can commit almost any crime. But today we don’t burn witches, we just ignore them. Pretend they don’t exist. Rule out even a remote possibility that they might live legitimate lives -- lives different than ours, lives we wouldn’t choose for ourselves, but legitimate lives nonetheless. No one wants to be a tyrant, but sometimes -- maybe all times -- there are vanishing points in our outlook, and we are just blind to the damage we do.

5. Ethics and Ambiguity of Help

We should also admit that too many give so selflessly to the mad and homeless and poor in an effort to make up for some guilt feelings, or some desire to be needed by others, or some other of their own personal neuroses. Though if they are in fact helping, we may not care why they do it, if we are really going to give alms, why don’t we share the best of ourselves? How would I give alms, how would I share with others what has made me ‘better’? What if it would mean, for others, a time in a solitude in which all spiritual beliefs are abandoned, all fundamentals questioned, arriving at anxiety, willing poverty and isolation, alienation from others for years before they figure themselves out and can finally be kind to strangers again? Who would want that? Most would consider it a curse. But if this happens to be what was best for me, might it be the only scenario in which I could really help someone? Although, it’s true, words have few vitamins. But the point is, maybe those who work with the mad should try to be a little more selfish -- people could choose to work with the mad because they still, like a child, or like the speaker in the Arabian Nights, believe that the mad may have a more ‘subtle understanding’ of things ‘hidden from common men’, and who would like to learn something about themselves at the same time they help another.

But here we should admit that when we have spoken of the mad man we have been speaking of an abstraction, and that madness itself surely doesn’t always baptize a person into a greater understanding of anything -- biography and predisposition, things often also absent from the rhetoric of ‘illness’, surely factor into the experience of madness as well. And yet it still be argued that ‘madness’ is a better title than ‘mentally ill’, even for those who don’t become saints -- despite powerful advocacy groups who, acting on behalf of the ‘sick’, want to remove the ‘stigma’ of ‘madness’ and replace it with ‘mental illness’ (some families just refuse to let a member become a new person; they will do anything to force them back into old roles) -- as if it were any trade off to be stripped of mystery and victimized by a ‘disease’.

Of course there is no reason why someone who enjoys the environment of the most outdated, fundamentalist, conservative therapeutic facility should be persuaded to leave on principle alone. If a person’s traditional therapies and medications are working for them, let them work. The hope of this essay is simply show how much of a missed opportunity -- how poor of a response to the challenge that madness presents to our own ideas of what we are -- it is to see strange behavior as nothing but symptoms of illnesses. This is not to advocate for a value relativism that would just accept everything and lead to a passive complacency, but a kind of value relativism that comes to terms with the irrationality of values and can therefore strive for goals while at the same time accepting differences and plurality. If we were to settle on one ‘ideal’, then if we ever became good enough at identifying and treating differences, humans would have reached a sadly rigid, fixed identity, with no hope of surprise, novelty or change. It just seems obvious to some of us that people have different needs to the extent that each of us is practically a species of our own. Wouldn’t it be better to draw up a new category for each new oddity than to try to fence it into to the few we already have and rigidly fixate on?

Maybe it would take a great artist, a saint even, to be able to see in each of our individual insanities just one more wonderful instance of the many dramas and tragedies and comedies that have the privilege to get played out in our shared world. But if we approach an encounter with madness as an encounter with a new and completely different kind of person, we could not but question whether the goals we set for the insane at social clubs and therapeutic facilities are really the best for the participants there, or if they are just the goals that make it easier for us to help them. Is it really the best we can do to try to get the insane into normal nine to five jobs, normal patterns of living, normal patterns of passive consumption of products and popular entertainment? Is that really the ideal that every person should strive for? Is that how weak our imagination is, that we see anything else as symptomatic of an illness? Can’t we instead help these alien beings we find in our cities to achieve their own alien, opaque goals -- goals that may not make sense to us but that may be the cold peaks of the highest manic inspirations, or of the most placid, serene, detached ambivalence; experiences of such resonance and motion and beauty, from the inside, that they should never be discouraged? And how many new directions would be opened up for the art, drama and music therapists if popular notions of acceptable work were disregarded?

We must admit that we all have a secret world we live in -- one that even our most intimate lover couldn’t know, and that even we ourselves miss simply because it is too intimate to us also, too close to us to see -- those parts of us we can never really get the right angle on, no matter how we twist and crane our necks, peeking in the mirror. So if we ever find that there are times in which we can’t express ourselves; if we ever find that nobody understands us, and that maybe we don’t understand ourselves sometimes; or if we ever feel that the world does not make sense, then let us have some sympathy for the mad.  And, if we don’t ever feel these things, let us be sure that we are already mad ourselves.


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Biographical Note: Jason Bernard Claxton was born in Tennessee and has lived in Alaska and Brooklyn. He has worked with the elderly and at-risk youth in Murfreesboro, at a Homeless shelter and a halfway house in Nashville, and and a therapeutic psychosocial club in Manhattan's upper west side. He has published fiction in The Southern Review and poetry in Sleepingfish and Elimae. He is currently enrolled in CUNY Shool of Law.

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