Janus’ Sailboat: Notes on La Marr Jurelle Bruce’s Mad Method
Bruce, La Marr Jurelle. How to Go Mad Without Losing Your Mind: Madness and Black Radical Creativity. Duke University Press. Durham: 2021.
Now there's some sad things known to man
But ain't too much sadder than
The tears of a clown
When there's no one around
-"Tears of a Clown" by Smokey Robinson
The world being but a stage, the progress of civilization can be viewed in part as a steady accumulation of masks. Over time, a number of these remain so tightly fitted over the years that they begin to graft themselves onto our faces. Madness, the gust from the wings that tears them off, wounds us, because it carries our skin with it, leaving us nurturing a shredded surface before a sea of spectators.
Two figures are considered to be especially adept in the art of cruel exposure: the melancholic and the fool. The first dissolves all edifice in its acid realism, such that things are seen, not as they “really are,” but as they are isolated under a single dim bulb in a world cast in shadow. The fool is perhaps even more destructive, for they suggest, even as they barbarously undermine sacred persona after persona, that, in the end, or at root, there’s nothing really there. There’s no true face beneath the mask, but just another, more realistic one that will disappoint you all the more when it's deliriously torn apart; if in dismantling the stage you hoped to finally discover earth, instead you’ll find that your whole act of dismantling was just another show for the solitary fool sitting there laughing at you. Of all the enduring images that haunt us from the history of madness, the crying clown hiding out in the darkened folds of the circus tent is the perfect image for the crisis of identity and self occasioned by the break with consensual reality and that gradually expands into concentric circles of unreality. “Tears of a Clown,” along with numerous other songs (Roy Orbinson’s “The Great Pretender” comes to mind), attest to the persistent anxiety produced by madness’ capacity to undermine our faith in what appears. But how does one orient a study around a disjunction between appearance and reality, let alone an identity or social movement? One can, and many have, remained wed to the seductions of one day establishing limits to this disjunction. But these are written in chalk: everyday madness wipes some clean and scribbles zigzags across the whole conceptual field.
By taking this as a methodological challenge and question of approach, La Marr Jurelle Bruce’s book How to Go Mad Without Losing Your Mind: Madness and Black Radical Creativity shows us a way to sidestep this paradox, allowing us to move more freely without a resolution bought cheaply. Bruce opens the first chapter with two epigraphs on ships: the ship of fools in European waterways from the work of Michel Foucault and the slave ship in the Middle Passage as theorized by Hortense Spillers. Both refuse completion: the first because of the dearth of material facts attesting to its existence and the latter because it’s so “devastatingly real that it confounds comprehension.” (3) Both bear loads of the socially dead on a diasporic voyage (4). We begin, then, not in the circus, but on the sea, having already set sail long ago. Our immediate concern is no longer who or what is real? but how can one orient themselves through a maelstrom? At the intersection of the ship of fools and the slave ship, one finds themselves in a "vertigo" immersed in the treachery of the waters below and threatened by the treacherous captors above (2).
One of Bruce's boldest interventions, and the one that structures the interventions to come, is the suggestion that the slave ship "tows the ship of fools" and therefore "helps orient Western notions of madness and Reason" (5). Compare this to an earlier collision between racial and psychiatric classes of the socially dead: the display of captive Africans and Natives alongside the "freaks" in the circus was first of all a matter of voyeuristically determining the physical features and behaviors of those on the outskirts of civilization at a safe distance. The circus facilitated a popular taxonomy of the other. The site of the slave ship brings us to the political-economic demands of a burgeoning capitalist society. It's not just that black people are more often forced to wear the disreputable rags of unreason, but rather that the latter is actually periodically fitted around those racial capitalism is compelled to exclude. The rapid changes to psychiatric knowledge in the wake of the civil war and the rise of a free black population is a particularly clear example of this phenomenon.
Though this is always in the background, the majority of How to Go Mad is concerned with the ethics of approaching people and experiences which are, are called, felt to be, or positioned as mad. Madness, in the black radical tradition in question, is "content, form, symbol, idiom, aesthetic, existential posture, philosophy, strategy, and energy" (5); it can take the shape of all these and more, and yet it's not a thing, and cannot become a thing, but is better thought of as a movement oriented towards its own disintegration or dislocation. At the same time, we can't lose sight of the ethical dmands it makes on us, being at the same time "a lived reality that demands sustained attention" (6). Bruce offers us a set of conceptual tools singularly attuned to this unsettling double demand: critical ambivalence, radical compassion, and letting go.
Readers of Freud will remember that ambivalence need not mean "indifference," but can signify deep investment in two feelings starkly opposed (love and hate, for example). It is in this sense that Bruce advocates ambivalence towards madness: it's by no means a call to inure oneself to the intensity of madness' wonders or horrors, but precisely to keep them both in sight simultaneously in the approach. The Janus-faced appreciation of madness can and must reckon with benefits and harm in absolute, continuous contention. But just because we adopt a doubled visage, madness all the while does not stay its reckless propulsion. It is here that Bruce asks us to make a commitment to "be vulnerable before a precarious other [...] to impart care, exchange feeling, transmit understanding, embolden vulnerability, and fortify solidarity across circumstantial, sociocultural, phenomenological, and ontological chasms" (11). Consider the verbs "impart," "exchange," and "transmit:" I seep and leak into you, and you drip and flow into me. This fluidity is not at all like a shared "oceanic feeling," but is rather the determination to continue swimming submerged in the ocean with others in spite of that shiver of fright one gets when something firm brush up against them, unable to ascertain whether it was a foot, a fish, or something much scarier lurking around. This persistence in a chasm, which is unknown and mobile but still determinate (it really was a foot or a shark that touched you), is what Bruce calls "radical compassion" (10).
The still young field of mad studies (one could certainly argue that this only names a particular framing of the study of madness in the academy), as concerned as it is with subjectivity and the codification of bodies and behavior, has not adequately explored what it means for mad subjectivity that black subjects have been so often coded as "irrational, subrational, pathological, and effectively mad" (12). This shortcoming makes the methodological intervention at the heart of How to Go Mad all the more urgent. Black radical art, because it orients itself around and struggles against the structural sign of unreason, is opened up here as a field in which madness can neither be fully disavowed, even if its name is never explicitly spoken, nor unconditionally embraced.
Abandon any remaining hope of finding land in such murky waters. Let go but hold tight are together the simultaneous beginning and end of Bruce's method and the bookends of the book itself: let go while holding on, hold on in letting go. Words fail me here, and I feel compelled to end with another song by Robinson, who says it all much more poetically than I could ever hope to.
“I don't like you
But I love you
Seems that I'm always
Thinking of you
Oh, oh, oh
You treat me badly
I love you madly
You've really got a hold on me
You've really got a hold on me
You've really got a hold on me”
-Smokey Robinson, "You Really Got a Hold on Me"