Updated: May 10
This is part of a series of presentations on the history of radical mental health projects called Mental Health in Crisis. Find recordings at unsoundmind.org/blog and the landing page for the series with notes, slideshows (with many more images), and info for how to follow the series at https://www.unsoundmind.org/post/mhic-presentation-series.
After spending nine long years in asylums throughout France, the playwright and poet Antonin Artaud was invited to visit and review an exhibit of works by Vincent Van Gogh at the Orangerie in Paris in 1947. Though originally repulsed by the insinuation that one lunatic would naturally have insight into the works of another, he was shocked and spellbound by what he saw. Van Gogh’s work confirmed Artaud’s long-held conviction that the mad are those whose fevers are torments of bitter truth driving the sickly sane out of their wits, under whose skins’ boil the waters of “an over-heated factory,” (158) whose spirits rise and fall like cosmic fireballs, living and dying in the scorching heat of “a thousand summers'' (158) exploding and fizzling out in the course of a single day. This mad poet, the madman’s madman, declared more clearly than anyone else the divine right of madness and sickness over reason: “For my existence is beautiful but hideous,” he wrote, “Hideous, dreadful, constructed of hideousness. Curing a sickness is a crime” (192). Civil society, having abandoned any mechanisms for incorporating the alterity that lies in its heart “invented psychiatry to defend itself against the investigations of certain visionaries whose faculties of divination disturbed it” (135). “In every demented soul there is a misunderstood genius who frightens people and who has never found an escape from the stranglings that life has prepared for him, except in delirium” (144). But how is one to maintain the outpouring of creative energy in the face of incessant stranglings and electroshocks? To hold an apocalypse alone seething within one’s guts, to have all attempts to convey one’s volcanic relation to reality met with disapproval and hostility, ends as you might expect in lethal non-reciprocity: Van Gogh did not kill himself, Artaud said, he was “suicided by society.”
In this strange system of relays, the incoherency of the mad hides a deeper, silenced truth of an insane society, which in term claims the right to make sane, to “cure” the former of his dangerous relation to an unspeakable reality. It was up to the mad, like Artaud and Van Gogh, “to cure all doctors [...] and not up to doctors ignorant of my dreadful states of sickness to impose their insulin therapy on me, their health for a worn out world” (193). The madman must be contained, “[f]or if his way of thinking, which was sane, were unanimously widespread, Society could no longer survive” (147). What remains of madness in this house of distorted mirrors? Obviously the mad geniuses of which Artaud speaks is to some extent outside civil society, contained in its dungeons and stifled and murdered on its electroshock tables, but they also reveal its inner truth. A common representation of the mad is that they lack feeling; they are the unaffected. For Artaud, the opposite is the case: the mad are those who feel the intricate movements of the cataclysms that put this world into motion so deeply that it radiates out from their pores, burning passersby like the heat from the torrid desert sun. The mad are more sane than the sane, what Bonaventure Ndikung calls the “ultra-sane” (21). They see and tell the truth where mere appearances reign supreme.
But insanity tends to dissolve that which it sanctifies; in the form of folly, it manages to sanctify power in iconoclastic carnival reveries even as it seems to dissolve it. Folly seems to reach up from the bowels of hell to tear kings from their thrones. Folly is King Lear overwhelmed by the irrationalities of his position screaming impotently into a storm where power seems to dissolve in full appraisal of reality’s horror. Folly is an experience even the sovereign cannot override, so that the real King George III was beaten and hounded like a common pauper when he lost all good sense. This is why madness as folly can appear in the mania of a danse macabre, a chorus of dancing skeletons, for in this image the truth of the human’s future confronts him in laughter. It is seductive to imagine madness as a chaotic tide of creative energy waiting to burst from the belly of the beast or as a quasi-natural tendency towards breakdown in structures of power, but this is deceptive. But if madness is definitely outside or beyond the order of the norm, it is not clearly as an opposing force, as is evidenced by the more sedative role of the town, court, and holy fools. The fool is a deeply ambiguous figure: hidden in their iconoclastic turns-of-phrase and unsightly behavior is a principle of preservation. Isolated from social life on account of their reputation for urinating out of windows and communing with beasts, courts from Europe to India nevertheless kept fools near the throne and granted them special permissions to speak clearly when others would be harshly punished. It is because of their disgraced status, unsightly appearances, and unstable relation with reality that they were granted these inverted privileges: only the court fool may reflect an image of power back as it truly is, pointing out, as no one else can, the prince’s royal warts and sores. Their singular lack of concern for appearances and flattery makes them especially trustworthy aids: as ‘Abdallah ibn Mubarak said of the most famous Arabic fool Buhlul: “Oh Shaykh! The madman knows his own soul. True discourse must be heard from a madman” (in Dols, 149). But this truth-telling does not necessarily threaten or undermine the sovereign, but enables him to ingest what escapes him as jest. The same is ultimately true of the holy fool: in the hadith of Islam, it is stipulated that the holy fool is the only figure permitted to criticize God directly for His acts. They may say anything they please, for his recording-angels do not inscribe the deeds of fools, as they do for everyone else, since fools are excluded from the punishments laid out in the Qu’ran (Dols, 397). Fools revel in reflecting the falsity of appearances, showing us a topsy-turvy world where kings look like fools and the wild passions run amok in place of reason; but this piercing image of the contradictions and irrationality saturating the world is laughed at viciously and thus held in suspended animation by mirth and the simulation of transgression.
The tension between soothsaying and silence animates the movement of madness or unreason throughout history. Thucydides, one of the great historians of ancient Greece, told, like all the others, the deeds of great men. His narrative was sealed and confined to the stories of heroes and generals–until the arrival of the most mad of wars, the civil war and the subsequent destabilization of the Athenian colonial holdings. Here, and only here, in tumult and chaos, do we bear witness to women and slaves acting as subjects (Loraux, 235-6). Logos, reason, was a property of the head of the household, the patriarch, in a material way: only he was permitted to speak in the public forum, fight in wars, and vote. The association of women and slaves with madness and childhood is ancient and rooted in this material form of organization. In conditions of breakdown and disorder, the subordinate objects of management within the household–the slaves, the women, the children–find voice in the historical narrative. There were, however, other, more sanctified positions of mad speech: the prophet, as in the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian medieval traditions, was associated with madness, but were integrated as the mouthpieces of gods; Socrates in the Phaedra judges madness in the arts and in the prophets to be of much greater value than sanity. In Greece, the most revered of these prophets, the oracle to Apollo Pythia at Delphi, was also a woman. The cult of madness around Bacchus–the god of theater, wine, and madness–in Greece and Rome is yet another sanctified form. Mysterious bacchanalias, sometimes exclusive to women and held outside of the city, were believed by the non-participating public to be occasions of excess, disturbing enough to earn bannings from local politicians. Euripides, in his play the Bacchae, tells the tale of King Pentheus in Thebes who snubs Bacchus and his sacred rites symbolically shunning irrationality along with him, as all foolishly rational leaders do. The dancing women in the mountains, driven mad by the wine god himself, seize upon Pentheus and rip his body limb from limb. These tales outline the beginnings of an uneasy relationship between madness and women: madness is a condition of possibility for the common-woman’s speech, but is it her own voice, or a mere formulaic projection of an animal irrationality? What does she actually say? If the history of psychiatry is, as Foucault suggested, actually a “monologue of reason about madness,” (xxviii) on what conditions are “mad subjects” included and allowed to speak?
As often as madness has appeared as a condition for women’s speech, it has also appeared as a mark of their absolute servitude in the terror of complete silence. This duality of feminine madness has led to a debate in its feminist histories: Hélène Cixous, in The Laugh of the Medusa, has interpreted hysteria, the quintessential feminine madness, as a kind of (contained) revolt; others, like Marta Caminero-Santangelo and Shoshana Felman, see little in it but powerlessness, silence, and despair. There is a third element here as well: the popular photos of hysterics from Charcot, we know now, were staged. Those arms and legs in tortured knots and eyes looking deep into another world were the conscious postures of patients performing distress (Showalter, 150). If once fools mobilized madness’ fakery and wit to show us the world as it really was, here male doctors manipulate human clay to show us real madness by simulating it in the eyes of suffering women who stand before photographers and in medical theaters. The other popular form of psychiatric photography showed women in recovery, portrayed in the loving arms of a husband or dressed in the typical garb of a housewife (Ibid, 86). I want to stress that these forms or aspects of madness exist in the same context and play off and against one-another. Anna Kavan’s work is full of this central contradiction. Not long after she finished her first stint in a sanitarium, the English writer Helen Woods changed her name to Anna Kavan and committed herself to a new sparse, enigmatic writing style. Her novels dwell in the muddy waters of feminine madness where protagonists appear at one time as privy to the workings of the underworld–privileged visionaries of what lies behind the curtains of our dream world–and at another time as the lowest miserable creatures on Earth. Her revelatory visions of the sun, animals, and plants in Asylum Piece ceding to a relentless industrial swell of machinery and violence visit her so frequently she wants “to batter my head on the walls, to shatter my head with bullets, to beat the machines into pulp, into powder, along with my skull” (140). In Who-Are-You? the protagonist’s husband, a British colonial officer she was essentially forced to marry, is seen solely as “Mr Dog-Head,” a ferocious creature capable of little more than violation and brutality, whose acts of violence coincide with the flash of lightning. The moment of illumination, a source of power and knowledge, can appear in Kavan’s work at the precise moment of the most extreme disempowerment, when her characters feel “the queer empty sensation of having run down like a clock that needs winding” (Guilty). Compare this to what occurs to Barbara O’Brien in her autobiographical Operators and Things: The Inner Life of a Schizophrenic when the world of work appears as one big game of manipulations following only the “rich, oily smell of money” at the same moment as the “Hook Operators,” little gremlin-like creatures, drive hooks into her back and turn her into a drivable “Thing.” Similarly, Leonora Carrington’s inspired, surrealistic visions visit her around the same time as her descent into animality at an asylum in Spain. In a flash, the world appears as it really is, but its prophet is reduced to the status of an animal or a clock, objects denoting the need for an operator or owner to take charge, typically in the from of the doctor or husband.
The question is: does feminine madness take the form of speechlessness in specific conditions or is it an intrinsic feature? In On Our Own, Judi Chamberlin, probably the most significant and central figure of the post 60s psychiatric survivor movement in the English-speaking world, describes how she went from a voiceless, depressed madwoman to a fiery, politically engaged madwoman. After giving birth, she fell into a deep, unforgiving sadness, eventually self-electing to enter the hospital to receive help. Instead of help in becoming the person she used to be, she was stripped of all control over her own life and talked down to for years until she began to believe that she was a helpless, hopeless mental patient. A more familiar melancholic madness shaped into an imposed, silent form. Were these her madnesses? Or is it better to say that Chamberlin’s madness lives somewhere between her body and the walls made to contain her? A feeling, even one that seems to come from nowhere, is always expressed in a real time and place: on a grassy knoll, in an old apartment complex, or in the grey of a hospital ward. Madness, despite its seeming weightlessness, cannot escape this reality. And then there is the third madness, the one she took up as a symbol of protest when she aligned herself with the Mental Patients Association and the psychiatric survivor movement, the one that says I am considered mad and for this I am cast out of this cruel world, mistreated and abused and incarcerated because I am inconvenient or insubordinate. But does this voice arise from madness itself or from the one who bloodied their hands scraping their way out of it?
Things get even more complicated when we consider what is arguably the most famous mental illness memoir: Memoir of My Nervous Illness by Daniel Paul Schreber. By a mad fate of irony, this infamous prototype of the psychotic memoir is neither a memoir nor about psychosis at all. What text has been wrested so far from the original intent and spirit of its writer as the Memoirs? Schreber was a judge in Saxony, Germany who, at the end of the 19th century, began suffering from “hypochondria” and sleeplessness, seeking help from one of the up-and-coming neurologists looking to supplant the asylum psychiatrists as masters of madness. A few failed, and violent, treatments later, Schreber began having regular communication with God through the nervous system, developing on this basis a theological system that seemed to reflect, and perhaps tease the limitations of, the new neurological understanding of the body. The problem starts with the title: the German translates more literally to "Great Thoughts of a Nervous Patient with supplements and an addendum concerning the question ‘under what circumstances can a person deemed insane be held against their professed will in a mental institution?’" This title makes it quite clear, as does Schreber in the text itself, that the book is, on the one hand, a primer on Schreber’s theology, and, on the other, a legal text. In fact, the explication of the religious system is in service of the latter, since it proved that the author’s patterns of thinking were, if bizarre, perfectly coherent and self-aware. Worse yet, Schreber’s desire to cultivate her femininity, to experience sexual pleasure as a woman so as to achieve what she called “soul-voluptuousness” and a real state of “blessedness” has been routinely ignored beginning with Freud who read the Schreber case as a case of repressed homosexual feelings for an imposing father. Schreber describes the central importance of “unmanning” in her life; her interpreters have not ceased to “reman” her time and again. The particular historical cruelty of categorizing Schreber’s femininity under the banner of “his” insanity lies in the fact that the psychiatrist’s major argument in Schreber’s court case deciding her freedom was that the desire to become a woman or dress in women’s clothing was the clearest sign of psychosis in an erstwhile judge. Though she won temporary freedom, Schreber spent the last thirteen years locked up alone in the asylum that, after her death, would initiate Aktion T4, where the Nazi regime first euthanized schizophrenic patients.
One of the big paradoxes of mad peoples’ history–if such a phrase even makes sense–is that so many of its “maddest” representatives deny their madness, desiring some other form of recognition. When James Tilly Matthews fatefully entered the House of Commons and accused the English ministry of “traitorous venality,” believing them to be under the influence of a mysterious machine called an “air loom," he by no means imagined himself as mad. What does it mean to claim figures for the history of madness or “mad pride” who had no pride in madness, or, at best, a deeply ambivalent relationship with it? Janet Frame’s autobiography An Angel at my Table captures the ethical murkiness of this question. When she first received her schizophrenia diagnosis, she immediately scoured her psychology textbooks trying to decipher this strange word. What she found horrified her: “It seemed to spell my doom,” she wrote, “as if I had emerged from a chrysalis, the natural human state, into another kind of creature, and even if there were parts of me that were familiar to human beings, my gradual deterioration would lead me further and further away, and in the end not even my family would know me.” But still, its logic began to take hold: “That the idea of my suffering from schizophrenia seemed to me so unreal, only increased my confusion when I learned that one of the symptoms was ‘things seeming unreal’. There was no escape.” So much so that, even after a near-lobotomy and numerous dreaded shock treatments, when her diagnosis was finally reversed, all she could think to ask was “Oh why had they robbed me of my schizophrenia which had been the answer to all my misgivings about myself? Like King Lear I had gone in search of ‘the truth’ and I now had nothing. ‘Nothing will come out of nothing.” Without it, she writes at another point, she was deprived of “the unexpected warmth, comfort, protection [...] And even when I did not wear it openly,” she continued “I always had it by for emergency, to put on quickly, for shelter from the cruel world.” Mental illness denied becomes a longing for just that. For what is the meaning of endless suffering without discrete and communally recognized cause? Whom do we turn to when we have no specific problem that needs solving, but need help and security nonetheless?
This tension is a common thread through psychiatric history and the rebellions against it. Madness, particularly in its medical representation, is caught in games of claims and counter-claims, denials and confessions, protestations and defensive maneuvers. And this is true of every iteration of anti-psychiatric activism. With few exceptions, the earliest groups that organized themselves as psychiatric patients or anti-asylums activists were trying to escape their status as mad. The 19th century English group of activist ex-patients, the Alleged Lunatics' Friend Society, was mainly composed of upperclass gentlemen who exploited shock at men of their stature being mistreated, holding that they “should be provided with care commensurate with their station in life, private lodgings with personal attendants” (John Perceval quoted in Hervey, 255). More sympathetically, Elizabeth Packard in the US created the Anti-Insane Asylum Society and lobbied for stricter commitment laws to prevent the common practice, of which she herself was a victim, of husbands locking up their wives in insane asylums for their own gain. But in both cases, as was common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they did not take up the cause of the mad as mad, but only of those who were not actually mad.
This dynamic shifted with the new wave of ex-patient activism from the 1960s on, when psychiatric survivor and mad groups like the Mental Patients’ Association in Canada, the Mental Patients’ Union in London, the Mental Patients Liberation Front in the Pacific Northwest, and Mental Patients Liberation Project in New York began organizing peer run spaces and fighting for reforms or changes like peer oversight, the abolishment of specific treatments, or commitment laws. In the common rhetoric and literature, it became more common to contextualize seemingly incomprehensible behavior by looking outward at the people around the so-called mad person and to examine the social or political function of psychiatric labels and treatments. Works like the aforementioned On Our Own by Judi Chamberlin, articles in journals like Phoenix Rising in Canada, Madness Network News in the US, and in anthologies like Shrink Resistant often begin with the story of how someone came into contact with the psychiatric system after being identified as or self-identifying as a mad person most often either for having strange beliefs that nevertheless make sense to them or a community they belong to or because of a reaction to violence and trauma that is uncomfortable or inconvenient for those around them. Putting aside all attendant controversies over efficacy and danger, we can add here that drugs, too, facilitate ways of being human. Indeed, this may be the largest or at least fastest growing way in which mental illness subtypes of mad subjectivity have been mediated in the United States since the mid 20th century, and now globally (see: Mills and Biehl). Drugs ask things of the individual who ingests them. Their effects, good or bad, beg the questions: who or what is being acted upon, corrected or corrupted when I take this thing and feel different? With psychiatric medication, one is all-too-often asked to swallow and digest, not just a drug, but a new identity managed, stabilized, or even only actualized on account of a chemical solution. Unsurprisingly, drugs are a productive and always contentious turning point in the recalibration of mad subjectivity, actualized through tapering, experimentation with psychedelics or other non-psychiatric drugs, or a purely instrumental usage that strips them of deeper pretensions. Still, despite their increased importance, they can never outpace the subjective possibilities of “that most terrible drug—ourselves—which we take in solitude” (Benjamin, 216).
There is a strange categorization game at play in these productions: madness is identified only to be explained or denied; so is it still mad? For example, a series of photographs, published in Shrink Resistant, about the author’s, Persimmon Blackridge, experience of being labeled mad as a lesbian is called “Still Sane.” Madness Network News has likely devoted more time than other journals to the question of madness proper. In the first article of vol. 1, no. 4, the author starts out with the kind of obscure contradictory definition so common in the history of madness: “Madness is not madness” (Lilly, 1), while the poem that follows takes the more ambiguous position that “everyone is mad at times,” (Hudson, 1) explaining that what we call madness are common, though strange or extreme experiences. These are representative of positions that remain among the most popular in anti-psychiatry: denial, contextualization, or normalization. What remains of madness? Is it only the name others use to identify problem people? With enough time and attention, could every madness be explained in this way? By being made comprehensible and normalized, is it not therefore also sanitized and rendered sane?
Yet this ethical striving to understand and communicate with the seemingly unreachable other has not been extended to everyone. Just as other progressive groups have pointed the finger at the mad to say “were not like them/that!” employing the tried-and-true method of scapegoating another to endear oneself to some imagined civil society, mad or ex-patient groups have indicated that there is a limit to how far the welcoming embrace of sympathy and normalization can be extended. If suffragettes at one time said “we are not mad” as an argument for why they should receive the responsibility of voting rights, ex-patient and user groups have similarly said “we are not disabled” and “we are not criminals” to explain why they deserve more control over the treatment process with the same sort of implied expectation that the latter categories certainly cannot handle or do not deserve the same. Special clarity is warranted on this point: psychiatric survivor groups generally do find kinship in or explicitly align themselves with disabled peoples’ movements and goals. This makes intuitive sense, since the line dividing the mad and the disabled is in no way clear, especially as the terms themselves are internally malleable and open to polarized significations. Hence the mad and the disabled have found themselves compared with one-another or lumped together, both figuratively through popular figures like the monster or freak and physically in asylums that didn’t differentiate between the categories or in ways that cross contemporary dividing lines. Indeed, the language of madness and disability have been even more imbricated in one-another on the international stage since the United Nation’s 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) included the rights of people with psychiatric disabilities. The ratification of the convention by over 150 countries seemed to legitimize a social model of disability on a massive scale, not necessarily causing, but at least facilitating an increase in the term “psychosocially disabled” for patient and ex-patient organizing efforts in the Global South.
And yet, despite a shared historical status as objects of psy-knowledge and as inmates of similar or even identical institutions, madness, disability, and, increasingly in the last decade or two neurodivergence, are generally discussed and acted upon as separate political domains. The discursive act of cleaving off from one or the other in order to subjectivize oneself in a desired way is certainly not unique to psychiatric survivor groups, but occurs as discursive and organizational movements along four vectors: illness/health, capacity/impairment, vulnerability/empowerment, and violence/innocence. Differentiating maneuvers presuppose a landscape in which disability appears as solid land when compared to the fluid waters of madness (or vice-versa); this strongly understates the boundary problems inherent to the former and freezes them in arbitrary positions. Severance on the basis of illness usually takes the form of the statement “mental illness has no consistent biomarkers, therefore my condition is not based in my biology unlike [autism or Down syndrome].” I partially discussed this view in the last session, but suffice it to say here that we must all negotiate with an understanding of the body; it is a simple truth that in every human case there is something going on in the body, insofar as we continue to breathe and blood keeps flowing. Interestingly, depsychiatrization is most often thought of as demedicalization but it also can be realized through remedicalization along a different trajectory, for instance, by seeking out a neurological or psychosomatic explanation to replace a more stigmatizing one like schizophrenia. Examples like these suggest that the movement along these vectors is neither flat nor unidirectional. The second and third divisions can be evinced in more subtle manners around the stated goal of “independence,” commonly in housing or employment. The emphasis on individual capacity for independence presupposes “independence” as a desirable or coherent framing device, and nearly always has the implied structure of I can live independently, unlike such-and-such person who cannot. Independence as it relates to an individual’s capacity has a limited usefulness as a category for understanding access to quality housing, since it is quite clear that, given sufficient resources, anyone could live virtually anywhere, regardless of the attitudes of anyone in their life. Vulnerability, too, cannot be understood as a “trait” or a “risk factor” of one or another diagnosis or condition, since they are the material effects of a specific economic organization of the world. The proclivity to show the public representations of “well-adjusted madness”–an image of psychosis in a business suit– to prove that the mentally ill are adaptable and integratabtle elides this fundamental material dimension, as does the reverse image of the pitiable and vulnerable disabled person requiring aid in the form of charity pittances. Much of this is in line with what is termed the “social model of disability,” however it is possible that talk of the “social,” particularly in academic contexts, becomes overly rooted to the question of “attitudes” without probing the political violence and economic conditions in which such attitudes are rewarded.
Much more ambivalent is the emphasis placed on the severance of madness and violence, related to the distinction between madness and criminality. In the United States, we have been trapped in a horrific vicious circle: when a young white man murders his schoolmates or colleagues, guns down churchgoers or pedestrians, we are subjected to a full dossier of the shooter’s background and profile such as only happens with the Great Monsters like Leopold and Loeb or Aileen Wuornos. We are made to understand that his failed relationship to his parents, his early proclivity for disturbing content noticed by his schoolteacher, or his reticent silence could have warned us of what was to come, the base implication being that he was mentally ill and that this bears some relation to murder. In response, studies are mobilized by psychiatric survivor groups and disability rights organizations to support the thesis that the mad are not usually the perpetrators of violence, but its recipients. Depending on who you ask, madness and violence are either blood brothers or Cain and Abel. The Syrian author Ghada Samman, in her novel Beirut Nightmares, places a strikingly clear metaphor at the center of a story about the Lebanese Civil War: the doors of the psychiatric hospital are flung open, heralding the reign of irrationality in the form of daily shellings and bombings unleashed on civilians. War is hell, goes an ancient adage, and hell is madness. This couldn’t be further from the insanity portrayed in a film like King of Hearts, where the inmates of the psychiatric hospital in a French town escape during the German invasion in WWI only to form a peaceful, loving commune despite the circumstances, precisely on account of their madness inuring them from the cruelty of the world outside. At the end, when the psychiatric patients are locked behind closed doors again, the Scottish soldier on scouting duty opts to intern himself in with them rather than stay outside in a violent society. When the doors of the psychiatric hospital open, we shall either have the paradise of perfect fools, victims of the world without, or we shall see the greatest evils ever known feast on unsuspecting prey.
Infatuation with the menacing veneers and harsh school journal scribbles of white male murderers goes a long way in remaking the everyday as exceptional. Our history books are full of the names of white men on wanton murder sprees, but we don’t psychologize distant national forefathers, nor ascribe depth where the truth is right on the surface. Colonialism and racial terror are not madness unless we mean to stretch that word into the infinite, even though many of us might find it convenient to think of them as such. But no, the capture of territories, the impudence of desecrating ancient cultures, the sale and purchase of human beings, even the eradications of whole peoples for mere profit are rational acts within colonial and plantation economies. Bonaventure Ndikung writes:
Despite its obvious imprudence, violence, irrationality, absurdity, ludicrousness, and the mayhem and disorder it caused on colonized societies, colonialism is not madness, but rather a generator, facilitator, and catalyst of and towards madness (25).
To read Bessie Head’s masterful A Question of Power is, in this light, to experience the vertigo of an excursion through the internal ruins made by colonial violence, in her case in Apartheid South Africa. Elizabeth, the main character, is wracked in turmoil in her search for God, describing her descent into madness that led up to her move to Botswana. Head’s story suggests that the search for God in the colony can be experienced as the travel through hell, guided, or perhaps tormented, by figures she calls Dan, Sello, and Medusa, each of whom appears in different forms to either torture or soothe. Her torment is often described as the experience of falling, not just literally into a stinking pit but falling also in her position on the natural order: “She had a clear sensation of living right inside a stinking toilet; she was so broken, so shattered, she hadn’t even the energy to raise one hand. How had she fallen in there? How had she fallen so low? It was a state below animal, below living and so dark and forlorn no loneliness and misery could be its equivalent.” Dan’s visions of distortions and filth further suggested debasement, but in particular “began to make all things African vile and obscene. The social defects of Africa are first the African man's loose, carefree sexuality.” That Elizabeth is here and throughout subjected to the common base stereotypes of what it is to be African and black in the deepest throes of her insanity suggests that this is a case of colonial insanity, perhaps not unlike those described in the chapter on the mental disorders of colonial wars in Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. The truth of inner turmoil is on the historical plane: “the things of the soul are really a question of power” since “[t]here is no God like ordinary people.” Only history and the actions of people can account for our toils and strain. The rapprochement with the world of the living and break-up with madness slowly sets in the more she reconnects with soil; the story ends when she touches the Botswanan land in a “gesture of belonging.”
Colonial madness brings us back to the fool. A subtype of the fool figure in the Enlightenment showed him covered in leaves and shrouded in bushes, with a wild look on his face. This “wild man” archetype, highlighting the simplicity and uninhibitedness of the lunatic, was soon to become identified with the “savage” and especially black outsiders (Gilman, 142), and its windy evolution perhaps helps to explain the extreme polarization involved in invoking madness to explain the self, or excuse its more excessive outbursts. Madness as a descent into subhumanity has been buffered by the figures of the “savage” and black who are the true “other side,” or non-humanity. Despite experiencing an obvious and sometimes dramatic fall in status, whites who were interned in segregated psychiatric hospitals in early colonial Africa for insanity were given games for their leisure hours and meat in addition to the grains and vegetables accorded to the natives (see: McColloch). Debasement through madness is not a linear descent where other determinations affect one’s status in the orders of human, animal, or alien. As I discussed in the introduction to this series, madness in the 19th century was seen to be impossible among natives and Africans because it was perceived to be a “disease of the civilized.” Mab Segrest’s Administrations of Lunacy tells of how the segregated Milledgeville asylum in Georgia, the largest in the world, could not have been built or expanded without its supply of slave labor, which made it the cheapest asylum to run in the world (31). While it is true that asylum inmates are debased in their status as mad, what does this say about the slave cleaning up after them? Madness, as a distorted reflection of a broken segment of humanity, can, to the bewilderment of those who have been stripped of their badge of humanity in its name, paradoxically and in a roundabout way offer a remnant of humanity to those already denied it just as it can, at another time, describe the fall into savage animality and the ranks of the non-human.
Perhaps this is why the British writer Colin King thinks about his schizophrenia diagnosis through the lens of the Gemini sign: it is always a diagnosis with an “other side.” Even schizophrenia, supposedly the most alienated form of contemporary insanity, involves a measure of performance, following a script (15). Borrowing from Fanon, King suggests that even in conditions of extreme distress and alienation (18), black patients adopt a whole series of masks to navigate daily violent encounters where the mask of “madness” can lead to both internment, abuse, and fear or increased understanding or at least distance. Black men specifically have historically been associated with the most violent forms of madness, and, when under investigation for a criminal or antisocial deed, are differentiated from madness only to place them in the camp of irremediably violent criminals. Awareness of these representations gives rise to what Du Bois called the “double consciousness” of black people, or “this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Even as the mad role is associated at times with violence and terror, in the case of police shootings, it can be the key to a script of innocence: the police shot and killed a mentally ill person, who is therefore innocent of any possible crime. Mad people cannot appreciate the law and so to kill them is therefore inexcusable regardless of the mountains of bad faith investigation the families of the murdered expect to have thrown at their feet by murderers in blue. Blackness, like madness, has a deep-seated association with violence and criminality, and it is with, through, or against these terms that individuals in a profoundly violent situation have to negotiate a strategic relation with identity in a deadly serious masquerade. We should be troubled by the desire to distance madness from violence and crime using sociological tools when it does nothing to question what violence is or under what context it appears, and, most importantly, who gets define what violence is versus an appropriate reaction to stress in a world saturated with acts of brutality, daily murder, deprivation, exposure to viruses or dangerous chemicals, or pollution of native homelands and waterways.
Such are the contradictions in play when one sets out to politicize or organize around “madness” or psychiatric status (and surely I have only scratched the surface), comprising what Helen Spandler recently called the “uncomfortable truths of survivor narratives” (See: Dhar). It seems madness cannot make contact without inverting and scattering what it strikes, like a Midas touch that converts things into sinking boats on a river. “Mad” –cognate of Gothic words for “exchange” and “adulterate,” evoking a process of transforming while making impure through mixture. Around it, a linguistic constellation of contradictions: Icelandic connects it to “crippled,” Old High German to “vain” and “boastful,” English to “happy” and “brave.” A craze denotes a new fad, a new derangement and crazing in pottery refers to a network of tiny cracks that form on the surface of the product (Liberman). Crazy makes so many cracks on the surface of things–is there anything underneath?
An Arabic proverb tells us al-junun funun: “madness is of many kinds.” “What is madness?” asks Najib Mahfuz, “It appears to be a mysterious condition, much like life and death. You can learn a lot about it if you look at it from the outside, as for its interior, its core, it’s a suppressed secret” (1). If there is an inside of madness, it could only be like the inside of a circus tent on a moonlit night. Circus, from circulus, evokes circularity and the weightless rush around racetracks. It is described by Jean Clair as “that magic space in which bodies escape gravity. Under the sky of the big top, bodies describe precise arcs, stretch out figures that, being akin to those of the zodiac, hint at fate” (21). If it does have a sign, it would be that of the moon, the body whose phases shrouding us in illuminative light or leaving us in the deepest darkness govern the states of lunatics, literally those whose madness is tied to the position of the moon (Mohaghegh, 89). Down below, beneath the acrobat who defies the physics of ground and sky, clowns defy the physics that govern the space of the interior, despite the lessons of psychoanalysis and psychology, investing enormous weight to the trivial loss of a flower, but gleefully rushing headlong into the clearest sign of danger. The rolling of drums preceding a great feat calls to mind the spectacular execution of the criminal (159), but here, joy erupts when the performer escapes their pronounced fate. According to Henri Miller, the clown “is the story which he enacts.” He invites us to partake of life’s constant flux, offering us the “gift of surrender” (Clownforschung). The clown inhabits a world where the lowest scoundrels can find love just before the haughtiest king falls plopping into the mud. And yet, if it is a space imbued with magic, we know too that not all magic is benevolent. The veil of irreality in the spectacle of clownerie may subvert the expected, but, at its worst, it merely ritualizes it allowing an audience to guiltlessly laugh at the physical deformity of “freaks” or to revel in the cruelty of watching the auguste, the “one who gets slapped,” cry out in pain. The English word for clown originally referred to an uneducated peasant. And the fact that captive human beings have been put on display under the big tent in colonial expositions and the Jim Crow south shows it to be a place where the deepest malevolence also dwells.
Without question, it is folly to gather under the circus tent of madness to plot the end of the world, ludicrous to imagine finding resonance surrounded by distorting funhouse mirrors. And still we must. We must because, even though “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold,” or perhaps because it cannot hold, madness beckons from an Elsewhere and expects a response. Madness might be nothing, but it is and has been the fate of millions. If it’s nothing, then it’s a nothing that grabs hold of boundaries and corrodes them with its acidic drool while polarizing the very same to the farthest imaginable reaches. Understood through the weeping gaze of the clown, to set out with and through madness is to adopt a fundamentally ethical posture. From the position of one forever whirling around in its circulus–the vortex-like racetrack from which the circus derives its name–madness only reveals the essential truths of the world to parade them in a blurry masquerade trapped in a winding orbit. But, unlike the cosmic powerhouses churning at the axes of Andromeda and the Milky Way, activating systems of thermodynamic relays, there is only stale air in the center. It is here–denied the solidity of soil, flung round with glee or nausea, glimpsing only ephemeral markers to guide our passage–where we are called by madness to act and to find each other.
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