“I would say that our patients never really despair because of any suffering in itself! Instead, their despair stems in each instance from a doubt as to whether suffering is meaningful. Man is ready and willing to shoulder any suffering as soon and as long as he can see a meaning in it.” …”What gives light, must endure burning.”
- Viktor Frankl
The most pernicious form of evil today , may be madness, mental illness, or psychopathology: It is evil in this guise, and in its most radical manifestation–destructive violence–that has now become the target of such intense psychological scrutiny and treatment. With escalating urgency, contemporary culture calls upon the psychologist and psychiatrist to do battle with this evil: to explain, control, or “cure” bedeviled individuals who tend to be homicidal, suicidal, sexually perverted, assaultive, abusive, addicted, anorexic, alcoholic, or otherwise violently destructive to themselves and/ or others; that is, the suffering, not the sufferers appears to be the true reality of evil today. It began as a great theme in art beginning in the young Romantic Age which seemed to have a penchant for madness; hence all the mad scenes that marked its artists’ revolt against reason. …
“Then, and then only, can we determine the realm in which the man of madness and the man of reason, moving apart, are not yet disjunct; and in an incipient and very crude language, antedating that of science, begin the dia-logue of their breach, testifying in a
fugitive way that they still speak to each other. Here madness and non-madness, reason and non-reason are inextricably involved: insepa-rable at the moment when they do not yet exist, and exist-ing for each other, in relation to each other, in the exchange which
separates them. In the serene world of mental illness, modem man no longer communicates with the madman: on one hand, the man of reason delegates the physician to madness, thereby authorizing a relation only through the abstract universal-ity of disease; on the other, the man of madness communi-cates with society only by the intermediary of an equally abstract reason which is order, physical and moral con-straint, the anonymous pressure of the group, the require-ments of conformity….
As for a common language, there is no such thing; or rather, there is no such thing any longer; the constitution of madness as a mental illness, at the end of the eighteenth century, affords the evidence of a broken dialogue, posits the separation as already effected, and thrusts into oblivion all those stammered, imperfect words without fixed syntax in which the exchange between mad-ness and reason was made. The language of psychiatry,(x) which is a monologue of reason about madness, has been established only on the basis of such a silence. I have not tried to write the history of that language, but rather the archaeology of that silence. ( Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization )
As Herman Melville says in “Moby Dick” , “Human madness is often a cunning and most feline thing. When you think it fled, it may have but become transfigured into still subtler form.” When he himself pursues this essence to its roots in totem and taboo, it leads him , as it has the earlier romantics, to that dark and mysterious realm of the subconscious. ”where far beneath the fantastic towers of man’s upper earth, his root of grandeur, his whole awful essence sits in bearded state…” But Melville did not possess the temperament to pull the beard of the king he found there enthroned; that literary feat was reserved for the Englishman Thomas Lovell Beddoes, whose five act black comedy, “Death’s Jest Book” is probably the most bizarre piece of writing during the romantic age.
Beddoes, who was born in 1803 and committed suicide in 1849, belongs to the great tradition of English eccentrics. He left oxford to go to Germany and Switzerland, where he spent more th
wenty years studying anatomy and dabbling in literature. If Keats was “half in love with easeful death,” Beddoes was wholly in love with it, and “Death’s jest Book” is his obsessional masterpiece: a sprawling, blood-drenched fantasy into which he projected his most sadistic dreams about corpses and ghosts and madness and revenge.
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!” ( Jack Kerouac )
Beddoes style is archaic, modeled on the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists, and the action, centered on the revolt of the court fool, takes place at a German court in the Middle Ages. This sense of being twice removed from reality in time and language gives Beddoes’s work a strangely psychotic quality, as though it were taking place in the hermetic asylum of his mind’s eye.
An anatomist by training and pathologist by instinct, Beddoes subjected death and madness to the most minute clinical investigation before giving them, as it were, a clean bill of health. It is said that he was constitionally unable to finish anything, but after several unsuccessful suicide attempts, the next to last cost him a leg, he was finally able to put an end to his life with curare. “I am food for what I am good for- worms,” begins his suicide note, in which he thoughtfully bequethed fifty bottles of Moet 1847 champagne to a cousin ” to drink my health in.” Even in this last ironic gesture there is a hint of that arcane sense of mummery that makes “Death’s Jest Book” such a lovely piece of absurd theatre.
The madman as a symbol is a living reproach to the skeptical, scientific view of man and the universe, which underlies everything that used to be known as Progress, and which, even in the 1800′s, was felt to be badly in need of reappraisal. The madman as metaphor is also the one who opens the trap door to that nether world where fiction and reality have quite a different relationship from the one we know from the daily newspapers. And it is here, far beneath the fantastic towers of man’s upper earth, that the artist may hope to reclaim his lost legacy of dreams, myths, and mystic flights of imagination.
This is a search in which he has invested an almost Messianic longing. It has gone on uninterruptedly for two hundred years, in the work of Dostoevsky and Kafka and Joyce, Baudelaire and Robbe-Grillet and Nabokov. Still the madman remains with us as one of the great themes of art: indeed, all art is now mad, madder than ever, quite mad! if regarded from the standpoint of a “sane” observer, circa 1800. Yet the artist has no choice but to continue the search. He knows, of course, that dealing with madness is playing with Promethean fire. ” it it not otherwise possible,’ say Goethe. “Whoever stands thus at the edge of the abyss has to die or go mad; there is no mercy.”
“One might here be inclined to counter that In the moment before speaking anything can be said, but in point of fact, for the vast majority of us, what we actually do say is governed by a set of tacit rules that drastically limit our possibilities of speech. Indeed, this one reason why many are inclined to say that the genius, and even the madman is, much closer to God, than the cleric. What comes out of the mouth of the latter is totally routinized and predictable, whereas what emerges from the mouth of the genius madman is often totally surprising and new. Before speaking, the madman’s field is wide open. His or her speech lies outside the boundaries established by the ruling discourse, and for this reason his speech touches upon, what Lacan refers to as the “real,” that which has not (yet) been circumscribed and routinized by ordinary linguistic convention). The moment before the madman speaks provides us with an intimation of Ein-sof, the infinite possibility before God spoke and created the world.” ( Sanford L. Drob )
“But I don’t blame any of us for blinding ourselves to the incredible intensity of our age. After all, we’re dealing with what Rudolf Otto called the Mysterium Tremendum – the deep unknown at the heart of the world that is so beyond our ken that we could not survive the knowledge. We cower from the face of God for good reason: that creative Source is a burning brightness of which fire is only a cool, pale imitation. History can be read as the story of one daring soul after another throwing itself into the flame, hoping to capture a spark. Our lineage is one of suicide missions, artists and scientists sacrificing themselves for the greater knowledge and experience of the collective. I believe that the danger of creativity never really went away – it just moved, leaving a sediment of the once-extraordinary behind as it rolled outward like cooling lava into the sea. We live on what was once the boiling coitus of elements – now the terra firma, solid and predictable terrain. Genius and Madness are neighbors because they move fast enough to stay ahead of everyone else, snapping up beachfront property as fast as it is made. (Madness just builds a slightly shoddier house, slightly closer to the tide.) And playing around on the edges is inherently dangerous. In any form, creativity challenges preconceptions, digests conventions, and throws us to burn and drown in the intensely unfamiliar. It changes who we are. “Being creative” is agreeing to an adventure from which nobody has ever, ever returned.” ( Michael Garfield )
Dostoevsky (If God is dead, “everything is permitted”) and Nietzsche (“. . . the advantage of our times, nothing is true, everything is permitted”) were both consistent in seeing the inevitable logic of relativism, but Dostoevsky was the more human. For Nietzsche to be consistent, he needed to become his own superman, but his views were overwhelming even for himself. As he poised over the abyss, he shivered with the horror of being “responsible for everything alive.” In the impossibility of this situation, madness perhaps becomes his only possible freedom from the overbearing responsibility. “Alas, grant me madness. . . . By being above the law I am the most outcast of outcasts.” All that was left was Nietzsche the exile, branded with the mark of Cain, with “the most painful, the most heartbreaking question, that of the heart which asks itself, where can I feel at home?”From the first step of facing this almost Faustian nihilism he saw no escape and allowed no escape. He scorned Hegel’s and Marx’s attempts to find some alternative purpose in history and Burckhardt’s answer that aesthetics could be the solution. As Erich Heller comments, “Nietzsche to the very end of his insanity spins out the thread of unbelief. In his very spiritual consistency there dwells the madness of desperation.” ( Os Guinness )