In Praise of Madness
Most creative people are a little bit crazy. So isn’t it time we ditched those conformist ideas about mental health? Essay of the week by John Burnside
TOWARDS THE end of 1963, during one of those periodic controversies about "smut" that characterised the age, the writer Kenneth Tynan composed a rather odd letter of complaint to The Times. "Dear Sir," it began. "I hope I am not a prude, but I feel compelled to lodge a protest against the recent outbreak of violence and sexuality in dreams. Many of my friends have been as shocked and sickened as I have by the filth that is poured out nightly as soon as our eyes are closed. It is certainly not my idea of home entertainment'."
The letter was a spoof, of course; yet it made an important point about the nature of the imagination and mental health. For as long as anyone could remember, public notions of sanity - both individual and social - had been predicated on the denial of the "darker" and more unruly elements of the psyche and, in spite of Freud and Jung, in spite of two world wars, in spite of the Surrealists' championing of artful transgression and amour fou, most people in the 1960s accepted a crude and flimsy notion of mental health that depended, principally, upon the suppression of the dreaming self.
To be sane was to be almost devoid of sensuality; the creative imagination had been exchanged for a "rationality" that takes as its starting point the absurd premise that everything, from the mind to the cosmos, is more or less mechanical; the mad were dangerously sick and so unlike the sane as to form a distinct and separate species. Like everything around it, the brain was a little machine to be maintained and mended with whatever tools were in fashion, from talking cures and cold showers to numbing drug regimes and ECT. The imagination, the dreaming self, the inner wild of soul that the word psyche had once signified - all this was reduced to the "subconscious" and written off as an anomaly, a mild nuisance, like the slight knocking in an otherwise functional car engine.
Tynan wrote his letter - which went on to talk about "disgraceful scenes of perversity and bestiality" - almost 50 years ago and, in the intervening years, Freud's ideas have become part of society's background noise (acknowledged, bowdlerised and finally ignored, as is common practice in a self-designated "liberal" society), yet we still have only the crudest of notions of mental health and we exist within a narrow social order that stifles the imagination and limits the potential of the majority of its citizens. No matter what kind of gloss we put on it, those who challenge the accepted norms are "eccentric" or "ill" ("I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness," says Allen Ginsberg, in Howl - arguing that, when public life is so ugly, so conformist and so unjust, the sensitive mind is almost obliged to suffer) while those who uphold them, even while perpetrating the most insane acts, are normal. Yet, as a former mental patient myself, I am convinced that most madness is a search for order, and it is all too obvious that the order society offers is embarrassingly rudimentary, a system of taboos and diversions designed to limit - or to render prurient and so cheapen - any manifestation of the spontaneous, imaginative, soulful state that I would like to call "wild mind".
This condition is not anti-rational, as some would claim; instead, it opposes the narrow rationalism of those who have still to learn that one of the highest achievements of the rational mind is to see the limits of its own logic. As Wittgenstein says, in the concluding pages of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: "There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical." At this point, poetry, art and the imagination go to work, where logic left off.
It would be easy to say that we have always been as crude in our thinking about the well-balanced mind as we are now - but it would also be wrong. The Athenians, for example, were well aware that sanity depends as much on the acknowledgment, and ritual enacting, of the irrational as it does on logic and common sense. They created set times and spaces where the mysteries of the wild mind were celebrated with total abandon. As much as they prized public debate and the exercise of reason, they also honoured myth and dream, intuition and the kind of radical guesswork that can sometimes arise from drunken, desperate or trance-like conditions. Similarly, and not only in ancient times, societies have arisen in which day-to-day survival and the preservation of social mores has not only coexisted with, but depended upon, the "irrational" dream life of one or more of the group's members. In shaman communities, for example, a likely individual is singled out at any early age and subjected to a training in induced craziness (fasts, solitary wanderings, the use of powerful hallucinogens) that, to outsiders, would seem perverse, or even cruel, but is regarded by the entire group as essential to its continued success.
Conducted over many years, this training prepares the shaman for exhausting and sometimes life-threatening journeys in the unknown that are nothing less than fits of madness, deliberately induced in order to gain entry to a very real and often terrifying dream world in which valuable insights can be won and carried back for the benefit of all. Yet, while the shaman's sojourn in that realm appears to be a solitary one, he is never quite alone. In the Sámi tradition, for example, the chosen individual was sent out into the otherworld by a band of male drummers and then, when the vision had been achieved, he was "sung back" by the women of the clan or group, thus ensuring the participation of the entire community in the ritual journey. The shaman himself would have been selected for qualities that best fitted him to his work - qualities like sensitivity and dreaminess that we tend to play down, especially in males - but everyone acknowledged, and participated in, the voyage into the unspeakable. Like the Greeks, shaman societies understood that, as important as reason and practical knowledge may be, we only live fully if we include in our lives what Shakespeare refers to as "more than cool reason ever comprehends". We would do well to learn from their example.
The sad fact, however, is that we live in a society that summarily dismisses the irrational and so finds itself embarrassed by the mad, the shamanic and the visionary - a position that immediately reveals itself as absurd when we realise that many of the things we most value, or say we value - art and poetry, for example - have so often been produced by men and women who spent their entire lives on the very brink of shamanic madness. Occasionally that proximity has even been deliberately engineered: the poet Rimbaud called it a "systematic derangement of all the senses", and practised it as science, the Surrealists honoured the mad, the sexually deviant and those who had fallen under the spell of amour fou as exemplars of pure imagination, while the image of the drunken or drug-crazed artist has become a cliché that only serves to obscure deeper questions, not only about the relationship between creativity and the irrational, but also about the poverty of a social order in which any active disagreement or deviance from the crudely "rational" norm is scrupulously punished (or "treated").
TS Szasz expressed this idea best, years ago, in his 1958 essay Psychiatry, Ethics And Criminal Law: "The question may now be raised as to what are the differences, if any, between social nonconformity (or deviation) and mental illness. Leaving technical psychiatric considerations aside for the moment, I shall argue that the difference between these two notions - as expressed for example by the statements "he is wrong" and "he is mentally ill" - does not necessarily lie in any observable facts to which they point, but may consist only of a difference in our attitudes toward our subject. If we take him seriously, consider him to have human rights and dignities, and look upon him as more or less our equal - we then speak of disagreements, deviations, fights, crimes, perhaps even of treason. Should we feel, however, that we cannot communicate with him, that he is somehow "basically" different from us, we shall then be inclined to consider him no longer as an equal but rather as an inferior person; and then we speak of him as being crazy, mentally ill, insane, psychotic, immature, and so forth."
This is still the case. Anyone who has ever been in a mental hospital knows that, to be considered well, he must construct a narrative that the outside world can take seriously - and to do so, he must discard his own dreams and visions, no matter how vivid, diagnostically accurate or even just plain beautiful they might be. Why? Because our idea of what constitutes madness, whether in the asylum, or buried deep within our own social personae, is symptomatic of a system built on a near-total rejection of the wild mind.
"There must be room for the imagination to exercise its powers," says William Godwin. "We must conceive and apprehend a thousand things which we do not actually witness."
But for us, imagination has been subjugated to mere aspiration: we follow the dream that we are told is ours, and so end up either winning or losing those far from obscure objects of desire that admen prescribe: the look, the product, the lifestyle. In school, children are taught to be "imaginative" after an accepted model and, even then, they are given to understand that poetry and mental fight don't really matter that much anyway - with the result that, when those children grow up, they feel ashamed of their secret imaginings and flights of fancy, and inadequate if they cannot replace private and highly individual dream-lives with internalised product placements and pre-packaged corporate twitter.
Eventually, the time comes, for at least a quarter of us, when the only road back to real sanity - that is, to a condition of wild mind, in which the rational and the irrational achieve some kind of symbiotic balance - is to drop everything and go stark raving bonkers. It is saddening, then, to see that the main concern of society at large is to ensure that the "mental patient" - whose confused shamanic wanderings say more about a wider malaise than his or her own - is hauled back to normality unchanged and unheeded, ready to be a productive member of the group once more.
Now, it is not my intention to glamorise madness, and this essay is not a special plea for the anti-psychiatry lobby: I have been a lunatic myself and I readily admit that, during my strangest days, the idea of sitting in a room with RD Laing pretending everything was hunk-dory would have sent me running for the hills. I am happy to confess that there have been times in my life when I derived real support - interim, emergency support - from anti-psychotic drugs like chlorpromazine and I would be the last person in the world to deny a clinically depressed or manic patient his or her medication in time of need. Yet, like anyone else who has ever been "in the bin", I long for a society that cares enough about its maddened citizens to offer them true and honourable asylum - which is to say, imaginative and restful space for reflection and healing - and I also want to offer a few words in praise of madness, because madness has the potential to be both creative and diagnostic, to pose new ways of thinking and being and to expose the weaknesses of a society predicated on a simplistic and unworkable view of order and rationality. The mad are dreamers and dreams are the means by which the mind resolves conflicts, balances the books, finds new ways of moving forward and goes back to retrieve the precious things it has forgotten - in other words, the means by which a continuing, provisional and richly heuristic order is created. Occasionally, those mad dreams are smutty, grotesque or violent; at times, they are extraordinarily beautiful; yet they always contain a truth that would otherwise be hidden, and we should do all we can to allow that truth be heard.
In practical terms, this means letting the mad speak on their own terms - and listening to them - rather than obliging them to provide the prescribed narrative of the "cured". It also means responding to the diagnostic evidence of social disorder that madness offers. In Argentina, a project called Radio La Colifata ("Radio Loony") has been running for over a decade now, providing mental patients at the Borda Psychiatric Hospital with a radio programme in which everyone, from the short-term patient to a long-term inmate who describes himself as The King of Paranoia, is able to speak freely, offering flights of fancy, self-mockery and dream narratives, as well as personal stories, songs and political insights. This programme is now very popular on "the outside", and is syndicated with a number of commercial channels. "The people outside do not know what goes on inside this place," one of the patients has commented. "They think this is just a repository for crazies. But we are not crazy. I think part of the reason this programme is so popular is that when people hear us on the radio they hear something familiar inside their own heads."
This, in a nutshell, is the true significance of madness: it is, in so many ways, a communal matter. Crazy people are the wild mind's response to a society whose order is either too weak or too rigid to offer a fulfilled life and, as such, they are diagnosticians of social ills, from neglect and abuse - and such narratives often emerge on Radio La Colifata - to the spiritual poverty to which those outside the asylum walls too willingly surrender.
Sometimes, the mad point up flaws in the social order by opposition, countering the arid, the repressed and the second-rate with lunatic dreams, flagrant sensuality and epic tales of adventure and battle; sometimes, they echo the crimes and excesses of the group in ways that leave us troubled enough to demand change. Either way, the mad are valuable. We should listen to what they say, stop trying to cure them, offer them the healing spaces of true asylum rather than mental institutions or so-called "care in the community" - and, occasionally, when the moon is full and high in the sky, remind ourselves that we are all a little wilder, and a good deal more imaginative, than we have been taught to believe.
John Burnside is an author and poet. His latest collection, The Hunt In The Forest, is published by Jonathan Cape, £10