Saturday, May 01, 2010


Madness in all its gorgeous efflorescence is almost seductive. How can a vision of the world that is so different from what the rest of us can see be accounted for? Is this person haunted or gifted? Were Crazy Horse, Louis Riel and Joan of Arc all madmen who had visions or did they just have difficulty in adjusting? Maybe the answer depends on the kind and content of the madness and maybe it is more a matter of the culture in which the mad person is lucky or unlucky enough to appear.

Erik Erikson proposed that some individuals embody the neurosis of the age in which they live and are therefore living illustrations of the issues, like both Martin Luther and Martin Luther King and maybe Gandhi or Teddy Roosevelt. Might this be true of Bin Laden? Or is Erikson’s theory just a variation on the “great man” understanding of history? Might Freud have been a good example of a madman who suited his times?

We know a lot about madness now, numbered chapter and verse in the Diagnostic Manual that dictates how to “code” for insurance and filing. But still the causes slide back and forth in their emphasis and significance. Here’s a list:

Mistaken ideas that can be corrected by talking with someone.

Genomic inheritance or mutation that causes the molecular proteins to be faulty and therefore interfere with cell operation.

Faulty hormonal “soup” in which the cells float and across which they must signal.

Malfunctioning or undeveloped structures of the brain, ranging from things like the amydala and the two hippocampi to the newly discovered spindle cells in the forehead.

Damage to the senses themselves or to their integration in the brain so that information is distorted or lacking, or has never been corrected though the information is different, so that people with amputated limbs go on feeling them.

Trauma to the body or especially to the brain that creates clots and scars, causes memory to recur and recur or to be lost, unable to persist.

Chemical interference, deliberate (recreational or medical) or accidental (contamination of food, pollution in air or water)

Electromagnetic interference or radioactive contamination, unseen.

Probably that doesn’t exhaust the list. A new source of madness may simply be the media. Pounding music. Tachistoscopic stroboscopic information that can’t be processed. Lack of quiet and time for processing. Overload with images of horror and cruelty. Lack of access to open space and animals. Sleep shortage. Sudden change of environment, as from battlefield to domestic home. Constant warnings.

Why would we worry about madmen? It depends on the intensity of their actions. We might not like the content of their raving or their artwork. They might go outside the boundaries of sex or violence or clothing or cleanliness or proper language. They might do a lot of screeching or stealing. They are inconvenient and they can’t earn a living.

But some of us look at madmen or mad boys, and see suffering. (Females are also afflicted, of course, but somehow males seem more vulnerable.) The old time Blackfeet said the reason for suffering is so that the rest of us will learn to have pity. And yet we often fail the lesson, withdrawing our money so that madmen live in our streets and we learn to step over them without seeing them. Or if they make too much trouble we criminalize them. Or kill them with lack of care or law enforcement excess.

If we DO see the suffering and have pity, what can we do? Here’s a list:

Supply the basics: food, water, shelter, medical care, safety and peaceful quiet.

Talk to them to try to understand on a practical level what they are thinking. Now and then someone is in a foreign country and speaking a language not understood there so that they seem to be babbling. Historically, Helen Clarke famously rescued a Blackfeet man from an insane asylum in the East where his refusal (inability) to speak English was considered a mental defect. I invented a version of this for “Twelve Blackfeet Stories” and then noted that the same thing happened to a Mexican tribal man from up in the mountains who was thrown into jail until he was found by a friend who spoke both the tribal language (the authorities had tried Spanish with no luck) and English.

An expert can “listen out” from a distressed person the patterns of mistaken thought that underlie maladaptive behavior. Sometimes it takes a group -- not a group of experts but a group of people who have made the same journey from suffering to recovery. It is possible for a listening helper to be seduced into the madness, which may come to seem a beautiful insight even in its implacability, which to the religious may seem either demonic or salvific, leading either to crucifixion or veneration or both.

Drugs can be both useful and destructive. In the early days of hallucinogenics, they were thought to be small imitations of madness, truly gorgeous and a time-limited experience. Highly educated seekers were dazzled by the release from assumptions they had earned the hard way. Then the substances were overused, used wrongly, blamed and criminalized. In long-time cultures mind-altering drugs and practices (solitude, dehydration, hypothermia, controlled breathing) acquire safeguards and “containers” over time, but in a culture already confused and multifarious, LSD and atahuasca are as mixed in result as alcohol new to Native American culture.

Modern fix-it-culture pharmacology treats disease with chemistry: supplying the missing molecules, suppressing or even eliminating viral codes, amping up the body’s chemistry (immunity) without overdoing it (auto-immunity). There is money in this -- which means potential unwillingness to supply money or the unwillingness to totally cure because that will mean a loss of income -- that can perpetuate the problem and therefore the suffering.

We have turned away from some of the brutal surgeries of the past (lobotomy) but we still do brain surgeries to excise tangles and growths and still do implants (cochlear for hearing, tubes for draining, clamps to stop hemorrhages). With our fMRI’s and CAT scans we become more and more skillful. Electroconvulsive shock goes in and out of favor.

We have still not created a culture that accepts madness while addressing the suffering that can come with it. There are no places for madmen to rest in safety, no maps of their journeys, no recognition for their humanness and splendid ideations of other worlds the rest of us cannot visit. We are too frightened of them. We need stories that can teach us how to learn from them even as we guard our own sanity.


Lance Michael Foster said...

I know you don't talk to me anymore Mary, but I appreciated this post.

Art Durkee said...

There's a marvelous short novel by Theodore Sturgeon titled "Some Of Your Blood" that is an exploration of exactly what you're talking about here: the definitions of madness, the misunderstandings that happen across cultures and within cultures.

This morning I was re-reading Samuel R. Delany's novel "Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand." The whole fabric and purpose of the novel is to explore cross-cultural misunderstandings. How alien we can be to each other, even though we're all still theoretically human.

I also was reminded of how it was considered an acceptable past-time in an earlier era in England for those of the upper class to tour Bedlam, the London insane asylum, to get their frisson of atavistic terror. Perhaps as a way of safely letting chaos into their ordered, mannered lives. There have been times when it seems to me that Virginia Woolf was writing about this in Mrs. Dalloway. how madness (PTSD, shell-shock) and the party consciousness, i.e. upper class social whirl, are not only intertwined, but reflective of each other.

Possibly the best book I've read following on Erikson's insight is Arnold Mindell's "City Shadows," the premise of which is that the mad are those on the margins of any group who act out that group's repressed madness. Like canaries in the coal mine, they're the ones who enact what no one else will admit to, about their own culture. Reminds me also of heyoka ceremonies in the Pueblos.

You tied a lot together here with this, and fired up my associative engine. Thanks!