theorizing madness

Hello. I haven’t been meeting my writing goals for the semester. A past version of myself would have taken this as an excuse to kick myself, but recently, I’ve been feeling different. Not necessarily good, or bad. Not detached, not removed. Yet, away. It’s weird and hard to explain. It’s a good feeling, insofar that it’s different. I haven’t had much time to write to you, and that has been somewhat disheartening, but I have been busy taking care of myself, getting things in order, fleshing out my ideas, seeking out resources on how to live and be well in this body of mine. The rhetoric I have begun to critically engage could to some seem quite alarming – existentialism, the philosophy of madness, the ethics of suicide – but in many ways, it has been a long road to this point of clarity in my life. As I grow older, I am becoming aware of the great knots in my life. The road to wellness, to self-acceptance, is circuitous and winding; it does not cross, does not undo, the knots, so much as make us aware of their presence, of the means by which they constitute life’s journey. I cannot undo the past, nor can I manipulate it. All that is in my power is to come to terms with what is and cannot be, with I have done, and what has been done to me.

I have been developing a theory of anxiety and time which I refer to as timesickness. Anxiety is, in a way, an outside-of-time-ness. Some people refer to anxiety as a fear of the possibilities which lie in all possible futurities – what can and could and perhaps may happen, and the dread which the realization of these possibilities induces. I’m prone to agree with the connection between time and anxiety as a “fear” of futurity, but I also think anxiety is more or less a reading practice, a way through which individuals interact with a world coded with, as Fanon writes, a “certain uncertainty.” We are anxious because we cannot completely know, because there is always a space of impenetrable ambiguity between what is known and what is yet to be discovered. It is the fear and fascination with the search for extraterrestrial life, with the rabid desire to discover whether or not our creator really favored us so much as to make our home the only place in a unimaginably vast cosmos in which life, whatever that may be, can exist. Anxiety is fundamentally related to the question of one’s existence as a time- and space-bound individual, is the understanding of one’s circumscribed knowability, is the awareness of the apparent upper limit of what can ever be known or understood.

Bumping against the glass wall of the universe, the anxious person begins to figure in their minds the other universes in which alternative events take place. The world where you didn’t say that mean thing to your friend, and you ended up getting married and having children, instead of slowly drifting apart; the universe where you didn’t chicken out of applying to that research fellowship and therefore got the money to conduct your field research in Abu Dhabi, clearing the path to write that book of yours which has been gestating in your skull for years; the universe where your mother allowed you to cook alongside her as a young child, stroking your dreams of one day becoming a chef at a fancy restaurant, instead of telling you that chefs do not make a lot of money, that chefs are barely ever home to take care of their families, material realities and responsibilities which, to you as a seven year old child, are nebulous, ill-defined and perpetually intangible. The anxiety attack, in my experience, takes you outside of time entirely; you float in a nothingness, time dilates and distends, you feel as if everything is suddenly urgent, you need to flee, to get away, you have to get away at this very moment or you’ll die. And this sounds like a panic attack, only the anxiety is not so psychosomatic; you do not have the hyperventilation, you do not have the constriction in the chest, the feeling of actual bodily doom. It is all imagined; from the outside, you seem unwell, look a bit nauseous, but ultimately it is easy to dismiss it, to look elsewhere if you are not so emotionally attuned, or invested, to care – that is what makes it so terrifying. Other people’s reticence seems to signal your bodily absence. The world is falling apart around you, reality warps, familiar figures suddenly become unrecognizable, your voice dries up in your throat, your esophagus slows to a halt with disheartening peristalsis – and no one knows. How is possible that such things can happen within the narrow orbit of our own constructed cosmos? How is it possible that time can seem to slow to the point where every pull and push of breath in another person’s body can seem exaggerated, that you can feel the hairs on your head pushing slowly, infinitely slowly, out of your skull, while others continue to chat and belch and laugh, blithely detached, in their own worlds?

The road to wellness when dealing with chronic anxiety, I believe, is not so much about untying the knot which triggers the anxiety, that point in your life, the great omission, when your linear temporality buckled back onto itself, when your narrative history became cyclical. At that point, you are unredeemable. What I have experienced is that the goal is not to cease to be mad, but to understand madness as a perhaps imposed but ultimately unmediatable condition. This is the direction of my current research – how do we understand madness as a way of being; not as an aberrancy from the normal, as a stigmatized and thus discreditable marker of identity, but as itself a perspective deserving its own tools of discourse, its own means of analysis? How can we develop a benevolent philosophy of the mentally unwell?

For one, we must understand what constructs wellness. Foucault was not the first, of course, to bring our attention to the means by which the scholarly study of otherness and aberrancy, primarily in the medical sciences, first fleshed out the notion of the mentally sane in the relief of the mad and damned. In the same way that whiteness studies was carved from the cultural studies frameworks which allowed us to study ontological blackness as a fixed category of discourse, whiteness being the great void of all “that is not black” in the framework of the United States (there seems to be little room for discussions of indigeneity in any discussions of race in the United States, which is itself a historical holocaust.), so too must a framework be developed for better understanding wellness and psychic “wholeness” as categories which exist outside of and beyond the limited sphere of the mad and the damned. We must develop a charmed circle of madness and wellness.

Even the term “wellness” is a category which does not make sense; in the same way that no one is entirely straight, or entirely white, no one is entirely “well.” The metrics by which whiteness is quantified make it nearly, if not entirely, impossible for individuals to be the whitest or the blackest. The “ontologicality” of whiteness may seem to relegate its condition to a kind of binary logic of 1 for white and 0 for not, but beyond the level of the racial-as-visual code, some individuals exhibit more allegedly “white” (this is why I don’t like to use white when I mean Euro-American) characteristics. One could argue that a middle-class Anglo-Saxon man with a college degree is whiter than a Polish-American man from a working-class background and only a high school education, even if both individuals possess a tangible and mobilizable white privilege in their bodily makeup. Yet, historically, the former has more of the institutional perks, the comforts, the securities which the Polish-American, whose family escaped war-torn Gdansk during WWI, does not and perhaps can never possess. Through this analysis, the architecture of whiteness involves multiple metrics of intelligibility, from ethnicity, inherited socioeconomic status, to even the tangibility and English-language legibility of one’s last name. In the same way, queerness and straightness are not binary logics of 1 for straight and 0 for not, even if queerness and blackness is perhaps a negative ontology. I bring up the charmed circle (this idea comes from Gayle Rubin) because it represents the manifold manifestations of queer sexuality in ways which resist the unnecessarily totalizing and ahistorical notion of queerness as “not straightness.” Queerness is the amalgamation of sociosexual “aberrancies,” the sum of which constitute a general queer identity. Some of these aberrancies carry more socially significant valences, although queerness, if we are to believe it to  be ontological, operates along multiple channels. A ciswoman attracted to other women is queer, perhaps, insofar that this attraction is something “in her body,” but this alone does not necessarily encode her social being. Her unwillingness to act on her attractions, or her relative “normalness” in her sexual encounters, construct the illusion of a mediated queerness, the kind which many people may, from the outside, perceive as straightness, even if to her own knowledge, her unspoken feelings say otherwise. Being perceived as a gay man because of the exhibition of a kind of perceived femininity typically ascribed to gay men does not necessarily mean that that that man is attracted to men, yet his performance of gender and sexuality intimates a kind of “aberrancy,” nor does it mean that the straight man who “passes” is in some way “less gay” than the “feminine” albeit not-gay man. In short, queerness exists always in relation to a perceived notion of the straight, is fundamentally a non-category to and unto itself, although it requires, in its perception and policing, a tacit understanding of straight sexual politics so as to give body to the punitive discipline of homophobia which encodes “queer” as a social category. In a society without homophobia (note: this is not a society without homosexuality), the word for “queer” may not even exist, or carry completely benign significances.

Figure 1: Gayle Rubin’s “Charmed Circle” as depicted in her 1984 essay “Thinking Sex”

In the same way, we must develop a framework for understanding madness in relation to these constructed notions of the well. It is unlikely that a framework for madness will look like the “Charmed Circle,” which is, really, only a sketch of a general idea of a binary logic of otherness along the axes of “normal” and “aberrant” sexual practices, not ontologies. Queerness in the “Charmed Circle” is profoundly experiential or, better yet, practical; you must do things to be queer, and these things must be inherently non-normative. This, however, cannot explain the means by which queerness is felt and embodied, yet, perhaps, never acted upon, verbalized or even acknowledged. Are people who do not act, merely feel, not queer? Similarly, how would such a mechanism apply to madness? Is madness similar experiential, not ontological? How is wellness mobilized, and how can we understand it as the ontological standard for how human beings function? How does an imposed sense of otherness inherently reoriented the possibility for you to attain a kind of inherent wellness? In this moment of gun control discussion, the significance of lone white male shooters as perpetually influenced into positions of murderous violence perhaps warrants this kind of critique more than ever. How does the inherent pity which we feel for certain individuals afflicted with kinds of madness dismiss their narratives and shadow their testimonies with ideologically-informed ideas, such as “the lone shooter” and “the isolated incident,” the likes of which can never, it seems, in the United States be ascribed to, say, a Middle Eastern man? How does the way we approach madness as social stigma compound with other social categorizations, such as race, gender, nationality and class? A general discourse on madness must not simply stop at Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique, just as an analysis of Black madness should not stop at “Le noir et la psychopathologie.” It must go deeper still.

We must develop a narratology to understand the mad, to put faith in their testimony so as to illuminate madness as its own distinct way of being and thinking about the world. We believe that because we are allegedly well, that our traumatisms ring only in small, ignorable tremors in our minds, that our perception of reality is less effuse than theirs. Yet, all our narrative histories contain omissions which render any testimony threadbare. All our narrative histories are imbued with a desire to maintain our perception of ourselves, whatever they may be, which also make them biased. Because we cannot step outside of ourselves, because we know no other course of action, we believe that our enclosedness, our narrowness, makes us well, and that the mad, unable to make sense of reality, unable to put faith in people’s words, are inherently lost.

When we read Beloved, and find Sethe on the edge of death at the story’s end, rambling to herself, saying “She was my best thing” over and over again, Paul D holding her, attempting to convince her of her own self-worth, many of us are prone to feel pity, or perhaps even disgust, for her tangible madness. We feel the story has ended on a tragic note, for we are certain of her impending death, to occur offstage, in the coming pages which the novel could not contain. Yet, is this a manifestation of ableism? Should we pity Sethe for her mental collapse, an éffondrement the text predicts from its opening pages, or should we see her as finally receiving some sort of absolution, a kind of freedom, an attempt at impossible wellness she had never afforded her? It is perhaps her being outside of time now, her being outside of wellness, that grants her spirit the lightness to embrace a death from which she had been fleeing all her life? Can Sethe be redeemed?

How do we understand the mad? We are compelled to distrust them, to hate them, for in them, we see a reflection of ourselves, become aware of the invisible construct of our “wellness.” The mad exist outside of the symbolic world of meaning and images in which we have an unerring and unspeakable faith. They can see what we cannot, can still perceive the colors we have been trained to unsee. They have somehow resisted or broken free from domestication, have become fugitives…

Let’s look at a novel everyone loves to hate: The Catcher in the Rye. I can remember reading the novel the first time in tenth grade and my English teacher, a woman who set me on this path yet whose readings I have come to disagree with more and more, informing the class, after having read the text, that everything Holden had told us was to be called into question, was suddenly doubtable, because in the opening pages of the novel, he informs us of his institutionalization. I did not really like her reading, even then, because I felt as if I had wasted my time reading a novel whose “veracity” was itself constructed, but in hindsight, I am realizing how profoundly ableist it is for us as individuals with almost no moral investment in the text to call into question Holden’s testimony, even if it seems to be a blatant lie, even if it seems he is withholding something. How greedy and how ungrateful we must be as readers to ask for complete transparency from anyone, to believe that individuals who are mad for some reason are relegated to a kind of impenetrable narrative opacity, and that well-minded narrators, for some reason, are more deserving of our trust. Some of the greatest novels in the Western canon investigate the interiority of characters we would label as mad – The Catcher and the Rye, Native Son, Beloved, Crime and Punishment, Lolita, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Breath, Eyes, Memory, The Sorrows of Young Werther, L’Étranger, La Nausée, Madame Bovary, Things Fall Apart, Invisible Man, just to name but a few. Yet, because madness is discreditable, it is irredeemable. We must find a way to talk around it, to ignore that elephant in the room, that great knot in the text. Because mad characters cannot be sympathized with, cannot be understood in themselves, their madness must be mitigated lest they simply represent an outline, become the mad Other. Once one is an Other, they cannot be seen as anything other than that; an other, a non-being, a thing. When we do this to Black people or to women, it is odious. When we do this to people who need mobility assistance, who use wheelchairs and canes or prosthetic limbs, it’s disgustingly intolerant. Yet, the mad seem in many ways doomed to a life of acceptable, pitying otherness. They are worried about only when their madness seems to explode into a physical assault on the state and civilization of the well. They are pitied because of their unredeemability, because we cannot go back to when they were perceived to be well. We cannot prevent madness in people, but we can create a society in which the mad are not perpetually invisibilized and deprived of agency because of their intransigent unwellness.

There is a kind of eugenicist utopianism to the idea of a world without mentally ill people. A life without trauma, without abusive parents and molesting uncles and alienating neighbors is not attainable. Yet, there are mad people who do not have childhood traumas, whose temporality never developed that kink from an omitted night at a party or a stroke of violence from armed officials – there are people whose madness has slowly but surely seeped its way into their being, who have been conditioned by the world around them to adopt a kind of normalcy coded with the language of unwellness – what do we say of them? Is the way that Black people passively exist and conduct themselves a kind of white-received madness, insofar that the grand conspiracy of white supremacy is in its own way the feverish ramblings of the madman on the street, completely opaque, incoherent, unsignifying to the white person unable to understand what is being said? What about the reverse: does the entitlement to space and attention which White people so mind-numbingly demand itself a kind of madness for people of color? What about the self-minimization, the defeatism, which many non-men experience? Or the excessive fixation on money and material possessions which some people from low-income backgrounds experience? In the Freudian sense of direct stimuli, these people cannot be labeled mad, even if they exhibit social tendencies which make them distinct from the constructed standard of the well. Yet, the circuitous logic of such a discourse brings us ultimately back to this question: what is wellness?

These are very well questions I will be wrestling with for the next few years at the least. Much work is to be done as it relates to the question of ability and mental health, primarily as it relates to the conditions of sociologically othered individuals. Part of this research is indeed soul-searching; attempting to find in my primary texts the tools with which I can build a strong house in which to live and flourish with the body and mind I have been given, into which I can seek refuge when my otherness ceases to be internally felt, but externally made apparent by others. Yet, part of it is also to better understand power as concept which precedes all logic, which constructs identity insofar that it allows us to understand ourselves only in relation to others, to the Other. These are questions which demand answers, these constitute a discourse the world has needed for a long time.

Photo: “Two African Hairstyles,” by Lois Mailou Jones

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