Saturday, March 27, 2010

Madness on CAN-TV

Pardon my silence. I have been tracking down permissions for CAN-TV to show some Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington images when they broadcast my Women, Creativity, and Madness lecture this week. Showtimes are

Sunday, March 28, at 5, Channel 19
Monday, March 29, 12pm, Channel 19
Wednesday, March 31, 12pm, Channel 21
Friday, April 9, 12pm, Channel 21

As I've been working on the Women, Creativity, and Madness book, and helping CAN-TV with the broadcast these past two weeks, I have also been reading Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, (1641-1695) a Mexican woman of letters who, to avoid marriage, entered a convent to pursue her passion for reading, writing, and thinking. Sor Juana's literary pursuits angered her superiors in the Church hierarchy, who were not pleased that a woman of such sharp intellect dared to be a public intellectual. At least twice in her letter to Sor Filotea de la Cruz, which is a defense of the right of women to read, write, think, and publish, Sor Juana describes her passion for learning as a madness that she cannot control. "I looked on nothing without reflexion," she writes, "I heard nothing without meditation . . . . Thus . . . I saw and admired all things; so that even the very persons with whom I spoke, and the things they said, were cause for a thousand meditations. . . . This manner of reflection has always been my habit, and is quite beyond my will to control; on the contrary, I am wont to become vexed that my intellect makes me weary; and I believed it was so with everyone, as well as making verses, until experience taught me otherwise; and it is so strong in me this nature, or custom, that I look at nothing without giving it further examination. Once in my presence two young girls were spinning a top and scarcely had I seen the motion and the figure described, when I began, out of this madness of mine, to meditate on the effortless motus of the spherical form, and how the impulse persisted even when free and independent of its cause . . . "

Sor Juana's descriptions of her own thought process, which closely resemble how my thoughts feel, present madness as perpetual thinking, and perpetual thinking as madness. Like Sor Juana, I also thought that all people thought all the time about everything. My brother Jeffrey has informed me on a number of occasions, however, that this tendency to perpetual thought is a disturbance peculiar to me. Because I am surrounded with scholars, poets, philosophers, and artists almost all the time, it is easy for me to feel "normal"--like thinking is what everyone does. But it happens now and again, that when I wander outside my circled, someone points out how odd it is to think all the time. Thinking about things like time and space and being and power and existential purpose--the subjects that seem ordinary for scholars and other writers and artists--are apparently, not what normal people think about.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The NYT loves madness!

In addition to the Ethan Watters article from last month about the cultural variability of what we call mental illness, the New York Times recently ran this piece about the possible evolutionary benefits of major depression. The article draws a connection between depression and creativity: apparently, a disproportionately high percentage of successful creatives have diagnosable "mental illnesses." This observation should no longer surprise people, as philosophers and artists have been meditating on the connection between creativity and mental breakdown for millenia. In our overly scientific/medicalized worldview, however, this connection has come to seem surprising. It didn't surprise Aristotle or Milton.

What is striking about these two recent NYT articles--both of which challenge the view that madness and melancholy are "illnesses" to be treated with drugs--is that they highlight the Faustian seductiveness of the scientific paradigm. Science and medicine, untempered by humanities-based thinking, imagine that knowledge is more discovered than created. The Truth is out there somewhere, and if we just use the right discovery procedures, we will find it. Sometimes, this is indeed true. The earth does revolve around the sun. But not all phenomena lend themselves to such certainty. Mental breakdown can never be fully understood by more extensive experimentation and further knowledge of biochemistry and brain function, because social, cultural, and spiritual factors affect mental breakdown, and physical science contributes rather little to our understanding of society, culture, and the spiritual.

To be continued . . .

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Madness and Capitalism

One overlooked aspect of madness is its capacity to generate profit. If you are already famous, and are prepared to become a spokesperson for the American/European party-line position regarding madness--that it is a biochemical disease requiring medical treatment--then you can make money off your madness (or off your sister's madness). You can sell your story directly, or you can generate publicity for the public persona you use to make money in other spheres of endeavor. If you are altruistically minded, you can donate your sources to a non-profit organization, and help generate money for them. However you do it, you can use madness to make money.

Of course, this is no surprise. The pharmaceutical, hospital, and therapy industries make a tremendous amount of money using the medical model of madness. In order for a hospital or doctor to get paid for treating someone, a doctor has to diagnose the madperson with a disease that is listed in the DSM-V. Doctors don't get paid if they do not select a qualifying diagnosis. Hospitals do not get paid without appointing a doctor to make a diagnosis. Diagnosis is also what entitles a patient or their insurance company to buy drugs. You can't buy a drug without a diagnosis. It's sort of like paying to join one of those exclusive clubs that serve lunch to suburbanites. So pharmaceutical companies also have a vested interest in the process of diagnosis. This is a sensible system to regulate the money that is made off of madness. And it has the public relations advantage of making all this profit appear to be motivated by the public good, by the sincere desire to help people. No wonder 1 in 4 people are--in the estimate of the National Institute for Mental Health--diagnosed or diagnosable with a mental illness! What a gigantic market!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Men, Women, and Wolves

Popular movies are fairytales, and fairytales explore the psyche. The Wolfman, a Hollywood fairytale, gives dramatic shape to children's fear of abandonment, paternal violence, sibling drama, and the hero-child's struggle for power. Like Beauty and the Beast, The Wolfman expresses a male concern about his own brutishness, and a hope that some beautiful woman will love him in all his beastliness, and that her love will set him free from beasthood. Most importantly, The Wolfman is about male rage. Rage is the source of his beastliness.

The film is full of images that give expression to a rapacious male capacity for violence, and the fear that, were he to let the beast in him out, he would rip the people he loves to shreds. Benicio Del Toro's Wolfman starts out as a gentleman, but contact with a beastly father turns him into a raving, murderous creature who disembowels and kills the people toward whom he directs his rage.

The film focuses particular attention on how the destructive capacity of male rage affects intimacy with a woman. Emily Blunt plays the Wolfman’s love interest in the film and, in one of the film’s illuminating moments, the Wolf in the man perceives the woman’s beauty and vulnerability. The woman’s very tenderness makes the Wolf in the man want both to fuck her and rip her to shreds. This dark impulse—to expose a woman’s pulsing red insides—is also explored in John Banyan’s novel Ghosts, in which a banished criminal whose crime is never named, confesses that he was driven by a desire to turn his female victim inside out. This violent component in male sexuality makes the Wolf-Man fear what he will do to the woman who elicits his desire.

The movie is also about family savagery. As a child, the Wolf-Man sees his father unleash the full force of his rage upon the beautiful and beloved mother. The sight so traumatizes and twists his young psyche that he spends a year in a mental institution where all real memory of the event is banished. The Wolf-Man’s experience articulates the archetypal psychic pattern of childhood trauma. In the pressure-cooker of the family, the child witnesses cruelty, betrayal, and violence so terrible that the child-self is traumatized. The outside world, refusing to validate the reality of what the child has seen, labels it “delusion” and “dysfunction” instead. The child is thereby made “crazy” and, as an adult, suppresses knowledge of the abuse he witnessed. This act of suppression condemns the child to repeat the pattern of abuse and cruelty. In the Wolf-Man, loyalty to siblings, battle with the Father, and love from a woman releases the traumatized (and therefore violent) man from the cycle of violence and carnage.

It is interesting the role that the Woman plays in all this. Del Toro falls in love with his dead brother’s fiancĂ©e. The movie gives expression to the male yearning to be seen in all his brutishness and loved/accepted by the Beauty anyway. The Woman, who does indeed see the Man for who he is and loves him anyway, expresses what must be an archetypal female fantasy: to save the Man she loves. “You cannot save him,” an old gypsy wise woman tells her. Of course, she is destined to try despite the warning. “You must not condemn him,” says the gypsy Woman. And she doesn’t. “You can kill a Beast,” muses the Woman-Love, “but not a Man. But where does the Beast end and the man begin?” Given that Man and Beast are one, she cannot kill the Beast without killing the Man. With great courage, the Woman-in-Love confronts the Beast in the Man-she-loves and, though she acts to protect herself against his rage and violence, she beholds him in his all his bloody rage, seeks to have him recognize her, and accepts him, as he is. This practice in love of accepting the Man as he is releases him from the cycle of violence. The two lovers do not get to live out their dream of Love—his rage has destroyed too much—but the family drama closes.

When he feels his rage rise, the Beast-Man tries to avoid the Woman-he-loves because he fears he will hurt her. In the Wolf-Man, the woman must choose love over personal safety, but she also must defend herself against the Beast’s bloodlust. The Woman is prepared to sacrifice her safety to an extent, but she must refuse to consent to her own death. She can put herself in danger for love, but she must not cross the line where sacrifice becomes martyrdom. In its central female character, the Wolfman gives audiences a vision of selfless love, courage, loyalty, and sacrifice, but also of feminine self-defense.

I hate to say how much this explains about my own intimate relationships.