The Myth of Noble Madness
College freshman year abnormal psychology – at least as I remember it from some 30 years ago – can be something of a dark and frightening experience. In it the students are exposed to the variety of mental troubles that we have come to understand through modern day psychology. Anyone who has ever had any troubles or doubts about their own stability – which includes many teenagers – can wonder while learning about such diagnoses as obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety, and psychosis whether there may be some thread of trouble cursing their own still formative minds.
This view of mental illness can be scary, and can cause a sort of revulsion toward those who suffer from any of the variety of mental afflictions.
But there are also voices in psychology, and reaching back millennia, who have viewed mental illness as a fount of great wisdom, of supernatural intervention, or as a clear vision into truth which is denied to the normal psyche.
Socrates, in the Phaedrus, said that, "Our greatest blessings come to us by way of madness, provided the madness is given us by divine gift."
But mental illness is neither of these. Mental illness is no different from any other affliction. It is a disability that can cause great pain – as can a physical disease or handicap – but as with any human struggle, it can also inspire great courage and bring out the best within the person afflicted, as well as those who love and care for them.
This is not any sort of gift from the affliction itself, but the purposeful act of directing one's energies toward overcoming the challenges of life. But the two threads of thought – the phobic aversion to a person afflicted, or the mystical reverence for their imagined shamanic wisdom – are both misguided, and the latter particularly I think has done great harm to our culture, by glorifying a primitive, impulsive and volitionally mindless approach to life.
One personal agenda I have in my writing is to untangle a web of dangerous and bizarre thought that has served to undermine our culture and do great harm to countless people. Much of this thought can be found in the teaching and writing of members of the psychiatry and psychology professions.
There is a naïve belief – as epitomized in Rousseau's idea of the Noble Savage, or Margaret Mead's anthropological theories – that primitive peoples, due to their supposed closeness to a kind of fundamental and natural human truth, hold a lost wisdom that we would be wise to recapture and emulate.
There is a corollary to this that can be seen in the glorifying of mental illness. This thread of thought has supported a self-indulgent quality of emotional expression, an elevation of impulses and feelings to the level of reliable guides for action, and an acceptance of vulgar, rude and irresponsible behavior.
During the 50's, 60's and 70's, with the help of people like the Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing, there developed a view of mental illness, specifically psychosis – which involves uncontrollable hallucinations – as endowing their sufferers with a kind of mystical wisdom.
Laing was famous for blaming psychosis on poor parenting, while he himself fathered ten children by four different women, with, according to family members, not much personal regard or kindness toward them. He exemplifies the self-righteous hypocrite who misleads his patients, readers and students by teaching his own personal musings and fantasies as though there were some substantial truth to back it up.
Like Rousseau, who lectured parents on child rearing while dumping his own children at the orphanage, Laing must have been full of compassion for some abstract idea of people, but not for any actual people.
Here are a few choice quotes to give you an example of Laing's thinking:
"Insanity - a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world."
"Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be break-through. It is potential liberation and renewal as well as enslavement and existential death."
"The experience and behavior that gets labeled schizophrenic is a special strategy that a person invents in order to live in an unlivable situation."
"There is no such condition as 'schizophrenia,' but the label is a social fact and the social fact a political event."
I guess you could say, from Laing's perspective: "Don't sweat the crazy stuff... and it's all crazy stuff!"
Laing, who still has a following decades after his death, claimed that insanity is a response to what he called "the divided self." A true cynic, he viewed the personal identity that is supposedly defined for us by our families and society as phony, and in conflict with our true, authentic self buried deep inside. It is the resulting "fracturing of the self," Laing proposed, that is the cause of psychosis.
It's always the parent's fault, isn't it?
Of course, we know now that psychosis is a physical and biochemical ailment. There may be a genetic predisposition that can be triggered in some people by certain experiences such as severe trauma or abuse, or chemical interactions, but it is absolutely not caused, in any fundamental way, by normal, imperfect parenting – or by society.
The range of human experience is vast. The richness of human creativity can give rise to phenomenal beauty, to awe and to a sense of deeply emotional and meaningful inspiration. There can be glimpses of profound insight. There can be mysteries, there can be experiences of sacred revelation, and there can be moments of what can only be described as illumination and a sense of the eternal. There is no madness to these experiences. The best of these are generally richly ordered and textured, often preceded by much devoted practice, study, and focused effort within a specific field.
But this is not how primitive people generally make sense of such phenomena – and the seduction toward mystical associations and emulation of madness through indulgent and impulsive behavior is primitive. In The Greeks and the Irrational, E. R. Dodds reminds us that even in Ancient Greek society, the birthplace of rationality and logic, there was plenty of the primitive and irrational:
It is the common belief of primitive peoples throughout the world that all types of mental disturbance are caused by supernatural interference. (Pg 65-66)
Yet if the insane were shunned, they were also regarded (as indeed they still are in Greece) with a respect amounting to awe; for they were in contact with the supernatural world, and could on occasion display powers denied to common men. (Pg 68)
This is all understandable. Madness can look bizarre, and the actions taken by those afflicted can be bold and dramatic. People wrestling with hallucinations that they cannot always distinguish from our shared reality can make a big impression. They are dealing with great and often overwhelming forces, and their struggle inevitably spills over into the lives of those close to them. To the extent that they can function while somehow simultaneously regulating such forces, they show a strength of will and character that is impressive, to say the least. To the extent that they cannot, the effects can be truly awful.
It has taken much diligent study and investigation over the course of the past hundred years or so to begin to understand the antecedents and physiological mechanisms of mental illness. It is not mystical. It is not caused by a difficult childhood within a normal range. It is not some kind of super-sane response to western capitalist society.
Mental illness is nothing but tragedy. I would not wish it on anybody, and the romanticizing of it is terribly naive - coming from the same sentimental longing for an irresponsible life of the impulses as does Rousseau's fantasy of the noble savage.
At the same time, I have the utmost respect for those clients of mine over the years who have truly suffered from severe mental illness, who have drawn heroic forces to bear to bring themselves to some level – or even a magnificent level – of functioning.
If there is any wisdom to come from mental illness, it is not in the illness itself, but from the resilience and perseverance that I have seen people bring forth in trying to overcome that illness. It is that heroic approach to life's difficulties, especially when they are so daunting and tragic, that is to be honored. Not some mythical belief about magical visions.
Posted by Hanna M Jones on 08/12/11 11:33 PM
I have spent more than 5 years learning to live with the fact of my beautiful 23 year old son's death by his own hand. I found him. No one in this world can know the reality of that--other than another parent of a suicide. This was and is experience of a stunning reality.
However, there is also another side to the coin of apparent and actual loss. God will and does give us peace--it is hard fought and terrible in these circumstances.
The gods of many religions make suicide a sin or in the former unenlightened years of the LAW, a crime. How stupid is that! A person who is beyond the capacity to deal with his or her stress and has completely lost hope, for whatever reason at the time, executes himself. Charge him? So ludicrous. He has beaten the powers that be to it. And in the cases of others who didn't "succeed" the law used to want to punish them for even trying. Ludicrous but NOT funny.
I know after my more than five years of experiences, that my son still lives!His spirit is alive. Believe what you cannot see, I do --he is alive--he sends me unmistakable messages ( so many you would be astounded--many are). He has saved me from being killed on at least 2 occasions that I know of.
All the suffering, the desolation, the apparent and actual loss has had some recompense. I know I will see him again. I know it does not matter what illness a person has, whether mental or physical, we all die and those of us who recognise that love is the greatest gift God has allowed us to give and receive and experience know that our continuing love is the way to ultimately reunite.
Love is free--we only need to give it. It is like a migrant bird ---in the spring--it will return.
I don't care anymore what my son's psychosis was--his physical body is dead and I can tell you the "doctors" didn't care then ( when I did and Begged fo their help). JUST LOVE your children and that love DOES NOT END.If you do your best to care despite all the stuff that happens --which is horrible ( even when the ones who "know" don't) that's all you can do.
We live in a messed up society and a child dies by suicide every 16 minutes in the USA. In the Midwest these suicides are routinely not reported. They are classified as accidents or natural deaths. The number of suicides of people who have reached the HOPELESS stage would increase significantly if accurate reporting were made. This is a KILLER issue, that few want to address.
All I know is that many sons and daughters have already died nd many more will and it can happen to anyone.
Go out and love your children. It may not be enought to save them but it might save you from following that path too.
In summary, I have been given that sense of the eternal by my son and it is the gift that sustains me each day. And staying alive has been hard fought and VERY scary. This experience is one I never ever wanted or thought would be in my life--but there it is--- REALITY.
Posted by s1lver on 08/12/11 08:08 PM
The range of human experience is vast...........no madness to these experiences. Then I would say that you are not one who has experienced any of them. A real experience of that "outside" of "reality" as we know it can be most frightening at times. Beware of one that tells you that journeying in the mind, any meaningful and beautiful experience at any rate, any "illumination and sense of the eternal", is not sometimes hard fought and scary. It is no different than seeking any other freedom. No madness to these experiences? That's laughable. That's intellectualizing someone else's experience, and the fault of all religions. There is no talking about other's experience. That is what makes it experience.
Posted by Dave Jr on 08/12/11 05:49 PM
No, forget about normal. What is healthy?
Posted by Dave Jr on 08/12/11 05:42 PM
So lets take an inventory of what is "normal", no psychosis.
1. We live in a democracy
2. We have property rights
3. Government is concerned about the well being of its citizens
4. Federal reserve notes are money
5. God lives in the big house with the steeple
6. The boy who can throw a ball is worth several million
7. Lying to your beloved children in their psychologically formative years about santa, the easter bunny and tooth fairy is fun.
8. Possession of certain consumer products will make you popular, well liked or irresistable to the oposite sex.
I suppose if I thought about it I could fill a page.
So what really is normal?
Posted by Adam on 08/12/11 01:54 PM
'Ponder exactly why the psychiatric "profession" believes the insane and criminals do not need to be "locked up".'
The Last Psychiatrist - The Nature Of The Grift
Click to view link
Posted by alexsemen on 08/12/11 10:44 AM
Dear Joel Wade,
are you talking about psychology or about psychiatry !!??
As I see your article it a very big "mamaliga" of compulsory and dogmatically institutionaly accepted confusions. Some called that manipulation !
Where are you comming from with such arguments.
Are you aware that the "primitives" have invented all what is today "normally" even the language, science and advanced law's today forgotten ( by actual censorship of our "modern arrogance- by the way do you knows why the Greeks hated this odiouse word "modern". Primitives !!??? Not at all , dear friend. Primitive is your try to induce ignorance in your readers !
As Rossbcan has suggested, have you ever even tried to cure the rulers and Elites, or you play ignorance about the most genuine and absolute psychically insanity of our world: The rulers and Power that be ( Establishment) .
Have you ever heard about deontology, ethic and morality at least as the primitive of Kant told to us. Or he was not 'modern ' too.
What you are talking about the discovery about the chemistry of the brain , you are totally out of any rationality. Sorry but there is not another expression !
Of course you are not 'insane' to mess around with real insane people and you dare not to challenge them !
That will be the only therapeutic act that I could consider as valuable at you as professional.
For the rest you show us only the institutional insanity on behalf of Big Pharma and the institution establishment of rulers , and you let people to pay you for their ignorance and for the criminal behavior of our rulers !
If you will try, please let me know, and then I could say to you , please advise me and "chapeau"!
Please , try again !Do you !
Posted by rossbcan on 08/12/11 07:39 AM
Should also point out that elites and all of their decreed unaccountable minions in their power structure are insane for the simple reason they have thus far (by force of OUR guns) successfully isolated themselves from facing the consequences of their OWN actions.
But, actions ALWAYS have predictable consequences. Since those who do the action do not face (they believe) the consequences, others must.
Ergo and therefore, "we, the people" are facing the consequences of ruler insanity, to which we MUST REACT.
So, because we have thus far tolerated ruler insanity (at odds with reality), by their influence on mankind, we ALSO appear insane. And, because of this "appearance", rulers make the tautological (circular, self-validating) argument that "we are insane and, need to be controlled".
Ponder exactly why the psychiatric "profession" believes the insane and criminals do not need to be "locked up".
Posted by rossbcan on 08/12/11 07:24 AM
Madness Defined: Behaving / believing at odds with physical reality or, as Einstein stated: Performing the same compulsive action over and over and expecting different results.
I have major bones to pick with the Psychiatric "profession", rationalizers of crime, pawns and scapegoats to be blamed in a symbiotic / co-dependency relationship with the legal "profession".
Here's a response (from my divorce) to the "wisdom" of the psychiatric "profession", despite the fact that they lent me their "wisdom" to decree in my favor (which the courts ignored, to their mounting peril):
Still have major misgivings regarding the intellectual validity of the psychiatric profession in general. This profession appears to be in strategic denial of the basic fact that human motivation is to survive in the physical world which is ruled by the laws of action and consequence. To survive requires meeting goals. Further, they refuse to admit that insanity is CONTAGIOUS, since people MUST react to their environment and, if insane forces are affecting them, they must react in a way that, more often than not, appears insane from outside point of views. I and my daughters, during marriage had to deal with my ex-wife, who was insane by refusal to choose survival which requires personal responsibility and husband and daughters were trapped by corrupt law. In my humble opinion, the strong possibility exists that this profession is a historically created intellectual fraud to prevent social and scientific acceptance of the logical implications of evolution and Charles Darwin:
Click to view link
Besides, this report netted the psychiatric profession $10,000, who have a very large income by claiming they are "necessary" to provide insight into issues such as this. There was no discussion of motivation, nor goals implied by behavior on the part of either parent. This is very similar, although far less profitable than current judge's strategic denial of legal equality between persons, requiring judges and politicians to construct elaborate rationalizations "explaining" why people cannot be treated equally in terms of rights and responsibility, making their very costly "services" appear "necessary" to deal with the inevitable conflict between perfectly legitimate and peaceful viewpoints. None of this social conflict would exist if people were free to peacefully live as they see fit, facing their own consequence without having their survival threatened if they fail to comply with the demands of whichever political viewpoint has manipulated itself to the "top dog" position, able to wield the apparatus of state as a weapon against the people.
When rationalizations fail and the public starts to become aware of the survival of civilization importance of the law being restrained to treat all persons equally and the mortal social danger of special privilege for some, other methods are used, as Martin Luther King Jr. and others have repeatedly proven, at great personal cost and honor to self and loss to civilization.