The Myth of Noble Madness
By Joel F. Wade - August 12, 2011

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.

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