Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Mad, I tell you



William Hogarth The Rake in Bedlam, from The Rake's Progess.


A little banter over on Facebook where I say, partly jokingly, that I am striving for sanity, meaning only that I would like to get my head clear of all the stuff it is currently crowded with. At one point I add that it's like trying to find a parking space in a full car park. But that is all it is. Apart from occasionally talking to myself that's pretty well it.

But some come back and say it's good to be mad, and that one should be mad, that one should strive for madness. Then a good friend, who is currently sectioned, writes and says the people who suggest that should ask those in her ward whether it is good to be mad or not. Well, I reply to her, they mean no harm, what they mean is a modicum of madness, a soupcon, a hint, a mere sniff of it, only a hair of the barking dog that might yet bite you.

There is, of course, much on madness and genius. "Show me a sane man and I will cure him for you," said Jung. And sure, people want to be cured of an excessive sanity, and certainly, or so we are told, genius and madness are close allied.

The fact is we don't really have a proper meaning for 'mad' anymore, the vague concept of madness being broken down into a number of minutely described conditions that don't necessarily involve rolling of the eyes and frothing at the mouth. Even to talk about madness as such is to betray an almost gross naivety. It's like calling someone lazy when they are suffering from this or that exhausting syndrome.

In any case, none of those who encourage madness mean it quite that way. What they mean to encourage is a certain daring, a disregard for convention or sobriety. And even then not very much. Just enough to escape by. It's that Jenny Joseph thing about being an old woman and wearing purple. There are many out there who like the idea. It was the Nation's Favourite Poem some years back. I do however note that Linda in her book, tends to reject the purple dress end-game as any kind of solution.

I don't in fact have any desire to be regarded as eccentric or charmingly batty. I want my sanity. It's mad enough out there at times. You don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps, says the cliché sign. Well no, you have to be stone-cold, sober-sane. And you have to believe in other people's sanity too, or else what are you addressing when you talk to them?

And yet: "I'd as lief pray with Kit Smart as with anyone else," said Dr Johnson of Christopher Smart, author of Jubilate Agno, one of the great mad poems. Smart was about to be moved into Mr Potter's madhouse at Bethnal Green at the time. I did write a libretto based on Richard Dadd's madness once. Yet I would not be Dadd or Kit Smart for all the money in the world.



8 comments:

Background Artist said...

traiter - word verification, i just noticed it as i dived in.

Your head has moved on,
your team has won

two for the Portugese
one for the Korean

and now we sit and wonder
did that rant i wrote
on Spenser really make
me royal, or am i just a nutter?

~

Poetry and mental illness, are two sides of the same coin. Look at Yeats. If a builder with crap verbal skills started doing what he did, people would bin her (or him) off as away with the clowns.

Yet find the right words and bingo, you're the most serious poet of the 20C writing in English.

~

It was only when i started writing and a pattern of behaviour emerged, i could see a bit of bi-polar happening.

My MO is to spam the wave, write write write (upsing) and then after days of four five and six hours kip with sometimes 24 hour spells at hit here, gassing wiv me pals and outing the looney fluid into summat concrete on the screeen - and then after the wave hots the shore, a week and more off.

It's been this way since i got on it as college. Even then the course-work writing always ended up the spur into the personal vision David Harsent was very passionately declaring in the Monday Guardian spam-gaffe, (real) poetry is rooted in, even when the solids surrounding the gas is summat Public ("like war say" - H said).

This was in relation to my fave new bessie psychic pal CAD, who i have forgiven for betraying my private beliefs, and am now fully behind her in not only a professional capacity as a bore who can do what it says on the tin, but in my role as a private citizen, the very shy modest and retiring part of who i am, who doesn't like fuss and only wants to live a morally rewarding life.

After benifiting from the good grace whilst undergoing occupational therapy in this, the official poetry-nuts wing of your online asylum you very generously (exposing yourself to huge, massive, potentially cataclysmic risk and danger) welcome anyone with an internet connection to out their inward writerly fizz, or - imbas.

It was here, in this very gaffe I got better after seperating the two seperate strands of a poet's trade, learned the rules of upper case, ditched the poe-faced pose of narrators demanding the House of Windsor demob, and finally flitched the forensic Q - olly fik ation of the full P, real tender, yah..

thanks very much for getting me better ollamh.

slainte

aratr - word ver - art Arf a larf

James Hamilton said...

Well, we do have a vocabulary for madness, just not an eighteenth century one, as you say. Once you try to find out what's really going on, really studying a problem, the old words rarely turn out to be sufficient. And you can look forward to adding words like "memory" to the list of concepts overtaken by human knowledge in the not too distant future. (There are neuroscientists only recently retired who began work in the '50s looking for the biological seat of Freud's ego and id, and we already know, for instance, that the brain doesn't "store" things called "memories" even in the distributive computing sense. Although it still does that on the Beeb and in the Daily Mail).

By "mad", again as you say, they mean lovably eccentric, clever and original in that cuddly, laugh-offable way that is one of the few acceptable behaviour patterns offered that most despised and self-hating portion of the British people, the intellectuals.

I'm afraid you're going to have quite a few people drop in purely to lay claim to that cuddliness. Brace brace brace, as they say, especially as you don't want to claim it for yourself.

George S said...


Nevertheless I expect we will go on experiencing things that we will continue to call memory and madness, just as we will go on saying 'I remember when..' and 'I think I'm going mad' without being exactly wrong.

And indeed we will no doubt know when our hearts are broken too.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

Madness as showing more of the facets of one's personality, anyone? After all, a diamond shows itself fully only when turned in the light...

As for talking to self, it's a very mild stage. Some people talk to their cats and, more severe, to inanimate objects. Yeah...

James Hamilton said...

I sincerely hope I'm going to go on experiencing something I'll call memory...

It's an interesting one to watch change. Plenty of people already drop the concepts of RAM and ROM and our ability to buy memory in predetermined quantities into conversation unconsciously.

I rather dread what's going to happen to the criminal justice system when some of the more recent thinking on the way the brain treats information reaches the outside world. If people thought the threat to criminal responsibility thing was bad, they ain't seen nothing yet.

George S said...


I certainly talk to our cats, Snoop. I think the definite sign of madness will be when I hear them talking back. Hard to say how they might address me:

I say, there... I do believe you have forgotten the food. You wouldn't mind fetching it, there's a good chap?or

Oi! You! Who'dya think you're looking at four-eyes!Where's grub!?

James Hamilton said...

Cats sound like Damon Runyon as any fule no.

dubois said...

My partner is currently having a nervous breakdown. Funny you should start talking about madness now. He talks to the cat in a normal voice and he talks to me in an unrecognisable voice. He says he doesnt know he is doing it. We attend his therapy sessions together. I end up feeling mad. He shrugs it off. I am grateful to the cat and am not grumbling at this little iota of normality.