Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience

Here are some highlights from this 2013 book by sociologist Liah Greenfeld:

* finding oneself bombarded by contradictory cultural messages and overwhelmed with choices is an exceedingly and increasingly common modern experience. It is, therefore, not surprising that the period of adolescent moratorium among us often lasts into one’s early forties, that so many spend their youth in frequently futile searching for oneself, that what one finds is as likely to be unsatisfactory as gratifying, and that, when it is gratifying, one is rarely secure in that the self one has found is one’s to keep. Modern society is inherently anomic and problems with identity are endemic to it. We are all exposed to the “virus” of depression, the cultural agent that carries the disease, and are, probably, as likely to catch it in a mild form, as we are to get a runny nose or a headache due to the common cold. Certain environments, such as college, for instance, which render the multitude of identity choices we have salient, make the virus particularly active and let it affect more people, as do circumstances that actually offer more possibilities, such as upper class background. In the end, the great majority of us reconcile with the identities reflecting the choices we have made; acquire responsibilities which reinforce these identities and, thankfully, limit our freedom to choose again; and settle into a life livable enough even when not happy. But a significant and probably growing minority catches the virus and develops the severe form of depression.
The probable increase in the rates of the manic-depressive illness consistently reflected in the ever-improving statistical studies makes it unlikely that the reason the majority escapes and the minority succumbs to the disease is organic vulnerability or diathesis, since such vulnerability itself would have been spread in the population at a certain stable rate. The reason, rather, must be the increasing probability of triggering events—events that problematize one’s identity, specifically undermining one’s sense of social status —in the lives of the minority and the absence of such events in the life of the majority. It is remarkable that obviously traumatic experiences (torture, rape, being witness to the murder, torture, rape of loved ones and similar acts of violence—that is, experiences capable of producing post-traumatic stress syndrome) do not trigger mdi. The most striking example of this is the relative rarity of functional mental disease (mdi or schizophrenia) among the survivors of the Holocaust. 84 Suicide among them is rather common as is deep, overwhelming, entirely understandable sadness, and a sense of worthlessness of life after such indescribable and unforgettable suffering, but, clearly, there is nothing delusional in the horrible memories with which they must live; their rejection of life is situational and reflects no mental pathology. Events that trigger depression, rather, are of the kind that to most observers would appear trivial: moving to a new environment in which the kid that had been considered the smartest in the environment left is no longer considered the smartest, or, on the contrary, in which one is suddenly being considered the smartest, or in which norms of status ascription are generally different; being rejected in love, or not accepted to one’s preferred college during early admissions, or unexpectedly becoming the object of love of an exceptional or higher-status person; later in life, getting or not getting a particularly desired, responsible position, etc. These are events that trigger self-examination, undermine the unstable, vague, contradictory identity, actively disorient the potentially disoriented (because affected by the general anomic situation) person, and initiate the process of mental disintegration, to begin with impairing the will. They are non-obviously traumatic, and are, therefore, usually disregarded.
These triggering events are also accidental. The majority of people with malformed identity (due to anomie) will meet with no accidents. Most of them, by definition, would be average and not considered the smartest kids either in the original or in a new environment; most would live their whole lives in environments with very similar norms; most would have no shocking heart-breaks in love; would not aspire or get appointed to especially responsible or prestigious positions, would not know great failure or success, etc. They would live their lives peacefully, carrying the virus of depression in themselves, but rarely if ever after the trying teenage years made aware of their vulnerability. The risk of contracting a major depression or mdi, in this respect, is similar to that of having a car accident. All of us who drive or ride in cars are vulnerable, but to most of us accidents will not happen. The increase in the numbers of cars implies the growing risk of having an accident. Similarly, increasing mobility, geographical and social, i.e., increasing availability of choice and the growing proportion of highly individualized, not average, biographies in the population would necessarily increase the probability of depression-triggering events. The only way not to be vulnerable to car accidents is to keep away from cars under all circumstances. The only way not to be vulnerable to depression (and all other forms of schizophrenia) is to have a clear, unshakable identity—the old principle of “know thyself.” The development of such identity in modern, anomic society is a matter of education.

* The explanation of Kay’s misfortune is emerging in front of our very eyes from her biography: its root is in her privileged, prosperous background, in the choices for self-creation that it offers, in the absence of responsibilities and limits—of objectively-existing difficulties. She has too much: too much freedom, above all. Her life is made too good—that’s why it turns so bad.
Pay attention, she does not appreciate her father’s freedom of choice, wants his options closed, is angry with him for making the choice that interferes with her idea of who she is. Yet, California does not pressure girls into curtsying: it is a rebel country quite willing to accommodate someone mercurial who prides herself on her own independence. Everything is open in California: “Everyone seemed to have at least one, sometimes two or even three, stepparents, depending on the number of household divorces. My friends’ financial resources were of astonishing proportions.” And they were not even blond and good-looking in the Air Force sort of way. Writes Jamison:
“I also learned for the first time what a WASP was, that I was one, and that this was, on a good day, a mixed blessing. As best I could make out, having never heard the term until I arrived in California, being a WASP meant being mossbacked, lockjawed, rigid, humorless, cold, charmless, insipid, less than penetratingly bright, but otherwise—and inexplicably—to be envied. It was then, and remains, a very strange concept to me. In an immediate way all of this contributed to a certain social fragmentation within the school. One cluster, who went to the beach by day and partied by night, tended toward WASPdom; the other, slightly more casual and jaded, tended towards intellectual pursuits. I ended up drifting in and out of both worlds, for the most part comfortable in each. . . . The WASP world provided a tenuous but important link with my past; the intellectual world, however, became the sustaining part of my existence and a strong foundation for my academic future.”

* Nothing of any value remains from Kay’s manic episodes, nothing that has done anything good or in any way contributed to anyone or anything in the world. Yet, it is only such contributions to the world that can make life meaningful, and life that is not meaningful is misery.

* The cardinal feature of nationalism—which necessarily follows from the principle of popular sovereignty and underlies every other aspect of the national reality, including the fundamental egalitarianism of the national membership—is its secularism. Popular sovereignty, which is the essence of the idea of the nation as elite, makes God defunct; with God defunct, man becomes the ruler of the universe. There emerged a completely new understanding of man… as an agent, a self-governing and dignified state, the individual responsible for and capable of shaping one’s own destiny. Human life acquired a new—and supreme—value: the death of children untouched by sin was no longer a cause for celebration as augmenting the population of angels, but now represented death at its most senseless. In general, death was stripped of the sacred significance—which made it almost attractive—bestowed on it by Christianity: man was no longer dust and worm, and death was not the return of the soul to its Maker on High, the portals to the better and eternal life, but the end, incomprehensible and unacceptable, of the only existence this extraordinary double being, a body and a spirit at once, could have. The change in the meaning of life and death changed the nature of the existential experience—what moved men and women, what made them suffer or content, the essence of suffering and contentment, human desires and fears, the general character of their emotions and ways of thinking—all this was new.
This radical transformation was felt in England already in the early sixteenth century.

* Shakespeare, a generation ahead of Donne and Herbert, no longer questions God, but not because he still accepts His will. In fact God is altogether absent from the work of this greatest modern poet. His sonnets are not “Holy.” The world constructed in them is impersonal, it is ruled by Time, something akin to the eighteenth century idea of Nature, our idea of natural forces.

* This exhilarating realization of one’s humanity—as much a function of the new, secular vision of nationalism as was national identity itself—must have represented a central element in the early modern Englishmen’s self-understanding, reinforcing the sense of being English. Nationality implied the new concept of the human being as an autonomous agent, an author and creator in one’s own right, a meaningful, beautiful, complex world unto oneself—a godlike, dignified image and an identity in which one justifiably could take pride. Above this uplifting foundation of humanity and Englishness, an individual’s identity was left for the individual to construct. The social structure—to the extent it existed in the world in which nothing stood still—now resembled nothing less than a stone castle (indeed a rollercoaster would be a better simile) and no longer could restrain—or direct—one’s movements, leaving its human components free to wander from place to place. Both the secularism and egalitarianism of the new, nationalist, image of reality that served as its cultural foundation empowered men (and, to a lesser extent, women) to choose their social positions. Neither God’s will nor one’s birth limited these choices. Thus, travelers before, moving inexorably to the eternal Beyond, mortal men had acquired the status of permanent residents, even citizenship, on earth, and became travelers in society. They set their own destinations in life and more often than not traveled alone, leaving behind families of their origins, pulling out roots without regret. The system of social stratification, the chief mechanism of social traffic control, was opened, no impenetrable dividers existed between any of its sectors, there was none, in principle, that could not be reached from any of the others; one was in charge of one’s own itinerary. Social maps existed, but they were numerous, ambivalent, and lent themselves easily to various interpretations. As one’s social position could be legitimately changed, it did not teach with whom one belonged, what one’s expectations from life were, and how far the sphere of one’s activity extended, or, rather, its lessons could be forgotten or kept, depending on one’s wishes. The individual became master of his (sometimes her) own life and was free to create oneself. It was impossible to lose one’s humanity and Englishness (therefore fundamental equality to all other Englishmen): this double dignity of nationality was one’s to keep. This meant one could only move up: add to this dignity, become equal to the best. The possibilities were breathtaking. Indeed, the word that sixteenth-century Englishmen selected for thinking about them—to aspire—alluded to the sensation.

* “Ambition” was an old word, derived from Latin and used, however rarely, in the Middle Ages, for an eager desire, among other things, specifically of honor, and for ostentation and pomp. It was a negative term.

* Whether it was a sin or a virtue, base or noble, as an emotion ambition was intense, and this intensity was its essential quality. It is in connection with ambition that the word “passion” began to acquire its current meaning of intense, overpowering emotion, a sovereign, authentic movement of the soul or the mind. This change reflected the growing recognition of the sovereignty of the mind as the constitutive element of the self, thus the sovereignty of the self—vis-à-vis God, in the first place, but also vis-à-vis society—which was the cardinal implication of the new English view of reality and defined the new English experience. Ambition was one of the two central examples of such sovereignty. It came from within oneself; it was an inner drive. The identification of ambition as a passion, however (and it could not be otherwise), arose from the earlier, widespread at the time, meaning of “passion”—suffering in the sense of being a passive and powerless object of an action of some external power. For ambition would brook no restraint not only from the outside; an overpowering emotion, it overpowered the self from whence it came. If one had it, one could not resist it.
The passion of ambition—a super-emotion, so to speak—gave a direction (thus sense of order, thus meaning) to life to which society refused to give direction and was a source of myriad other emotions: excitement, hope, sense of inspiration. A realized ambition brought one feelings of gratification, self-satisfaction, confidence, pride, intense joy. But, alas, even in England of the sixteenth century, which equated “success” with “good success,” not all among the thousands of competing ambitions were realized, and frustrated ambition, as well as failure that followed in the wake of success, gave rise to passion in yet another earlier sense of the word, that of pain. Ambition was the main cause of the characteristic suffering of the age.

* Ambition was the inner compass one used in the ceaseless social travels in search of one’s own identity. From within it drove one to aspire and achieve, always aspire for and achieve the same thing: an individual identity with even more dignity than was implied in one’s national identity and humanity. One did not rest until one found one’s proper social place—the place; often one would never rest.

* The defense against threats—or experience—of a thwarted ambition was love… Ladies and gentlemen, love too was invented in sixteenth-century England… The sixteenth century English concept of love—which is our concept—was dramatically different. While it implied the very opposite attitude to sex from the one that characterized Christian thinking, it retained clear sexual connotations (which grew in importance in the next several hundred years and in some of “love” ’s peregrinations in translation). Thus the connection of love to lust seems obvious. But the other older usages were completely eclipsed, becoming so foreign to us that learned dissertations are required to convince our contemporaries that they ever existed. 13
The new, as it came to be known later “romantic,” love was the other central expression of the sovereignty of the self—the ultimate passion, in fact, in the sense of its authentic and free expression, the supreme movement of the sovereign human spirit. As such, it, no less than ambition, reflected the new, national, image of reality and was a creation of nationalism. Shakespeare who, more than any other single individual, was responsible for encoding this new view of reality in the English language, making it the integral part of language itself (and therefore enabling anyone who spoke it to share in the new experience), according to the OED, was the first to define love as a passion. He did so in 1588 in Titus Andronicus . Spencer followed suit in 1590 in Fairie Queene; and then, two years later, Shakespeare did this again in Romeo and Juliet —the paradigmatic story of love as it has been understood in the modern age, in which he, in effect, constructed its ideal type.

* In the world of constant change true love was unchanging, once-in-a-lifetime passion. But, not being fickle, it was uncontrollable, free from extraneous compulsion and oblivious of social norms. Because love was the ultimate passion, that is the most authentic expression of man’s very essence in fact, the social arrangements that contradicted it became, by definition, inauthentic—false, wrong, morally abhorrent.
Like ambition, love made it possible for the free and therefore rootless modern individual, whom the society around would not define, to find one’s proper place and to define oneself. To use the vulgar tongue of social science, it was an identity-forming device. This, above all else, explains the tremendous importance of this emotional complex in our lives. Moreover, in distinction to ambition, which led the searcher by a circuitous way, made an obstacle course by the myriads of simultaneous, crisscrossing and overlapping searches of others, which demanded unceasing effort on one’s part, and never guaranteed the result, love required no effort whatsoever (“God join’d my heart to Romeo’s,” says Juliet)—it happened to one, one fell into it. Thus it led to the discovery of one’s true identity directly, filling life with meaning and at once reconciling one to all of it, even the inevitability of death. The supreme and truest expression of the sovereign self, it was, in effect, a miracle, for which one was in no way responsible. What made it an expression of the self nevertheless was the immediate recognition of the true love’s object, the One, that particular her or him who was one’s destiny and yet, paradoxically, was most freely chosen. One’s identity, one’s true self, was found in that other person and what he or she saw in one. (In fact, one had to give oneself up, lose oneself in another, in order to find oneself and realize what that self was.)

This is the central theme of Romeo and Juliet . 16 The lovers, though “star-crossed,” fall in love at first sight and immediately recognize both the finality of their choice, despite the fact that social conventions and the identities they were assigned by social conventions forbid them to love each other, and its profound difference from any other attachment.

* For his part, falling in love with Juliet, Romeo finds—or, rather, recovers—his authentic and sovereign self, the self-created self that he owes to no one but himself. Mercutio, meeting Romeo on the morrow of his garden dialogue with Juliet, exclaims: “now art thou Romeo; now art thou what thou art, by art as well as by nature.” Both lovers also find through love their “home”: similarly to the patria of the ancients—the dwelling place of the ancestral spirits—their home is wherever the loved one is.

* Love saturates life with meaning to such an extent that life without love becomes absolutely meaningless and not worth living. Life with love, on the other hand, is worth any and all the grief it can bring otherwise.

* By the same token love makes death acceptable and, as an end to meaningless life from which love has been taken, meaningful too: death is also redeemed by the life in which there is love. Suddenly everything makes perfect sense again, just as it was in a universe ruled by God, and harmony is restored to the discordant world centered on Man.

* Given Shakespeare’s unique ability to make reality out of vague intimations of the collective imagination his words captured, the tragedy has been received not as a cautionary tale, but as an irrefutable proof that love that justified death was what life was essentially about, and for five centuries it has formed the substance of our innermost dreams, the hope to find it—“the star to every wandering bark” indeed—sustaining us all through all our tossing on the seas of modern experience, kept restless by the unceasing volcanic activity underneath. 17
The love between Romeo and Juliet was sexual love between a man and a woman. Defining sexual love between a man and a woman as the ideal type of love and as the exemplary passion purified sexual love, forever clearing it from the association with sin.

* The unrivalled importance of love in the modern life cannot be explained by the fact that it delivered sex in a new package (adding to its legitimacy when sanctioned by marriage also the legitimacy by association with the ultimate expression of the authentic self). No, love suffused with meaning the life that was rendered meaningless by the withdrawal of God and the bewildering openness of the social structure in which one did not know where to turn to simply know what one was and how one was supposed to live.

* Many a woman would find true love—and her self—only in motherhood and the love of a child: this, far more than the increased value of human life and significance of the individual, explains why modern society places children on such a pedestal. Moreover, the deep need for finding meaning in one’s life—the reason for being on this earth at this time—and for the affirmation of self soon led Englishmen to expand the concept of such self-affirming love further and include in it dumb creatures, cats and dogs. Our concept of animals as pets and the idea of dog as a man’s best friend derive directly from the search for self-definition in a culture that left the individual (a concept it constructed) free to construct it on one’s own.

* The word “love,” therefore was generally reserved for a passionate, essentially spiritual, but by association sexual, relationship between a man and a woman that naturally expressed itself in marriage. Like Christian marriage, it was supposed to happen once and to last a lifetime—“till death do us part.” But, while sex (only accidental to love), apparently, was good as cheap in the England of the sixteenth century as gentlemen and as it is today (though it must be said that in the sixteenth century one often had to pay dearly for it—women quite commonly dying young in the agony of childbirth and many of the best men rotting alive of the uncharitably named “French pox,” syphilis), love was a miracle and miracles happened rarely. 23 Thus, inevitably, there was a tendency to lower the standards, to compromise, make the dream of love at least to some extent realistic. This led to the confusion of true love with false, the readiness to see true love in purely sexual passion (therefore treated with more indulgence than by Shakespeare) and discern it in unrequited attachment. True love was in the nature of the Protestant calling, which American Puritans took to mean that, if one was not sufficiently successful in one line of work, one was perfectly justified in turning to another, since the first one, clearly, could not have been a real calling. 24 Similarly, believers in true love, convinced that it happened only once in a lifetime and was unchanging, found no problem in a succession of love objects, to each of which one could be at different times equally passionately drawn, for, evidently, past loves that waned could not be true. The rarity of love also led to the deviations from the ideal type itself, which steadily increased with time, in particular in the course of the twentieth century in America. It led to increasing acceptance both of love relations without marriage—“love on trial” so to speak—and of homosexual relations; it also led to dramatically increased dependence on pets. In the final analysis, ambition, despite the fact that it required hard work, proved to be a far more reliable way to establishing identity than love which relieved one of responsibility but allowed one no control over the realization of one’s dreams and therefore over one’s self-realization.

* All modern societies accepted love as a passion—an authentic and sovereign expression of human nature, but some stressed its freedom from convention, and therefore, the freedom of the self—the Russian, as well as Anglo-American, ideal type was of this kind; while others saw it as a dark natural force which the self could not resist and which subjugated the self. In French, for instance, love was interpreted as an essentially sexual concept and as, particularly, a man’s passion. “Passion,” moreover, in this context retained a very strong earlier connotation of suffering. Whatever the reasons for such interpretation, a man passionately in love, which is experienced as sexual bondage and which destroys all his previous relationships, undermines his position in society, changes him as a person, and ultimately wrecks his life, became a French literary trope…

* Marriage, in this framework, remarkably, is best when it is dispassionate. As an ideal type it is a bourgeois institution, i.e., rational, strictly organized, and obedient to social conventions…

* One fundamental tradition of Western civilization rejected the idea of luck… In distinction to the Christian felicity, which, in an attempt to escape one kind of suffering often led to another and had to be bought at the price of enjoyment, this experience was conceived of as a pleasant one. Unlike luck, which could be good and bad and which was unpredictable, happiness was purely good and could be pursued. Unlike faith, which was always a gift to which none was entitled, it was a natural, thus inalienable right. In short, happiness had nothing in common with the phenomena whose names were used to translate this utterly novel English experience into other languages. Of course, human beings, like animals, had been familiar with the sensations of joy and pleasure prior to the sixteenth century: our brains were producing endorphins before we were endowed with culture, and when this happened we invented words to relate to these sensations. But, while joyful and pleasant, happiness was a far more complex and significant emotional phenomenon. The new English word referred to an existential condition, a lasting, profound, fully conscious feeling of satisfaction with one’s circumstances, indeed—with oneself-in-the-world, the sense that one’s life fit one like a glove. This implied that one experienced existence as meaningful, that one felt there was a reason for one’s being here and now, and that, above all, one knew who and what one was—namely, had a firm and satisfactory identity. This was not a given in an open secular society. With man as the supreme lawmaker life was not justified from the outside, it had to be justified. It was not all good, it had to be believed that it can and must be all good. The concept of “happiness,” which made possible the experience, was the answer to this new psychological need created by the culture (symbolic system) of nationalism. Happiness became the purpose of human existence.
In an open secular society, which left one free to construct one’s identity, the bed one slept in was very much the bed one made. Good luck would help and bad might interfere with one’s designs, but one was the architect of one’s happiness, supposed to choose and then build one’s life. This, again, placed the responsibility squarely on one’s shoulders, but the reward one could reap was more than worth it. Not only was happiness a lasting joy, not only was it fully conscious, namely experienced as it were doubly—as a vague pleasurable emotion and as articulated thought (involving, therefore—for we must believe neuroscience—both the amygdala and the frontal cortex, and producing heretofore inconceivable amounts of endorphins), but there was an “umph” in it, that most joys and pleasures of the past lacked. It was the “umph” of triumph—because happiness was an achievement. Like a great artist, one would be eager to acknowledge the sources of one’s inspiration and feel genuine gratitude to people and animate an inanimate universe. But, in the final analysis, one had no one to thank for it but oneself—for recognizing the true love, for persevering in ambition despite attendant anxieties and frustrations, above all for being one’s own maker. For it all boiled down to the construction of identity—self-definition, self-expression, self-realization. Through passions—ambition and love foremost among them—one expressed, discovered, and realized one’s authentic and sovereign self. Happiness was the realization of this self-realization.

* The sixteenth century in England was the first century of the world as we know it. It gave us so much that we are, so much of what we now consider the inner capacities and needs of the human nature: love, ambition, happiness, the dignity of man.
It also gave us madness.

* “Perhaps the most striking aspect of literary England in the second half of the eighteenth century,” according to some, “is how many of its best writers themselves became insane.” 3 The madness of the poets, in particular, corresponded to the change in the nature of poetry itself, the abandonment of discipline and craftsmanship, the use of blank verse—of course, not universal and which would become much more pronounced in our own time. Samuel Johnson noticed the trend and disapproved of it, believing it willed, and failing to recognize that the unhappy authors bore no responsibility for, and knew not, what they were doing. He remarked acidly regarding the poet William Collins that he “puts his words out of the common order, seeming to think, with some later candidates for fame, that not to write prose is certainly to write poetry.” 4 Poets writing in English have continued to go mad ever since: it is hard to find one among those who have achieved fame who has had no brush with one or another variety of schizophrenia. Their remarkable vulnerability to mental disease became a badge of the profession. 5 Wordsworth, himself one of the milder cases, wrote: “We Poets in our youth begin in gladness; / But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.” This predisposition was believed to be universal, and, in the nineteenth century, the father of French psychiatry (or of psychiatry in general, according to the French), Philippe Pinel, was quoted in support of this claim. But it was not universal:

* It must have been this peculiar association of madness and poetry in English which gave rise to the popular among English-speaking psychiatrists and psychologists view that manic-depressive illness, specifically, is just another expression of genes responsible for exceptional creativity, which implied in a “too much of a good thing” type of argument that the more creative one is, the more one is likely to suffer from manic-depressive illness. It is certainly both more logical and more consistent with the available evidence, however, to conclude the opposite: the more disturbed one is in the mind, the more likely one is to turn to language, abstaining oneself and letting it fix, and fixate, one’s unhinged world. In this sense, what explains the striking similarity between schizophrenic thought and language and modern poetry (so meticulously documented by Louis Sass) is the fact that this particular (usually formless) form is a function, a creation, of mental disease. It is, at its root, a symptom, an expression of madness, a desperate “I am” sign—indeed so often made by our “leading poets”:

* A Frenchman, Jean Bernard, abbé Le Blanc, having spent seven years in England, acquired a broader picture, however, and thus commented in his letters already in mid-eighteenth century on the mental disposition of the farmers as well. They were, he said, unquestionably better off, from the material point of view, than their counterpart group in France—French peasants. “However, in the midst of this plenty, we easily perceive that the farmer is not so gay here, as in France; so that he may perhaps be richer, without being happier. The English of all ranks have that melancholy air, which makes part of their national character. The farmers here, shew very little mirth, even in their drunkenness; whereas in France, the farmers in several provinces drink nothing but water, and yet are as gay as possible.” It is quite stunning that this comment was made less than forty years before the French Revolution. Still, Le Blanc, too, found the people of condition more affected by the national disease, which, like Cheyne, he attributed to inactivity and too much wealth. And then he summed up the French point of view: “This cheerfulness, which is characteristic of our nation, in the eye of an Englishman passes almost for folly; but is their gloominess a greater mark of wisdom? And folly against folly, is not the most cheerful sort the best? At least if our gaiety makes them sad, they ought not to find it strange if their seriousness makes us laugh.”

* Nationalism, which was for the Romantics a form of therapy, one way of coping with their affliction, introduced anomie into the wider society, spreading this kind of mental illness…

* These diseases [of manic-depression and schizophrenia] estrange family members from each other, changing the very nature of the family relationship, corroding the connections that make it a family, suffocating affection and destroying trust. They leave members who are healthy helpless and hopeless, exhausted by constant and necessary watchfulness, guilty of letting their minds wander to other concerns, of having interests and desires which the sick no longer share, deeply, sickeningly unhappy. If, again, like with suicide, we take the immediate circle of a person with either of these diseases to consist just of three people, for one in ten to one in five such people there would be three in ten to three in five family members and friends affected by their illness—30 to 60 percent of the American population, 100 million to 200 million people not mentally ill themselves, but nevertheless suffering because of manic-depressive illness and schizophrenia. Which of these two estimates is closer to the actual number at this point becomes already immaterial. Even the low figure of 100 million is unimaginable; it is impossible to believe that it can be true. But two plus two makes four, do what you will. This is a colossal social problem, quite possibly the greatest social problem faced by American society today, and one can well get emotional about it, though this would be out of place here and won’t help us resolve it.

* It was America, and not religion as such, which made religion a cause of mental illness. “It is difficult to believe that ‘pure religion and undefiled’ should overthrow the powers of the mind to which it was intended to yield the composure of a humble hope and the stability of a confiding faith,” wrote Dr. Earle. But the idea of universal toleration (however limited the toleration was in fact), apparently, was antithetical to pure and undefiled religion, for it was difficult to decide which of the equally legitimate varieties of it was the one; one’s faith was no longer confiding, and, clearly, the hopes one entertained were anything but humble. Thus the doctor believed that “a great majority of the cases of insanity attributed to religious influence, can be traced to the ardor of a zeal untempered with prudence, or a fanaticism as unlike the true religion which it professes, as a grotesque mask is to the face which it conceals.” In other words, one had to be already quite insane to make religion contribute to one’s insanity. He singled out Millerism as the example: “The exciting doctrines of Miller, the self-styled prophet of the immediate destruction of the world, gained but little hold of the public mind in this vicinity, but in those sections of the country where they obtained the most extensive credence, the institutions for the insane became peopled with large numbers, the faculties of whose minds have been overthrown thereby.”

* [Jean-Étienne-Dominique] Esquirol says, that “insanity is a disease of civilization and the number of the insane is in direct proportion to its progress.” “The progress of civilization multiplies madmen.”

* “There is less insanity in Spain than in countries where civilization is more advanced.” “There are fewer insane in the northern parts of Norway where civilization is the lowest, than in the southern provinces where civilization is the highest.”
Humboldt made diligent enquiry and found none among the Indians of America. Travelers find none in Africa, and the general opinion of writers, travelers, and physicians is, that this disease is seldom found in the savage state, while it is known to be frequent in the civilized state.

* AJI (American Journal of Insanity): “Insanity is of rare occurrence in barbarous nations. Civilization appears to favor the development of madness. This circumstance may be attributed to the restraints imposed upon the indulgence of the passions, the diversity of interests, and a thirst of power; long-continued excitement of the mental energies, and disappointment in affections and anticipations. The wants of the savage are circumscribed: he gives vent to the burst of passions without control, and their violence subsides when they are gratified. In a more polished state of society, man dwells upon his injuries real or supposed, acts silently, and cherishes hopes of enjoyment, amongst which the sweets of revenge are not the least seductive. Such a condition, when followed by humiliating disappointment, must naturally tend to develop mental diseases. It is probable that the diseases of civilization, which act chiefly on the nervous system, may have led to the original foundation of hereditary predisposition, transmitted by a shattered constitution, and disturbed functions.”

* Madness was not brought about by the progress of civilization. It was brought about by nationalism, the cultural framework of modernity, by the best this secular, egalitarian, essentially humanistic and democratic image of reality has to offer: its insistence on the dignity and creativity of man, and on the value of the human life, on equality and liberty of members in the political community, on their right and capacity to construct their own destinies, to love, and to be happy. It is the other side of the coin, a proof that, as with most things in life, benefits are usually associated with costs. But, having been brought about by its best features, madness has continuously fueled nationalism’s most destructive passions, caused an appalling amount of harm, and may well end by destroying the Western civilization.

* The first such connection to strike me was the role schizophrenic mental disease played in shaping modern literature.

* English language modern poetry, it now appears to me undeniable, has been a creation of madness. From eighteenth century on it was not simply the work of people admittedly suffering from manic depression or full-blown schizophrenia, but has been both saturated with peculiar-to-schizophrenics abnormalities of thought and language, that is, uncontrolled linguistic creativity characteristic of schizophrenia, and represented a characteristic of such sufferers turn to language for help, a desperate, though unconscious attempt to name, and thus make sense of, their horrifying experience. The undesigned ( and often formless) form to which the vain efforts of these very sick people gave rise, was perceived by their audience, much of which shared their plight, though at a lower degree of severity, and thus was naturally drawn to and appreciative of what they wrote, as art, i.e., as intentional aesthetic construction, and, as a result, acquired its authority. This, in turn, allowed succeeding generations of literary aspirants to study this form and craft it consciously. Today one does not have to be a madman to write poetry, but madmen continue to turn to language for help as before and very often it is the poetry of madmen that strikes one as the most poignant.

* On the whole, violence before the age of nationalism (or outside it, since every historical time is geo-politically located) was rational and, in its own way, as natural—nature being inescapably red of tooth and claw—as that in the wild. It was, of course, very common. Rape was in a day’s work and considered a crime only insofar as it concerned property of someone whose property was a matter of social concern, while murder, or mutilation which one would accidentally survive, which usually was considered a crime on the individual level, was committed whenever it would most efficiently lead to the achievement of any desired goal, be it robbery or political victory. This instrumental rationality applied on the collective level as well. Genghis Khan wiped out entire populations of settlements which resisted his conquest, leaving no man, woman, or child alive, but he did so neither because he enjoyed depriving sentient creatures of life nor because he felt called to do so by some power on high, and he was not, so historians tell us, a cruel man. One’s heart bleeds for the wide-eyed helpless cubs whose sire can no longer protect them, but can a lion that devours the young of another in an attempt to claim the females of the tribe for his own be called cruel? Murder could also be committed as a duty because it was, traditionally, the right thing to do, as in family vendettas of the early feudal period. It was not one’s decision that this was the right thing to do, but a dictate of a tradition which one perceived as inviolable universal law and thus had no choice but to obey. The rationality in such cases was value rationality. Already to sixteenth-century Englishmen it was apparent that acts of violence committed by madmen did not answer to either of these descriptions. The legal preoccupations of the early psychiatric establishments (it is remarkable that most of the first psychiatric periodicals, in France, the United States, Britain, Russia, and even Germany were medicolegal publications and showed a strong interest in criminology 4 ) reflected this awareness. Indeed, it is obvious that madness has changed the very nature of violent crime, dramatically increasing the irrational element in it, making the action in many instances expressive, rather than instrumental, and undertaken for the sheer pleasure in inflicting suffering, and making individual responsibility—the pivot of modern law—a consideration largely irrelevant to its understanding and prevention. Even when seemingly politically or ideologically motivated (one can as well think about Lee Harvey Oswald as Jack the Ripper) acts of violence by individuals, on examination, more often than not turn to be brought about by the “nawghtye mallenchollye,” similar to that of the Elizabethan Peter Berchet—which throws a formidable wrench into the innermost workings of the legal machine and undermines the legitimacy of the penal system. (Remarkably, just as the part of mentally ill people among violent criminals skyrocketed, detective fiction—the fiction of super-rationality par excellence—made its appearance, and the battle of masterminds, the criminal’s and the detective’s, became one of the most engrossing forms of modern entertainment. Here is a subject for another dissertation—in English, comparative literature, or sociology of literature.) But it is precisely in the ideological motivation that the larger problem lies. The majority of the famous cases of murder, which provoke an outcry of, and terrify, the community, such as campus shootings, serial killings, and political assassinations, are indeed “ideological,” involving the identification of a specific individual (e.g., President Lincoln, Congresswoman Giffords, Berchet’s intended victim Sir Christopher Hatton) or group (for instance, prostitutes in the case of Jack the Ripper or athletes in school shootings) as the incarnation of evil, which the killer is called on to exterminate. Such ideological motivation is no less delusional than the implacable reasoning of Garshin’s hero in “Red Flower,” and the delusionally inspired murderers are as desperate and as careless of their own lives in pursuit of their goal. I would venture a hypothesis that all such murders are committed by people who are severely mentally ill and suggest that early diagnosis is what the efforts of those who wish to prevent them should be focused on.

* Nineteenth-century psychiatrists, as the reader saw, were also aware that politics increasingly supplied exciting causes for mental illness.

* 1. Nationalism implies an open society, which makes anomie pervasive and the formation of individual identity one’s own responsibility, and therefore problematic.
2. This general problematization of individual identity and specific problems with the formation of identity lead to degrees (clinical and subclinical) of mental impairment, derangement, and dysfunction, today recognized as schizophrenia and manic-depressive illness, the common symptoms of which are social maladjustment (chronic discomfort in one’s environment) and chronic discomfort (dis-ease) with one’s self, the sense of self oscillating between self-loathing and delusions of grandeur, megalomania, most frequently (in cases of unipolar depression) fixing on self-loathing, and in rare cases deteriorating into the terrifying sense of a complete loss of self (in the acute psychosis of full-fledged schizophrenia).
3. This mental disease—madness—reaches its clinical level in a minority of cases (even if it is a very large minority, as in the United States). But the pervasive anomie of modern national societies affects very large numbers of people—statistics claim, close to 50 percent of Americans today, for example—and therefore, makes very large numbers of people socially maladjusted and deeply dissatisfied with themselves—i.e., as the English were the first to recognize, “malcontent,” dis-eased, uncomfortable in their existential experience.
4. In itself, even before it leads to, and irrespective of, such general malaise among the carriers of the national consciousness, nationalism radically changes their social and political experience. Because of its secularism, egalitarianism, and insistence on popular sovereignty, as I have argued in the first two books of this trilogy and various essays, it makes people activist. It follows logically from the explicit or implicit recognition that man has only one life, that social reality, at least, is a thing of his making, and that all men are equal—that nothing can justify this one life falling short of giving full satisfaction, that men are responsible for all its disappointments, and that everyone has the right to change reality that disappoints. It becomes relatively easy to mobilize national populations in causes of social reform and civil society comes into being.
5. But it is very often mental disease that shapes the causes for which the population is mobilized, thus profoundly affecting the nature of social and political action in nations. Specifically, madness makes for “ideological” activism—which is, in effect, delusionally inspired. On the individual level, as already noted, unless spent in the pursuit of red flowers, this leads to the characteristic modern murder. On the collective level it takes the far more problematic form of ideological politics.
6. Ideological politics is a specific form of politics brought about by nationalism. They are irrational in the sense of being motivated by a dedi cation (passionate, if not fanatic) to causes which in the large majority of cases lack the remotest connection to the personal experience—and therefore objective interests—of the participants, but are characterized by their capacity to justify and explain the discomfort these participants feel with their self and social environment. At their core invariably lie visions that bear the most distinctive mark of a schizophrenic delusion: the loss of the understanding of the symbolic nature of human social reality and the confusion between symbols and their referents, when the symbols themselves become objective reality.
7. All revolutions —a modern form of political action, in contrast to spontaneous rebellions and uprisings, which happen everywhere throughout history—are of this kind. It is significant that, in distinction to the majority of participants in rebellions and uprisings, who come from the lower classes, revolutionaries are mostly recruited from the privileged, and specifically from the educated, strata particularly affected by mental disease. The majority of them, especially in the leadership ranks, are activated not by specific, pragmatic interests, but by a desire to change the society radically on the basis of some vaguely defined ideal. The change is predicated on the destruction of what the ideal is to replace. Thus, while the ideal is vague, the destructive, violent impulse is clearly focused and, with symbols and their referents confused, actual people are killed because of what they represent, rather than because of what they do.
8. The core ideal and the enemy which the revolutionary movement targets are delusions and are very likely to emerge in the disordered minds of, and offered by, actual schizophrenics. However, the overwhelming majority of those who accept and carry on the message, i.e., of the revolutionaries, participants in the revolution, must be of necessity recruited from among the mildly mentally ill, those suffering from the general anomic malaise, neuroses or neurasthenia, from what we refer to today as spectrum disorders. In effect, they use the schizophrenic’s delusions as therapy for their minor ills. Their presentation of these minor personal ills under the cover of a general cause serves to conceal their mental illness from themselves and from others. Their recognition of a schizophrenic’s delusion as a general cause conceals his/her major mental disease, presents him/her (and allows him/her to self-represent) as a prophet, a genius, etc., and may elevate him/her to the position of the revolutionary leader, if he (or she) is available for this. (I asked the reader earlier to ponder what might have happened to John Nash, if he were a German rather than an American, and born in the previous decade rather than in 1928. Let me ask now, in a similar vein, might not Hitler have ended up in a mental hospital, rather than becoming the adored Führer of his people, were he an American?)
9. Schizophrenics are singularly attuned to the surrounding culture. I have characterized the schizophrenic mental process as free-ranging culture in the individual brain; their mind being completely deindividualized, and their will completely incapacitated, it is culture in general that processes itself in their healthy brain and language itself that speaks through them. Schizophrenic delusions consist of familiar and suggestive tropes, which make their claims persuasive and even self-evident. This explains the centrality of two themes in violent ideological politics of the last two centuries in the West: the evil rich (capitalism) versus the good poor; and Jews (now Israel) against the world. To demonstrate that this is indeed a trope, I will share with you an old Soviet joke. A certain innocent (perhaps a college student) asks: “Who is responsible for the silting of the Lake Baikal?” and receives the answer: “Jews and bikers.” Surprised, he asks: “Why bikers?” Somehow it appears self-evident self-evident that Jews would be responsible for every disaster.
10. Different types of nationalism favor different types of self-medication through social/political activism. Thus individualistic nationalisms, naturally, encourage individual activism, and this, in cases of activism prompted by madness, translates into the delusionally inspired violent crime. It is in England that we have Jack the Ripper as well as first political assassinations of this sort, and it is the United States that today supplies us with most examples of serial killings and school/university shootings. Obversely, individualistic nationalisms discourage violent collective activism. Individualistic nations are no strangers to ideologically or delusionally inspired collective action. Such action in them, however, is usually nonviolent (though activists may approve of violence by others) and has a number of other characteristics which distinguish it from what is likely to happen in collectivistic nations. Even as participants in collective actions members of individualistic nations retain a strong sense of their individuality, separateness from the collective. They do not meld with it; the pervasive individualism of their national consciousness makes them believe that they act as individuals. When suffering from the anomic malaise, each one of them turns against the society that makes them, each individually, uncomfortable, their own society, their own nation, that is. Thus American political activism has been very often anti-American, whatever specific problem happens to be at the core of the activist ideology in any particular case. Another outlet delusional activism finds in the United States is hard to characterize as “ideological” at all—early American psychiatrists, I am sure, would see in it episodes of temporary collective monomania. This outlet is offered to the sufferers from “Americanitis” by presidential elections. One year out of four such ardor seizes a sector of the American public (small but vocal), that a naturalized American such as myself can only helplessly shrug shoulders. It appears as if the election of a particular candidate is a matter of life or death for millions, while it is obvious that it cannot possibly have anything even remotely approximating such an effect, and is likely not to have much effect at all, the United States being a true democracy, which runs itself.
11. Collectivistic nationalisms encourage violent collective action. Thus all the great revolutions—the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the German, that is, National Socialist, revolution—happened in collectivistic nations. Such political activism is more likely to have anti-Semitic motivation in the framework of ethnic nationalisms, and anticapitalist motivation in the framework of civic nationalisms. But, of course, the revolutionary ideology in most cases would combine these two “pure” motives. In addition, in collectivistic and especially in ethnic nationalisms delusional politics often take the commonly recognizable form of nationalistic xenophobic politics—that is, the form of hostility to the other: we have numerous examples of this in the past twenty-five years, in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe (especially Yugoslavia), Africa, and so on.
12. The sense of national inferiority—which is a common characteristic of ethnic nationalisms—in addition to encouraging delusionally motivated violent xenophobic collective activism as therapy for the psychological, mental ravages of anomie, contributes to mental disease on its own. It adds to the problems with one’s individual identity the dissatisfaction with one’s national identity, in which one tends to seek comfort from personal dissatisfactions. This might explain certain kinds of political activism in the Middle East today. It clearly appears that there we are dealing with the phenomenon of existential envy on the collective level: one is so ashamed of one’s national self—i.e., of one’s national identity, of being a member of one’s nation (which, in ethnic nationalism, if one sees oneself as such, one cannot abandon), that the only way of coping with this is the destruction of those other nations vis-à-vis which one feels one’s nation to be particularly inferior. One’s self-loathing (personal and national) is reoriented onto such others, and the anger and violence, which would, under different circumstances, lead to suicide, are diverted into terrorism (which for those who still have the secret desire to do away with themselves has the additional advantage of being easily combined with suicide). Paradoxically, in general, the rates of severe (clinical) mental disturbance should be inversely proportional to the possibilities of engaging in ideologically motivated collective activism, that is, necessarily the highest in individualistic nations, and higher in collectivistic civic nations, than in ethnic ones. Thus most aggressive and xenophobic nationalisms—the worst for the world around—would be, in fact, of all nationalisms, the best for the mental health of their individual members. Yet another reminder, sadly, that there is no free lunch.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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