We're All Mad Here
Going Crazy ByOttoFriedrich
TALK ABOUT madmen is frustrating. An inquiry into madness is even more so: it is difficult to focus, and there are distinctions to be agreed upon. As examples are amassed and the inquirer's theoretical construct rises, the madness described inevitably assumes a certain flavor and tone. Sometimes there is the circus fascination, fallen from favor in this age of ethics but quite popular in medieval days, where raving lunatics in various aspects of disintegration are portrayed to impress hellish demonology on the mind of the reader. Other times the inquirer insists that his aims are ones of great moral piety, as if in the company of Dr. Samuel Johnson on one of his strolls through Bedlam, more recently an elusive jargon of psychiatrists, speaking of "mental illness" and assuring us of "cures,", prevails. Each of these attitudes, like a mood, is at once truthful and delusory: by nature irrational, madness is more susceptible to description than definition.
In Going Crazy Otto Friedrich recognizes the extreme dubiousness of an inquiry into the irrational. To avoid the narrowing of scope that must occur if the subject is to be coherent and focused, he has a novel solution. He ignores definitions. This is a tinkering of philosophy because, like the child with an erector set who wants to build his skyscraper without nuts and bolts, he proposes to define madness out of nothing.
Epigraphs, those concise bits of literary truth, seldom give more than an inkling of what is to come in a book. Upon reading the one prefacatory to Going Crazy, however, one has the sinking feeling that it might summarize the work as a whole,
"I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked. "Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat: "we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad." "How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice. "You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn't have come here." Lewis Carroll--Alice in Wonderland
Alice's plight, it in fact appears, is the same philosophical imbroglio in which Friedrich is mired. Unfortunately there is no Chesire Cat to inform him of his muddle.
At the root of the problem is a question of semantics. Friedrich doesn't want to be tied down to limiting definitions of madness--he seeks an "overview" of some sort--so he tosses out a few words like "crazy" and "insane" and leaves it to us to sort out his verbal juggling. His explanation of this is a kind of catch-all empiricism, with a few arbitrary criteria tacked on:
I think that even when we don't formally define such terms as "crazy" we know perfectly well what we are talking about. I shall apply these unscientific terms to anyone who has gone to a psychiatrist in a state of crisis or anyone who has entered a mental hospital. I shall apply them to anyone who suffers from those inexplicable symptoms that seem as common as sunshine: a sense of communion with the supernatural, a sense of whirling lights and mysterious smells, a yearning for violence and the serenity of bloodshed. I shall even apply the term "crazy" to anyone who has simply felt, at one time or another, that his life was going out of control...
The effect is one of aimlessness. Though the book is divided into four parts--"Origins," "Growing Up", "Coming Apart", "Where We Are Now"--their intent is garbled, and it is completely unclear whether the progression is intended to be a historical survey of madness up through our time, or a portrait of the individual's slide into insanity. He discusses the great madmen of the past, both historical and literary, in the same breath as incidents and personages of contemporary madness. Interspersed with this plethora of examples are the case histories of six individuals whom society at one time deemed insane, and whom he now describes with a Kafkaesque grip on sanity their journey through madness and back. Never is there the sense, though, that this perambulation is leading anywhere, except into a confusion between the social and individual aspects of insanity.
In fact, the title of the book is something of a misnomer. Does Friedrich wish to suggest that our society is going crazy, in comparison to previous societies? Or to characterize the process, today as well as then? Or to delineate the peculiarities of twentieth-century madness? Each endeavor requires a frame of reference; but since he has no definitions, he can have no conclusions. The only possible meaning his unlimited overview can give us is an Alice in Wonderland rule of revolving logic: that the irrationality of madness is such that it can never really be defined or predicted, like an enfant terrible who out of whim kicks down any castle of philosophical building blocks that the inquirer might care to construct around him. Which is a perfectly valid point, though it hardly requires a book, as the five lines of the epigraph demonstrate.
Actually, as a practical matter, Friedrich maintains all sorts of assumptions about madness. They are simply never consistent, more examples of his speculative incoherence. Mostly these assumptions consider that normal functioning in society and antiseptic personal well-being are signs of sanity: stray from these criteria, and you run the risk of being mad. In fact, one can easily be crazy according to Friedrich. It takes no eccentricity whatsoever. Apart from the obvious clinical and inveterate sorts of sickness most of us would call madness, Friedrich is constantly holding up types of behavior whose craziness is considerably less apparent. Among these are suicide, crime, perception of God and the Devil, alcoholism, and hysterical love. They are aberrant in respect to the social norms, but does that make them traits of madness? Are they even philosophically foolish? Again, these questions are useless, because there is no definition of madness. The way one regards mental illness is a result of the way one views life, and Friedrich seems unable to conceive of an existence where happiness is not an end nor self-preservation a rule of logic, where "those crazy people you see on the street" are perhaps not so crazy.
Otto Friedrich is a journalist, and like many in his profession he prefers straightforward language to erudite terminology. Throughout Going Crazy he displays a justifiable distrust of psychiatry (though he is quite enamored of its statistics). He seems caught up by a certain notion of truth, a belief that if, well, he could just lay out some examples and facts without any of those bothersome philosophical definitions, he could reveal the essence of "madness in our time". The result is a huge mass of material, quite interesting in and of itself, but leading to a subjective nowhere, without form or guidance. In avoiding the trap of definitions, he has not freed the idea of madness from limiting perspectives; instead he has made it meaningless it its generality. An inquiry implies that there is a clearly perceived topic and aim: Going Crazy has neither, and we are left to our own conclusions about madness. It is a work of compilation, not of elucidation.