Madness: a Malady or a State of Existence?



The lonesome boy in class, the silent reader sitting in a corner, that one rebel in a group of conformists, the unknown stranger in a neighbourhood pub, the murky narratives of Hitchcock’s films, the carelessly thought-out actions, the deafening silence after an unforeseen event, the astonishing tirade of words in an argument. This is a listicle of what is perceived as the immediate aftermath of madness. The misfits, rebels, non-conformists and the breakers of social structure are effortlessly placed under this canopy, just because their actions are irreconcilable with those of the general public.

Whenever something is slightly unusual or unbelievable it gets dismissed and categorised in terms of madness and insanity. In many contemporary Western societies, when homosexuality first came to the fore, one often tried to associate it with psychoses, simply because being gay was considered a departure from standard sexual norms. While some instances of madness are attributed to individuals and their solitary actions, others are based on collective action undertaken by a group of people. Though it may be easy to call that one strange person in a room mad, it would probably make more sense to apply this term to a group of blind followers. Be it following leaders blindly and finishing their sinful acts for them or simply being party to a defective ideology — madness comes in herds more so than in individuals. It is this herd-like mentality which is more dangerous than the one neurotic person sitting in a corner. Usually when behaviour which can fall under the category of madness is performed by a large group rather than an individual, it becomes difficult for the label of madness to persist or remain. The more people perform such ridiculous tasks, the easier it is to believe that their actions are somehow justified and not motivated by acts of madness. This discrepancy often renders us unable to separate the truly mad individuals from those who are not – obscuring the boundaries between them.

Usually when someone is described as having “rocks in one’s head” or “carrying a stone in his head”, it refers to their poor judgements and decision-making skills. The rocks become an impediment to the brain, clearly signifying that the individual has been weighed down by their lack of sense. Hence, a stone becomes equivalent to a hungry void, absorbing, thus depriving us, of the mind’s wealth of information and common sense. In the early 14th and 15th centuries, several painters such as Hieronymus Bosch depicted a man miraculously removing a stone from a patient’s head after making a deep incision into their skull. Surgically extracting a stone from a person’s head symbolically stood for a possible way of healing their so-called folly or madness. This “stone of folly” showcases madness less as a quicksand inevitably engulfing its victims, but as something that can be healed with a surgical procedure. It is a possibility that the metaphor we use today was actually born from these ancient beliefs which were depicted in paintings at various stages.

Of late, the word madness has lost its usual implications as its definition has warped and evolved into a regular everyday insult – callously thrown at others with little thought or consequence. This was the case in the Victorian Era where women were constantly ostracised or labeled insane with no substantial reasoning and little to no evidence about their so-called actions. Even today, much hasn’t changed given the ease with which people are labeled, or called mad, or diagnosed as suffering from a madness-like condition. In a similar vein, the countless women blamed for witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials are no different from the women being locked upstairs and being referred to as “the madwoman in the attic”; In Brontë’s Jane Eyre, the absence of this figure for most of the novel, and the lack of narrative sequence discussing her actions or beliefs, built an image of her as being rightfully insane. It is only in the counter narrative to this story, provided by Jean Rhys in her book Wide Sargasso Sea that the so-called madwoman’s character is fully dissected and given agency over her own story. She was not always the “madwoman” and, if she did become one, it had to do with her oppression and confinement. The entire ideology behind solitary confinement and exile is also to make the victim lose sense of time and space – so much so that the walls close in on them – eventually forcing the individual to confront themselves and their increasing madness.

The term madness has become a rotten excuse to justify perceived wrongdoings and when there is no legitimate way to add sense to an action, it immediately gets put past as being motivated by madness. If madness is a driving force behind strange, unacceptable behaviour, it is also the ingrained reason behind plenty of books that have been written and countless works of art that have been made. The Austrian painter, Egon Schiele, made his own self-portraits, showcasing the distortions of his mind and in turn reflecting his inert neuroses. He also took inspiration from those imprisoned in psychiatric hospitals and incorporated them into his artwork. In this way, madness could be projected onto art and actually served as a window into the individual. But at the same time, what may appear as madness in art could very well be a painter’s aesthetic and artistic style.

While madness is at once a serious state of mental illness, it is also a descriptive word to define that which is eccentric or out of the ordinary. Be it a germ of an idea, a fleeting thought, a snippet from a witty conversation or a meticulously dissected plot, each has been bestowed with the label of insanity and pure delirium at some instance. Under the superficial disguise of insanity, these fleeting thoughts and viewpoints were, in reality, the cleverest and brainiest way of solving a possible problem. The intrinsic thought processes behind most ideas that are considered mad is simply beyond typical human understanding, which is what makes them so unique. In Antonin Artaud’s words, “There is in every madman a misunderstood genius whose idea, shining in his head, frightened people, and for whom delirium was the only solution to the strangulation that life had prepared for him.” This makes you wonder whether maybe in an alternate universe, madness would be the only form of sanity, providing reason and substance to life in a way that sanity simply couldn’t. Artaud’s ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ aimed to shock audiences through its representation of theatrical acts on screen. This urge to frighten, shock or dismember the mental and sensory faculties of the audience comes from a strong need to have the spectators truly understand the workings of his mind. Even though Artaud spent most of his life in mental asylums and was administered electroshock therapy, he produced commendable work until the very end of his life.

Madness is subjective like most things. Be it Van Gogh cutting off his ear or Picasso’s abstract paintings, madness has proved to be a continuous state of existence for some. While medical practitioners talked about madness as being against the grain of normalcy, there is much normalcy to be found in embracing madness – especially when it imprints itself onto canvases, theatrical performances and words. To understand an individual’s innate motivations and desires, it is useful to judge them by what they create rather than their temporary actions. After all, madness is a mirror providing a reflection of one’s own sense of self, idiosyncrasies and distortions of ideals. Madness is not necessarily shrouded with shame or requiring an immediate fix as some paintings convey. While a mad person may be living in stark contrast to society’s accepted norms of existence, they still see and question the world through a lens coloured by themselves and their beliefs – which are in most cases instruments of constructive change or makers of mortal remains.



Illustration: Marios Diakourtis



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I first met Alan in third-year Russian class, where we bonded over our joint struggle to get to grips with the nightmarish agglomeration of case endings and grammar rules that the language threw our w