Writing, Madness, Despair
Imagine a world so messed up that schizophrenia is the only response to it.
That world might exist. It's the world you, I and the guy next door might be living in.
It is a disconcerting idea: one that immediately raises hackles. As controversial critic and psychoanalyst R D Laing would no doubt have discovered when he suggested, a good 20 odd years ago, that perhaps madness was a perfectly logical response to a century that had seen two world wars, a Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an Auschwitz and a Dachau and countless other instances of horrific barbarity.
Needless to say, in the last two decades, the madness has not abated; genocide spreads its nasty reach across several continents. From Bosnia to Indonesia, the bloodshed drives home the message that there are very few things one human being will not do to another. Closer home, one only needs look at the morning paper to lose faith in humanity.
The resistance to accept such a thesis is understandable.
For no matter how much we curse our zeitgeist, no matter how rotten things get in the State of Denmark, we hold on to the idea that the universe we inhabit is fundamentally normal, if a little frayed at the edges. We save our discussions of surrealism and alternate realities for a cup of coffee and a cigarette. Madness is best kept at arm's length, as is everything that madness is a metaphor for: the dark side of humankind, the killer around the corner, the beast within, the monster of history and the shameful past.
But there are those who choose this madness and despair, or perhaps it chooses them. Writers and poets who look into the heart of darkness and tell us what we are most scared of knowing. That there is no God and no Justice. That evil exists in its purest, most malevolent form, and gets away unpunished. That there is no hope and no salvation. That claustrophobia and nausea is all there is to existence. That wherever the light reaches, the dark has already reached and is there waiting for it, impatiently tapping one foot.
It is not a matter of sheer chance that madness and its familiars -- despair, desolation and darkness -- are among the great themes of 20th century writing. And while it is a literary sin of sorts to confuse the life and biography of a writer with the writing, it is surely more than a coincidence that some of the most significant writers of our century have been depressive or even suicidal.
Many of them suffered nervous breakdowns. Some died mad. Some, if nothing else, retreated completely into themselves, and lived out their days as asocial reclusives. Some took to alcohol and wrecked themselves. Others let drugs do it for them. T S Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Bruno Schulz Kafka, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, J D Salinger, Robert Pirsig, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Yukio Mishima, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Larkin... the list goes on.
It should be said here, however, that the figure of the writer at odds with society is not a particularly new one. In the specific context of English literature, the idea of the writer as a tormented genius sprung from the Romantic worldview.
The Romantic poets, especially, gave us the image of the frenzied seer who, in his trance-like state, was privy to truths that lesser mortals could not have access to. Obviously, this meant an isolation of sorts from the teeming mass of humanity: a privileged loneliness which was the burden of the artist, at once a curse and gift.
Yet, this isolation was not necessarily an alienation. Shelley could still stridently proclaim that poets were the unacknowledged legislators of mankind. For that alienation -- for the shrinking of the poet's voice to zero -- one had to wait till the beginning of the 20th century for a poet named T S Eliot.
Eliot, through his poems, The Love Song Of J Alfred Prufrock and The Wasteland, made a statement about the relationship of the writer to contemporary society. No longer was the writer someone who could confidently make a statement about the world he lived in. The image that Eliot forged of the writer was based on the vision of a different sensibility -- the writer was someone who, through his work, was holing out against an inevitable corruption of the soul. Sometimes he succeeded, but equally he failed.
Of course, not all the great tormented souls of the 20th century created wonderful literature simply by virtue of the fact that they were depressive. Of course, not all writers who write on madness, despair and all that is dark are necessarily depressive. Of course, not all great writing on madness and the bleak underbelly of life is unremittingly pessimistic; often, as in the case of Heller's classic Catch 22, it is more than generously laced with the kind of black humour that elevates and uplifts the spirit. Stories of emptiness are often stories of salvation as well: in Eliot's Wasteland, redemption lurks on the horizon, in the words from the Upanishads, "Give, sympathize, control."
But there exists, at the same time, a kind of writing where it is always darkness at noon.
Where a clinical nihilism forces one to reach out for a sun that has gone dead. Such writings ring with a strange, prophetic truth: it is the shriek of a blind man whose insight has been purchased at the cost of his eyesight. More often than not, interestingly, writing of this sort does not concern itself directly with the horrific -- it takes as its domain the metaphysics of the human condition in a godless universe.
The high priest of this is Kafka, arguably the single greatest writer of the 20th century. If you want to experience failure and desperation in their most unadulterated form, read The Castle. At once fable -- which Rushdie counts as the central literary form of the West -- allegory, theology, novel and poem, Kafka's masterpiece is the story of a man, K, who attempts to breach the bureaucratic set-up of the castle in order to meet an official. He fails to make any headway whatsoever and his efforts disintegrate into a classic tale of impotence: he is completely reduced to a cipher. Philip Roth calls The Castle a book concerned at every level with not reaching a climax. It is true: reading The Castle is a frustrating, choking experience, like being wrapped in a shroud and not being able to breathe.
The same relentless despair is manifested in Kafka's famous short story, Metamorphosis, where a man turns into a cockroach and slowly finds himself alienated from all those who, seemingly, cared for him earlier. To call it a classic tale of alienation is to use a phrase that has been sullied by excessive undergraduate pseudo-intellectual angst, but that is indeed what it is.
The other classic nihilists of our century are the existentialists. Fascinatingly, the metaphor of repeated failure appears in Camus as well. In his collection of essays The Myth Of Sisyphus And Other Essays, he invokes the mythical figure of Sisyphus to describe the pointlessness of the human condition. Sisyphus' task is to roll a boulder up a hill till he reaches the top, but he fails every time and is condemned to keep trying till the end of time.
Camus was a far more gifted thinker and writer than his fellow-existentialist, Sartre, who often used his fiction to mechanically illustrate philosophical points. However, Satre produced at least one literary masterpiece -- the play No Exit. In it, the deathtrap moves from the metaphysical to the physical. In a memorable, damning line, the play leaves us with the talismanic anthem, 'Hell is other people.' It is a pointedly frightening thought, for what else but the social circumscribes the ambit of meaning in our trivial lives.
The Beat writers -- Kerouac, Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg among others -- were another group of writers who flirted with relentlessly apocalyptic visions that were based on a nearly total rejection of all that society, as they saw it, stood for. Openly contemptuous of the bourgeois world, they used drugs to tango with the very fabric of reality.
While their experiments with mind-altering substances were nothing new -- they had honourable predecessors in Coleridge, De Quincey, Rimbaud and Huxley -- their conviction about the poverty of the normal and the ineffectuality of representing the 'real' through conventional literary forms marked the Beat ethos as original. Though they often sound like prophets of doom, the Beats, it must be said, do not share the stance of pointed resignation and defeat that mark the other great literary pessimists of the century. Kerouac, easily the most talented writer of the lot, often explores a sort of redemptive mysticism in his work and Ginsberg's work often displays a Whitmanesque ecstasy.
Yet, the Beat worldview is not always positive and negative in balanced measure. Sometimes, like Old Testament prophets, they damn with rhadamanthine judgement. The best example of this is the Ginsberg's talismanic anthem, Howl. The first four lines serve as a comment on the signs of the times. They may also, with equal relevance, apply to the figure of the contemporary writer:
"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the Negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night. . ."
No less damning is the poet, Philip Larkin, who once famously said that depression was for him what daffodils were for Wordsworth. Larkin was, to his credit, not a chronic pessimist though he came pretty close. After all, he is the man who gave us the lines, "What will survive of us is love," and "Sexual intercourse began in 1963/Between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles first LP." Yet, in another poem, This Be The Verse, Larkin in his droll way can be more nihilistic than perhaps any poet in the last half century. I haven't read a more angry, bitter statement.
The poem is reproduced here: make what you will of it.
They f--k you up, your mum and dad
They may not mean to but they do
They give you all the faults they had
And add some extra just for you
But they were f---ed up in their turn
By fools in old style hats and coats
Who half the time were soppy stern
And half at one another's throats
Man hands on misery to man
It deepens like a coastal shelf
Get out as early as you can
And don't have any kids yourself