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The Poetry of Madness

In response to:

The Poetry of Madness from the June 11, 1964 issue

To the Editors:

I should like to add a note of madness to Steven Marcus’s discussion of the poetry of madness. My remarks are directed exclusively to Mr. Marcus since I have not read The Three Christs of Ypsilanti.

I was impressed by Mr. Marcus’s sensitivity to psychotic language but he reads it without a Rosetta stone and somehow misses the point. Although the examples Mr. Marcus cites do bear out his description of a “pithy, epigrammatic and paradoxical quality,” this is not the only thing the language of psychotics has in common and is not, I suspect, what is poetic in that language.

When a psychotic speaks, he speaks with absolute precision, and having chosen a word to precisely convey his thought, that word in turn, reverberates linguistically and merges many words and thoughts within it along with a host of ideas, concepts and feelings. That is the condition of the psychotic’s emotional and intellectual life and so that is what his language must express. This multifaceted use of language with its apparent contradiction between precision and confusion is what characterizes psychotic language. Whether it characterizes poetry I am not as competent to judge. I suspect it may.

I was struck by Mr. Marcus’s conclusion that the statements he quoted did not actually make sense. They made perfectly good sense to me, but I hesitate, in my position, to press that point.

I recall that the last time I was institutionalized I stated that I spoke three languages at once. An intern said to me, “I understand you speak three languages at once, but I speak only one at a time. If you want to be understood, you’ll have to limit yourself to one.” It is this use of language to synthesize many layers of thought, the use of a word to convey many meanings, that hampers communication between psychotics and society, although it derives in part from a very serious effort to communicate. It may be precisely this quality in a poet’s use of language which often separates him from society, and which also makes him a poet.

In any case, I should like to explain, through an example, what it is I am trying to say. I am choosing a very simple example and one less psychotic and less poetic than others. But the same approach would be used to understand more complicated expressions.

Harper’s magazine had an article on mental illness some years back in which the author, a psychiatrist, quoted a psychotic as saying, “I live behind a pane of glass.” He concluded the article with this statement. “It is our job to smash that glass.” I was struck by this quotation because I had at one time, in a mental hospital, made exactly that remark when I was asked by a member of the staff what it was I thought to be wrong with me. I cannot be sure that the patient quoted here meant what I had meant but for the elucidation of my point I would like to explain that statement as I meant it. The statement, if it is to be understood must be heard: “I live behind a pain pane of glass.” Not only Beckett and Blake should be consulted to comprehend the psychotic’s meaning. Joyce provides much better clues for an understanding of the psychotic’s tricky play with words. But the similarity to Joyce is not merely in the play on words or the triple entendre, but in the convolutions of meaning as well. The psychiatrist showed he misunderstood the phrase when he stated that we had to smash that glass. To smash that glass would leave the patient, for one thing, without his reinterpreted skin, wretched skin though it is. The best that could be done for the patient who lives behind or within a pain of glass, is of course, to help him move gracefully within his prosthetic device, and hopefully, to find some balm for the pane. It would also help to keep the glass clean. Window wipers perhaps.

Mr. Marcus says that the psychotic has to express himself within the prison of a language. This may also be why the statements of the psychotics do not make sense to Mr. Marcus. The psychotic has flown the prison of language, while Mr. Marcus, fortunate man, still resides within it. The psychotic has truly made language his tool. Words mean what he intends them to mean. To be sure, he often is incomprehensible to the world at large, but he understands what he says perfectly. He often communicates remarkably well with fellow patients. The psychotic’s statements are symbolic as well as specific. Sentences teem with allusions. Words are redefined in terms of their original meaning, and invested with special meaning as the need arises. This tendency, on the part of the psychotic, to bend words to his will liberates words from their vulgarity and helps the psychotic to handle a complex notion simply. That he may not make much sense is because he leads from a frame of reference that society at large does not necessarily share, that he can be comprehended with some study is because he lives intimately with the primordial mythology society still vaguely recalls.

This personal and private use of words is sometimes made publicly by literary people whose reputations have given them a certain license. What comes to my mind is a phrase I read by Mary McCarthy defining literature as gossip. I was strongly drawn to this definition and used it in a discussion of literature with some friends. This led to an incredible series of misunderstandings. The following day my husband brought this up with me. “You can’t expect everybody to understand your shorthand the way I do,” he said. When I insisted that this was not my shorthand at all, but Mary McCarthy’s, he said that I did not share her privilege. This shorthand, where words are taken out of their cultural context to be used afresh, and used with great literalness and vast implications is characteristic of poetic and psychotic language. I have purposely chosen an example from a respected literary personality to avoid having to defend the term as actually making sense. Had a psychotic made this statement. I suspect it would have been pondered and rejected as ultimately senseless.

Now, if we reread the passages from The Three Christs as we would read literature I think we can make sense of them. In order not to be forced to write an essay on each passage I shall interpret them on only one possible level of meaning. In the larger quotation I shall limit myself to only one sentence.

The quotation from Joseph which begins “When I invented the world…” He says “I am God and I don’t want anybody to worship me.” This is an attack on our culture and a loving assessment of man. It is a truly Christlike phrase, as the image of Christ has come down to us. To say “I’m God and I don’t want anybody to worship me” is also to say I am not God. I am better than your God whom you worship since I do not demand your adoration. It is another way of saying “I am human.” To hint at a second layer of meaning I should like to add the whole passage reminded me of the prophet who said “I despise your feasts.”

The statement from Leon, “To me peace means ideology of the Heart.” This is a simple almost hackneyed phrase if it is rephrased to its original form, “To me peace is faith.” Shades of Dr. Peale. What Leon has done is provide the phrase with meaning through a definition of the word faith. He has discarded a word which has lost its punch throughout overuse and reinvested the phrase with its original power by an imaginative use of the language. An ideology is among other things a set of values and ideas, and a frame of reference to which one subscribes. In the development of a psychosis this basic theoretical proposition for order in life is the first loss. To carry in one’s heart a set of values and ideas, and a viable frame of reference is if not peace, then the only possible peace.

The final statement from Joseph, “There is only one God and nobody seems to know where he is.” To be sure of his meaning here one would have to know the context of this statement. It may mean that Joseph feels himself to be on some inside track to him, and perhaps he is. Or it may be a social comment. “You cannot discover what it is you worship.” Or it may be a restatement with a new twist of Abraham’s conviction as expressed in Jewish legend that there is only one God and he does not reveal his image to man. Considering his delusion he doubtless believes God resides in man.

As an added thought, I would like to say to Mr. Marcus that society does not incarcerate the psychotic because of a distaste for eccentric behavior. I think it is because of two quite different reasons. The sight of pain is both intolerable and dangerous in the happiness-centered house of cards, held together by rationalization and self-deceit, in which the sane live. Also, the humanitarian values to which society claims to subscribe would be given the lie if we were forced to see how we would cope with a person suffering intolerable pain. The sight of such pain would also deeply offend our humanitarian sensibilities.

In the tradition of the psychotic’s use of language I would like to recommend that we discard the term psychotic altogether and substitute the word pain for his condition. That is what he suffers from.

I should, I suppose, apologize for the inordinate length of this letter and perhaps also for its lack of clarity, but as I have gotten saner. I have lost my linguistic touch. I was half tempted to take up psychotic humor to develop my point but I forbore. I did try to limit myself to only one language. It is very difficult.

Should you choose to print any part of this letter, I do of course request you not to print either my initials or location.

(Name Withheld)

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