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The Poetry of Madness

The Three Christs of Ypsilanti

by Milton Rokeach
Knopf, 332 pp., $5.95

In July, 1959, Dr. Milton Rokeach, a social psychologist and Professor of Psychology at Michigan State University, entered the Ypsilanti State Hospital to begin a research project. He took along with him a group of assistants and a tape recorder. In Ward D-23 of the hospital were gathered three men, pseudonymously named Clyde Bensen, Joseph Cassel, and Leon Gabor. Each suffered from the same psychotic delusion: that he was Jesus Christ. Dr. Rokeach had several intentions in bringing these men together: he wanted to observe the possible results of a direct confrontation of their delusions, to conduct research into general problems of identity, and to explore “the processes by which systems of belief and behavior might be changed through messages purporting to come from significant authorities who existed only in the imaginations of the delusional Christs.” For the next two years these three psychotic men lived together under the close supervision and observation of Dr. Rokeach and his assistants. They worked together, held frequent meetings, were set common tasks, and were subjected to a number of experiments. Tape recordings were made of their speech—soliloquies, their meetings together, interviews with Dr. Rokeach. After two years of this activity, Dr. Rokeach concluded his recordings and experiments and left the hospital. His three delusional charges were returned to their abandonment in the wards.

On one side, Dr. Rokeach’s work represents a further contribution to the study of how human beings behave in extreme situations and under extreme conditions; it is among the few such studies to have been cast in the form of an experiment. His three subjects shared a common systematic delusion about their identity, one that could not be broken into or changed from the outside, since it is in the nature of these delusions that they “cannot be effectively contradicted by another person because the deluded person will accept no external referents or authorities.” Certain psychotic states derive their stability and power from their ability to sustain themselves without reference to the outside world. Their stability is also their horror; to the observer such psychotic states seem as impenetrable as a rusty safe to which the combination has been lost. At the same time, however, even a psychotic who has a mistaken belief about his identity retains another “primitive belief which is based on reality…the belief that only one person can have a particular identity.” (Dr. Rokeach never explains why this belief cannot be given up too, but apparently it cannot.) In bringing these three Christs together, Dr. Rokeach “proposed to bring into dissonant relation two primitive beliefs within each of them: his delusional belief in his identity and his realistic belief that only one person can have a given identity.” In other words, Dr. Rokeach undertook to create a severe conflict in each of these men, to bring about “as untenable a human situation as is conceivable.” And his prediction was that “in a controlled environment wherein escape was not possible, something would have to give.” His project may be thought of as an effort to disrupt a stable, if insane, identity; with three crazy men in hand, he set about to derange their craziness. The circumstances inevitably suggest a concentration camp run in reverse, or brainwashing administered by angelic commissars. Indeed it is in the literature on both these subjects that Dr. Rokeach’s work in part takes its origins.

But The Three Christs of Ypsilanti is more than the record of an experiment in the outermost reaches of social psychology. Among other things it represents, in an unpretentious but remarkably vivid way, what institutionalized madness is like. Everyone knows the statistics which are supposed to define the mad scene in America today—that mental illness is our most common affliction, that more beds in institutions are given over to the care of the mentally ill than to any other disease, etc., etc. As so often happens, statistics like these blur our image of mental illness as much as they help to convey its reality. Dr. Rokeach operates on a slighter and more manageable scale: we learn from him that in Michigan there are more than 25,000 people confined to public mental institutions; that in the Ypsilanti State Hospital there are more than 4,000 patients; that to care for these patients there are five staff psychiatrists and twenty resident psychiatrists; that this ratio is typical as is its hideous inadequacy. Under these conditions, patients can expect to see a doctor “maybe once a year.” It is no surprise that public mental institutions are places of detention and custody, not of treatment, rehabilitation, or cure. The three delusional Christs of Dr. Rokeach’s study are permanent Inmates of the hospital. They have spent an appalling amount of time in the lock-up; two of them have been in mental hospitals for more than twenty years apiece; the third had, in 1959, already spent five years in “custodial confinement.” However inadequate the treatment offered to mental patients who are public charges, the three Christs received more “sustained attention” than any patients in the history of Ypsilanti State Hospital. Still, after two years with Dr. Rokeach they were as mad as ever.

Part of the poignancy of psychosis is that in some odd sense it seems to make no difference whether it is treated or not. The institutionalized psychotic has been abandoned by his family and to some degree by society too, even though he is its charge. But the saddest fact of all is that before his final desertion by society, a whole series of catastrophic abandonments, including the abandonment of himself, has taken place. As a document of the quiet hopelessness of psychosis, of its simple and dreary finality, Dr. Rokeach’s book possesses a modest distinction. On a typical summer’s day, for example, “Joseph often wore three pairs of socks—yellow, then pink, then yellow. He wore a pair of women’s horn-rimmed glasses without lenses to which he managed to attach a lorgnette…. he also threw towels and loaves of bread into the toilet and tossed magazines and books out of the window. When Leon asked him why he did this, Joseph replied: ‘Everything’s all right—the world is saved.’ ” Who is this character out of a movie or comic strip, this familiar figure from Major Hoople’s boarding house? So long as one retains this comfortable distance, no further questions are necessary. But when one stops to consider that Joseph is a man sixty years old, that he has a family and children, that he worked and thought and lived for forty years before he took leave of the world for good—that he is still somebody’s father!—all one’s usual defenses against such terrible facts collapse. It is one of the virtues of Dr. Rokeach’s book that it never ceases to represent these men as human beings, that it is faithful to their humanity, including the humanity of their psychoses.

To a large extent this fidelity is achieved by the device which created this book—the tape recorder. Dr. Rokeach’s volume joins that growing body of works of quasi-art which the social sciences seem on the point of developing into a separate minor discipline. It may be useful to note that the first important practitioner of this art was Sigmund Freud, who spoke of himself as having been endowed with a phonographic memory: he was able to record an interview in its entirety after the patient had left. More recently, in the works of a writer like Oscar Lewis, the tape-recorded interview has assumed considerable dimensions, and commentators have been quick to ‘admire the literary quality of Lewis’s books, as well as their scientific value. The outstanding qualities of the tape recording are immediacy and authenticity, qualities associated until recently with the art of fiction and traditionally regarded as among its functions or justifications. The fact that Mr. Lewis’s volumes have been translated from Spanish augments the quaint impression that they might be novels by Tolstoy. Dr. Rokeach taped his interviews in English, and his book is of the greatest interest as a study of the relation of psychosis to language and literature, and in the way the unconscious mind expresses itself verbally. There is, of course, another modern work that uses a tape recorder as an imaginative device: In Krapp’s Last Tape, a man hopelessly clings to a reality which has long ago given him up. The characters in Dr. Rokeach’s study are themselves members of that company of images, spirits, demons, and devils which, for a hundred and fifty years since their first appearance in William Blake’s prophetic books, have occupied an increasingly important place in literature. The mind of Samuel Beckett is only the most recent lodgings these familiar spirits have inhabited.

The psychotic has to express himself within the prison of a language; but his relation to language is itself partly psychotic, and his efforts to mediate his unconscious conflicts and fantasies through language produce that remarkable phenomenon which has been called the poetry of madness. Here, typically, is Joseph speaking:

When I invented the world there was no paganism—just people who were helpers. Eventually when the world is on a firm basis there won’t be any need for religion…I’m God and I don’t want anybody to worship me. The world was created by work and doing good, not by worshipping me and kissing me. I don’t want to go to church…. What the hell is a cross for? It is simply a symbol of Christianity to hurt you….

Here is a line from Leon:

To me, peace means ideology in the heart.”

And one from Clyde:

Santa Claus represents God on assistance.”

And yet another from Joseph:

There is only one God, and nobody seems to know where He is.”

One is struck by the pithy, epigrammatic, and paradoxical quality of these statements, by their seeming to be so profound—just as one is struck by similar passages in the writing of Beckett. But these statements do not actually make sense; sometimes they suggest meaning; but most often they are merely syntactical elegies for a lost world of intelligible discourse. They are poetic and vivid because, in them, unconscious processes are given free enough play to force language into startling juxtapositions. Here, as in part of the literature from Blake to the present time, one has the sense that language is as much a barrier to expression as a means of facilitating it. For those modern writers whose use of language is of a radically regressive character, and for these psychotics whose relation to language shares this tendency, language itself tends ideally to become a transparent medium, without rules, density, or character. In such instances, language serves to point toward, rather than to express, certain gestures of the soul, certain flickerings of emotion—it is something through which we try to move in order to reach what psychoanalysts call the “primary process,” that substratum of psychic energy from which the rest of our mental life is elaborated.

The Three Christs of Ypsilanti makes clear how intimately connected with this process are the most familiar turns, gestures, and locutions of modern literature. “Sir,” Leon says, “since you are bringing up such pleasant memories, it reminds me of pleasant memories pertaining to my own wife. But that’s in the future.” What contemporary play or novel could not contain the following: ” ‘Why should a man try to be s-somebody else,’ Joseph stammered, ‘when he’s not even himself?’ ” When Leon remarks that it is “better to live alone, relating to positive nothingness…My love is for infinity and when the human element comes in it’s distasteful,” we must recognize that his insane speech is tapping the same resources of psychic energy and impulse as some of the most characteristic expressions of modern literature. When Leon at one point begins to wear a blindfold, “a neat rectangular affair made of dark green cellophane that fastened at the back of his head with rubber bands,” we cannot be shocked. And we are not surprised when he adds blinders, “pieces of white cardboard at his temples which cut down his vision even further.” When he shows up at the next meeting wearing all this plus a pair of earplugs, we know that what we see on the stage under the name of Endgame and what takes place on the stage of the Ypsilanti State Hospital are very much the same thing.

The analogy with Blake is equally revealing. “On March 29, Leon stated that when he was fourteen years old he had lost his heart and had not recovered it until November 1959, when he married…When he leaves for work, he said, his wife takes his heart away and puts a scroll of the Ten Commandments in its place.” Or the following, as close a gloss on “The Mental Traveller” as one is likely to find.

A woman bore me; she consented to having me killed electronically while she was bearing me, which is in itself a disowning of a child. And I disowned her after I put the picture together. And she also stated when I was eight and a half years of age that I’m nothing to her, and that was like a brick between the eyes. And after I died the death I told her she’s nothing to me, and it’s true what people say about her, she was a first-class fornicator…That particular woman, I call her the Old Witch….

But one need not go so far as Blake. A figure as unlikely as Thomas Carlyle comes equally to mind. Of the three Christs, the most accessible to influence was Leon, the youngest of the three. He usually spoke of himself as “Rex”—he was King Oedipus as well as Jesus and God—but under the pressure of daily confrontations with men who claimed to be the same person as he, he did not, as did the other two, refuse to recognize the conflict. After much contemplation, he discarded his identity as God, and revealed himself in a new incarnation as—who? none other than “Dr. Righteous Idealed Dung,” Diogenes Teufelsdrökh himself. One has the sense, as one follows the various turns and developments, the shifts and dodges each of these men makes, that the history of Western culture is either invented anew in the psyche of every one of us, or—what may be worse—that Western culture itself is like a broken down and spliced up newsreel composed of all the horror movies and black comedies ever made, which keeps playing over and over in the all-night theaters that exist behind the eyes of us all.

Moreover, to insist on the exclusive contemporaneity of Dr. Rokeach’s Christs would be misleading. What has changed most dramatically is our conception of what is insane and what is not—I can think of no idea subject to greater fluctuation, more strictly relative and historical. The literature of the past contains, as part of its normal everyday world, eccentric behavior that today we would consider insane, suitable for institutionalization. For example, Leon had a ritual called “shaking off,” an act “designed to get rid of the electronic interferences and impositions to which he believed he was continually subjected. He ‘shook off’ by sitting rigidly in his chair, pressing his fingers firmly against his temples, and vigorously massaging his head while holding his breath until he was red in the face.” Think of any number of characters in Dickens for a moment—not to mention Ben Jonson or Shakespeare—Wemmick, the lawyer’s clerk in Great Expectations, for example, who turns his face and mouth into a post-office the closer he comes to his work in London and who walks through the city “in a self-contained way as if there were nothing in the streets to claim his attention.” Or here is Leon describing his final passage into psychosis.

I felt myself and it seemed real peaceful. It was so peaceful that I would have liked to remain dead, but God didn’t call me.

One of the great passages in the imaginative literature of the past century occurs in Our Mutual Friend, when the crippled and visionary artist, Jenny Wren, maker of dolls’ dresses, looks down from the rooftop of a London hovel into the streets and cries out to a friend, “Come up and be dead!” The point is not that the past was unable to recognize madness and that we are able to do so today, but that in the past “normal” acceptable reality accomodated a larger amount of eccentric, odd, and peculiar personal behavior than it does now—and that different Institutions existed for dealing with such behavior. Religion was able to accommodate part of it, and family life more of it (how many families did not have a crazy aunt or uncle who lived in a room upstairs for twenty years, ever since the day that—well, think of Miss Havisham). What we now consider characteristically psychotic behavior—depression, hallucination, and acute withdrawal—was thought of then as a part of life’s expectations, something that had to be endured. Today we seem increasingly inclined to isolate such behavior even further by creating a large, separate, institutional world for it. I am certainly not suggesting that the doors to Bedlam be thrown open, but I think it may be useful to note again what has been noted abundantly in other places—that as our society continues to grow more complex, there seems to be a concomitant decline in the flexibility and range of behavior which we are able to tolerate. Yet even as we isolate such extreme behavior within our society, the very form and shape which society itself is coming to take seems more and more to resemble a recreation, on a large abstract scale, of the condition it keeps locking away. Literature has been trying to say this for the last two hundred years in a thousand different ways, and it is the signal virtue of Dr. Rokeach’s book that it makes the connection between these disparate realms palpable and clear.

Letters

The Poetry of Madness July 30, 1964

The Poetry of Madness July 9, 1964

The Poetry of Madness July 9, 1964

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