A Summer of Madness

Wisdom, Madness and Folly: The Philosophy of a Lunatic

by John Custance
Pellegrini and Cudahy, 254 pp. (1952)

“On July 5, 1996,” Michael Greenberg starts, “my daughter was struck mad.” No time is wasted on preliminaries, and Hurry Down Sunshine moves swiftly, almost torrentially, from this opening sentence, in tandem with the events that it tells of. The onset of mania is sudden and explosive: Sally, the fifteen-year-old daughter, has been in a heightened state for some weeks, listening to Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations on her Walkman, poring over a volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets till the early hours. Greenberg writes:

Flipping open the book at random I find a blinding crisscross of arrows, definitions, circled words. Sonnet 13 looks like a page from the Talmud, the margins crowded with so much commentary the original text is little more than a speck at the center.

Sally has also been writing singular, Sylvia Plath–like poems. Her father surreptitiously glances at these, finds them strange, but it does not occur to him that her mood or activity is in any way pathological. She has had learning difficulties from an early age, but she is now triumphing over these, finding her intellectual powers for the first time. Such exaltation is normal in a highly gifted fifteen-year-old. Or so it seems.

But, on that hot July day, she breaks—haranguing strangers in the street, demanding their attention, shaking them, and then suddenly running full tilt into a stream of traffic, convinced she can bring it to a halt by sheer willpower (with quick reflexes, a friend yanks her out of the way just in time).

Robert Lowell described something very similar in an attack of “pathological enthusiasm”:

The night before I was locked up I ran about the streets of Bloomington Indiana…. I believed I could stop cars and paralyze their forces by merely standing in the middle of the highway with my arms outspread.

Such sudden, dangerous exaltations and actions are not uncommon at the start of a manic attack.

Lowell had a vision of Evil in the world, and of himself, in his “enthusiasm,” as the Holy Ghost. Sally had, in some ways, an analogous vision of moral collapse, seeing all around her the loss or suppression of God-given “genius,” and of her own mission to help everyone reclaim that lost birthright. That it was such a vision which led to her passionate confrontation with strangers, her bizarre behavior imbued with a sense of her own special powers, her parents learn when they quiz her the next day:

She has had a vision. It came to her a few days ago, in the Bleecker Street playground, while she was watching two little girls play on the wooden footbridge near the slide. In a surge of insight she saw their genius, their limitless native little-girl genius, and simultaneously realized that we are all geniuses, that the very idea the word stands for has been distorted. Genius is not the fluke they want us to believe it is, no, it’s as basic to who we are as our sense…

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