Muttering to ourselves in the dark: on writers and madness

A few weeks ago, following a link posted on a comments board at Overland, I encountered an essay by the US writer Robert Cohen, ostensibly on literary style. As far as I can tell Cohen seems to be trying to get his head around what style is, and particularly ideas of ‘middle’ and ‘late’ style, and what they both might mean in the shadow of the inevitability of ageing and our inevitable deaths. To this end Cohen looks at the work of (mostly white) male writers: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Cheever, McCarthy and so on, though Flannery O’Connor does get a look in at one point.

Though I’d like to, I’m not going to look at literary writing as a gendered thing. A lot of other people can do it a lot better –

– and this is only a blog, ephemeral and transient and about as resilient as tissue. I want to look at writers madness, a topic that Cohen also raises, and might be a better fit for a writing format that floats around in cyberspace like a loose idea looking for a home to shout from.

Two comments in Cohen’s essay caught my attention. One from John Cheever and the other, Cohen’s own. Cheever said, writes Cohen:

As (the writer) inflates his imagination, he inflates his capacity for anxiety and inevitably becomes the victim of crushing phobias that can only be allayed by lethal doses of heroin or alcohol.

Cohen’s own comment in the following paragraph is:

To write we must sit alone in a room for hours, and conjuring ‘plots’. How closely this resembles mental illness – or yields to it – is something we’d prefer not to think about.

These are reasonably provocative statements that beg a whole lot of questions, questions about writing and about madness and what it means to do, or be, both. Writers always seem to have had an association with madness. Whether it’s a kind of religious madness of the kind preferred by Robert Graves or whether it’s the madness of Malcolm Lowry or Virginia Woolf, madness comes hand in hand with inspiration, beckoning seductively to the writer. Apparently.

Graves thought he could enter into a trance and go back in time, say a couple of thousand years, and actually be present at a historical event. Virginia Woolf, said that No-one lives for himself alone, and then went and died alone. There’s also been something of a myth among writers that if your madness was ‘cured’ (whatever that means), your creative wellsprings would dry up. And in this sense writing has sometimes become an elaborate way of describing all the ways in which we prefer to be crazy, as opposed to all the ways in which we are crazy.

Cheever seems to be claiming that using your imagination sends you nuts, and Cohen similarly seems to be saying that writing is a kind of mad activity anyway. So whether writing drives you mad or you’re mad to write, the only way into and out of writing is through deranged mental states.

If my imagination is a mad thing, it follows that to be sane – to be unimaginative – one cannot write literature. (Perhaps the sane just write tabloid journalism). It could be that to think of our imagination, like Cheever, as an inflator of anxiety is indeed a mad thing, a kind of paranoia of daydreaming. To write as a mutterer of plots could be one way to write. It seems odd though that muttering about plots is privileged for writers and the mad when it seems that virtually all of us do our share of imaginative plot-muttering throughout the day. And what is dreaming but a kind involuntary muttering of plots?

Writing could be a lot of other things though. Writing might grow, not out of a solitary muttering in the dark, but of a different kind of daydreaming, one that we might look at as symptomatic of a madness, but also as an attempt at self-cure as well; an attempt to bring down the panopticon, not live in terror of it.

John Cheever’s comments seem to say a lot more about Cheever than they do about writing, and perhaps more about Cheever that we would care to know. But given that they are Cheever’s own words, they probably tell us a lot less than Cheever would like us to know.

Knowing your own madness, not being by fooled by it all of the time, is maybe a kind of sanity in its way. The times when I feel most mad could be the times I’m closer to being sane. Perhaps to be mad means being absorbed by my madness, thinking in a sense that I am sane, that my definition of the world is the definition of the world. When we are truly mad we don’t know that we are. That could be what it means to be mad.

An artist whose work I have followed for a long time is the Sydney-based new media artist, Linda Dement, whose beautiful, violent and sometimes hilarious images have said more to me than any visual artist has for some time. Her memoriam to her friend, writer Kathy Acker, still astounds and moves me. Dement has been sceptical of a male-dominated narrative of artistic practice, and indeed sceptical of a lot of ideas about art – its marketing, its branding, its privileging of genius and so on. And she’s a lot more prosaic about madness too. Referring to her early work, such as cybergirlfleshmonster and Typhoid Mary, she says:

What I’m doing at the moment is the interior of a virtual wound. My work’s always been about exactly the same thing. Making the unbearable visible. A wound I think is just a way into the body. So it’s like, I’m thinking in that really literal way of wanting to go inside and bring stuff out and make some sense out of it. And I had to cut the skin open first in order to get in there.

Writing, too, could be a lot concerned with making unbearable things visible. It could be a lot of things we haven’t let ourselves think about yet. There could be a lot of ways into and out of our wounds, and daydreaming our way into ourselves might have something to say for itself, something that madly impersonating madness doesn’t. Wrestling with our tormented inner demons is one thing. Daydreaming our way into being might be something else entirely.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Thank you Stephen. If the pudding had been included, I would’ve got me some of those super Brontes.

    I’ve been thinking about madness, illness, wellness … and writing myself, lately. Personal madness, world madness, good madness, bad madness. What it means to be DISTURBED. Surely any sane person must be disturbed by the suffering of the human condition? It’s driving me f**king mad.

      1. And I often wonder why legendary madness and alcoholism are reserved for the privileged and educated artists, while the ordinary folk just have to find ways to cope. (Which is probably what Clare was saying.)

        1. Maybe it’s because creative types can be so charismatic?

          I can handle the madness, but seeing someone you love in mental anguish – that’s hard. There are so many kinds of madness.

          Writers madness is some kind of obsessive compulsion, I think. I’ve been reading up.

          1. Sorry, that was unclear. I meant, ‘I may be covering the same ideas here as Clare’. Like when you said: how can anybody stay sane? I’m going to sign off now…

          2. Jack and Clare
            Adam Phillips has a terrific book called ‘Going Sane’ , the thesis of which is that we have
            a zillion ways of describing madness, and almost none for sanity. So one of our challenges
            is finding ways of describing ways of what we think sanity is, as well as wondering why we find madness so interesting. (just as we have a thousand ways of describing cruelty and not nearly as many about caring) Jacinda’s point is very interesting, that madness for the elites
            has historically always been is always o very intriguing, and the poor’s madness gets you locked up. Feeling some kind of mad despair or whatever, has to be a normal response to
            the world’s condition, just as it would be normal to be distraught if you witnessed a car accident. On the other hand yo can’t let it drive you mad either.

          3. hey Clare
            yes, I can very much writing as a self-cure, or as an atempt at it.As a symptom and also as a way of dealing with the
            symptom in a disruptive fashion. or not. Writing could of course just turn you to drink a la Cheever, or make you
            more depressed. In which case you might just need to
            write a lot more.
            And yes, seeing someone in great anguish is very hard That’s when we find out what we think about caring.

          4. xx being with a loved one’s (or a stranger’s) mental anguish is indeed an opportunity to love xx

  2. Do you think that the label of ‘mad’ or ‘crazy’ has become an attractive aesthetic that people like to associate themselves with? It’s a daily occurance i hear friends or relatively ‘normal’ or ‘conventional’ people in the street confess to others that they are themselves ‘mad’ or ‘crazy’. it almost seems like an accessory, that doing irrational things is trendy…
    how do we then define genuine madness, as opposed to common madness??

    1. Hi Will. The world is mad, so it’s no wonder madness is part of popular vernacular – but the behaviour and ‘vibe’ associated with episodes of mental illness oft makes us recoil, marginalising those who most need our companionship.

    2. Hi Will
      very interesting thought. I wonder if madness as an attractive aesthetic, saying ‘Oh I’m so mad’ is way of doing two things at once: admitting that there are things about yourself that you don’t understand (that might even frighten you) but you want to disown, by turning it into a fashion statement (and so making yourself a bit special) ; And at the same an expression of an anxiety that one might just be very conventional and not special at all.
      I don’t know if we can usefully look at a definition between ‘genuine’ and ‘common’ madness. As I said earlier in my response to Jacinda and Clare, it might be more helpful to think about our definitions of sanity, and what we want it to be. Because we don’t have any. We just assume that we all know what ‘normal’ is.

      1. exactly what i was trying to say. to bring the same idea into the context of the article, i think that the ‘obsessive compulsive’ madness of the writer is one that is not unique to the writer. i think almost any type of creative pursuit is compulsive, is creativity really creativity if it’s an obligation?
        I also agree that it would be more useful to look at defining sanity. it is very hard though, as sanity, along with insanity is something that is only distinguished through contrast. perhaps sanity is simply the most common madness?

  3. Agreed on other creative practices. I just privileged writing a bit. I think creativity can only be creative if it IS an obligation, myself.
    The closer we look at normality the madder it seems. So maybe sanity and normality don’t have a lot in common. I might look at Phillips ‘Going Sane’ later this arvo and see if I can summarise and post some of his points on sanity. It might be worth it.

    1. As long as you don’t drive yourself crazy, Stephen, that summary would be great!

      Good point about words for sanity … and as for ‘normal’ ???

      With it
      Non non compos mentis
      er … it’s late and I have to go to bed

    2. I would agree that creativity comes from an obligation to ones self- which is pretty much what i mean by compulsion. I suppose what i meant by ‘obligation’ was an obligation to anyone other than yourself. also, it was an error to use the word ‘creativity’ in place of art.

      normality is a completely contextual concept, and in most cases could be replaced with the word ‘standard’. i’ll come back to your summary of ‘Going Sane’ after i’ve had some time to digest.

      1. Hi Will, You’re mis-reading my clumsy sentence, “I think creativity can only be creative if it IS an obligation, myself”. Not “to myself.” But we are in agreement. What I meant was that “creativity is an obligation to others.” Like a lot of things. Like being alive.

  4. Ok. Sunday morning, and its stopped raining, so before I get outside, some excerpts from the final chapter of Adam Phillips’ ‘Going Sane’.

    “The 20th century was a mass graveyard of idealistic utopian projects for what was called in the 18th century ‘the perfectibility of man’……..and it is not incidental that the languages of so-called mental health – of who is sane and who is mad – were so easily co-optable by fascists and communists alike………….Mental health becomes political morality by other means.”

    “Taking as my motto Winnicott’s remark that madness is the need to be believed………..Sanities should be elaborated in the way that diagnoses of pathology are: they should be contested like syndromes, debated as to their causes and constitutions and outcomes exactly as illnesses are.”

    “Whatever else sanity might be it is a container of madness, not a denier of it.”

    “The version of sanity – Big Brother’s version – that makes people biddable rather than willingly co-operative is regarded by the deeply sane as madness. Whether the sane are opportune or principled, serene or furious, inventive or dull, mechanical or inspired, indeed mad or sane, has always been open to debate. But the sane are never sadistic; they notably never get pleasure from cruelty.”

    ‘What we think sanity is, in other words, depends on how we describe what is inside us on how we describe what we are made of.”

    “What Carlyle calls ‘undue cultivation of the outward’ we might call the technological manipulation of reality, treating the so-called inner world of feeling and desire as though it were the same as the external world. This is the official consensual version of sanity.”

    “The sane person believes in order and pattern as at best provisional, as a wilfully false cure for inevitable change; and assumes that all stories about being saved or rescued are infantilising alibis or blackmailing calculations.”

    “There are better ways of paying tribute to people than taking revenge on them.Revenge is no good to the sane because it is an attempt to coerce agreement, in the form of submission and/or despair.Only people who don’t expect to be listened to need people to agree with them……The sane prefer listening to speaking; indeed they regard most speaking as a defence against listening; though they realise, of course, what would happen in the unlikely situation of everyone wanting to listen. After all, what would happen if everyone started listening at once?”

    “The sane know that specialness – the need to be either the chooser or the chosen – is a way of distracting ourselves from our own happiness.”

    “For the sane the need to be recognised, like the need to be understood is unnecessary; they are in no need of rescue.”

    “For the sane adult – who is, by definition, not in thrall to the idea that because she was once she is a child she is really a child – to be ignored is one of her great freedoms.”

    “The sane adult has not consented to the modern redemptive myth of relationship; not does she subscribe to the view that relationships are the kind of thing that one can be good or bad at, that one can succeed or fail at, any more than you can be good or bad at having red hair, or succeed or fail at being lucky.”

    “We tend to think of people who rape or murder children, or who torture the sick or the old, as mad – in war it is the nature of the project to do exactly that. If the sane person lives as if cruelty is the worst thing she does, then no sane person could win a war.”

    That’ll do.

  5. “… what would happen if everyone started listening at once?”

    Oh how glorious it would be to have a try of that!

    Sanity, according to these definitions, seems to have a lot in common with Buddhist practice.

    Stephen, thanks for sharing.

  6. If everyone started listening at once, we’d still be muttering to ourselves in the dark. I have a friend who “has just realised that pretty much everyone would rather be well (& pleasantly) deceived than face the truth.” I’m sure she feels the need to be believed and I’m sure she’s not mad. And I’m dammed sure she feels very much alone, a word that cropped up in connection with Cohen and Woolfe.

    1. I imagined that if everyone started listening at once, the earth would speak … or silence would … or maybe the gods (if you’ll have them)

  7. Gus: we probably all are very well and pleasantly deceived. Its no secret. That’s how the consumer society works. Buy this cool iThing: it was made in a factory by people who are virtually indentured, and the special iWidget that makes it work gives them cancer. But its so cool. Maybe the need to be believed is the need to convince others that I am right, that their view should be mine. I don’t know. I’m just speculating. Maybe I’d feel a bit happier about your friends statement if she said “I have just realised that I, and presumably others like me, would rather be…etc etc”.
    Whenever someone wakes up to the ‘truth; about something, or has a strong opinion about some social or political event, my alarm bells go off when that person starts saying “People are always……”, or “You’d think people would wake up to the fact that……” as though they themselves weren’t people but somehow above the common herd, or as though ‘people’ were another species. By ‘alarm bells’ I mean that recording that goes off in my mind and says ‘You are about to be bored witless. Quick, find a way out of here before you fall asleep or die.’

  8. Virginia Woolfe certainly thought of herself as above the common herd, but I’d guess that was part of her normality, which was pretty insane, and not part of her madness.

    You quoted Cohen quoting Cheever. But what you didn’t say was that the occasion was Cheever musing over the late work of Fitzgerald. As Cohen points out, Fitzgerald wrote in The Crack Up that “all life is a process of breaking down.”

    Did I fall asleep then or did I just die?

    1. “Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today?” Beckett

    2. Gus: Woolf tried to write her way out of her state of mind, and didn’t succeed. But her stuff is pretty remarkable. Cheever is using Fitzgerald’s work to muse on his own work according to Cohen. I’m not sure that life is just a process of breaking down, otherwise nothing new could ever arise.

  9. Thanks for the summary Stephen, it offers some very interesting perspective.Some of the extracts and quotes i admittedly found difficult to understand whitouth context but here are my thoughts:

    One of the most obvious points coming across (I think) is that how we percieve sanity is completely subjective. When Phillips uses collective definitions (definitions he assumes the majority of people share) for example:
    ‘What we think sanity is, in other words, depends on how we describe what is inside us or how we describe what we are made of.’
    When he does this his use of ‘we’ is representing a standard set by a minority of people which applies to the rest of society. How we perceieve sanity is still an entirely relative and subjective thing.
    Do those who are sadistic and gain pleasure from inflicting cruelty on others see themself as anything other than sane? i don’t really know, but i doubt it.
    When Phillips is talking about those people who constitute the sane, in effect i think he really means those whose mentality makes the most sense. His ideal sane person seems less solipsistic than the rest of us, more compassionate and more rational than the rest of us. these people are incredibly rare.

    thanks again.

  10. Hi Stephen

    I’m guessing that this blog entry is part of your attempt to rethink the creative act (writing, making, whatever) as a generative thing, rather than as (only) a compulsive response to trauma. Or rather, the creative act deals with trauma in a different, creative way, which does not lead to our continuing isolation and fragmentation but to some sort of caring for one another.

    So when creators (eg authors) describe the creative act as a response to, or move towards, madness, I get the feeling you are wondering if there is any else besides this trope – what about moving towards care (or sanity)?

    I suppose that’s what makes madness/sanity a hot topic (as well as weirdness/normality). ‘What is it to be sane?’ might also be a question of ‘what it is that is important to be an become?’. ie, these are the big questions of our existence and what we do with our energies.

    If ‘going sane’ is about caring without the need of recognition, rescuing or cruelty, then what kind of creating and writing might spring forth?

    You seem to be suggesting that such creating would not be generalising (along the lines of “all people are like…”, “everyone thinks…”, “most of us agree…”) so I suppose that means instead it would much more interested in what is specific and particular to any moment, movement or person.

    Could this particularly be expressed as: holding onto the other in a way that doesn’t diminish the other (doesn’t withdraw, ignore or subsume) but that also give us some access/relation to the other (a relation that will always be new, or renewed, since the very otherness of others means we can’t presume the previous modes of relating, or access points, will work at all)?

  11. Just when you think your blog is dead, it fires up again.
    Hi Luke. Yeah, well, you know what else is there to write about? I mean if we’re not contesting versions of care in whatever we do then what are we up to? I mean its what we do anyway, but to think about it and try it as a project is another matter.
    And I take your final para as one such entry into the contesting.And yes, I have the particular in mind.

  12. And do you think that madness/sanity is a worthwhile binary? You and others in the comments have suggested that the idea of madness and mental illness quickly shifts into political morality and determinations of who is acceptable and not, and surely focusing on the un-marked side of the duo (sanity) will still play into this us/them, in/out logic.

    What about just worrying about what is caring, and what is uncaring. In which case, if I have a view of world or set of behaviours that is rather un-normal, perhaps a view I find tremendously hard to let go of, or which gives me great anguish, then I don’t have to worry about whether I am going mad or going sane, but just whether I can care for myself and others or not…

    And caring might not meaning hiding from, or denying, or limiting my own, or others’, weirdness, although how we deal with unbearable pain might be another question. I imagine, thought, that a lot of pain is the result of trying to remove our weirdness, which will I reckon would lead to wounds of some sort or another.

  13. Luke: No, I don’t think madness/sanity is that worthwhile. I am just looking at it because I want a way out thru thinking about what sanity might look like, that is what we can use sanity to invent. My general thing, is that we don’t know much about what caring is so we need ways to find out what it could be. Given that things seem to be getting pretty critical we may as well start anywhere. So I could start with madness and sanity, or with fiction and non-fiction or with climate change or the people on my commune or whatever.
    yeah, I think a lot of pain comes from denying our weirdness, our stuck bits of whatever, our attempts to make the transient non-transient. Or even from seeing the suffering of others. Which is pain of a different kind, if its pain at all.
    Now I am off to wander in the paddock in the rain in my pyjamas. In which I am apparently spending the day.Pyjamas that is. I may plant trees.

  14. A nice summary of your blogs to date… “My general thing, is that we don’t know much about what caring is so we need ways to find out what it could be. Given that things seem to be getting pretty critical we may as well start anywhere. So I could start with madness and sanity, or with fiction and non-fiction or with climate change or the people on my commune or whatever.”

  15. Ta for that Luke. Yes, I just say the same things over and over. And probably always will. Everything else is just sleight-of-hand.

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