Sitting high atop the dung heap of humanity, the solitary weeper weeps alone. Like the biblical Job, he laments his fall and cries at life’s injustice. He tears at his hair, scratches lines into the dirt, speaks nonsensical gibberish. He speaks without meaning and we are left trying to assemble broken puzzle pieces, vainly trying to create meaning. I and three dozen other audience members watch the actor transform into King Lear, witnessing high art yet at a loss to know what to do with it.
What is insanity? When I ask this question in class, my student athletes claim they know the answer. Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Far be it for me to contradict a generation of coaches looking to motivate their players, but that answer belongs to the question, What is stupidity? (I’ll take “Worn-Out Cliches” for $300, Alex…).
In truth, insanity is the inability to see reality as it actually is. Having never been insane (that I know of), I feel unequipped to explore the answer to this question. It is not as comprehensive as, What is love? nor as abortively academic as, What is death? But an insane person, I conjecture, cannot—or chooses not to—live in the real world.
But then this begs the question, What is real? I think we can safely answer that point by asserting that the real is what everyone accepts the real to be. Everyone accepts that the sky is blue, that gravity is irresistible, that murder is wrong. Yet legal experts and theologians can find plenty of instances where murder is acceptable; does that then mean that the majority view is insufficient? It may be, but exceptions do not fully invalidate the morally secure position of the majority. But then what if a minority asserted a metaphysical truth, like for instance, the belief that a god could rise from the dead, and claimed a new moral code that the majority did not agree with. Would they be considered insane? And if so, must they be dealt with by society, using means that might appear harsh yet were perhaps necessary to protect the majority?
You see the problem?
Insanity cannot be defined as disputes between moral viewpoints, nor even fully the inability to relate to the world as it is. Insanity may be a clinical definition for a psychological world of schizophrenia and psychotic breaks, though I prefer the more antiquated and literary term madness. Madness removes, sometimes violently and often temporarily, an individual from the external world to a world within. It is not an affliction of the brain but of the soul.
Shakespeare’s King Lear addresses the unimaginable horrors of old age, of isolation, and of its accompanying madness. We agonizingly watch, scene after scene, as Lear’s very identity is slowly stripped from him. He loses his deepest love in his daughter Cordelia, loses his presumed affections from his other, duplicitous daughters, he loses his kingship and his home. Finally, having lost everything else that would identify us as human and give us meaning, he loses his mind.
In the one-man performance of The Middle of King Lear I was fortunate to see last month, Royal Shakespeare Company veteran Cedric Liqueur portrays Lear alone on the heath with nothing remaining to him—not even his mind. He pours forth a litany of Lear’s lines from the iconic original play, but in isolation, without anyone to talk to, the words literally lose all meaning. Deeper into his soliloquy, Lear begins speaking to the audience members around him, selecting one observer to be his Edgar, one his Kent, two his Goneril and Regan, one his Cordelia. He looks at all of us surrounding him, and the stage becomes a place where we become the silent ghosts of Lear’s past. What would he have said to them—to us—in his madness if he could?
Notably, one of the markers of insanity is talking to one’s self. What if the mind, poisoned by pain and despair, imagines its friends, its families, its enemies—recreates them out of the heavy air of dreams? What if madness is simply trying to reconstruct a new reality out of what might have been? Further, what if we, the sane, watch scornfully the insane, never realizing the futility of our own state? We too try to reconstruct new realities: comfortable decadence, insulated from the darkness of the world, fantastical utopias. Perhaps we are mad for ignoring the darkness and trying to replace it with false light.
One of the constant refrains of Man of La Mancha is that human beings are born into a dung heap (which is not a skewed perspective in seventeenth-century Spain). It is Don Quixote who is thought insane because he refuses to lose hope. Or rather, he creates hope with fantasy, choosing to believe the world is a finer, richer, and more magnificent place than it actually is. And in believing it to be so, he infects others with his redeemable lunacy. Don Quixote asks, “If life is insanity, what then is madness?”
The human spirit must rise above the human condition. If we hope for more from this life—and potentially from the next—we must transcend the dung heap. The revered Union general Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, having hunkered down before the stone wall at Fredricksburg, triumphed in that inspirational charge at Little Round Top at Gettysburg, and survived the mud and the horrors of Petersburg, was frequently asked how he did it. How did he endure through the mud, the cold, the blood, and indecency? His response was that he imagined himself a medieval knight, a warrior doing the business of God where little was glorious and all was to be gained. He could courageously face the abyss believing himself something more than himself. He, like my man Don, reminds us that we can lament the dung, burn it all, or build something with it. Most of us are not destructive, but even more of us lack the insane courage to create something significant out of something so filthy, worthless, and wicked. And yet, I am reminded, thus did the Christ.
Is madness inate? Does it manifest itself in some sort of Freudian nightmare? Or do we, forced into the cuckoo’s nest, retreat into madness for an ounce of security? Or is it that madness the only rational response in an irrational world?