Maybe the words of the prophets really ARE written on the subway walls & tenement halls!

Admittedly, I'm feeling a bit manic tonight -- prepare yourself.

This afternoon I went to a lecture on a 1967 French novel by Michel Tournier called Friday. It's a retelling of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe that tells of a more contemporary Crusoe's falling away from his cultural traditions and learning to listen and learn from Friday. The speaker, a colleague at my university, was arguing that Tournier's book is a study of the ways in which the colonial Self and Other can be reconciled. The speaker delivering the paper suggested that the Self must cease seeing the Other as a threat, and begin to see the Other as a field of possibility (I'm paraphrasing very loosely). When he was finished speaking, another of my colleagues said, "But don't we have to have some stability?--some relatively permanent or foundational part of the Self--don't we need a vantage point, if only to hold ourselves accountable through time?"

The problem, it seemed to me, was that these gentlemen were insisting on keeping the conversation within the framework of philosophy (or "theory"). In fact, of course, the character of Crusoe was not convinced to listen to Friday by any abstract argument, but rather, by a sequence of events (haphazard or not is, for now, beside the point). In other words, what was needed was a narratological analysis as much as, or more than, a philosophical analysis. If some major mental breakthrough is needed to begin to see the Other, or to see the now-archetypal "Invisible Man," maybe philosophy isn't the path -- maybe a conversion narrative is required. In that way, the self will be consistent across time, but it may be "re-made," or renewed, or (uh-oh) reborn.

When I am thinking best, I am thinking in reversals: if I want to perceive the Other as less of a threat, for example, I should begin by re-evaluating my Self as an object that can be threatened. If some kind of authentic communication is going to take place between the Self and the Other (or the powerful and the marginal, or, in America, white and black), then some non-dualistic thinking is absolutely required.

So I've been thinking all afternoon about this. I am thinking about William James declaring that the fundamental common ground between reports of mystical experiences in all cultures and all religions is a perception of "Oneness": it is waking up after a tormented, sleepless night next to a fiancee (or whatever) and looking at her, unable to distinguish between the pronouns "I" and "You," pleading with her (yourself?) to say "We." It is understanding experiencing the fact that, not figuratively, but literally, the Self and the Other are not divided.

Of course, like James, as I've said before -- I don't know anything about that. But I am convinced that if someone were to step forward these days and say that they were in the throes of such an experience (undoubtedly they would be struggling with the language needed to describe it) we calmer souls would hustle them off to a "psyche-ward" (read about Jones Very!--who, incidentally, MXRK, was raised by an atheist mother and absent father...). Our insane are our prophets, our mad are our saints, our crazy are our mystics. Looks like I'm not alone in saying this (finally!). A brand new article in the journal Mental Health, Religion & Culture (April 2008; vol. 11, issue 3) is exploring the possibility. Here's the abstract, written by author, Charles P. Heriot-Maitland:

Associations between mysticism and madness have been made since earliest recorded history, and the striking resemblance between self-reports of both mystical and psychotic experience suggests that similar psychological processes may be involved in their occurrence. By exploring the similarities, and proposing a common element to mystical and psychotic experience (referred to here as the experience of "oneness"), this paper aims to place mysticism and madness onto the same experiential continuum. However, in contrast to much of the previous literature, the intention is not to pathologize mystical experience, but rather to normalize psychotic experience. The paper argues not only that the experience of oneness is entirely genuine and available to all humans, but also that it has an important psychological (and evolutionary) function. Using cognitive terminology, it then attempts to explain the processes determining whether an individual enjoys a fulfilling mystical experience, or suffers a debilitating psychotic breakdown (i.e., how "oneness" is experienced). Finally, this paper turns to look at some of the important implications such an approach might have for clinical practice and for the mental health of people in general.

If that sounds boring to you, Chappelle's saying the same damn thing:

Update: Another recent article in the same journal makes a similar case. One of you might be interested--here's the abstract:

In the article, I explore the use of spiritual strategies in the treatment of manic depression in religiously oriented psychiatric inpatients. Manic depression, a disorder primarily of mood, is characterized by bouts of mania alternating with depression. Religious themes and mystical experiences pervade the language of manic depressive illness, e.g., sensing one is God, being given a divine mission, receiving divine messages, having ecstatic experiences, and so on. Debate exists concerning the effectiveness of spiritual interventions in manic patients. I suggest that a trained religious leader may be able to work therapeutically with such patients, provided that two goals are kept in mind: emphasizing beliefs that facilitate positive coping and challenging irrational religious beliefs (i.e., beliefs that lead to negative coping). When examined psychoanalytically, patients' religious symbols and beliefs reveal deeply held beliefs about themselves. In particular, splitting and idealization and devaluation can be seen in their religious belief system. The role of culture in promoting maladaptive belief systems must not be overlooked. In employing spiritual interventions in patients diagnosed with manic depression, potential dangers are imposing one's values on patients and overstating the importance of spirituality.*

*Full citation: Raab, KA. "Manic depression and religious experience: the use of religion in therapy." Mental Health, Religion & Culture 10.5 (Sept. 2007). Pgs. 473-87.


fenhopper said...

well marc maron was saying years ago that those people walking down the street yelling at themselves might actually be talking to G-d.

then there's this guy i sometimes refer to:

This is the third mote of understanding assessed, perhaps to be crossed. Whereas the barricade created by language, and its buttressing by male oppression are traditional blocks which [Virginia] Woolf negotiates by suggesting a move forwards towards avant-garde artistry and sexual parity in education, the muting pall thrown over mental illness must be lifted by a retrograde shift back to abandoned values and ancient beliefs. Navigating the schism caused by the modern marginalisation of the insane and mentally ill, Woolf creates in Septimus Warren Smith a seer, whose joy at recognizing messages from flowers and birds is shattered by a contemporary diagnosis. His most oppressive and offensive treatment comes from Sir William Bradshaw who speaks assuredly of a diagnosis and confidently prescribes steps to cure Septimus’ illness. And so, in effect, Septimus is promised relief from the marginalisation of modern society, but relegated to banishment from divine insight.

Casey said...

Wow -- that is AWESOME. What's the Woolf novel with Septimus?

Here's the more fundamental point: those people walking down the street yelling at themselves might actually be G-d.

So... but, where does one go from here? It seems to me the next step would be some kind of "retrograde shift" whereby mainstream culture might come to recognize (once again) its seers and prophets... so if I, or anyone, was interested in doing that kind of thing, what kinds of rhetorical gestures would you think might be helpful?

Also: I sometimes allude to my own borderline experience(s) -- I can say quite honestly, though, that those have been very liminal, very infrequent moments in my life. Somewhere there must be people who are burdened by (or blessed with) the tendency to wallow longer in that mental state...

I'm going to post more on this tomorrow -- just read a REALLY interesting article about the possibility that mystial experience, which re-orients perception, might be a foundation for ethics.

Think about that, Santos! -- perception as a basis for ethics.

fenhopper said...

Mrs Dalloway

We have to turn away from criticism and offer only art as an argument.

or if we want criticism to have any actual power it has to be ironic or ridiculous.

we have to recognize that comedy is the ultimate social force and the ONLY true polemic.

i'm only partly kidding.

fenhopper said...


in our most recent office conversation/discussion i made an important point referring to this exact clip from chappelle's interview.

there's a divinity shapes our ends.

Casey said...

It's reassuring -- the part about the divinity shaping our ends.

I think you're definitely right about comedy -- or at least about not-criticism. But think about how difficult it's going to be to "reform" the institutions (the dissertation, for example) of academic research. So difficult that academia may wind up making itself irrelevant rather than going through the re-birthing pains that would allow for an actually-interesting dissertation to be written again... as I think I mentioned to you, at the end of more than one of my diss. chapters I felt a strong impulse to wrap up with a story -- I told Ryan Schneider, but understood why he advised me against it.