Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Diseased Minds

Russell and Cooper have clearly made a point of not allowing Pat to become what mentally ill characters often become in Hollywood movies: someone magnetic and full of wise secrets that we “normals” would benefit from if only we could open our tiny minds and see past all the “rules” we foolishly allow ourselves to be corralled by" - MaryAnn Johanson, self-proclaimed flick filosopher, in a positive review

Other reviews of this very very good film have also tended to be positive, but what I've mainly noticed is all the approving, knowing talk about how this film goes about presenting its characters in a grown-up way, not sugarcoating or romanticising the reality of living with crippling mental illness.

This odd expression of empathy reminded me of Styron's Darkness Visible again. If we get together and advocate effectively enough, we have it in us to convince society that our inferiority is not our fault. It's a somewhat questionable aspiration in any case, but it sure as hell wasn't what the film I was watching was about.

One problem with the sickness paradigm is that you can't really attribute it to something external, which once you've dealt with you're then healthy. They're coming to fix your emotions and personality, and you'll only be truly healthy once you're someone else. The second problem is that - as opposed to the body, whose organs have definite functions attached to them which illness impedes - with the mind it's only a question of conventions. Of course, it is then explained that these transgressions of norms impede their functioning in society, and therefore necessitate treatment. Had this philosophy of medicine managed to establish itself in other fields beyond psychiatry, we might have heard dermatologists earlier on in the previous century pronouncing black people cutaneously (that means of the skin, I looked it up) ill, and supposing a future environment where small stature would be looked down on far more hostilely than we ourselves would consider reasonable, whatever branch of medicine deals with those things would undoubtedly declare them vertically ill.

Without a doubt these people suffer. Without a doubt this suffering of theirs is also generally eased by people devoted to their care, though I would guess that less by psychiatrists with their super-pills than by systematic emotional support and aided introspection, which would do good for anyone.

A higher than usual degree of suffering is probably a more accurate and sensible general characterisation of the so-called mentally ill than mental dysfunction. Another one might be deviation from emotional and ideological orthodoxy. Institutionalisation occurs when they stray, in turn, too far out of behavioural orthodoxy, but even before that, all who feel and think wrongly are at best miserable sick people needful of our empathy and help.

I have something of an odd recurring crisis. Every time somebody asks me how I am (though it doesn't always sound like a question and probably often isn't), it feels like a test of character that I fail by saying "Great! How are you?" I think what I'm hearing when I'm asked it is "How much do you belong here?" and I respond with a frantic enthusiasm "A whole lot! I'm the belongiest damn belonger around."

Every once in a while, I will get my courage up and say "Not that much. This is a strange place I don't really understand." Invariably, the reassuring response will be "Never mind! Here's how to pretend that you do!" I'm getting off easy here. If they would have considered me too far gone, all they'd be able to offer me is pity, if not disgust. At any rate, what their response amounts to is "Your apology is graciously accepted."

So, here's what I think, in the hope this post is maintaining some sort of coherence: Madness is a truth impulse. I'm not sure how and whether psychosis factors into it, but what the feelcrimes at least appear to have in common is a kind of rejection of self-confidence, of the viability of the status quo and of the realness of conventions. The mad have to be differentiated and ostracised because if they're like you, then you're like them, and life is doubtful and frightening and arbitrary and fucking stupid.

Here's my wise secret: "It's a crock of shit." Almost everything everybody does completely misses the point. It sort of gleefully misses the point in a what-are-you-gonna-do?-gotta-do-something kind of way. Most things are meant essentially as distractions, as assistance in avoiding "sinking into yourself." But I like it here, sunk in myself as I am. It probably is much more painful that the apparent alternative lifestyle, but it enables me to maintain self respect. It helps my good things be satisfying. It's like the difference, say 200 years ago, between being self-deludedly religious and secure, and embracing secularity and doubt and approaching life like a fucking grown-up.

One distinction grown-ups should be able to make is between empathy for a person in pain and condescension towards and implicit condemnation of him. The tendency to merge the two together is INSANE. Can't you just hope that the person feels better?

That's what I think the movie was about, anyway. Basically.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

The Allure of Stupidity

The first thing that comes to mind is jokes and similar exercises in humourous cleverness. Quite often I find myself laughing at or making these witty observations, but usually it's more a nervous reflex than anything else. What really exhilarates me, what I instinctively engage in with my girlfriend and what it gives me a sense of almost artistic satisfaction to get laughs from - is good natured displays of utter moronicality.

The second thing is dogs. Meeting a dog anywhere during the day is an exciting and borderline inspirational experience, but the real deal is the dog (formerly dogs) apparently always eagerly awaiting my return at my parents' house. Often, over the years, I would find that my relationships with them were strangely more satisfying and enjoyable in significant ways than my relationships with my friends. I'd always attributed it mainly to their non-judgementalness, but lately I'm thinking it bears more than a coincidental relation to their patent and prodigious stupidity.

Also, treading more dangerous ground now, it might shed some light on what had always seemed to me the rather bizarre and apparently gender-specific phenomenon of girls throwing up their hands and saying "yeah, well, I guess I'm just too dumb for this kind of thing," with a cheeriness that seems to border on pride. It also, possibly, and separately, might explain why some men might find that attractive. Implicitly tired of themselves and of the aggression and deceit their ceaseless self-aggrandisement requires, they might feel some genuine admiration at women "pure" of this corruption. It is, of course, somewhat less heroic when the ignorance is itself feigned or actively maintained for these purposes, but I'm trying to get at a drive that seems to draw people - female as well as male - towards stupidity, independently of the power politics involved.

And then there's children. I'd always enjoyed the company of young children, even when I myself was a young child only a few years their senior. Kids are a lot of things - direct, emotive, truly spontaneous and uncynical (though not exactly innocent) - but what I have only in recent years gradually grown to see as an essential feature of their appeal is the fact that they're enormous idiots.

What I think these paragons of stupidity offer us, and possibly specifically me, is freedom - to paraphrase Robert Pirsig of Zen and the Really Long Book Title - from the Tyranny of Reason.

I think people forget too often that the scientific revolution was essentially anti-intellectual. It said fuck off with your sages and learned and sophisticated treatises and expert casuistry - give me what my eyes see, experience proves, comprehensive criticism leaves intact and the layman basically understands. It's left a paradoxical legacy. On the one hand, we try to be sensible, and generally avoid making overarching pronouncements we can't back up except with the reputation of our intellect. On the other, this proficiency in sensibility - that is to say, in mainly negative knowledge - has itself become the mark of intellect, and as this intellect towers above it gains the same kind of prestige and deference that had created the stagnation in the first place.

I'm probably overcomplicating things because of the hour and because I'm on an anxiolytic that is making me kind of woozy. The bottom line is that there's a difference between utilising reason to get better things out of life and glorifying reasonableness to the point where it becomes a secular religion. If you're using your ostensible reasonableness to try and impress others, or even just yourself, you are not necessarily doing a reasonable thing. What life is composed of and significant for isn't abstract ideas and efficient ways of processing them, or competitions in intelligent conduct - but emotions and the people who feel them.

Needing to be held up to the standard of reasonableness means needing to have your emotions and personality toe an arbitrary line. The importance of being intelligent is the importance of fitting in in what reason - the great unifier - has fashioned as appropriate for most people (or as many of its proponents imply, all real or worthwhile people). Life can only become predictable once people have become programmable.

For my own part, I have used reasoned analysis since almost as long as I can remember myself to drown out my irrelevant emotions and devote myself objectively to the problem at hand. It served me well in school in general and especially in mathematics, which started as my favourite subject and which by a very gradual and interesting process I had weaned myself off completely by graduation. The true believers often speak of the poetry of numbers involved in maths, and I believe them that they see it, but I never did. It was always exclusively the joy of doing well and being told that I was being approved of.

Mathematics is what you might call the purest expression of reason. Maths experts would then be something like the ultimate intelligent guys. I suspect I am not the only one tempted on many occasions to see life as mathematical. It is almost instinctual, in the period in which we live, to try and do the right, the intelligent thing. It is difficult to feel safe without this compliance, because no one is guaranteeing us respect of our emotions and essence, regardless of their reasonableness, even while there is regard of the consequences of our actual actions.

I still try, in stressful situations, to turn off my emotions so that I can figure out the right move. There never is one. There are only moves to perpetuate the rule of a ruthless dictatorship, in futile sycophantism. Orwell said that the quickest way to end a war was to lose it. That seems kind of questionable military strategy advice, but I think it applies here. I need to find a way to get myself exiled without getting executed.

And on a final note, that even manages to tie in - I considered posting this on facebook but then felt that it was too extreme, as well as possibly overkill in terms of the sheer quantity of dramatic announcements, but it's a serious operational problem now that I have resolved to answer truly as to how I am regardless of the "appropriateness" (I think I'm noticing a tendency to write really long sentences when I'm anxious) - I am finding the challenge I'm referring to everywhere here, of trying to go through life without relying on my intelligence to help me fake my way out of conflict, truly fucking terrifying. When people ask me how I am, and even when I ask myself how I am when not actively suppressing everything, the answer is I am scared shitless, and this is what I'm going to be until something gets better. It's a fair bit more dramatic than "sad" or "demotivated" and I'm really not sure how to fit it in conversation.