My bedridden grandfather used to say, a Will Rogers twinkle in his eyes, “If you’re not a little wacky today, there’s something wrong with you.” That was back in the ‘60s, in the days of ‘Nam and Love, when everyone seemed to have a little jungle floating around in their heads, and you were either grooving on the stench of Napalm in the Morning or the sweet aroma of Reefer Madness mournings.
I kept grandpa’s wisdom in mind throughout my undergraduate years as a philosophy student. Through the study of Hamlet and his problematical disposition(s). Through my Sanity and Madness class, featuring Foucault, the Ship of Fools, and the world seen as an upstairs-downstairs Titanic without icebergs and going down in the Flood. And through Jung and Freud, the Human Condition as an archetypal rainbow leading the seeker to a pot of gold of selfhood versus the grumpy old self-destructiveness of the Id-bound human mess never to be sufficiently “sublimated” as depicted in Civilization and Its Discontents.
Nietzsche really did me in though, when it came to a vision of madness. Who was. Who wasn’t. In Beyond Good and Evil, he wrote, “Madness is rare in individuals – but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule.” If that was true in 1886, before the War to End All Wars and the One That Followed, etc., then it’s even truer today, now that we’ve taken to declaring a global war on an abstract noun: Terrorism. When you have such an open word (one man’s ceiling, another man’s floor), can it be very long before the leathered-up verbs wake from their dogmatics slumbers and reified concepts start disappearing at freefall speed into their own footprints?
Well, I was thinking about all the evidence of wackiness I’ve seen since that boyhood visit to my accidental oracle (who really only wanted a shot of whiskey (I gave him two) before collapsing back onto his bed, only to wake up later alone staring up a constellation of night-glow stars someone pasted to his ceiling), as I began reading the newly released Let Me Not Be Mad by A. K. Benjamin. It’s a book, a memoir about intersections, existential concentricity, a Venn diagram that illustrates the fragility of boundaries between people and their concepts of themselves and others.
Let Me Not Be Mad is written by a psychiatrist who fears he may be going insane, as he listens — as he deeply empathizes — with the narratives his clients bring to him, tales of survival and “resilience” in the Carnivalesque world we accept as normal, the mid-point of the acceptability bell-curve most of us strive up like gig economy Sisyphuses, only to inevitably backslide for reasons that Dr. Benjamin is there to help us come to terms with through reasoning and listening without judgement.
What makes Benjamin’s modus o. unusual (these days) is his near-absence from relying on Big Pharma prescriptions for DSM-guided diagnoses he himself doesn’t fully believe in. The other thing is he’s a people doctor, he believes in talking, listening, Being There in the clients’ narratives, not so much for analysis but to honor the narrative by participating as a reader would a story. But what happens for Benjamin is that he discovers that being the serene pond upon which these anxious raindrops fall, and interpenetrate, has its price: his own sense of sanity.
Benjamin begins to have virtual out-of-body experiences, seeing himself in the bodies of others facing himself as doctor, over-empathizing as it were; in the end, he sees himself as his own client sitting beore himself. He mixes and matches the Venn narratives until they and he become part of the same story, without the usual “professional” separation between story and reader. Freud first warned of this hazard between patient and doctor in his discussion of transference and counter-transference. Freud saw it as inevitable, to evolve such feelings, but such inevitability has been largely quashed today by the current practice of diagnosing symptoms (think: astrology charts) and putting everyone on psychotropics (it is a jungle in there).
However, a better reference point would be Anton Chekhov’s “Ward No. 6.” Ivan, a long-term patient on the ward, confronts Andrey Yefimitch, his psychiatrist, one day: “,,,You have seen nothing of life, you know absolutely nothing of it, and are only theoretically acquainted with reality; you despise suffering and are surprised at nothing for a very simple reason: vanity of vanities, the external and the internal, contempt for life, for suffering and for death, comprehension, true happiness–that’s the philosophy that suits the … sluggard best.” Most contemporary psychiatrists would up the dosage, if they heard such “drivel,” but Benjamin, like Yelfimitch, is stricken by the truth enunciated. It hurts him to realize we suffer in our separation from each other through some almost-arbitrary imposition of yet another dominant abstract noun: Normal.
And this of course leads one to think back on the revolution that almost was in psychiatry in the early ‘70s, when prominent Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing totally rejected the artificial boundary between normal and abnormal experience. As he famously put it: “insanity — a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.” He elaborated on this in The Politics of Experience. “Social phenomenology,” he writes, “is the science of my own and of others’ experience. It is concerned with the relation between my experience of you and your experience of me. That is, with inter-experience. It is concerned with your behaviour and my behaviour as I experience it, and your and my behaviour as you experience it.” Benjamin’s memoir is demonstration of this entanglement of selves co-producing “reality.”
One narrator after another comes to tell their tale of intersecting with reality: Tracy, Bron, Craig, JB, et. al., until finally, as at the beginning, there is You, facing yourself, your own client, your own doctor. They come in, at him, “Daughter, mother, father, marriage, family, broken in an instant, by [some freakish moment that changes everything]. No need to tell them their family will never be the same again.” It is a struggle to maintain one’s intensity, one’s empathy level, story after story. It may be the memoir’s finest feature: it’s depiction of the complexity of humanity, and its embracement.
Benjamin’s intersection is not just with clients coming to him in the privacy of an office; they’re everywhere: “I walked over London bridge in rush hour, faces thronging around me, and diagnosed each one in an instant:’Psychosis…Depression…LewyBodies…Panic…Depression…Sociopath…OCD…Cynophobia…Panic…Guam’s…’ Everybody has something, and now there’s a name for it, even if it’s fear of having something, of going insane, aka dementophobia.” What if the pandemic we were waiting for were not physical but mental, a disease that devastates consciousness, the one major advantage that humans have over the animal world? If the animal world around us going extinct, one species at a time, why not us?
Entropy all around us; we see permanence at our own risk. Benjamin sees people falling apart all around him, and in this mass of half-formed people he sees himself, he passes himself, like T.S. Eliot’s “compound ghost,” and asks himself a rhetorical question: “Can you have a breakdown in a breakdown? What if everything is breaking down, always breaking down? A self-portrait in a convex mirror that has been smashed to smithereens.”
Benjamin is not merely concerned with the present, with the lack of therapeutic talking/listening, and the total capitulation to maintenance drugs in America — opiates, marijuana, and other prescribed mind-altering drugs, but he keenly understands where we stand in relation to the future, the continuous convergence of man and machine. Like Freud, he doesn’t have an optimistic sense of our current evolutionary direction.
He writes, “It’s been the decade of the brain for the last twenty-five years. Fashions come and go; the cortex, the subcortex, white-matter tracts, relay speed, gamma oscillations, secret pathways which openly in the dead of night….It’s not too cynical to suggest that we too might run the risk of getting lost constructing fantastically elaborate and expensive simulacra of our own ideas.” Not just a warning about AI; it’s a warning about our own humanity, together and alone.