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“Sublime Madness”: Anarchists, Psychiatric Survivors, Emma Goldman & Harriet Tubman

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

When the state becomes chillingly evil—enacting a Fugitive Slave Act to criminalize those helping to free slaves, or financing prisons and wars for the benefit of sociopathic profiteers—and when dissent is impotent and defiance is required, we need the sublimely mad. For his 2013 piece “A Time for ‘Sublime Madness’” (and his 2015 book Wages of Rebellion), Chris Hedges invokes William Shakespeare, William Faulkner, James Baldwin, James Cone, Black Elk, and Crazy Horse. Hedges cites Reinhold Niebuhr, who explained why “a sublime madness in the soul” is essential when the forces of repression are so powerful that liberal intellectualism results in capitulation.

I am personally familiar with two different groups whose members instinctively grasp the power of madness to both destroy and create, and these two groups appear to me so similar that when I speak to one, I try to acquaint them with the other.

I recently addressed one of these groups at the 10th Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair on December 14, 2019, organized by Humboldt Grassroots in the Arcata/Eureka area of Northern California. What was striking to me was how similar these anarchists attendees were in temperament and values to another group that I have greater personal familiarity with—self-identified “psychiatric survivor” activists who I’ve gotten to know at conferences organized by the National Association for Rights Protection and Advocacy, the National Empowerment Center, the International Society for Ethical Psychology and Psychiatry, and MindFreedom.

Anarchists generally agree that externally imposed government and the state are illegitimate authorities; and psychiatric survivor activists generally agree that the externally imposed institution of psychiatry is an illegitimate authority. Both groups vehemently oppose coercion and hierarchy, and both passionately advocate for freedom of choice and mutual aid. Beyond these ideological agreements, my experience is that many members in each of these groups have not only achieved the sublime state of not giving a damn about convention and authorities but, at times, have acted on that sensibility.

Members of both groups have anger over oppression and injustices forced on them and their friends. Among the anarchist attendees at my last talk, some have been beaten by cops, interrogated by the FBI, and jailed. Among psychiatric survivors I’ve known, it is common to have had coerced “treatments” that include drugs, electroshock, and lengthy psychiatric hospitalizations forced on them against their wishes.

With both groups, I routinely talk about the anarchist Emma Goldman ((1869–1940), who lived a cinematic life that included international travel, public speaking fame, multiple imprisonments, and deportation; as she built an enviable resumé of enemies that included J. Edgar Hoover and Vladimir Lenin. At psychiatric survivor activist conferences, I routinely meet women who—though not self-identifying as anarchists—remind me of Goldman in terms of personality, grit, and intelligence; they, unlike Goldman, have been previously stigmatized with mental illness labels such as oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, borderline personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and bipolar disorder.

Given that Goldman, as a teenager and young woman, had the “symptoms” for all the above so-called “disorders,” anarchists and psychiatric survivors immediately recognize that in today’s world—rather than becoming the most famous anarchist woman in US history—she would likely have become a psychiatric patient (and then a survivor activist). Nowadays, many anti-authoritarian women, for their anger and rebellious behaviors—almost always far less violent than Emma’s—are labeled with various serious psychiatric disorders and heavily medicated. Similar to Goldman, their “symptoms” have often been fueled by the physical and emotional abuse of various authorities—experiences which taught them to distrust authorities.

Growing up in the Russian Empire, Emma’s father would regularly beat her and her siblings for disobeying him, and the rebellious Emma would get beaten the most. Emma’s interest in boys provoked rage in her father, and she recounted, “He pounded me with his fists, shouted that he would not tolerate a loose daughter,” but Emma disregarded him. School teachers also abused Emma. Her geography instructor sexually molested her, and Emma fought back and got him fired. A religious instructor beat the palms of students’ hands with a ruler; in response, Goldman recounted, “I used to organize schemes to annoy him: stick pins in his upholstered chair . . . anything I could think of to pay him back for the pain of this ruler. He knew I was the ringleader and he beat me the more for it.”

When Emma was 16, she desperately wanted to join her sister who had made plans to immigrate to the United States, but Emma’s father refused to allow her to do so. Emma threatened to throw herself into the Neva River and commit suicide—a ploy that today could well get a U.S. teenage girl not only a couple of the above diagnoses, but admission to a psychiatric hospital. Instead, her strategy worked.

Soon after arriving in the United States, Goldman became a passionate anarchist. As a young woman, Emma was not averse to violence. In her late teens, she threw a pitcher of water at the face of a woman who was happy with the 1887 execution of the Haymarket martyrs. In her early twenties in 1892, Goldman, Alexander Berkman, and his cousin planned an assassination of steel plant manager Henry Clay Frick during the steelworkers strike in Homestead, Pennsylvania. When Goldman’s anarchist mentor, Johann Most, condemned Berkman’s assassination attempt, Goldman used a horsewhip to publicly lash Most. In 1893, then 24, after a speech got her arrested for “inciting a riot,” the police offered to drop charges and pay her a “substantial sum of money” if she would become an informer, to which Goldman recounted, “I gulped down some ice-water from my glass and threw what was left into the detective’s face.”

While Goldman’s passionate radicalism never waned, her violent actions diminished and ultimately disappeared. Without any psychiatric “treatment” but rather through life experience, she gained wisdom that authoritarians relish violence to justify their authoritarianism.

A third group where one can find the sublimely mad is a group that I have had little personal familiarity with—the devoutly religious who have acquired fearlessness through a belief that they have God’s protection. There is no better example than Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) who, even more assuredly than Emma Goldman, would today be labeled with serious mental illness—at best, “organic psychosis” caused by temporal lobe epilepsy resulting from being struck in the head by a heavy object thrown by an overseer; or more likely, being an African American woman, “paranoid schizophrenia.”

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Tubman “seemed wholly devoid of personal fear,” was the observation of William Still, an African American abolitionist who chronicled the Underground Railroad. Tubman often spoke about “consulting with God” and had complete confidence that God would keep her safe. Abolitionist Thomas Garrett reported that he “never met with any person, of any color, who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken direct to her soul.”

In today’s world, what would happen to an African American woman who announced that she heard God’s voice, spoke to God, and believed that she was her era’s Moses? What would happen if she camped outside an office in New York City asking for donations (as Tubman did outside the NYC anti-slavery office)? What would happen if she packed a revolver, claiming she needed it for both protection against slave catchers as well as to threaten those who she was rescuing if they tried to turn back? Given such “symptoms,” in today’s world, instead of having to be ever vigilant for slave catchers, she would have to be ever vigilant for psychiatrists—most of whom are clueless to the reality that when we experience extreme oppression, visions and voices may well be our only antidotes to psychological powerlessness.

In “A Time for ‘Sublime Madness,’” Hedges reports:

Niebuhr wrote that “nothing but madness will do battle with malignant power and ‘spiritual wickedness in high places.’” This sublime madness, as Niebuhr understood, is dangerous, but it is vital. Without it, “truth is obscured.” And Niebuhr also knew that traditional liberalism was a useless force in moments of extremity. Liberalism, Niebuhr said, “lacks the spirit of enthusiasm, not to say fanaticism, which is so necessary to move the world out of its beaten tracks. It is too intellectual and too little emotional to be an efficient force in history.”

Tubman was a brilliant strategist, as her sublime madness was a powerful fuel that provided her with courage but which did not subvert her astute judgement about the consequences of her actions. However, madness can be dangerously debilitating. While anger over injustice can be a useful fuel, humiliations that create rage and ego trips can subvert judgment, fueling a violence that is welcomed by authoritarians as justification for greater authoritarianism. There are many examples in U.S. history of madness that is not sublime at all.

In 1969, a group later called the Weather Underground splintered off from the nonviolent Students for a Democratic Society. The 2002 film documentary The Weather Underground portrays how their rage over the injustice of the Vietnam War along with powerlessness in stopping the war through peaceful means made them “crazy,” as acknowledged later by a former Weather Underground member. Their madness was not at all sublime, as they resorted to violence, including multiple bombings. The rage-impotency combination acted like a disinhibiting drug enabling moral and strategic justifications for violent actions that, as some former Weather Underground members ultimately acknowledged, did not later seem moral or strategic at all. The greatest beneficiaries of the Weather Underground violence were U.S. authoritarians, particularly Richard Nixon, as it provided him with ammunition for his “law-and-order” presidential re-election campaign and aided his 1972 landslide victory.

We human beings have the capacity for denial and cowardice, and we also have the capacity for madness, both sublime and dangerous. If we are unashamed of the totality of our humanity, we can dialogue with the passionately mad. My experience is that when our madness is loved, we are better able to discern between sublime and dangerous madness.

To be clear, I don’t romanticize madness, but without sublime madness, there is no Harriet Tubman crazy enough to return some thirteen times to slave territory to free more slaves. Without sublime madness, we will accept the reality that capital trumps life, and we will go extinct.

More articles by:

Bruce E. Levine, a practicing clinical psychologist often at odds with the mainstream of his profession, writes and speaks about how society, culture, politics and psychology intersect. His most recent book is Resisting Illegitimate Authority: A Thinking Person’s Guide to Being an Anti-Authoritarian―Strategies, Tools, and Models (AK Press, September, 2018). His Web site is brucelevine.net

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