Are Poets Mad?

Going back in time at least as far as Plato there have been those who insisted that poets, and artists generally, are mad as hatters. Plato thought they were “inspired” and the Platonic dialogues are full of exchanges between Socrates and assorted poets and artists who are unable to explain to Socrates what exactly it is they do and what it is they claim to know. And because they cannot explain what they do in discursive terms — as a geometer would explain why it is that the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides, for example  — Socrates was convinced that these folks who wrote about things they didn’t understand were in some sense of the term “mad.”

This notion persisted through the ages in the West until the time of the romantic poets, such as Byron, Keats, and Shelly who actually took pride in the fact that they were a bit mad and relished the notion. This was a view shared by many of the “beat” poets in the 50s and 60s and it still has its adherents. The problem is, of course, that we don’t know just what these folks meant by “mad” when they ascribed it to poets and artists. Freud called it a “neurosis” and sought to explain the genius of someone like Leonardo da Vinci on the grounds that his creations are the expression of his neurosis: indeed, all artists are neurotic and their art is neither more nor less than the expression of that “illness.” Later, as he thought more about this “illness” Freud came to the conclusion that we are ALL neurotic — not just the artists. As he said  in his Introductory Lectures:

“The result depends principally upon the amount of energy taken up in this way: therefore you will see that ‘illness’ is essentially a practical conception. But if you look at the matter from a theoretical point of view and ignore this question of degree, you can very well see that we are all ill, i.e., neurotic: for the conditions required for symptom-formation are demonstrable also in [so-called] normal persons.”

Neurosis, as Freud developed the notion, was the result of a conflict within the person, frequently an emotional one, but at times both intellectual and emotional. It often had to do with the person’s inability to develop a strong “reality principle,” that is, to distinguish clearly between reality and the imaginary. Cervantes had played with this notion years before when he was writing Don Quixote, since the knight can be regarded as either a poet or a madman because of his inability to distinguish between reality and his own vivid imagination. Is the barbers basin really Mambrino’s helmet? Are the windmills really giants? Is the herd of sheep really an army to be fought to the death? Are the prisoners on their way to the galley really decent folks who have been wronged by a system that is stacked against them? Quixote is always working his way through these questions. The clue that Quixote is not mad, of course, is that he is often aware of what these things appear to be to others. He knows, for example, that Sancho takes the object for a barber’s basis while he “knows” it to be Mambrino’s helmet. A madman has a weak “reality principle” and would lose the distinction entirely between what is going on his head and what is “really” going in the world we share with him. The neurotic person has difficulty separating reality from the imaginary; when the distinction breaks down completely that person is psychotic.

We have a president at the present time who seems to have a weak reality principle, who seems a bit mad. He certainly is not a poet or artist, but, rather, a deluded man who insists that reality, and facts as well, are of his making and those who disagree are clearly in the wrong.  We may all be headed in this direction as we play with our electronic toys and lose ourselves in a world of make-believe that becomes more “real” than the world we share with others. This, it seems to me, is a very real possibility since in that world we are all-powerful. In this world not so much.

In any event, poets and artists generally are no more neurotic than the rest of us and their power as artists consists of their ability to deal with the conflicts they experience through their talent and skill that allows them to create poems and works of art that reveal to the rest of us what it is they see and we are all missing. As Lionel Trilling puts it: “What marks the artist is his power to shape the material of pain we all have.”

The rest of us must simply learn how to deal with that pain with more or less success, depending on who we are and how successfully we can develop the reality principle that makes it possible for us to remain in the “real” world and not lose touch entirely with the one the rest of the world occupies. That world, for all its pain, is also beautiful and filled with many good people trying their best to do good things.



Much To Learn

I attach here a brief post I wrote some time ago that helps fill the void created by my taking time to collect these posts and ready them for publication in book form.

I admit I am one of these odd people who thinks we can learn a great deal not only from history but also from great literature. There are many, of course, who would deny that there is any such thing as “great” literature — just literature that some like and others do not. But I agree with Robert Persig, who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which he said that “quality” is one of those things no one can define, but everyone recognizes it when they see it. Greatness is like that.
For example, all sports fans recognize the great athlete. They are rare and stand out above the others. We may not know what it is that sets them apart, but they jump out at us. We might quibble about who was the greatest tennis player, football player, or basketball player. But we know who the great ones were. Great literature is like that. It stands out and commands our attention — if we are well read enough to know what to look for: exceptional writing and insight into the human condition.
I recently came upon a passage in E.M. Forster’s The Longest Journey that helps me make my case. Forster is a poet in the true sense of that term: he creates with words. His creations happen to take the form of novels. This novel is one of those that tells a story, but which also makes us stop and think. In that novel we find the following passage:

“the city [Salisbury] has strayed out of her own plain, climbed up her slopes, and tumbled over them in ugly cataracts of brick. The cataracts are still short, and doubtless they meet or create some commercial need. But instead of looking towards the cathedral, as all the city should, they look outwards at a pagan entrenchment, as the city should not. They neglect the poise of the earth, and the sentiments she has decreed. They are the modern spirit.”

The stunner, of course, is in the final sentence. Forster is pointing to the human tendency — which has grown stronger since he wrote his novels — to put itself in opposition to the earth, to ignore its “sentiments,” and demand that it satisfy human cravings.
Farmers sit in their eight-wheel tractors polluting the air and ripping into the soil in the Fall of the year to expose the dark topsoil to the eroding Winter winds; miners tear apart the earth and leave it exposed as they look for spoils beneath its surface; deforestation leaves the earth bare and parched and unable to provide future growth; we use millions of gallons of water to take precious oil from deep beneath the earth and burn it up in our gas-guzzling automobiles and trucks; we topple trees and cover the exposed earth with concrete parking lots and malls so we can shop for goods we don’t really need; and so it goes. In so many ways we do, indeed, “neglect the poise of the earth.” If we ever knew what stewardship meant, we have forgotten it in our haste to beat the world into submission to our will, to meet our endless demands, and continue to provide nourishment for growing human populations.
Forster’s passing remark strikes chords and makes us pause and reflect. That is a mark of great poetry.

Quixote As Poet

Miguel Cervantes was born in a small town near Madrid, Spain in 1547 and was, among other things, a soldier. He served with great valor and was shot in the chest and arm, leaving his left arm practically useless. He later spent five years as a captive in an Algerian prison where he pondered life and its many meanings. And, oh yes, he wrote Don Quixote which garnered him fame but little financial reward. The book was so popular that a bogus sequel was written by another author and Cervantes wrote the second part of his classic in order to make sure Quixote was dead in the end and another sequel would never appear!

As a result of Cervantes having been shot he seems to have longed for the day when men fought one another face-to-face — like knights-errant. Surely, this was at least part of the inspiration for his great novel. But another part of his inspiration was the coming of not only mechanized warfare, which he detested, but also the coming of machines, which he saw as impediments to the growth of the human spirit. Hence Quixote’s famous battle with the windmills.

Don Quixote was generally regarded as a madman. He saw things differently from other people and he was therefore dismissed as mad. It’s what we do. I prefer to think of him as a poet, since poets also see things differently from the rest of us and many times make us look again and see things we had missed before. Quixote does that again and again — especially alongside his practical, down-to-earth sidekick Sancho Panza who is like the rest of us and prefers to see things as they “really are.” But one of the things Cervantes’ novel demands is that we ask  just what on earth reality is. What is real?

When Quixote sees a barber plodding along on his donkey in the distance with his basin comfortably perched on his head it is clear, to Quixote, that the barber is a knight and he is wearing the helmet of Mambrino, the famous knight whom Quixote immediately decides to engage in battle. The barber sees Quixote coming at him at full gallop (well, as full a gallop as poor old Rocinante will allow) and flees in terror, leaving the basin behind. (Sorry, leaving the helmet behind him: the spoils of war, don’t you see?)

Rocinante (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Rocinante (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Sancho, of course, insists that the helmet is really a basin and this gives rise to one of the more colorful and provocative discussions between the two men in the entire novel. It goes on for many pages and is a delight to read. Is the item a basin or is it a helmet? After considerable discussion, Quixote finally addresses Sancho as follows:

“Do you know that I think, Sancho? I think that this famous piece of that enchanted helmet must by some strange accident have fallen into the hands of someone who did not know its worth and who, seeing that it was of the purest gold and not realizing what he was doing, must have melted down the other half for what he could get for it, while from the remaining portion he fashioned what appears, as you have said, to be a barber’s basin. Be that as it may: I recognize its value and the transformation that it has undergone makes no difference to me. . .”

And as Quixote later notes,

“. . .there are always a lot of enchanters going about among us, changing things and giving them a deceitful appearance, directing them as suits their fancy, depending upon whether they wish to favor or destroy us. So, this that appears to you as a barber’s basin is for me Mambrino’s helmet. . . .”

Quixote is not mad: he knows things look different to other people. But for poets things are not as they seem. It is for us to let discursive reason and logic take a hike every now and again and engage our imaginations so we can see the world in the many colors and shades of meaning that we tend to gloss over in the hurly-burly of everyday life. The poets and artists in our world take us for a ride if, and only if, we are able to suspend our sense of what is real for a moment and in the process we learn to see things anew and engage the world more fully. The item in Quixote’s possession is both a basin and a helmet. After all, the Don puts it on his head and it saves him later on from a barrage of stones thrown by an angry shepherd whose sheep Quixote “mistakes” for an army.

The Novelist as Liar

Some of Dostoevsky’s best friends were philosophers. He was not himself one, though he pondered many of the deepest philosophical problems much of his adult life. But when he came to conclusions he was often conflicted and his novels reflect the many levels of awareness that he came to as well as the many opposing positions he seemed to allow. He was a poet who embraced paradox, something that would repel the philosopher. He did not think systematically, he thought intuitively. He worked in metaphors and images and usually avoided discursive thought, though some of his characters were given to philosophical reflection from time to time.

If you read Dostoevsky’s notebooks, where he planned his novels, you will see a number of options and character sketches and even rough outlines of a plot. But when the poet sat down to write the novels they took on a life of their own. And Dostoevsky was enough the poet to allow that to happen; he rarely demanded that the novel conform to preconceived ideas. One obvious exception is the epilogue to Crime and Punishment which I have argued elsewhere flaws the novel as a work of art. In that epilogue, Dostoevsky the man took the novel away from Dostoevsky the poet.The same thing happens in Notes From Underground.

To be sure, Notes was one of the more philosophical works that Dostoevsky wrote. The first part is an extended series of reflections that reads like a journal in which the author draws a number of tentative conclusions about freedom and suffering, two themes that recur in a number of his novels. The underground man says, near the end  of the first part, “I’m certain that man will never renounce real suffering. . . why, this is the sole cause of consciousness.”  This comment echoes almost exactly a remark Dostoevsky made while preparing for Crime and Punishment. In his notebook he says, “Man is not born for happiness. Man earns his happiness, and always by suffering. There’s no injustice here, because the knowledge of life and consciousness. . . .is acquired by experience pro and contra, which one must take upon one’s self.” This is a thesis that a number of critics have, reasonably, attributed to Dostoevsky himself through the years: the necessity for suffering in order to achieve full humanity. But if you read the novels themselves, and even the second part of Notes, you come to the realization that Dostoevsky was of two minds (at least) on the subject of suffering.

In that second part. his hero, who is unnamed, suffers dreadfully and makes a young prostitute suffer as well. This tortured relationship seems to suggest that suffering does not lead anywhere, except to a breakdown of the psyche of the one who suffers and also those he makes suffer. Granted, the hero is close to a breakdown as the novel begins, but by the end he is over the edge. If as the author suggests in the first part, suffering leads to a deeper humanity, the second part of the novella gives the lie to that claim. No one benefits from the suffering that the hero has brought on himself and inflicted on the young woman who reaches out to him and is crushed.

In the end, we must say that Dostoevsky was conflicted about the possible value of human suffering. The poet was too sensitive to close his eyes and mind to the terrible price the sufferer pays — as he himself knew first hand. So the philosophical conclusion that suffering is necessary for human freedom, or a deeper awareness of the world around you, may have been a thesis that Dostoevsky, the man, embraced as part of his deep convictions about the truth he found in the New Testament. But Dostoevsky the poet worked closer to the fact of human suffering and he wept. The poet could see no value in suffering, while the man was convinced it was worth the price.

As D.H. Lawrence reminds us, if we want to know what the novel says we must read the novel. “As for the novelist, he is a dribbling liar.” If we want to know what Dostoevsky really believed about the value of human suffering, it is wise to read his novels.

Poets uncover the hidden truths that are deep within human experience; philosophers occasionally mull over those truths and try to make systematic wholes out of them. At times Dostoevsky confused the two roles and tried to play them both. He almost pulls it off, but in the first part of Notes, and the Epilogue to Crime and Punishment, he failed.