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

Bruce Levine, PhD
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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.”

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.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on CounterPunch, February 14, 2020.

32 COMMENTS

  1. “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.”

    I know patients who have been beaten in by staff too. The comparisons are very close.

    • That paragraph jumped off the page for me John, and I can’t quite put my finger on exactly why.

      I think it’s the failure to recognise that psychiatry is being used by law enforcement as a means to get around the Convention against the use of Torture. ie the exploitation of the “inherent in or incidental to lawful sanction”.
      In my State police can detain and make referral to mental health who can start ‘treatments’ without the knowledge of the ‘referred person’, and then hand them back to police for interrogations. Police can then interrogate the ‘referred person’ who has been ‘spiked’ and then hand them back to mental health so that a doctor can then give a diagnosis (in my case this took three minutes of a doctors day) and inject them with enough anti psychotics and benzos to lay an elephant out for a week.

      In fact this ‘system’ is working so well our new Mental Health Act has placed a Mental Health worker in every large police station in the State. Personally I don’t like the look of it myself and consider it to be a State sanctioned torture program, but now that my government has also made the killing of ‘patients’ a form of lawful medical procedure I might be best to keep my thoughts to myself, rather than be responsible for training public officers in the use of known torture methods, and how flimsy the notion of consent to such procedures in the medical area really is. Anasognosia anyone?

      I guess their must be some psychiatrists who know what’s going down, because they say about 40% of them have left our public system to begin practice in the private sector. Some people apparently just don’t have the stomach for it.

      Anyway, good article if your reading Bruce.

  2. Rage and resistance are not “madness,” despite well-meaning attempts to romanticize the term, and those who celebrate “mad pride” are internalizing the definitions of the enemy. More and more survivors are beginning to reject the term “mad” as firmly as they do terms such as “mentally ill.”

    Additionally, many psychiatric survivors lack a coherent analysis of psychiatry, without which efforts to combat it and eliminate it will quickly fall into the abyss of reformism. Some of us have been working on such an analysis for some time. Simply being a disaffected “survivor” does not automatically confer wisdom on one as to how to end the psychiatric reign of terror (though it helps as a starting point).

    Harriet Tubman and Emma Goldman were not “mad” in any sense, “sublime” or otherwise, nor are modern revolutionaries such as Mumia Abu-Jamal (whose amazing saga Chris Hedges has also covered). They were/are driven by revolutionary zeal, which is not “mad” (whatever that means), but a reflection of the highest human values to which all should aspire. There is no “natural bond” between anarchists and survivors any more than there is between us and revolutionary socialists, Black nationalists, and disillusioned liberals. If one wants to resist this system one must see resisting psychiatry as part of that struggle, and must reject the concept of “madness” in any but a poetic sense.

  3. Thought provoking.

    “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.”
    Tubman got lucky. Some were caught, others not. Her not being caught, was it due to strategy? Is there such thing as luck?

    I might say that psychiatry has turned it’s own childhood humiliations into rage and ego trips. Nothing sublime about psychiatry. There are not even good strategies in psychiatry and like slavery, it exists because of discrimination against something or someone.
    To rise against psychiatry it is more to do with education, but we generally understand that education takes time. Like Tubman, we prayed that they would see their ways, or at least admit…
    Of course, those prayers are always answered, in due time. Each practitioner will pass on, the practice of discrimination will continue. The great legacy they leave behind.

    • Funny how so many psychiatrists have it in for their own family members.

      It’s like they hate a certain parent or sibling so much that simply having that person “put away” to rot and die prematurely isn’t good enough. They have to hunt down others with similar characteristics to “help.”

      Denial of their hatred and harm done to the “loved one” mixed with a subconscious desire for revenge perhaps. Eccentric family members can be embarrassing.

      Of course some socially awkward people strive to look “normal” to please others and it results in break downs–which only make them weirder than ever. Bringing MORE embarrassment to the image conscious family. Hopeless cycle. And the designated freak bears the brunt of it.

  4. Great article. I hope it went over well at Counter Punch. I find myself in complete agreement with the essence and tone of this one. “Sublime madness” it is, was, and will continue to be. I’m very happy to see Harriet Tubman and Emma Goldman enter your pantheon of exemplary people deserving of our praise. That they were, and may many follow in their glorious example. Given the ongoing political dynasty and it’s crises, I think the forces for change could use a few raw recruits. and maybe such an position could help win us a few much needed friends and allies.

  5. Thank you for this interesting piece Dr. Levine. These surely were strong and fearless women.
    “she gained wisdom that authoritarians relish violence to justify their authoritarianism”.

    Wisdom and strategy are always going to work best but I admire anyone willing to take a stand in any way for the oppressed. The sheer nonsense of how psychiatry operates is astounding but the one thing psychiatry seems to be capable of understanding is that oppressive, spirit crushing tactics will provoke people to be anti-authoritarian – even if they weren’t to begin with. The natural human response to psychological or physical torment and powerlessness is to fight back. And thus they get to provoke the very thing that they want to condemn, control and punish someone for.

  6. “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.”

    Brilliant statement, Bruce. And absolutely psychiatric and psychological treatment has at it’s goal creating slaves, an underclass, or an “other.” The DSM theology, which believes only in material world “symptoms,” and denies the spiritual realm. A theology of stigmatization of “others,” for profit or material gain. If not gotten rid of, it will lead to extinction, I agree.

    Especially since the number one actual societal function of our “mental health” workers is stigmatizing child abuse and rape survivors, which is illegal. But this is by DSM design.

    https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-child-does-not-have-bipolar-disorder/201402/dsm-5-and-child-neglect-and-abuse-1
    https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/mar/27/are-sexual-abuse-victims-being-diagnosed-with-a-mental-disorder-they-dont-have

    And our “mental health” workers’ systemic child abuse and rape covering up crimes are functioning to aid, abet, and empower the pedophiles and child sex traffickers. Enormous societal problems which are already destroying Western civilization.

    https://www.amazon.com/Pedophilia-Empire-Chapter-Introduction-Disorder-ebook/dp/B0773QHGPT
    https://community.healthimpactnews.com/topic/4576/america-1-in-child-sex-trafficking-and-pedophilia-cps-and-foster-care-are-the-pipelines

    The “mental health” workers need to get out of the child abuse and rape covering up business. They need to end their systemic stigmatizing, then neurotoxic poisoning, of our societies’ abuse survivors, children, and the elderly. But they don’t want to, since that is the vast majority of their business today.

    https://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2019/01/23/18820633.php?fbclid=IwAR2-cgZPcEvbz7yFqMuUwneIuaqGleGiOzackY4N2sPeVXolwmEga5iKxdo
    https://www.madinamerica.com/2016/04/heal-for-life/

    I will say, I love this Chris Hedges quote so much, I did a painting based upon it:

    “We now live in a nation where doctors destroy health, lawyers destroy justice, universities destroy knowledge, governments destroy freedom, the press destroys information, religion destroys morals, and our banks destroy the economy.”

  7. Except Bruce IS romanticizing “madness” despite his denial. He continues to do so by describing as “crazy” what should be rightly seen as extremely courageous. Maybe people prefer to describe such heroic actions as “madness” because it gives them an out from confronting the system in such potentially dangerous ways themselves.

    • Actually, OldHead, I’ve seen this argument before when Thomas Szasz accused R. D. Laing of glamorizing madness. It’s rather like “romanticizing revolution”, don’t you think? Perhaps there is nothing wrong with doing both, that is, seeing the good in people who have often had it rough, and fighting the system that makes it tough for them, too.

    • Instead of “mad” or “crazy” Bruce might say “outside the mainstream” or “unusually passionate.” Or “very zealous.”

      Kind of like Szasz’s explanation of the link between “genius” and “madness.” Both are unusual and extreme ways of thinking and behavior.

      St. Francis of Assisi was different. So is your eccentric aunt who plays the mandolin for a living. So was Ted Bundy. So was John Dewey, Albert Einstein, Robert Fulton, Mother Theresa, Henry David Thoreau, Jeffrey Dahmer, Joan of Arc, Emily Dickinson, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, a bunch of serial killers I don’t like reading about, you get the picture…

      Different is not a disease.

    • Pilliavin and Pilliavin wasn’t it?

      Cops here are certainly not doctors, they think it’s okay to spike people with stupefying/intoxicating drugs which would actually be a crime if only they could find their copy of the criminal code. Mind you I guess the public is happy with them doing this because the Minister says she considers this conduct “reasonable”. And yet in the next breath they are saying it is “abhorrent and extremely dangerous”. I do wish these hypocrites would have their feet put to the fire over this matter. Because on one hand we have a Dr Kearsley going to prison for it (when he can actually prescribe these drugs) and a bus driver being given the right to do it if it means police get to interrogate people who have been spiked.
      I think this type of ‘con’ was shown in the movie Se7en when Brad Pitt wants to enter the home of a suspect without a warrant.
      Doctors they are not, in fact it would be difficult to call what i’ve seen police.

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