Thursday, July 29, 2021

Comments by Sethu

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  • I stumbled across this essay today. I picked up Seth Farber’s book as well; the fact that he’s a fan of Aurobindo Ghose was the deciding factor for me. His quasi-Christian poetical vision of schizophrenia also caught my attention: he clearly seems to espouse an essentially panentheistic vision of things, much as myself. And he thinks that people affected by “madness” are ideally situated to serve as prophets of this God. The Kingdom is a domain of pure presence underlying time; and this world makes itself known by irrupting into concrete existence through creative events—events to which the mad mind may be espcially sensitive. This is a good interpretation of the idea that God became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth; it’s also analagous to how an artist’s vision becomes incarnate in his creative work. I think this entire theology hangs together well, and I appreciate its imaginative power and aesthetic coherence.

    But I see real dangers here, insofar as Dr. Farber is trying to implement his poetical vision at a social level. In particular: he’s calling for a “messianic metanarrative”, in which “mad people” (I’ll just say “schizophrenics” here, because I think they exemplify the relationship between madness and prophecy) are to serve as the vanguard of a social movement. So, the schizophrenic would be both a visionary prophet and a social leader. That is, he would be the figurehead of a cult. What I think Dr. Farber is really calling for is a religious movement which replaces the metanarrative of postmodernism with its own metanarrative—a story in which God reveals himself to schizophrenics, and the latter then become responsible for saving a world engulfed in sin. There’s a difference between saying that the schizophrenic has a “dangerous gift” on the one hand, and saying that he is responsible for saving the world on the other. The clear implication in the essay is that the schizophrenic prophet is not just a creative artist or free spirit, but that he is also called by God to be a socio-political revolutionary.

    When I say the word “cult”, I don’t mean it with negative connotations; I’m using the term in a strictly descriptive way. After all, Christianity itself was a cult, in the beginning—and Jesus was its revolutionary prophet. But it may be instructive to pay a little attention to what happened as Christianity developed over the course of history. Obviously, it turned into everything Jesus himself had opposed. I’m inclined to agree with Fyodor Dostoevsky that the Church accepted the third temptation of Satan and went for political power over spiritual power—and that if Jesus were to return today, he would be condemned by the very religion which carries on in his name. From its genesis, Christianity was completely torn apart by internal schisms: divergences began with conflict between the Original Twelve and Paul of Tarsus, and they’ve been raging ever since.

    What I want to say is: if Dr. Farber were to start a cult, then this cult could be fully expected to face all the tragedies which occur within the development of any religious organization. Assuming that it isn’t violently eradicated from the start, it will probably end up becoming its own worst nemesis. For example, Dr. Farber seems to have a very specific idea of what God is, and what sort of vision a schizophrenic prophet should have as a result of accessing this presence. If the prophet deviates from this vision, then the temptation will be very great to suggest that the person is actually a false prophet. But according to this paradigm, prophecy is a gift associated with schizophrenia. So, would it logically follow that these false prophets are not actually schizophrenic, either? Or again: perhaps the “original” prophets of the movement—the ones who preach the panentheistic gospel—will be canonized, while the deviants who come after will be condemned for heresy.

    Insofar as a messianic vision informs Dr. Farber’s own personal vision of the world, it is poetical. But insofar as it informs a social movement which would presumably like to “convert” all of society, it becomes ideological. And the consequences I have outlined above would naturally follow from this, because that’s just what ideology does. The original creative spark becomes ossified into dogma; and a vision which was meant to liberate the world just becomes a new vehicle of enslavement. More generally, this may be a problem with any social movement which is informed by a singular poetical vision. An artist’s strategy for bringing others into his vision is seduction: he creates an object which is hopefully so beautiful that it will draw others into the artist’s world. In contrast, a revolutionary’s strategy may well degenerate into coercion: either people accept his vision—or else. A prophet who invites others to partake in his creative vision of the world is an artist; a prophet who forces others to take his utterances seriously is a tyrant.

    In this context, I think I have great respect for Sascha DuBrul’s shift to the “healing narrative” for the purposes of organizing social movements. Here’s what he says (quoted in Dr. Farber’s book): “Let our Mad Pride movement be grounded in humility and kindness for each other in our diversity of life experiences, a recognition that social movements need good communicators and organizers more than charismatic leaders and messianic visions.” What I find beautiful about this statement is that it leaves the door open for people with a plurality of different visions to nevertheless come together for the sake of pursuing shared projects and fulfilling shared desires. For example, one person in this social movement may well think that schizophrenia is in fact literally associated with the gift of prophecy; however, any number of other persons could think any number of other things, and this would also be acceptable. In short, this would be a social movement rooted not in ideology (or “metanarrative”) but rather in concrete healing practices. In this sense, it would have much in common with the counter-globalization movement as described by the anarchist David Graeber.

    Finally, I want to call attention to the great importance of guarding against what Friedrich Nietzsche has called ressentiment. The idea is roughly the following: the Jews were given a pretty lousy lot in life; they kept bouncing from one misfortune to another. So, they felt themselves to be “losers” in this world. As a result (so goes the theory), they invented a different world in which they were the people chosen by God, and therefore ultimately the “winners”. So, they were able to convert their practical misfortune into moral/spiritual merit. This could parallel the situation of some schizophrenics. The schizophrenic may find that he has trouble functioning in society; but then, he may believe that he can speak to God—and that his trouble is therefore a mark that he is “chosen”. Does the schizophrenic have trouble in the sinful world because he truly can speak to God; or, does he invent his God in order to justify the fact that he has trouble in the ordinary world? A very difficult question. What I find troubling, in any event, is the reversal from a position of inferiority to a position of superiority. On the other hand, ressentiment is unlikely to become an issue if a person is committed instead to dissolving such hierarchies altogether and developing a vision of spiritual equality.

    I actually have a lot of sympathy with Dr. Farber’s poetical vision—but only insofar as it is an individual poetical vision. (And this is primarily why I bought his book.) But insofar as it is meant to serve as the ideology of a social movement, I don’t care for it at all, because I believe that all such ideologies are inevitably totalitarian. I’m suggesting that Dr. Farber’s theology is actually a form of artistic expression—and as everyone knows, art has a profound capacity to move human hearts. But the modus operandi of at is fundamentally different from that of ideology; and if this line is crossed, then what begins as the creative expression of an individual will degenerate into the ideological foundation of a cult. Also, as a closing note, I want to suggest that it is important to not confuse the categories of madness and creativity: there is a correlation, for sure, but it’s not a matter of identity. Not all schizophrenics are creative, and not all artists are schizophrenic. A more fleshed-out conceptual map of the relationship between creativity and madness would be helpful for navigating this terrain. I think writers such as Søren Kierkegaard, Otto Rank, and Deleuze and Guattari go some way toward casting light on this subject.