Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the tag “sanity”

One flew over the cuckoo’s nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been aware of Ken Kesey for a long time, since I’ve read books by or about people he associated with, like Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. I’ve also been aware of this book for a long time, and knew it was set in a lunatic asylum, but had never read it before.

But though I have known about it for a long time, it was not long enough. I should have read it in my late teens or early twenties, which was when I was most concerned about the boundaries between sanity and madness. That was when I most appreciated Ginsberg’s poem Howl, written for his friend Carl Solomon, who had the electric shock therapy that was then a fashionable treatment for certain kinds of mental illness.

Most of the action in the book takes place in a ward of a mental hospital, presided over by a tyrannical nurse, whose measure of her patients’ progress is how amenable and cooperative they are with her arbitrary rules. Her rule is threatened by a new patient, McMurphy, who questions the rules and the values behind them, and keeps demanding changes, while the nurse keeps threatening him with electric shock therapy.

The book was written in 1960 and published in 1962, and that is when I should have read it. Like Ken Kesey, I was too late for the Beat Generation and too early for the hippies. Americans seem to have names or letters for all sorts of generations, but no one mentions ours, the Beat-Hip Generation.

In 1960 I was studying Sociology I at Wits University. The Sociology Department was presided over by Professor G.K. Engelbrecht, a disciple of the functionalist school, whose mantra was “youth must adjust”. The function of social institutions, like schools, churches, universities, families and all the rest was to facilitate the adjustment process.  Those who failed to adjust were dysfunctional members of society, and, in extreme cases, were labelled as mentally ill, and that is what the book is about. Mental illness carried a stigma, the stigma of failure to adjust.

It is no longer mental illness, but mental health that carries a stigma

All that has changed. Psychology in the 1960s was all about -phrenias and -pathys, which have all but disappeared. Today it is no longer mental illness, but mental health that carries a stigma.

Halfway through my year of Sociology I with Prof G.K. Engelbrecht I went to a student conference where an Anglican monk, Brother Roger, read a paper on Pilgrims of the Absolute, which pointed out how countercultural Christianity really was, and characterised “adjustment” as the selling of one’s heavenly birthright for the pottage of this sinful world. As for one’s mental balance, the devil take it, and indeed he took it long ago. What happened at the Fall? The whole world lost its balance; why should I be concerned about keeping mine?

So in the book McMurphy is a disruptive influence in the ward, at least in the eyes of the nurse, but he manages to secure a brief respite for some of the patients when he organises a deep-sea fishing trip away from the hospital, and they have to cope with all kinds of obstacles that threaten to scupper it. Are the loonies managing to function in a sane society, or are they in fact the only sane ones in a mad society where everyone seems out to get them and make their lives miserable?

In some ways McMurphy is a secular version of the Fool for Christ. He plays the part of the silly fool, and the English word “silly” is derived from the Greek saloi, which means blessed.

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Insanity goes viral

A Facebook friend posted this picture byte and asked if I had any comment to make on it. I had seen it before, and hadn’t made any comments, as it was one of thousands of picture bytes that appear on Facebook every day. I sometimes even pass on one or two that I think are amusing or pithy, even though sometimes they may come from a questionable source, but I didn’t feel moved to comment on this one, until I was specifically asked to do so.

dawkinsThere is probably quite a lot one could say about it, and so Facebook is not exactly the best medium for that, since it only allows one-paragraph comments.

I suppose the first thing to ask is how many of the 12 195 people who shared this on Facebook (at last count) have seen the original manuscript. Do they know who wrote it, and when? Do they know which language it was originally written in, and who translated it into English, if English was not the original language?

It was apparently posted on Facebook by The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (Official).

The Richard Dawkins Foundation may (or may not) have the same relation to the statement on the left that the Church of England had to the King James Bible. They may be as “official” as the King James translators were (and they do say they’re “official”).

But the authorship of the graphic remains a mystery. Was it composed by a single author, or by a committee? What might its Sitz im Leben be? A committee room with polished table and vinyl upholstered chairs? A convivial gathering at a pub (official, of course)?

Four people are named on the website of the Foundation that appears to have posted it — Richard Dawkins, Elisabeth Cornwell, Sean Faircloth and Brian Govatos. Did one of them write it? Did they all write it? Did each write a paragraph?

And what of the faith of the 12 195 people who shared it on Facebook? What did they think they were posting? Were they sharing it in good faith, or was it just insanity?

While there is no evidence that Richard Dawkins himself wrote this, perhaps we can assume that it bears the same relation to the thought and teaching of Richard Dawkins as the New Testament does to the thought and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. The community that wrote the New Testament thought that Jesus of Nazareth was worth taking seriously and that his teaching was worth recording, in the same way as the Foundation appears to think that Richard Dawkins deserves to be taken seriously. And perhaps he does, though I tend to share the reservations expressed by a blogging friend a few years ago when Richard Dawkins appeared on a TV programme:

Rational debate about the existence/ non-existence of God, and the ethical implications thereof, is good. It belongs to human dignity to seek to discern what is true.

There is an academic discipline which studies questions such as what constitutes a warranted belief, what religious language ‘means’, whether it has a possible reference and what it means for our conceptions of the good life. That discipline is philosophy. There is also an academic discipline whose remit of study includes the atrocities committed in the name of religion. That discipline is history.

So why, when Channel Four want to air a programme about these issues do they give air-time to a biologist with no training whatsoever in either discipline? Moreover one whose previous pronouncements in this area have only been published because he has piggy-backed on his (justified) scientific reputation and which, considered in their own right, are unworthy of a moderately bright A-level student..

Yet another example of the ignoring of the humanities in mainstream culture and, in spite of the irrationalism of our age, the persistence of the Victorian cult of the polymath scientist. Boo, hiss.

dawkinsThe graphic which sparked off these thoughts could be said to have “gone viral” in modern parlance, where “going viral” is the new-fashioned term for old-fashioned propaganda. The graphic is a meme, and that is perhaps especially appropriate because Richard Dawkins is the inventor of the meme, or the concept of memes. That is perhaps a more deserved piggy-backing on his reputation as an evolutionary biologist, when he wonders about the propagation of ideas, and came up with the concept of a meme as analogous to a gene.

But since he likes to trespass on the fields of philosophy and history, let me briefly trespass on his field of evolutionary biology, and link the theme of “insanity” in the meme with another text:

V: Let us throw back our heads and laugh at reality
R: Which is an illusion caused by mescaline deficiency

V: At sanity
R: Which is an illusion caused by alcohol deficiency.

V: At knowledge which is an illusion caused by certain biochemical changes in the human brain structure during the course of human evolution, which had it followed another course would have produced other biochemical changes in the human brain structure, by reason of which knowledge as we now experience it would have been beyond the reach of our wildest imaginings; and by reason of which, what is now beyond our wildest imaginings would have been familiar and commonplace. Let us laugh at these things. Let us laugh at thought.
R: Which is a phenomenon like any other.

V: At illusion
R: Which is an illusion, which is a phenomenon like any other.

V: Let us love diversity.
R: Because there is neither end nor purpose to it.

V: Let us love simplicity.
R: Because there is neither end nor purpose to it.

V: Let us think and think we think because leaves are green and because stones fall and because volcanoes erupt in a world where seas are salt.
R: Amen.

Why should we worry about insanity when sanity is an illusion caused by alcohol deficiency? And when the whole lot is caused by evolutionary changes in the human brain structure? For more thoughts on this see Consciousness of absurdity and the absurdity of consciousness.

I was asked to comment, and there are some comments sparked off the the Dawkins Foundation’s meme (if one can believe patterns created by electrons on a screen). They are mostly playful comments, and I had thought of ending with some more serious ones, but I’m not in the mood for it at the moment, so maybe another time. At the moment I feel more in the mood for going back to family history, and to see what has been transmitted by genes rather than memes.

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