Sometimes the ironies, contradictions and absurdities mount so high to fuel the pyre that honors our postmodern relativism — oh, the vanity of bonfires! — that one wonders what must go through the minds of aliens looking down as they watch the spontaneous combustion of a species. What blue ship in the starry night is this that is all “mutiny from stern to bow” from dawn to dusk every walking-plank day? Sometimes the humanistic Captain Kirk seems in charge, like an acid trip redux, but if you blink you see instead Queeg razing Caine over strawberries, or, most often, the militaristic Ahab, who doesn’t have a leg to stand on whenever he tries to explain his rabbit-hole obsession with the white Russian whale. What must they think?
I was watching the 1965 film Ship of Fools the other day. The cautionary film was based upon the novel by Katherine Anne Porter, who was inspired by the satirical medieval classic by Sebastian Brant, who, in turn, derived his notions of neurotic oceans from Plato’s reference in the Republic. The trope has found its way into song (The Doors), as well as painting (see Bosch) and even modern sculpture. In the film, the fascistic rise of Nazi Germany is pre-figured on a luxury liner cruising off Mexico in 1933. Sardined migrant workers languish in the hold, while, above them, First Class passengers (mostly Germans) luxuriate and squabble over the politics of class, gender, and pre-Krisstalnacht anti-semitism. The malignant leather cancer metastasizes before your eyes.
The signs are always there, it will always seem, in retrospect. Russian meddling in American elections. You double-take as you hear President Obama admonish the Russians, shortly after the 2016 presidential election, “We can do stuff to you.” I’m old enough to remember that such ‘stuff’ has been going on for awhile. In 1996, Americans crowed about having meddled in the Russian presidential election. Well, you could argue that they can do stuff too.
Let’s recount. Reagan told Gorbachev to “tear down that wall” in Berlin. He did, along with the Iron Curtain. The neoliberals rushed in like RawdyYates in Rawhide with their bling and sto ho ethos. The oligarchs took over in Russia. Clinton installed the dancing circus bear Boris Yeltsin and laughed so hard at the president’s buffoonery that it looked for awhile like America would be friends-for-life with the Russkies. Maybe they could do stuff together.
But not every Russian citizen liked being represented on the world stage by a drunken lout. So maybe the Russians did stuff back: Maybe they did meddle. They larfed their asses off when Edward Snowden became the most famous American defector since Lee Harvey Oswald. And now we have our own humiliating buffoon calling the shots, while the Russkies tumble over themselves laughing, as Trump cries, ‘Put up that wall! Or iron curtain, or whatever you wanna call it. Doesn’t matter.’ Thus Spake Saint Gropian, patron saint of coarse and vulgar people. Well, Putin came after Yeltsin. KGB. Who will come after Trump’s second term (wink)? Won’t be Biden, Bernie or Pocohantas. They’ll all be too old. Maybe even dead, if they’re lucky. Maybe a disciplinarian’s on-deck.
Americans don’t need the Russians; we’re not above rocking our own ship of state with meddled elections. You don’t hear about it much or in context. Nixon did McGovern in (1972). Reagan boinked Carter (1980). And Bush whacked Gore (2000). In all three instances, potential treason is in play. In Gore’s case, not only did his loss open up the still-suppurating ugliness of race politics in America, but we may have lost our best chance at climate change leadership, here and abroad. Instead, we got 9 Eleven™. Now it’s too late, as the prophet-driven Bob Marley put it, because “Nobody can stop them now.”
Well, as Bobby Dylan would say, people’ve been drawing conclusions on the wall for quite awhile now, the signs have been there for the seeing. I’ve counted at least seven signs. Odd shit happening. The Pentagon, after decades of denial, suddenly announcing they’ve been chasing UFOs and providing evidence. People developing the Truman Show syndrome, thinking “that their lives are staged reality shows, or that they are being watched on cameras.” Verbs trying to take down nouns. Dinosaurs having the last laugh, as they release the comet energy that they absorbed onto us. DARPA talking ‘bout robo-bees replacing the dying honey-bees. The Pentagon talking Gay Bombs to drop on enemies, but pulling back at the last moment no doubt for fear of the potential blow-back, literally.
I’ve been saying for years that if the gargoyles are now in charge of the cathedrals — those colossi of pure beauty and holy terror worthy of any God’s love — then it’s time to tear the cathedrals down. Lo and behold, next thing I know, Notre Dame forest has gone poof! The firemen ate cake. The gilded crown of Christ was saved. No insurance. The 1% came to the rescue. Will it be known in the future as the MacDonalds Notre Dame Cathedral. Will we have to pray to the candy-colored clown christ of capitalism in the future? What was Quasimodo’s alibi that day anyway? Signs.
An enquiring mind wants to know how is it possible that a flat-earther like basketball star Kyrie Irving is allowed to dribble that round round ball so recklessly on that flat flat rectangular surface, repeatedly going off the edge of his world on lay-ups? Signs.
And then another sign. The controversy over a new app called DeepNude, described as an app that “Undresses a Photo of Any Woman With a Single Click.” Kind of like the Male Gaze fights back. Needless to say, in this #MeToo era, the app was pulled, pitchforks, torches, and calls to storm the Bastard were hailed. Actually, Ray Milland demoed the product in The Man with the Xray Eyes. But when they took away his glasses he went into a tailspin funk and ended up drinking himself half to death in The Lost Weekend.
Let’s face it: Ever since We fell from grace after eating an iApple from the Tree of Knowledge and were unceremoniously booted from Eden, God telling Adam, while pointing at the newly ribbed Eve, “take her with you and go fuck yourself. You’ll see.” After millennia of cultural and technological ‘evolution’ we arrive back, catastrophic methane bubbles popping out of the sea all around us, at the place we started from without knowing it, God taunting us, “So how did you like them apples?” Meaning everything from the be-bop bone in 2001: A Space Odyssey to the wormholes and the quantum and the mofo multiverses ahead. A self-made Adam carries a worn-out Eve across the threshold, from a living hell back to a Paradise frozen over. See ya.
My bedridden grandfather used to say, a Will Rogers twinkle in his eyes, “If you’re not a little wacky today, there’s something wrong with you.” That was back in the ‘60s, in the days of ‘Nam and Love, when everyone seemed to have a little jungle floating around in their heads, and you were either grooving on the stench of Napalm in the Morning or the sweet aroma of Reefer Madness mournings.
I kept grandpa’s wisdom in mind throughout my undergraduate years as a philosophy student. Through the study of Hamlet and his problematical disposition(s). Through my Sanity and Madness class, featuring Foucault, the Ship of Fools, and the world seen as an upstairs-downstairs Titanic without icebergs and going down in the Flood. And through Jung and Freud, the Human Condition as an archetypal rainbow leading the seeker to a pot of gold of selfhood versus the grumpy old self-destructiveness of the Id-bound human mess never to be sufficiently “sublimated” as depicted in Civilization and Its Discontents.
Nietzsche really did me in though, when it came to a vision of madness. Who was. Who wasn’t. In Beyond Good and Evil, he wrote, “Madness is rare in individuals – but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule.” If that was true in 1886, before the War to End All Wars and the One That Followed, etc., then it’s even truer today, now that we’ve taken to declaring a global war on an abstract noun: Terrorism. When you have such an open word (one man’s ceiling, another man’s floor), can it be very long before the leathered-up verbs wake from their dogmatics slumbers and reified concepts start disappearing at freefall speed into their own footprints?
Well, I was thinking about all the evidence of wackiness I’ve seen since that boyhood visit to my accidental oracle (who really only wanted a shot of whiskey (I gave him two) before collapsing back onto his bed, only to wake up later alone staring up a constellation of night-glow stars someone pasted to his ceiling), as I began reading the newly released Let Me Not Be Mad by A. K. Benjamin. It’s a book, a memoir about intersections, existential concentricity, a Venn diagram that illustrates the fragility of boundaries between people and their concepts of themselves and others.
Let Me Not Be Mad is written by a psychiatrist who fears he may be going insane, as he listens — as he deeply empathizes — with the narratives his clients bring to him, tales of survival and “resilience” in the Carnivalesque world we accept as normal, the mid-point of the acceptability bell-curve most of us strive up like gig economy Sisyphuses, only to inevitably backslide for reasons that Dr. Benjamin is there to help us come to terms with through reasoning and listening without judgement.
What makes Benjamin’s modus o. unusual (these days) is his near-absence from relying on Big Pharma prescriptions for DSM-guided diagnoses he himself doesn’t fully believe in. The other thing is he’s a people doctor, he believes in talking, listening, Being There in the clients’ narratives, not so much for analysis but to honor the narrative by participating as a reader would a story. But what happens for Benjamin is that he discovers that being the serene pond upon which these anxious raindrops fall, and interpenetrate, has its price: his own sense of sanity.
Benjamin begins to have virtual out-of-body experiences, seeing himself in the bodies of others facing himself as doctor, over-empathizing as it were; in the end, he sees himself as his own client sitting beore himself. He mixes and matches the Venn narratives until they and he become part of the same story, without the usual “professional” separation between story and reader. Freud first warned of this hazard between patient and doctor in his discussion of transference and counter-transference. Freud saw it as inevitable, to evolve such feelings, but such inevitability has been largely quashed today by the current practice of diagnosing symptoms (think: astrology charts) and putting everyone on psychotropics (it is a jungle in there).
However, a better reference point would be Anton Chekhov’s “Ward No. 6.” Ivan, a long-term patient on the ward, confronts Andrey Yefimitch, his psychiatrist, one day: “,,,You have seen nothing of life, you know absolutely nothing of it, and are only theoretically acquainted with reality; you despise suffering and are surprised at nothing for a very simple reason: vanity of vanities, the external and the internal, contempt for life, for suffering and for death, comprehension, true happiness–that’s the philosophy that suits the … sluggard best.” Most contemporary psychiatrists would up the dosage, if they heard such “drivel,” but Benjamin, like Yelfimitch, is stricken by the truth enunciated. It hurts him to realize we suffer in our separation from each other through some almost-arbitrary imposition of yet another dominant abstract noun: Normal.
And this of course leads one to think back on the revolution that almost was in psychiatry in the early ‘70s, when prominent Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing totally rejected the artificial boundary between normal and abnormal experience. As he famously put it: “insanity — a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.” He elaborated on this in The Politics of Experience. “Social phenomenology,” he writes, “is the science of my own and of others’ experience. It is concerned with the relation between my experience of you and your experience of me. That is, with inter-experience. It is concerned with your behaviour and my behaviour as I experience it, and your and my behaviour as you experience it.” Benjamin’s memoir is demonstration of this entanglement of selves co-producing “reality.”
One narrator after another comes to tell their tale of intersecting with reality: Tracy, Bron, Craig, JB, et. al., until finally, as at the beginning, there is You, facing yourself, your own client, your own doctor. They come in, at him, “Daughter, mother, father, marriage, family, broken in an instant, by [some freakish moment that changes everything]. No need to tell them their family will never be the same again.” It is a struggle to maintain one’s intensity, one’s empathy level, story after story. It may be the memoir’s finest feature: it’s depiction of the complexity of humanity, and its embracement.
Benjamin’s intersection is not just with clients coming to him in the privacy of an office; they’re everywhere: “I walked over London bridge in rush hour, faces thronging around me, and diagnosed each one in an instant:’Psychosis…Depression…LewyBodies…Panic…Depression…Sociopath…OCD…Cynophobia…Panic…Guam’s…’ Everybody has something, and now there’s a name for it, even if it’s fear of having something, of going insane, aka dementophobia.” What if the pandemic we were waiting for were not physical but mental, a disease that devastates consciousness, the one major advantage that humans have over the animal world? If the animal world around us going extinct, one species at a time, why not us?
Entropy all around us; we see permanence at our own risk. Benjamin sees people falling apart all around him, and in this mass of half-formed people he sees himself, he passes himself, like T.S. Eliot’s “compound ghost,” and asks himself a rhetorical question: “Can you have a breakdown in a breakdown? What if everything is breaking down, always breaking down? A self-portrait in a convex mirror that has been smashed to smithereens.”
Benjamin is not merely concerned with the present, with the lack of therapeutic talking/listening, and the total capitulation to maintenance drugs in America — opiates, marijuana, and other prescribed mind-altering drugs, but he keenly understands where we stand in relation to the future, the continuous convergence of man and machine. Like Freud, he doesn’t have an optimistic sense of our current evolutionary direction.
He writes, “It’s been the decade of the brain for the last twenty-five years. Fashions come and go; the cortex, the subcortex, white-matter tracts, relay speed, gamma oscillations, secret pathways which openly in the dead of night….It’s not too cynical to suggest that we too might run the risk of getting lost constructing fantastically elaborate and expensive simulacra of our own ideas.” Not just a warning about AI; it’s a warning about our own humanity, together and alone.