“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
There is a strange seduction in madness. Insanity horrifies, yet fascinates us. We joke about being crazy and dismiss our enemies as being crazy. If we do something impulsive or irrational that we later regret, we mutter, “I must have been out of my mind.” It can even frighten us if our behavior leads us to question our sanity.
The idea of losing our reason and self-control terrifies us. And yet, we sometimes willingly abandon that control either through drugs or alcohol or total immersion in some fantasy that distances us from reality until the fantasy becomes real.
Our survival depends on our ability to apprehend what is going on around us accurately, and then to make wise decisions and take appropriate action. Every waking moment our minds busily consult our senses, sort through our memories, make guesses about the future, think and plan and worry. Anyone who has tried meditating knows how difficult it is to get the mind to slow down and focus. The brain doesn’t like to be idle. It’s like an outboard motor constantly running. Even asleep it spins out dreams and mutters to itself.
All that alertness can wear a person out. (And I hear Talking Heads Stop Making Sense start playing in the back of my head.)
So we indulge in play. Nonsense, fun, some absorbing pastime that relieves our mind of being constantly on guard. We joke, laugh, play games. Even though we dip our toe into the chaotic waters of the absurd, we keep one foot firmly grounded. We know we are being frivolous and foolish. We know we are giving our serious mind a break. We are still in control; we can switch back to logical judgement at the first sign of danger.
What if we were to let go completely? What if, instead of keeping one foot on solid ground, we ran into the water and dove in?
The idea is both alarming and alluring.
Often it seems that chaos rules the world. Trying to make sense of it is hopeless. Imposing order is futile. Instead of standing on solid ground, we are already far out at sea, clinging to a raft and working merely to keep our heads above the waves. The only control we actually have is our grip on the raft. We can’t direct where it is going, and we can’t predict what might rise at any moment out of the depths. Madness grins at us and whispers, “Aren’t you arms getting tired?”
As a philosopher I am constantly trying to figure things out. If something baffles me, I go to work: reading, writing, investigating, taking it apart and examining it from all angles. I gain insights, sudden enlightenments, the satisfaction of getting it sorted. Or I am left with the ball of yarn after the kittens have gotten to it. I have to give the puzzle up. And still some part of my mind goes back to worrying it again and again.
This constant drive to make sense of things can be exhausting. I want to give my cerebral cortex a ticket to the Bahamas. It drives me crazy.
It would be so liberating to just check out. To hell with logic. To hell with reality. To hell with trying to make sense of people, social interactions, the workings of society and the world, right and wrong, good and evil. No wonder so many crave a Prime Arbiter who will lay down the rules and ask only unquestioning obedience in return. They want everything figured out for them so they don’t have to. I sympathize! To just go about placidly with nothing to decide except what to have for dinner, and some belief systems even have that mostly figured out for you.
Or to down a bottle of scotch and go wilding in the streets. Do whatever you please and to hell with the consequences. Utter anarchy with no regard for others, no agonizing over morals or ethics or what the past was or the future might be. Run with the mob or the wolves or the gang or trash even that primitive form of organization and wander aimlessly on your own. Laugh at nothing, weep at nothing, rage at anything, with no need to justify any of it.
Or pull into yourself and build your own world. Wander about oblivious to anybody or anything, conducting your own inner monologue out loud. Dress in costume or rags, in furs or fuchsia, or nothing at all. Spend your days playing in the mud or believing you are a knight, a wizard, a famous actor, or Jesus. Relive the day you were left at the altar, pretend your dead children are with you again, stare in the mirror seeing yourself as the beauty you were decades ago when the world was at your feet. Shut yourself away from everyone and everything until they find you months after the stacks of stuff you’ve been hoarding fall over and kill you.
We make films about them, write books about them, study them, even romanticize them into heroic or tragic figures. The mad. Those who let go of the raft. Like Ophelia, they let themselves sink and drown.
How much of their madness do we dare admit we see lurking in ourselves?