Subversive Definitions of Insanity

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“You may be telling yourself, My brother has gone crazy. I have! And what fun!”

One can only imagine the conversations that took place between Friedrich Nietzsche and Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche, when the former went utterly mad in his waning years. Whatever Nietzsche conveyed to his sister during those personal moments must have been so profound and disturbing Elisabeth felt compelled to frame Nietzsche as a racist, a genetically superior being and a precursor to 20th Century Nazism. Indeed, most historians agree that Nietzsche must have died virginal, insane and with a predilection for other male writers. However, little proof exists as to his insanity besides the testimony of high profile people and the obscurity of his writings, which became progressively more impassioned and yet scattershot.

Author Virginia Woolf lamented to her husband through a letter claiming that she was going mad; “I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate,” she stated before filling her overcoat with stones and walking into the River Ouse to her death. Author Sylvia Plath met a similar fate when she sealed the rooms between herself and her children and proceeded to put her head in an oven while the gas was turned on. Her suicide and apparent madness was debated for a time, at least until Jillian Becker in the book Giving Up: The Last Days of Sylvia Plath pointed out testimony from a police officer that suggested Plath thrust her head so far into the gas oven that “she had really meant to die.”

Indeed it seems the only factor that truly confirms the presence of insanity and that precedes certain death is the Goodbye Letter. Somehow this adds closure and documentation as to a person’s frame of mind and motivation. Without this hint of finality, a person’s death may forever remain a mystery and thus a fascination or a riddle that perturbs the public.

However, what about the mental condition of the living? How does one begin to define insanity or madness? Does self-confessed insanity qualify insanity or can one choose it from a list of symptoms? A basic definition is that insanity is when a person flouts social norms and actually becomes a threat to himself or to other people. Psychology tends to classify insanity as mental instability. Yet the term “madness” is perceived to be informal language and a highly unscientific term.

In the modern day medical profession, the term madness is rarely used and is instead replaced by specific mental illnesses and diseases such as schizophrenia or mood disorders, as outlined by medical textbooks like Current Medical Diagnosis & Treatment. In fact, a person is far more likely to hear the term insanity in a legal context than in a medical one.

Therefore this leads one to believe that madness or insanity is a descriptive term, and one that must be diagnosed, formally or informally, before it can exist. One is not perceived as “crazy” until others observe characteristics that are abnormal and in contrary to social norms. One must feel and identify a sense of aberrant perception before one accepts the supposition that he or she has lost touch with reality.

However, there are three important criteria that must be addressed before mental illness or disorder can be assigned. These are the issue of normality, reality and perception.

Normality: The very word “normal” was critically analyzed by Noah Webster, as normal is one of the most difficult words to define in all of the English language. What is normal to some may not be normal to others, and what is normal in the 20th Century could be perceived as quite foreign in the 18th Century. Does a willingness to follow customs and accept new community standards imply some sort of normality? One would also have to consider variables like culture, language and translation, time, history and tolerance of a local or regional community. Most would be content with French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s definition of normal (Rules of Sociological Method); namely that “the most common behavior in a society [as determined by statistics or popular opinion] is considered by most to be normal.” Members of society who violate these social norms invite sanction from others who are part of normal society, whether for better or worse.

Reality: What is reality? How does one attempt to forsake the whims of fantasy and live in the real world? The Oxford English Dictionary of Current English defines reality as the “state of things as they actually exist.” This would make anything that actually exists, whether observable or even incomprehensible, some form of reality. We cannot comprehend nothingness, but to some extent, we know that it exists, even without evidence. We have evidence that the opposite of nothingness exists, which is perceivable reality, and thus conclude the existence of nothingness based on mathematical principles. Therefore, if one were classified as mad or insane based on their inability to see reality, it would have to be determined whether this inability results from a dissociative state (as in one does not see or comprehend reality) or a stubbornness or unwillingness to concede to the opinions of others that a certain reality exists or can be defined. By stubbornly refusing to accept reality, in a way, one is acknowledging this reality’s proposed existence, thereby refuting the possibility of delusional ignorance.

Perception: What one sees as reality another can easily see as madness. Author Miguel De Cervantes asked provocative questions like is having too much practicality a form of madness? Is surrendering your dreams madness? Is keeping an optimistic viewpoint in the midst of cynical reality truly a form of insanity? Is seeing life in reality, the way it shouldn’t be, life at its most devolved and unnatural, the likes of which include murder, greed, lust and complete detachment, what characterizes a sane person? Of course, you have to consider the possibility that a schizophrenic person may have a distorted perception of life and thus become a danger to others and himself/herself. This person is declared insane because of the fact that his or her perception is the minority view, whereas the majority tends to see life in more practical terms and with less self-aggrandizement. Again, the “insane” person is declared such because of holding a perception that goes against the norm. Upon discovering that a person has a minority perception, doctors may examine the person’s brain only to discover some form of physical damage. The question is, if doctors were to randomly analyze any “sane” person’s brain at any given time, would they too find evidence of some imperfection or deterioration?

This article is not meant to question whether or not brain disease or brain trauma leads to perception distortion, because obviously it does. However, it does mean to imply that the labels of sanity or insanity are quite arbitrary. The safe answer to give to a person suffering from mental instability is to contact a doctor if he or she feels dangerous to others or to one’s self. Nevertheless, perfectly rational people with symptoms of brain disease are equally capable of harming others with their political policies, righteous indignation or moral courage. We lazily define them as “good” or “evil.” People who appear to be rational have also committed suicide in honor of their country or religion, as a favor to their family members who were reluctant to become caretakers, or as a logical reaction to constant pain and sickness.

In short, it appears as if those who go against the grain of majority public opinion are truly the most insane among us. Remember that at one time masturbation, homosexuality, disbelief in God, and the idea that the world was round were all symptoms of mental instability. Furthermore, numerous characters throughout history had to contend with public discontent for their advanced beliefs, from literary figures like James Joyce and Marquis De Sade to historical figures like Joan of Arc and Albert Einstein. (New Scientist, April 2003, published an article suggesting that Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton may have exhibited signs of Asperger Syndrome)

It has been established that in order to qualify as “insane”, someone must diagnose a person as insane or a person must come to the realization that his or her actions are symptoms of mental illness. Either that or the person must write a candid suicide letter admitting to their insanity, and in essence, their failure to reach the highest standards of normality, like a sort of Inquisitional torture confession, derived from modern day brutality interrogation methods like peer pressure, elitist societies, comparative analysis and celebrity lifestyle.

That begs the question, how does one know if he or she is slowly losing touch with the real world and “going insane?” Just as one diagnoses sure signs of mental instability, one uses similar criteria in analyzing pre-symptoms. Naturally, these symptoms are based on the perceptions of others who pay careful attention to what is considered “normal” in modern society.

Based on deviant behavior from the norm, and following historical precedent set by others declared to be mentally unfit by doctors (who may or may not be discredited by now), a person can perform self-diagnosis and determine if he or she falls short of the standards of normalcy. Chances are, based on the typical self-help test for symptoms of mental instability, the average Internet worrier will qualify as mentally ill. After all, even histrionic personality disorder is a sign of mental illness.

A SELF QUIZ: ARE YOU CRAZY?

Answer “yes” to at least five of these questions and Subversify.com declares you legally insane.

1. Do you ask for money from the government rather than make money for your country?

2. Do you talk to people who are not there? Do you sometimes use the term “amen” instead of “see ya later?”

3. Do you see visions of an optimistic future and a world united in peace, equality and goodwill?

4. Do you believe you have superpowers that enable you to see through a corporation’s lies or an important individual’s well-crafted façade?

5. Do you have strong viewpoints that you like to share on the Internet, instead of merely agreeing with what all the other forum posters say?

6. Do you believe celebrities, politicians and other famous people have secrets they keep to themselves rather than announce to the world?

7. Do you ever dream of a world with no heaven, no countries or no possessions? Is it easy if you try?

8. Do you ever question authority even beyond your teenage years? Why haven’t you become a conservative democrat like the rest of us?

9. Do you practice things you believe, even in minute details that no one cares about?

10. Do you read Subversify.com instead of getting the latest reports from FoxNews.com?

(C) 2009 The Late Mitchell Warren

15 Comments on “Subversive Definitions of Insanity”

  1. Hey. I *do* have superpowers. So shaddup.

    Good article. For the longest time, the attributes you mentioned were used as part of the definition of “insanity”: the failure to contribute to state norms. Therefore, women were “insane” at a rate of more than 2:1 for men. Men were the doctors, men were the definition of sanity. Listening to your instincts, being out of touch with the male world–these were “insanities.”

    As times changed, doctors were forced to change the definition to being narrowly defined by a threat to one’s self or others. However, there IS a definable insanity beyond that. When my mother came to my door in the house and would not speak, but rather pointed to various signs and colors in my room to spell out “BEWARE OF RED HAIR,” I knew beyond a doubt she had lost it. When she told me in a whisper she did not want to speak because the house was “bugged,” and when she mistook acorns falling on the roof for people walking around on her roof spying on her–yeah. She was nut-bars.

    Cool as it may be to question who creates and defines reality, the fact is, there IS a reality that doesn’t include neighbors walking on roofs to spy on us. There really, actually IS a reality out there. And if you have bizarre and unreasonable ideas that disconnect with that reality…chances are you need help.

    My two (very experienced) cents.

  2. There are no facts, only interpretations. ~Friedrich Nietzsche

    We are all experienced in some way or another with mental illness. I have no doubt in my mind when I have experienced a form of insanity with someone I love, it was disturbing, because of the distortion that took place; what was once a common perspective gradually became an alien perspective that I couldn’t follow. We attribute it to mental illness because that is what hundreds of years of psychology and medicine have indoctrinated to us.

    I just can’t help but wonder if our instinctual reaction to want to fix a mental disorder (by meds or therapy) is somehow related to our own fears of losing grip on what we know as reality.

    The point of this article was not to judge anyone or say that mental illness doesn’t exist and shouldn’t be treated. But I think it’s healthy to occasionally question the stubborn notion that if we don’t subscribe to the same reality that everyone else holds dear that something is wrong with us.

    Family and friends have suggested to me before that I try medication because of the fact that I stubbornly held onto to beliefs and perspectives that were not like their own. That’s what I’m talking about…at what point a different perspective becomes dangerous and unacceptable should be every family’s choice. That’s the moral aspect of it, but the analysis of differing perspectives remains a complicated issue.

  3. I also remain firmly embedded in my madness; an odd little world where even the trees whisper and the stones confide their stories. My mother warned me. She told me the kind of things i think about and question were one day going to drive me crazy. You can’t constantly be looking at “what if” and “why” because there aren’t always answers. But… she was mother. She was supposed to know all the answers. I think that edge of madness occurs when the reality you perceive has been denied or suppressed. It will not be ignored. It will persist until the denial and the insistence break down and produce a compromise that is half way between the world of what we’ve been told is real and the other, more crucial vision of perspective. The common ground is swept away because the two views are not compatible. Madness is the opening of minds to unexplored territory, but it needs a rudder to separate imagination, growth and mental development from delusions. We live in a world full of delusions, taking comfort in the re-enforcement of common viewpoints without questioning our own thought processes. What we do not confront, eats at us and eventually produces psychotic episodes.

  4. “OMG, look at her butt it is so big.” OH wait a minute. Wrong article. According to your questionairre, I am insane in the membrane. What I see as insane, isn’t necessarily what others would equally interpret as insane. The same thing works for people from different regions. We would define natives practicing tribal traditions such as squealing like monkeys as crazy. But to them things we do would be equally regarded as psychotic. Bungee jump anyone? How about a lip disc insertion? You can talk to people that are really not there anytime, just don’t murder them while you’re at it.

  5. I tried doing the quiz but the pink bunnies of the apocalypse kept insisting that I finish my manifesto before the virgin minds become corrupted with filth. If the voices in my head hear voices, does that make them crazy?

  6. Mr. Subversify, I rather think you may be the most sane amougst us. At least your voices are giving coherent direction while some of us, myself included tend to wander through the poppy fields of fantasy sometimes picking a gem and other times plucking up something quite nasty. Get that manifesto completed and we will be sure to post it.

  7. Pingback: whisper of madness
  8. So…

    What exactly is wrong with racism? It seems to be a part of human evolution; Asians are racist, Caucasians are racist, and Negroids are racist – what’s the big deal?

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