Subversive Definitions of Insanity


“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.


Answer “yes” to at least five of these questions and 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 instead of getting the latest reports from

(C) 2009 The Late Mitchell Warren