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Metaphysics of Madness



If to be mad means the inability to remain in touch with reality, presupposing that true reality is exclusively for the sane and sober, then we should envy the lunatic rather than pity him.

What we rational but boring folk refer to as "reality" is not the only reality available to human experience; it is just the particular reality that our particular state of mind can afford us. Hegel's dictum that the real is rational and the rational is real can only be correct when and if I am rational. But what of the irrational? Of the insane?  How we are opens up and reveals what is or what can be. Objective reality, or things themselves, do not on their own reveal themselves to us in differing ways--e.g. as rational, happy, lovely, etc.--giving us different views as to what reality could be. On the contrary, as we learned from the moderns, it is the subject which filters reality into what it can see, know, and understand. The I alone sees the world which does not see itself, the I alone is able to give it the meaning that it does not have by itself. That said, it is of special interest how a madman sees the world, or how he understands it, or more importantly: what world is a mad world?

We should not deny the insane of the right and privilege of interpreting reality just because they no longer see what we see, and is therefore disqualified from all talk about what is real. The madman--and I am speaking of the intellectually insane man here--will actually be in a better position to describe reality because he has experienced both the sane and insane world. They know the world's dark secrets. They have lived in the everyday world, but have also entered an extraordinary reality, which is indifferent to the concerns and securities of lived life. They enter new territory that some of us cannot even imagine reaching. That is the price you pay for all your cherished notions of immortality and self-importance.

Let me tidy this up: Those who have had severe mental breakdowns or emotional limit crises experienced a world that is not necessarily a mistaken world, or an imaginary one. At the very least, the mad still see something, anything. It is therefore incorrect to say that they just "imagine" things in their mind because of this or that psychological and, ultimately, psychiatric handicap. Make no mistake about it: Something apart from their minds is there, something flashes before one's eye, something is known. And phenomena will always be valid phenomena as long as something is seen. A dream is no less real for a man asleep than the world he sees when he awakes; a hallucination is strictly speaking not a hallucination because he who hallucinates hallucinated about something--only to find out later on, much like the dreamer who is awakened, that it was just a hallucination, just a dream after all. But the temporal correction "after all" will remain insignificant as long as you are still in the dream, still experiencing a hallucination. We know this already. The point is you still see something, never mind if it will turn our "unreal" after all. And it is therefore the task of the philosopher,  who is by disposition the twin of the madman, to describe such phenomena that insanity can witness, no matter how wrong or unreal they may be.

From the Bencab Museum in Baguio

2. A Prelude to Madness

While it is impossible, and rather foolish, to identify the exact moment when a man trips over from sanity over to lunacy, it is however worthy to describe how the comedy silently emerges and gradually builds up. I use the words "silently" and "gradually" deliberately; the man whose mind has been undermined is usually oblivious to the advent of madness; he is often the last to know. Everything goes well, everyone plays their part and sticks to their scripts, until one day the suspect begins to suspect what goes on around him. Without wanting to he starts taking notice of what usually does not require or provoke his attention--that beggar on the street, that disfigured face on the mirror, that surreal violet sky at dusk--and he stops for a moment. What surrounds him, he realizes, looks funny; or better yet, things take on shapes and colors which to a rational mind are inappropriate for them. What is this world into which I was thrown? he asks. Where am I?

Such existential questions, however, are forgotten as quickly as they are raised. Those moments of sudden lucidity, when a clearing between me and the world opens up a space for vision and questioning, rarely come to us, and quickly vanish when they do. Like that twilight moment between sleep and consciousness as we wake up, when we do not know if we are still dreaming, or haven't oriented ourselves to where we are--there are fleeting instances when we are yet unable to assume our identities (that I am so and so with this so and so life doing so and so) which would "ground" us back to reality. Reminding ourselves of who we are and what we do is the easiest way to hold on to sanity. Our identities pathetically secure us of a place in the world, making sure that we are a part of something--a country, a nationality, a religion, company, or even a club--so that when we get lost there is an association which can rescue me, and save me from becoming a perfect stranger. But these identities and securities are not intrinsic to who and what I am; in the core of my being I am no one, without relations, and forever lost to a world which will never be my home. The man who shall soon step over to madness begins to perceive his anonymity clearly. Not only does the world become foreign to him, he begins to become a stranger to himself.

It may also happen, however, that the beginnings of madness will not tell of any profound existential musings or questions. Madness can begin in a peaceful mind, and may remain in so, ending in a catatonic stare. You will be hard-pressed to identify the madman-in-the-making from the rest of sane men. Like any good actor, the madman can hide his deserts within, and he does this because he does not see any point in letting other people venture into his nothingness. So he speaks, smiles, works, loves like any other; now he even blinks at you. But if he is like any other, then why or how is he mad? Not because of a sudden homelessness in the world, nor of betrayal or despair or hate; his madness comes from possessing a secret nobody else knows, or becoming a witness to something no one else has seen. He then acts like the rest in order to guard his secret. He safeguards it because if others find out what the secret was, he thinks to himself, they themselves might go mad.  

3. A Mad Reasoning

Like mystics and those who have achieved enlightenment, the intellectual madman has been let in on a secret. The secret is nowhere far, or too much different, from what the saint or the arahant discover: that all is One. There is a simple unity in all things, one which is confused by the variety of beings, events, times, appearance, etc., and this makes it difficult for all of us who, having a predilection in identifying things, cannot but think in oppositions and differences. Anything our mind touches is a being, and this prevents us from acceding to Being, or opening ourselves to a pure experience of existence itself. With Being, there are no oppositions, differences, distinctions, no time; but because our reasoning, and bodies, can only work with and within these registers, we initially and for the most part forget Being and what it may mean. The same has been more often said of God.

Again, to be un-metaphysical about it: the lunatic is no longer able to perceive differences primarily because his reason and sensations have already failed him--or at least they have been abandoned already in favor for another kind of knowledge: direct intuition. The madman, to be sure, is still able to think; the logical reasoning is there and the sense of time remains (the only difference, however, is that his thinking and sense of time work continuously and in astonishing speeds). To tell you the truth, the madman will most probably be more intelligent than you. But logic and time no longer become the primary horizons within which the maniac moves; on the contrary, his reasoning and worldly perception become accessories, or may give evidence, to the inner vision or direct intuition--through which the secret was known--that the maniac has gained. The rational mind of a man is no match for the truth that is discovered in madness. The naked eye of a man will not be able to stand the horror of that opening. However, because man is stubborn and still needs the security of explanations and sensations, even the madman will try to hold on to his reasoning by trying to explain what he sees and is going through. And he will be very eloquent about it if he chooses to speak, saying all sorts of things in support of his "theory" (literally "what is seen"), like a "conspiracy theory," which is usually associated with the mad, and accordingly set aside as nonsense.

To repeat. The mind of a lunatic works perfectly; he knows it, he will die by it, and will never entertain the possibility of it being otherwise, no matter how those around him are already raising their eyebrows in suspicion of idiocy, and even up to the inevitable moment when he shall be formally charged and arrested for his madness. He will still not admit his insanity. The mind of the madman, to be frank about it, is lucid. There is no moment when he switches his mind off, as it were, and then proceeds to being mad. He maintains his rationality all throughout. Actually, he will even say that his senses become all the more keen, his mind sharper than it's ever been, when he reaches madness.

How else can I talk about what the maniac sees and discovers other than by using shopworn and hand-me-down concepts like "All is One," "All is Being," "unity in difference," etc.? I can only use words that I know. Words are the weakest and poorest means a madman can use to tell you what he has seen. How wise Wittgenstein was when he observed that "What can be shown cannot be said."

4. The Autism of Madness

"Solitude," E. M. Cioran says, "is the proper milieu of madness." I see how that is plausible. Never leave the madman alone. It is bad enough that his mind torments him, and shackles him, preventing him with its fetters to expose himself to the world in which the sane inhabit. Left to his own devices, with neither exteriority nor difference, the madman will all the more, with resolve and certainty, think that his inner world is real. Try telling the lunatic he's crazy and he'll return the compliment. How can you not see what is so evident, so clear to his eyes? You are either joking or you're out to get him. (This is why the mad are usually paranoid.) But, of course, what he experiences is indeed true: he feels it in his bones, penetrates the core of his being, and covers his eyes, eclipsing the old world and its old interpretations with it.

This is why revolutions are born by madmen. They perceive other worlds, conceive alternatives to what is, envision futures that can break away absolutely from the present. The history of ideas alone will readily provide us with enough evidence, showing how mad men and women changed the way we see the world. They were never understood at the beginning, were thought mad, and some would be asked to retract under the threat of persecution. (Truth, they say, is unpopular at the beginning.) They never had schools of thought at the inception of their ideas, these would come much later on, usually after they die. And, speaking of death, these mad revolutionaries usually pass on without having even seen their ideas or work seriously considered. They go to the grave either despising their contemporaries because of their ignorance, or, at the final moment, doubting the discoveries which they were so certain of all their life.

To say however that most revolutionaries were mad is to esteem the mentally different too much. Out of all the insane men and women in history and till today, it must be said without citing statistics that only a handful of them do change the world with their groundbreaking views; most madmen, the nameless multitude who slowly drift to the darkest recesses of humanity never to return, are just mad and stay so--without consolation or justice, without vindication or dignity. A visit to your local sanatorium will make you understand that almost all lunatics live and die in a pitiful state. This is not a judgment set from high above, neither a proclamation of intellectual superiority, but an undeniable observation: the average insane man stays insane and that is all there is to it. He thus stays in the sanatorium excluded from a society to which the sane deem he may be a danger. It is worth remembering that before sanatoriums, way back to Ancient Greece, mentally different men and women roamed the city streets and lived among all, posing no danger to anyone and accepted by many.

But just as you cannot punish a diabetic for being diabetic, an innocent pedestrian from being run over by an errant driver, or just as you cannot blame the old and the dying from being old and dying--you cannot and should not imprison and persecute madmen for their madness. They don't a have a choice for the most part. Even the great thinkers and artists who suffered from madness, I surmise, also did not choose to have superior intellects and unrelenting imagination; they just said what they knew, and depicted what they saw with or without choosing or willing it.

And herein lies the difference between the madman with a unique understanding of reality, and the madman who has excluded himself from reality. The philosophical madman, or, better yet, the "metaphysical madman" sees the reality that common, tranquilized men do not bother to question because they have become so part of its landscapes and customs. More importantly, what sets the metaphysical madman apart from the everyday madman is how the former is able to verbalize or translate--lyrically or systematically, through aphorism or thesis or art--the different realities including the accepted ones. Other madmen, either because they are simply without the intellectual apparatus or the desire necessary to speak and describe what they see, remain silent in their madness. Thus the portrait of the madman talking to himself. Confused with thoughts that he cannot name, dazzled by forms and possibilities he cannot describe or materialize, the madman ends up in isolation, grappling with itself, wrestling with himself. Whereas the metaphysical madman, even if he shall fail over and over again, will speak to us, will write, and paint unceasingly. Like anyone, he will live, love, and die with the consolation that he saw something, and transcended the autism which seduces him to no end, in order to show others what appeared to him in visions (so clear! so magnificent!), even if no one listened or believed him.

5. Religious Madness

I used the name "metaphysical madman" with a reason. If you think about it, the metaphysician is by definition a mad man. If the word "metaphysics" can be traced back to its Greek origins as to mean "beyond" or "after" (meta+) physics, nowhere do you see a man other than the lunatic better live up to the name of metaphysician. One always has to be a little crazy to be a metaphysician. There is no sense in seeing what is not seen, in dancing in the world of dreams and possibilities, and in playing with forms and writing poetry. Philosophy and art, apart from being the liberal sciences, are also mad sciences: they study and create in an invisible and unreal world, one which can never be proven and thus has no value. The madman is the man of freedom; he frees himself from the fetters of reality, does not let common opinion weigh on him as he takes soars in flights of fancy, and believes in what he sees with his own crazy eyes without the need for empirical verification from the world.

You sense already what I am going to say next. The religious are also mad.

In what frightening ways? They believe in a God that they do not see, imagine a world beyond this one, into whose narrow gates their souls will enter after their physical bodies perish. If you want to see organized madness you can do no better than by going to a place of worship. Idols, ceremonies with pomp and majesty, promises of eternal life and threats of eternal damnation, prophets and saints, visions and miracles--all religious phenomena point to the core belief that there is an unseen place beyond our reality, an unimaginable time after our pathetic lives, and a being which surpasses all beings. But such beliefs are essentially metaphysical. Thus religion, because it is metaphysics, is also mad. You will not find a saint that was not mad. Thus when it comes to religion and faith, the ideal man is the madman. Accordingly, those who fail in their faith--they are the realists and the sane, holding on to their dear sciences and standing up to the gods brandishing their knowledge of the world (at least of this one). Because faith is a madness, and madness is the antithesis of science, we have witnessed in our secular age the "death of God" and the institutionalization of the madman. We no longer see mad men and men of faith these days.  




  1. Anonymous10/01/2010

    "He wondered, as he had many times wondered before, whether he himself was a lunatic. Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one. At one time it had been a sign of madness to believe that the earth goes round the sun; today, to believe that the past is unalterable. He might be alone in holding that belief, and if alone, then a lunatic. But the thought of being a lunatic did not greatly trouble him: the horror was that he might also be wrong." - George Orwell, 1984, 68.

  2. Anonymous10/27/2010

    Take care, the saint. It is also fortunate not to be alone.

  3. Yes, I've come to realize that, reluctantly before, but more clearly now. I no longer take pride in my loneliness, and am even a bit hopeful about the future. But, of course, the terror and anxiety are still there. What if I fail another? Or if I become too difficult. I tend to make a mess out of good things.

    Thank you. You're kind. Take care, and may never walk alone.

  4. Anonymous10/30/2010

    There is a dangerous beauty to brokenness, which could be (just maybe) worth the breaking. Then you can rebuild again after discarding old shards.

    Ah! I remember de Beauvoir saying that those who are condemned to stagnation are often pronounced happy, with the thought that happiness consists of being at rest... Taking her queue, let's hope that our selves will remain restless and will never get settled, even for the 'good things'.

    My apologies, though, if this desire is too reckless. Maybe I would even regret it eventually.

  5. I, too, can relate with the necessity of being of broken. The thing is, you only behold such beauty way after being broken. It really gets ugly--to the point of madness. "Beauty and madness"!

    I'd like to share with you an old prayer by Sir Francis Drake, "Disturb us, O Lord":

    Disturb us, O Lord, when
    We are too pleased with ourselves,
    When our dreams have come true
    Because we dreamed too little,
    When we arrived safely
    Because we sailed too close to the shore.

    Disturb us, Lord, when
    with the abundance of things we possess
    We have lost our thirst
    For the waters of life;
    Having fallen in love with life,
    We have ceased to dream of eternity
    And in our efforts to build a new earth,
    We have allowed our vision
    Of the new Heaven to dim.

    Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
    To venture on wilder seas
    Where storms will show Your mastery;
    Where losing sight of land,
    We shall find the stars.

    We ask you to push back
    The horizons of our hopes;
    And to push back the future
    In strength, courage, hope, and love.

    This we ask in the name of our Captain,
    Who is Jesus Christ.

    May we learn, too, how to find peace in that very restlessness.

  6. Anonymous11/03/2010

    Thank you. Even for a secularist like myself, I think this prayer is one of the most poignant I’ve come across.

    (I dare not call myself an agnostic or an atheist, for these terms have too much judgmental underpinnings).

    We are always in an endless process of weaving contingency after contingency, fragment after fragment. There seems to always be something random in every necessity, a surprising coincidence in the face of the ordinary. So to find peace in that restlessness is actually part of the dynamics – more so, it is a necessary human irony! That is why I trust Freud when he says that life can be likened to a poem, or Kundera when he exclaims its unbearable lightness.

    But for all these musings, now Fra Lippo Lippi is playing in my head.

  7. Hi, Maochi Aurelio
    That is an interesting piece of work - I am myself an intellectual madman - and would love to point you in the direction of my blog. I imagine that it must somehow be tough to be that philosopher in the Philipines right now. Please feel free to contact me for a debate about the possible value and mediation of the madmans metaphysics!


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