Crazy

At one time, this word meant “wild,” in a good way.  I wish it still did.  Here’s an anecdote for you:  an accomplished academic psychologist is talking to another accomplished academic psychologist about an accomplished German philosopher.  They are excited by new biographical information about the philosopher which suggests he was crazy.  This, they felt, explained the craziness of his non-evidence-based speculations.  (Never mind that there are many alternatives to speculation on the one hand and empiricism on the other–like reasoning, debate, estimation on the basis of prior experience, and so forth–you know, the ways we use our minds every day.)  What a hoot, in short–everyone thinking this philosopher was such a genius, when in fact he was “just” mad as a hatter.  No wonder that over 50% of Americans will experience some form of mental illness in their lifetime, and yet feel the profound shame of the shunned, the isolate, the broken thing.  Here’s another thing I love about psychoanalysis:  its interest in taking seriously all communications–“psychosomatic,” gestural, prosodic, delusional, oneiric–and all the states of (embodied) mind that produce them. Take mania, for instance.  I’m not recommending it–it imperils those who suffer from it.  But as an example of what the brain is capable of, it’s quite astonishing.  I have an old friend who was diagnosed with glioblastoma–a type of brain tumor that is invariably terminal–who just told me that he wanted to write an essay on how terminal diagnoses can improve one’s mental health.  He doesn’t like the “blessing of cancer” approach, but he feels, tastes, hears so much more than he used to.  The question is, how do we help ourselves find that kind of vitality without divinizing pain?  By using our brains for as many different vital pursuits as possible.  We know now that the imagination is essential to cognition, was essential to the development of toolmaking, and remains essential to the crafting of the future, insofar as that is possible.  There is in fact no simple, self-evident opposition between fact and fantasy, because fantasies about the future determine the kinds of facts we seek out, or make.   So I hope I’m not simply romanticizing the suffering caused by mental illness–at least I’m consciously aware of how tempting that can be–but rather suggesting that we have real things to learn from all states of mind.  Consider the progress we’ve made understanding the confabulations of the brain-injured or “demented.” Once thought to be senseless, these frequently outlandish communications turn out to be exactly that–attempts to communicate that make use of the memories and resources not destroyed by illness or injury.  Psychoanalysis asks us to listen to everything.  It asks us to broaden, not narrow, understanding.  And, by Jove, it’s evidence-based too.  

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