That way madness lies

To portray something -to make it believable- there has to be at least some understanding by the audience of what is being portrayed. Much in the sense, I suppose, that was suggested in the 1974 paper in The Philosophical Review by the American philosopher Thomas Nagel, asking what it would be like to be a bat. Not so much how it would feel to have the added sense of sonar, or be able to fly in the dark, but more about the consciousness of itself. As Wikipedia explains Nagel’s thinking: ‘an organism has conscious mental states, “if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism—something it is like for the organism to be itself.”

This is a roundabout way of wondering whether an audience could ever know if an actor is representing something realistically if they cannot imagine what it would be like to be that thing.

Mental illness seems as if it is sufficiently prevalent that most of us would be expected to understand whether or not the author, or the actor, has captured its essence accurately, and yet, for those of us who have not experienced the wide panoply of its manifestations -the majority of us, I suspect- we might be easily mislead. The more gripping or sensational portrayals of illness, might well come to stereotype the lot. To stigmatize the condition.

I was scrolling through the BBC Culture section when I happened upon an article that discusses some of these same issues: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20180828-how-cinema-stigmatises-mental-illness

‘… the film industry has generally shown a shaky vision of mental health … It’s not that cinema evades ‘taboo’ themes here; it’s more that it tends to swing wildly from sentimentality to sensationalism.’ To attract an audience -i.e. to make a profit- ‘creative drama is drawn to the complexity and fragility of the mind – but mainstream entertainment still demands a snappy fix. And the definition of ‘insanity’ is inherently problematic.’

I am reminded of the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s book Madness and Civilization -subtitled A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. He felt that the concept of madness was evolving over time: in the Renaissance, (as a thoughtful summary in Wikipedia puts it) the mad were portrayed in art ‘as possessing a kind of wisdom – a knowledge of the limits of our world – and portrayed in literature as revealing the distinction between what men are and what they pretend to be … but the Renaissance also marked the beginning of an objective description of reason and unreason (as though seen from above) compared with the more intimate medieval descriptions from within society.’

Later, however, ‘in the mid-seventeenth century, the rational response to the mad, who until then had been consigned to society’s margins, was to separate them completely from society by confining them, along with prostitutes, vagrants, blasphemers and the like, in newly created institutions all over Europe.’ (The Great Confinement).

‘For Foucault the modern experience began at the end of the eighteenth century with the creation of places devoted solely to the confinement of the mad under the supervision of medical doctors, and these new institutions were the product of a blending of two motives: the new goal of curing the mad away from their family who could not afford the necessary care at home, and the old purpose of confining undesirables for the protection of society. These distinct purposes were lost sight of, and the institution soon came to be seen as the only place where therapeutic treatment can be administered.’

But, back to the BBC Culture depiction of the role of cinema, ‘our mainstream perceptions of ‘madness’ are still fixated with movie scenes – much more emphatically, in fact, than the novels or memoirs on which they might be based. A classic film like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) seals the impression of a soul-destroying psychiatric asylum, where livewire convict RP McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) feigns insanity to escape prison labour – yet is ultimately crushed by the system. The dramatic depiction of patient treatment, particularly its brutal electroconvulsive therapy sequences, had far-reaching impact. In 2011, The Telegraph went so far as to say that the film was responsible for “irreparably tarnishing the image of ECT…’

Unfortunately, unlike many art forms, movies usually require a conclusion, a wrapping up of the story, and a realistic depiction of mental illness may not fit into that convenient format. There may be no black or white: not all characterizations can end either pleasantly or sadly -some are palimpsests, to be sure, but many can reach no definitive conclusions that would satisfy the average moviegoer. Hence the temptation to exaggerate, or at least frighten audiences into an odd manifestation of satisfaction.

The temptation, in other words, to see mental illness as alien, separate -like a creature we could not possibly understand because it is so different. As different, perhaps, as Nagel’s bat. But is it? Or was Foucault really on to something in his analysis of the way ‘madness’ seemed to be viewed in Renaissance literature and art -a view which accepted that at least some of the vagaries, some of the stigmata of mental illness, were merely variations of mental states that any of us could exhibit at times? And indeed, that occasionally intimated unique views on a world from which we might learn some important lessons -a world, though, that we might now discard, or shun as too bizarre. Too frightening. Too… real.

On the other hand, there is a danger of romanticizing the past, of airbrushing its naïveté into soft and reassuring colours; of assuming it was what it was because it had not yet been exposed to the unforgiving exigencies of current knowledge. A time when imagination and reality were sometimes allowed to merge. Encouraged to conflate.

It’s difficult to be certain where present day arts can be placed on this spectrum of understanding mental illness -not the least because it is difficult to know where it should be placed. But, suffice it to say, the more fully the illness is portrayed in all its complexity, the more we might be able to see it as a small, but important part of the tapestry of existence -a fragment of the struggle that marks all our days. And, as for any vicissitude, where there is suffering, we must provide succour and relief, and where there is dissimilarity, offer understanding and acceptance. Tolerance. The soul, says the poet Kahlil Gibran, walks upon all paths. The soul walks not upon a line, neither does it grow like a reed. The soul unfolds itself like a lotus of countless petals.

 

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Texting LIVE

You know, I love being old -you get to learn so many things. For example, I found out that you should probably not admit you’re old at parties because it leaves you open to stuff, and not all of it is nice. Personally, I go in disguise, although we all have to find the door we fit through, eh? But, let’s face it, most elders don’t get invited out much anyway, so except for maybe the occasional funeral, we don’t have to say anything about our ages.

Unfortunately, camouflage doesn’t seem to work for me online. For some reason, everybody knows I’m not one of them. At first, I thought maybe it was because I spelled words correctly and used punctuation. I capitalized the first letter in a sentence, and so everybody could be sure my thought was completed, ended with a period. It was when I decided to text my son instead of Emailing him, that he responded with a chastisement to put me straight.

“Ur gonna get trolled if u keep writing SAs dad everybodyl no” Well, it looked sort of like that, but I can never remember his abbreviations. At any rate, I was being warned about the rules. It was some time around then that I ran across a semi-explanatory article online in the BBC culture section, discussing LIVE (Live Internet Vernacular English): http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20180618-will-we-stop-speaking-and-just-text

I’d obviously never heard of it, but I’m learning that there’s a lot out there that nobody thinks to tell us. Well, not us, at any rate. ‘Texting may be closer to speech than formal written language. […]  in its loosely structured live interactivity, internet slang […] is closer to speech than text. But it has its own conventions, some of which defy saying out loud. It’s a substitute for speech.’

Let’s take a step back for a moment. ‘Written language was created to give a record of spoken language. Not that written language is just the frozen form of speech. Over the centuries, it has gained features such as exclamation marks and italics to convey spoken features such as tone, but it has also evolved to convey things that speech doesn’t: the etymological traces carried by our spelling, the structure of thought conveyed by paragraphs, the aesthetics of fonts and other design elements. […] But live internet text is something new. When we tweet or send text messages, we are merging the fixed visual means of text with the immediate live performance of speech. It is as vernacular as speech, and it draws on vernacular speech.’

A while ago, I discovered emoticons and emojis at the bottom of my phone’s keyboard, and so I started using them -apparently incorrectly. I tried the yellow circle one with the straight mouth and the two eye-dots on my son in response to a text he’d sent me. I meant it as a sort of noncommittal shrug, but he thought I was upset with him. I wish I’d seen the article first. ‘Several studies have found that their [emoticons and emoji] primary use is not to present the speaker’s emotion but to help smooth out interpersonal relationships and to convey features such as irony. They are not about how the sender feels so much as how the sender wants the receiver to feel.’ Who knew?

As I sank deeper into the interstices of the article, I began to see how somebody writing like I do might be easy pickings for a troll. ‘Live is like a sci-fi story where people’s tongues and vocal cords have been replaced by keyboards and screens, and they have to learn to work with the potentials and constraints of their new anatomy. You don’t have volume, pitch, rhythm or speed, so what do you do? Skip using the Shift key and punctuation to show haste (sorry cant chat rn got an essay due) or casualness (hi whats up). Make a typographical error to show urgency or heedlessness – teh (for the), pwn (for own, as in dominate or defeat), zomg (for OMG because Z is next to Shift), and hodl(for hold in online currency trading); these all originated with errors but became fixed forms that are simultaneously more intense and more facetious than the originals.’

And yet, as I’m sure my Grade 12 English teacher would have signalled with her eyebrows, LIVE merely seems to be an excuse for sloppiness, although a proper linguist might have an opinion closer to that of James Harbeck, the article’s author: ‘But it’s all language, and language is always a performance that refers back to previous performances and helps show what you know and what group you belong to. Live is an idiom of a certain social set – or, by now, several different social sets.’ In fact, it seems to me that LIVE is a hybrid -almost a pidgin, a form of communication between people -especially elders, perhaps- not sharing a common language.

‘Live is affecting other forms of English, spoken and written, because we borrow from it and refer to it. Some Live is just not sayable, but you can hear people say “L O L” and you can see emoji in ads. Is it slipping into formal writing by younger people as they grow up using it and become adults? Studies have shown that it’s not. They learn how to write like grown-ups when they have to, just as we all have: we don’t use the slang we learned as kids in our annual reports.’

I have to try to remain open to change, I realize; I have to learn to give Youth and their technology a chance –‘When in Rome…’ as the old aphorism goes. But, as interesting as LIVE may be, and as pragmatically as it may function, I still can’t bring myself to strip the skin off words or destroy the surprise of a beautiful homonymic metaphor with the bones of a skeleton. But perhaps that’s what my son was hinting at when he told me to stop treating texts as essays -sorry, ‘SAs’. I suppose we don’t expect poetry in a phone conversation either, do we? And yet… and yet wouldn’t that be a gift?

Is Whispering Nothing?

Sometimes I randomly accede to the frivolous demands of boredom, but more frequently I am goaded, and approach not of my own volition, but like Don Quixote, hoping to right some wrong. At those times I am, I like to think, teleology’s servant. I assume that it is the purposes they end up championing, rather than the initial inciting events that deserve my interest. After all, Curiosity is the lust of the mind, as Thomas Hobbes reminded us.

So, when I happened upon an article questioning whether women were less important than cows in India, I was intrigued: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20170630-are-women-less-important-than-cows-in-india I claim no omniscience of societal customs –not even of my own, perhaps- and I have to admit that my background is in Gynaecology, not Anthropology, but nonetheless I couldn’t resist the allure of a sociological pentimento. Is a mask really meant to deceive, or merely illustrate a reality that is otherwise hidden? Unnoticed when undisguised?

‘The striking photos are the brainchild of Sujatro Ghosh, a Delhi-based photographer, who believes that Indian society values the lives of cattle more highly than the lives of women. In order to call attention to endemic misogyny that he feels disfigures cultural life in India (where authorities, Ghosh says, are more likely to punish the mistreatment of a cow than the abuse of a woman or a girl), the photographer invited his female friends to pose for photos wearing a cow mask […].’

The idea of metaphor to illustrate perceived inequity whether social or gendered, is certainly not new of course –not even in art: ‘Ghosh’s photos echo earlier efforts by artists to expose the sexist instincts of cultural institutions. Preferring the visual pun provided by gorilla (as opposed to cow) masks, members of the all-female collective known as the Guerrilla Girls have, for the past three decades, been committed to raising awareness of issues of gender (and racial) bias in the international art world.

‘Relying on street art to communicate their message, the anonymous activists are perhaps best known for a series of arresting posters from the 1980s that have become as recognisable as any works of contemporary art from the period. […] The Guerilla Girls’ provocative poster was rejected by city officials from display on New York transport on the grounds that it was too risqué. The banner satirises French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s lounging portrait of a concubine, La Grande Odalisque (1814), slipping an ape mask over her head and turning the image into one that is impossible to ignore.’ In fact, the striking metaphor has not been lost in other venues, either: ‘Placed alongside Ghosh’s viral photos from this week, the Guerrilla Girls’ memorable poster corroborates a recent claim made by another incognito icon, Banksy: “If you want to say something and have people listen, then you have to wear a mask.”’ (Banksy –to quote Wikipedia- is ‘an anonymous England-based graffiti artist as well as a political activist.’ His ‘works of political and social commentary have been featured on streets, walls, and bridges of cities throughout the world.’)

I suppose we are all inclined to read between the lines at times. To wonder why a particular thought needs to be portrayed covertly. There is a thrill in deciphering a metaphor, I think –first of all in knowing that it is indeed a metaphor and not really meant to trick the wary… More to beguile them. But more importantly perhaps, the ability to peek behind the curtain suggests membership in a cadre of like minds. Or at least an awareness that someone else has noticed something that is often masked. Something usually hidden by equivocation or, to use a word I can rarely justify, sesquipedalianism –obfuscation, in slightly less confusing terms.

Sometimes we need to be jolted by the unexpected, the unusual, to even notice something. We are, by and large, creatures of context; it is where we feel most comfortable. Incongruity is unsettling and, as in harmony, we feel a need for a resolution of any dissonance. But whereas in music we can passively await the adjustment, in art there is a need to actively pursue accommodation. To decide what it is that makes us feel uneasy and why. It is a goad that brooks no turning away.

It’s no accident, that art has been with us from the beginning of Time, I suspect. That we have been compelled to draw things on whatever surface was available, speaks to our need interpret whatever we felt was important. Whether it was animals in motion, the beauty of the sky, or the mysteries of pregnancy, a visual representation seemed as necessary and important as the thing itself. And as full of meaning. Who knows what metaphors hide within the Palaeolithic paintings in the caves at Lascaux, or in the Venus of Laussel?

The risk, I suppose, is the temptation to view every creative act as serving a purpose other than the sheer joy of craftsmanship, the ecstasy of virtuosity, the fulfilment of imagination. And yet, to assume the cause might be merely one of portrayal, or even propitiation, is to denigrate the accomplishment, I think. We all see the world through our own eyes, naturally, but it is the ability to share our view and allow it to seep silently into other eyes, that is the gift of art. And if that opens minds –or, perhaps, even alters them- then maybe the circle is complete.