It’s a Mad, Mad World
In a mad world, only the mad are sane.
Edgar Allan Poe said that (or Akira Kurosawa) (or maybe Kurosawa quoting Poe). It’s a common enough idea, so many people (including my husband) have said it, or something like it.
And how can one argue with Emily Dickinson, who said,
Much Madness is divinest Sense –To a discerning Eye –Much Sense – the starkest Madness –’Tis the MajorityIn this, as all, prevail –Assent – and you are sane –Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –And handled with a Chain –
It’s beautiful poetry, and a reaction to Dickinson’s own situation as a person extremely out of touch with “the Majority.” Today we would diagnose her with Avoidant Personality Disorder or some such.
It’s tempting to agree with Poe and Dickinson, but I can’t. Here’s why.
The world cannot be sane or insane. Those are qualities that apply only to people. The world may seem insane, but that is only a metaphor. The world can be chaotic. The world can be incomprehensible. The world can be unfamiliar. The world can be frustrating. Observing the world can make you laugh, cry, or doubt yourself. I suppose it can even make you doubt your own sanity.
But none of those things are the same as truly being insane.
Of course, the terms “mad” and “insane” are frowned upon now. We say, instead, that someone “is mentally ill,” or “has a psychiatric disorder,” or even “has lost touch with reality.” But can we say that the world is mentally ill or has a psychiatric disorder or has lost touch with reality?
Can large groups of people – society – be insane? There are many people in the world with serious psychiatric illnesses, but they constitute only a few percent of the world’s population. The rest of society, we have to say, is in touch with reality. It’s just that everyone has different perceptions of what reality is, especially if we’re talking about the actions of other people or other groups. This debate about the sane and the insane is more about the divide between perception and reality, the different perceptions that people have, and the concept that there is no objective reality. Each of us has a mind that interprets reality, but this does not make those realities per se true or false and those minds sane or insane.
But the concept of a world gone insane and a person society defines as a madman (it’s almost never a madwoman) as the only remaining sane person is a device used in fiction. King of Hearts is a 60s-era movie, much beloved by the counterculture, that uses this trope. Catch-22 is another, in which a man trying to prove himself insane is therefore deemed sane. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest makes us question the “sanity” of psychiatric wards versus the “sane” rebellion of the people locked up in there.
That’s what a lot of these sayings and fictions are really about – rebellion. (And why they were so popular in the 60s and 70s.) They present the hypothesis that the “sane” world requires rebelling against by being “insane.” Or put the other way around, the world is insane and the insane are the only truly sane ones.
Rebelling against what seems to you insane, i.e., the world, is presented as noble and in some sense valuable and wise. You want me to conform? I’ll say that you’re the sick ones and that whatever I do in reaction against that is proof. The further I stray from societal conventions is proof that those conventions are meaningless, stifling, demeaning, and ultimately insane.
Let’s unpack this a little further, shall we? Can the world be schizophrenic? Be bipolar? Have PTSD? Suffer from bulimia? No, those are all human conditions, caused by genetics or brain biochemistry or childhood abuse or some combination of these and other factors. We say the weather is bipolar, but we really mean just that it changes quickly. We say the world is schizophrenic, but that just means it isn’t logical.
So. I have bipolar disorder. Does that make me sane and everyone around me insane? Does it mean that I just don’t “fit in” with society? Does it provide me with wisdom that others who don’t share my condition can’t achieve?
Fortunately or unfortunately, none of that is true. That I don’t fit in is partly because of my personality and partly because of my upbringing. Not everyone around me is sane and I the only one who sees clearly. My disorder provides me with a different perspective on reality than many others have, but it doesn’t make mine right and theirs wrong. Or vice-versa.
There’s room in this world for a lot of perceptions of reality. Let’s not start dividing them up into “sane” and “insane.” Understanding other people’s point of view is not a cure for madness, but it is a way of better coping with the world.