I recall (probably poorly) a lecture I heard in university, in some kind of psychology class. The professor explained the common features of a psychotic episode: the sufferer believes that there is a great and cosmic battle going on, between binary opposing forces (good and evil, humans versus aliens, democracy versus communism); the sufferer believes they are central to this battle, and can turn the tide of the battle one way or the other; they believe that this battle is taking place in a secret world, that everybody else is blind to it, but that there are esoteric messages, signs and wonders, lurking behind the ordinary signification of things.
These are also the common features of your average children’s book.
I take this to mean that insanity is a kind of amplification of the internal heroic narrative which powers our lives. At least for our childhood, and probably for our entire lives (unless we give ourselves to the Buddha, Krsna, Jesus etc.), we have a little voice whispering the same rough outline; in the crazy, or just the angry, that voice starts to speak at full volume, or to shriek. Maybe it’s the satanic murmur, or maybe it’s just how we get up in the morning, by believing we matter more than we actually do.
We spend a great deal of time and effort telling ourselves to silence this voice – that we should be humble, or detached, or surrender to love – and we aren’t overwhelmingly successful at it despite thousands of years of effort. After all, it’s the same voice that makes us kill, or hate, or hurt ourselves, as the voice that makes art or invents or protects our families. But it is a kind of torment, that voice, because it’s an intimate sibling to disappointment – the world is constantly disproving it. Bang your toe on a stair, and suddenly you’re not the centre of the universe after all, which is why you tell the stair to fuck off. This is a kind of constant tension in our lives and in society.
This tension is resolved, or (perhaps better said) held at bay, using various methods. In ancient societies, the heroic narrative would be ascribed to a leader, a god-king or emperor, which gave everybody a place in the narrative as a servant to that larger destiny. (At the same time, as Freud points out, the ritual duties of the god-king proliferated, so that their lives became tortuously proscribed, as a kind of vengeance wrought by the people who don’t get to be god-king.) We do the same kind of thing with fan-dom, I think; we like such-and-such – an actor, a band, a wine, high art or low art, doesn’t matter – which allies us with a larger destiny by fusing our narrative with something more important. Or, as I say, we enact various rituals of convincing ourselves that our destiny is beyond these things, in shedding our egos/heroic narratives, which is perilously close to being just another heroic narrative (puritanism, yoga, suicide bombers) – or even, maybe, all efforts to transcend the ego are ego-driven efforts by those who have lost life’s battle to win by ethereal means.
However: maybe the internal heroic narrative, at full volume, wasn’t a problem for prehistoric people, in their context. Maybe it was really useful to feel like your tribe had a great mythical destiny, because that held everybody together. To inscribe your clan’s totem on a cave wall was not just art, it was art on the scale of, say, Napoleon’s tomb, a mark on eternity, like your name spoken by an angel in the dark waters of the womb.
We just visited a cave, near Bordeaux, which had been continuously inhabited for 60,000 years. For the first 30,000 years, it was a Neanderthal cave, and then Cro-Magnon arrived, and probably kicked them out, or slaughtered them. It was a really great cave – it had a natural chimney, an entrance too narrow for a cave-bear to get in, a couple really smooth sleeping spots right be the fire, and a spring that made a perfect little pool of water. I can only imagine that it was hotly contested over its history, with clans fighting over it perhaps every winter. (Much cave art is peculiar in that often the depictions of beasts are superimposed on one another – hard to say why, but I’m guessing it’s the conquering clan raising their flag over the field of victory.)
In that context, i.e., there’s only room for one clan in this amazing cave, the sense of the cosmic rightness of your own clan’s triumph would be indispensable. You couldn’t have an existential crisis in the middle of battle or you’d get a sharp rock in the brain. It’s only once society becomes too complex, too populated, that we have to invent systems that counter the mythological impulse, so that we can more or less get along. You can’t have a line-up at a bank if everybody thinks they’re Napoleon.
The problem is that everybody kind of does think they’re Napoleon, but they know they can’t think that, too, and those contradictory imperatives sometimes lead to psychological collapse in one form or another – people go crazy, or succumb to destructive impulses (smoke, punch holes in the wall, obsess about their weight, have mid-life crises, la la la…), or join cults, or armies.
So much for civilization and its discontents. The question is: what’s the way out?