The Far and Near side to Madness

The work of the philosopher Wouter Kusters consists of making an attempt to understand the ins and outs of madness. Psychiatrists easily prescribe medication, but remain unaware of what this different state of consciousness really implies. Kusters intends to develop a kind of common ‘language’ regarding the alpha and omega of madness [Wouter Kusters: Filosofie van de waanzin; 2014:23].

J.W. Perry in his The Far Side of Madness [1974:8] writes: “What do we make of the fact that, when out of their senses, some people have experiences perhaps of beauty, perhaps of terror, but always with implications of awesome depth, and that when they re-emerge out of their craze and into their so-called normal ego, they may shut the trapdoor after them and close out their vision once more and become prosaic in the extreme, straitened in a bland and shallow usualness?”

Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabî [Richard Gramlich: Islamische Mystik; 1992:181-3] has met many of the ‘holy fools’. He has often been in their company and has derived many a profit therefrom. He describes meeting one of the most important among them thus: “When I asked him what has taken away your mind, he answered me:

“It is you who is really mad. Even when I’d act mindfully, you’d say to me: What has taken away your mind? Where can my mind be found, so that it could speak with you? He (God) has taken it to Himself. I don’t know what He does with it.”

At the end of their talk, shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabî mentioned the goal of getting in the nearness of God. He received this response: “I see Him how He causes me to stand and to sit. How can my goal be to be near to Him, while He is with me, while I see Him and He is not absent from me? You talk like a madman! You are foolishly unmindful!”

The idea that the simpleminded and the fools of God are nearer to the Truth is an old one. Contact with that what is sacred, isn’t considered to be a problem, but part of the solution.

The shamans are the first in history with a positive appreciation of madness and other kinds of consciousness. The classical Greek, like the shamans, tried to get into contact with another world to receive advice and support during adversity. Think of the oracle of Delphi that was speaking in unintelligible sounds and gibberish. Nowadays this would be associated with psychoses.

Socrates says according to Plato [Phaedrus 542]:

“that there are two kinds of madness, one produced by human illness, the other by a divinely inspired release from normally accepted behaviour.”

Marius Engelbrecht has described [De Onttovering van de Waanzin; 2013] how psychological insights have driven away magical views regarding the workings of the human mind, especially in regard to madness, in the West-Europe of 1560-1700.

Madness was caused by devils or demons according to the prevailing opinion in the 16th century. Others thought in those days that madness came about because of bodily organs or fluids. Madness was seen as a mental illness already in 1700.

What are thoughts, what are emotions, do we think with our head or with our heart, do we have a soul or is everything purely physical? Opinions changed in about one hundred years time. Modern psychology originated in the days of the decline of the magical universe and the rise of modern science.

Marius Engelbrecht supports his study with examples of exorcisms of devils and autobiographical accounts of those who are said to be insane. When describing the above mentioned developments he asks himself the question if we also have not lost important insights.

Jan Amos Comenius [1592-1670] has written a letter to the members of the Royal Society wherein he quotes from his Via Lucis [The Way of the Light]. He sings therein the praise of science and expects that it will triumph and be very successful. Humanity will applaud it. On the other hand, he fears that science will be seen as the only way and that other aspects of life will be ignored. He describes the dilemma of human sciences.

Things changed radically in the beginning of the 19th century. Guided by the medical profession madness came to be seen as an individual, physical deviation. There is an enormous growth in the use of psycho-pharmaceuticals in recent times. Neo-Jungians, progressive phenomenologists and postmodern mystics once again discover something sacred in the kernel of madness.

Transcultural therapy opens itself to the idea that some patients may not be mad, but may be afflicted by evil jinn. The Economist [Jinn: Born of Fire; 19 December 2006] sent a correspondent to Somalia and Afghanistan in search of information on the jinn phenomenon, states that to some Islamic scholars jinn are little more than:

“An energy, a pulse form of quantum physics perhaps, alive at the margins of sleep or madness, and more often in the whispering of a single unwelcome thought. An extension of this electric description of jinn is that they are not beings at all but thoughts that were in the world before the existence of man. Jinn reflect the sensibilities of those imagining them, just as in Assyrian times they were taken to be spirits responsible for mania, who melted into the light at dawn.”

Healing can take place by music, think of the Gnâwa rituals in Morocco, the Guatî healing sessions in Balochistan [J. During: Musique et Mystique dans les traditions de l’Iran; 1989, pp. 37-69], Zâr exorcism in Egypt, and the Bori dances in Algeria.  The Gnâwa people were taken from Mali and brought as slaves to Morocco. Gnâwa sessions have combined Bambara rituals from Mali with Sufi ceremonies from Morocco [Wijdan; 2007, a musical film on DVD by Bella Le Nestour and John Allen] .

Spirit possession is brought about by close contact by spirits and human beings. The Gnâwa people state that there are seven worlds of the spirits that are under the control of seven kings among these spirits. Each of them has a specific colour. Each of these seven worlds of the spirits represents a specific set of illnesses, neuroses, etc. The person that suffers from a certain disease needs therefore a ritual corresponding to the colour of the specific king of the spirits. The ‘white’ spirits for example, are said to be ‘good’ and ‘religious’ spirits. During the Gnâwa ritual [Paul Vandenbroek: De Kleuren van de Geest – Dans en Trans in Afro-Europese tradities; 1997, pp. 115-142] the name of the important Sufi shaykh ‘Abd-al-Qâdir Jîlânî is recited:

O, Jîlânî, father heal me! O father, heal me!

Are you familiar with the journey into madness by the great painter Leonora Carrington?

As a young woman Leonora was determined to leap free of the dictates of her rich industrialist family. “You know what my father was most like?” – Leonora once remarked – “a mafioso”.

Such a man has certainly not been a loving father. Her mother was easy-going and interested in magic and folklore. Leonora was sent to boarding school, where she did not settle. She was moved to another school, a Catholic convent, but the nuns were disturbed by her way of writing backwards with her left hand while writing forwards with her right. This school also gave up on her.

After staying in Florence, Leonora began looking at artists who were to shape her vision. She came back to England determined to be an artist, but her father considered painting “horrible and idiotic”. In the teeth of her father’s opposition, she insisted on enrolling to an art school. Her mother had given her a copy of Herbert Read’s Surrealism. There she found, reproduced in the book, Max Ernst’s assemblage-painting Two Children Threatened by a Nightingale, which struck her to the heart.

When Leonora and Max met, she was 19 year old and he was 64. Almost immediately, the two of them left for Paris; she was to come back to England only once more, 40 years later, for the funeral of her mother. Ernst was an inspiring companion with whom she discovered a new way of living. In 1939, after the French declared war on Germany, Ernst was arrested as an enemy alien and sent to a French camp. Early in 1940, the Germans invaded France. Ernst was arrested again. He was a known undesirable to the German invaders, who considered his paintings to be a show of degenerate art.

Unable to rescue him, Leonora suffered an attack of deep despair, leading to the symptoms she describes so harrowingly in Down Below. She escaped to Spain. In Madrid, after erratic and highly disturbed episodes, Leonora was hospitalised, then transferred to an asylum in Santander and was given a course of drug therapy with Cardiazol, which induced epileptic fits of appealing severity.

In Down Below, she tells the story of her escape from the asylum in Spain. I have read the unsparing account of Leonora Carrington of her experience of being insane in her Down Below. She tells in a fascinating way about her voyage to the other side of reason, while also mentioning the cruel, ‘scientific’ therapies.

Why not read Down Below yourself? I like to share with you an anecdote told by Leonora, which takes place when she was trying to escape from France to Spain by car, when suddenly the car stopped, because the brakes had jammed: “Jammed! I too was jammed within, by forces foreign to my conscious will, which was also paralysing the mechanism of the car. This was the first stage of my identification with the external world. I was the car. The car had jammed on account of me […]. I was horrified by my own power”.

After leaving the sadistic asylum, she travelled to Mexico, and got slowly but steadily “unjammed” by following the true avocation in her life: painting! Her mother came to Mexico when Leonora’s son, Pablo, was born. Her parents had never come to the asylum in Santander. Her mother after arriving in Mexico never talked about that time. English people of that generation didn’t discuss that sort of thing. The final sentence in the postscript of Down Below is very revealing: “I never saw my father again”.

“Fernando Pessoa, strictly speaking, doesn’t exist”. So claimed Álvaro de Campos, one of the heteronyms used by Pessoa, to spare himself the trouble of leaving real life. “Each of us is several, is many, is a profusion of selves. So that the self who disdains his surroundings is not the same as the self who suffers or takes joy in them. In the vast colony of our being there are many species of people who think and feel in different ways” [Fernando Pessoa: The Book of Disquiet; 2002, pp. 327-328].

We can conclude that Leonora Carrington’s life and work repudiated some western notions about sanity and a unified self. Multiple Personality Disorder is nowadays called Dissociative Identity Disorder in the DSM, a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Is our diagnosis of Pessoa that he suffered from a psychiatric illness? Would we say the same regarding the Sufî shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabî?

Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabî has used 117 heteronyms [or homonyms?] in his Kitâb al-‘Abâdilah. He has probably written this book of the servants of God in Damascus. It consists of 117 parts devoted to individual persons, each sharing the name ‘Abdullâh. Each of these characters receives a description of being the ‘son’ of a particular Divine name and of a prophet. “Apparently the work confirms to a hadith that man possesses 117 characteristics, and explains the realisation of these characteristics in terms of the Divine names” [Stephen Hirtenstein: The Unlimited Mercifier – The Spriritual life and thought of Ibn ‘Arabî; 1999, p. 271].

To return to Pessoa [p. 328] again: “I’m the one thinking about all of this […]. And my entire world of all these souls who don’t know each other casts, like a motley but compact multitude, a single shadow…”.

Many authors have come into contact with psychiatry, [like Gerard de Nerval, Sylvia Plath and David Sedaris] or write [like Dickens, Poe, Goethe, Flaubert, Nabokov and Patrick McGrath] about the stirrings of the soul of mental patients.

Zola has followed the lives of the members of the two titular branches of a fictional family in his Les Rougon-Macquart.  This is a series of no less than 20 novels! He describes the degeneration of a family and starts with Adélaide Fouque, who suffers from a mental illness. Her children, grandchildren and those of later generations all live in different environments, but show that they have been the inheritors of Adélaide. The mix of environment, destiny and inherited qualities produces a pool of misery, of alcoholism, of criminality, of religious folly and insanity.

How can we escape the negative influence of our family on us? This can take place with the help of others together with self-work. My father worked as a police officer and noticed that one of his people always received negative remarks in his personnel file. This man always broke traffic rules and often behaved in an aggressive and angry way.

When my father questioned this cop about his behaviour, he responded: “I am like I am! My father and my grandfather were like this. I cannot change!” My father suggested to him to try to change with the help of the others in his team. It took quite some courage, but this cop went to his fellow cops. He surprised them by standing on the table and asked for silence. He then explained that he wanted to change his attitude and hoped they would help him. When his work got evaluated in later months, he received much better scores.

Some Sufi teachers accept only a few disciples, while others accept even those with severe mental problems. In the second case psychiatric treatment has to be given by the murshid before the murid can proceed on his or her journey along the Sufi path.

Things are not always what they seem to be. Khwâja Mo’înuddîn Chishtî in a ghazal attributed to him points to the phenomenon of the divine attraction [jazba]:

Jazba-ye-nur-e- jamâlash mîkashad suye khudam

Gu’yâ u sham’ o man parwâna am ay ‘âsheqân

The attraction of the light of His Beauty draws me towards itself,

As if He is the candle and I am the moth, O lovers!

You can travel along the Sufi path by means of self-discipline and because of divine attraction. Some dervishes have received this jazba at the beginning of their journey and have then found it necessary to perform self-work afterwards.

For the relationship between this divine attraction and types of travel see J.G.J. ter Haar [Follower and Heir of the Prophet – Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindî (1564-1624) as Mystic; 1992; pp. 108-109]. Jaap ter Haar discusses sayr-i-anfusî [the travel in your own self, i.e. the inward journey] and sayr-i-âfâqî [the travel to the ‘horizon’, i.e. outward travel].

Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindî regards the ‘inclusion of the end in the beginning [indirâj-i-nihâyat dar bidâyat] and the precedence which ‘being attracted to God’ [Arabic spelling: jadhba] takes to ‘travelling towards God’ [sulûk] as the characteristic of the path of the Naqshbandî order. The idea is that by jadhba preceding sulûk, the chance of the dervish “getting bogged down on his mystical journey to God is reduced considerably” [J.G.J. ter Haar, p. 109].

The Chishtî pîr Kalîmullâh discusses this teaching of the Naqshbandî order in his The Alms Bowl [Scott Kugle ed.: Sufi Meditation and Contemplation – Timeless Wisdom from Mughal India, p. 44]:

We begin at the ending place to which others aspire.

Where we end is the place that can fulfill any desire.

Shaykh Kalîmullâh adds:

“That is their reaching, but it is clear that what is attained by experienced practitioners of all other orders is not attained by beginning practitioners of the Naqshbandî order”. That this experience of a Naqshbandî beginner is of a lower level of attainment is something that shaykh Ahmad Sirhindî agrees with. Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindî “notes, that the jadhba which a novice experiences, cannot be considered the equal of the jadhba of the shaykh who has reached the end of his mystical journey and whose heart in no longer affected by the passions of his soul” [J.G.J. ter Haar, p. 108 fn. 9].

This divine attraction can of course also be experienced by beginners of all other Sufi orders, because it is a gift coming from God. That is also why not all beginners in the Naqshbandî tarîqa receive this special experience. Arthur F. Buehler in his Sufi Heirs of the Prophet – The Indian Naqshbandiyya and the Rise of the Mediating Sufi Shaykh [1998, p. 96] writes however about the phenomenon of jadhba associated with the shaykh’s spiritual power. This doesn’t contradict what I’ve stated above, because the will of the shaykh may be in complete harmony with the divine will.

One day, at a local flea market, I found to my happy surprise a rather rare book. The author of the Persian text is no one less than shaykh Rûzbehân Baqlî Shîrâzî who has written the Sharh-i-Shathiyât, a commentary on the paradoxical utterances of some of the Sufis. These Sufis experienced wajd, a term often translated as ecstasy, but literally meaning ‘finding’. These Sufis do not suffer from insanity; they have found something of extreme value.

Shaykh Rûzbehân makes it clear [Sharh-i-Shathiyât; 1966, p. 57, but see also p. 7 of the French introduction by Henry Corbin] that these strange utterances of the Sufis are stemming “from the agitations of the innermost consciences of their hearts”. Carl W. Ernst continues his own translation [Ernst: Words of Ecstasy in Sufism; 1985, p. 18] of this explanation thus:

“When ecstasy becomes strong and the light of manifestation becomes elevated in the inmost part of their consciences, by the quality of the annunciation and revelation and strengthening of the spirits illuminated by the inspiration that appears in their intellects, it stirs up the fire of their longing for the eternal Beloved.”

“They reach the vision of the seraglio-curtain of Majesty, and they are moving in the world of beauty. When they see the objects of contemplation in the hidden, and the secrets of the hidden of the hidden, and the mysteries of greatness – intoxication enters in upon them unasked, the soul enters into ebullience, the consciousness enters into commotion, the tongue enters into speech. Speech comes forth from the ecstatic, from his incandescent state (hâl) and from his spirit’s exaltation, regarding the science of the stations (maqâmât).”

“The outward form of it is symbolic (mutashâbih). It is an expression the words of which are found to be strange. When others do not understand the inner aspect through the outward forms; and they do not see the method of it, they are led astray to denial and refutation of the speaker.”

Ernst supplies many examples of these words of ecstasy [like  “I am the Truth”], as well as a short commentary. Massignon doesn’t see these expressions as insanity. He even writes that these expressions [Ernst: p. 48] “are from an ecstatic intoxication only in appearance, for they are perfectly composed and measured, denoting an author who has mastered his mental state of mysticism”.

As we have seen from the holy fool who met shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabî, that he reversed the opinion who was mad. Khalil Gibran opens his The Madman [2001] thus:

“You ask me how I became a madman. It happened thus: One day, long before many gods were born, I woke from a deep sleep and found all my masks were stolen — the seven masks I have fashioned and worn in seven lives — I ran mask-less through the crowded streets shouting, “Thieves, thieves, the cursed thieves.” Men and women laughed at me and some ran to their houses in fear of me.

And when I reached the market place, a youth standing on a housetop cried, “He is a madman.” I looked up to behold him; the sun kissed my own naked face for the first time. For the first time the sun kissed my own naked face and my soul was inflamed with love for the sun, and I wanted my masks no more. And as if in a trance I cried, “Blessed, blessed are the thieves who stole my masks.”

Thus I became a madman.

And I have found both freedom and safety in my madness; the freedom of loneliness and the safety from being understood, for those who understand us enslave something in us. But let me not be too proud of my safety. Even a Thief in a jail is safe from another thief”.

P.S.: You can also read Divine Attraction.

Mohammed Siraj