You are not supposed to accuse people of being insane on the internet. It is obvious that Kanye West suffers from bipolar disorder. His swings between wild creativity and nihilistic self-destructiveness are indicative. But pointing that out would, of course, be stigmatizing people with bipolar disorder. I’m not his therapist. I have not made an informed diagnosis. So I’m not allowed to speak the obvious, no matter how much sense it makes, or how nonjudgmentally I say it.

Yet occasionally someone is obviously, deeply, flagrantly mad in such an expressive way that there’s no way to escape a reckoning with it. But our reactions are counterproductive, and often mad themselves. Often, we valorize the person, and regard their madness as a form of “specialness”.

Here are two pieces of writing on this topic I find profound. They both basically typed out my beliefs better than I could. I have all these little half-excavated thought-fossils in my mind, buried in sand, and I can’t quite get up the energy to rip them out. It’s nice when I don’t have to, when someone else has captured those same thoughts as huge, roaring, living dinosaurs, far better than anything I could write.

The first piece is Matt Lakeman’s 2020 blog post about The Room, and the Disaster Artist, and the toxic cult around “auteur” Tommy Wiseau. He has since taken it down, and turned his site into a travel blog. But it’s really good.

I read Disaster Artist on a whim when the movie came out. I’ve since gone through the audiobook 3.5 times and can confidently say it’s one of my favorite books of all time. I expected just to hear funny anecdotes about the making of a famously awful movie and the man behind it, but I found so much more depth. In my eyes, Disaster Artist is an examination of insanity (which I am defining as “the inability to perceive reality to the degree of low or non-functionality in regular life”). The book is a pushback against a subtle cultural norm that sees crazy people as having some sort of gift or potential or insight that everyone else doesn’t.

The next is Tom Ewing’s 60,000 word exploration of Cerebus, which is a 300 issue British comic about an aardvark whose creator went insane. Apparently the back half of the comic devolves into bristling thickets of gynophobic rants and mystical Torah analysis.

Here is a comment I left on the last entry, Aard Labour Epilogue: Dance Of The Aardvark Catchers.

Thanks for writing this series. I enjoyed it immensely. It actually inspired me (contra doctor’s orders) to start reading Cerebus.

I read issues #1-#3, then skipped ahead to somewhere in the high 200s. The difference was amazing—going from a bud sprouting on a stem, to a huge rotting flower, petals dissolving into muck. Obviously I didn’t expect to understand the story, but the sense of aesthetic collapse was stark. The start and end of Cerebrus barely look like they were created by the same species, let alone the same human!

Even in the early issues, Dave Sim isn’t an amazing writer. I noticed this in the letters of introduction: Deni Loubert’s will be fun and witty and engaging…but then I turn the page, and crash at high velocity into an ENDLESS BLATHERING TEXTWALL that I kind of bounce off. I’m sure Dave sharpens up after a few volumes, but I’m not looking forward to his Torah exegesis.

You’ve mentioned anime several times. Cerebus is also seen as an influential early work in the furry fandom (along with other culturejamming “comix” like Fritz the Cat and Omaha the Cat Dancer). Ironic, given Dave’s stance on gay people, that furries later became possibly the gayest subculture of all. (“By and large, furries are bi and large”—Eric Blumrich).

“The world, or the further-right parts of it, have moved closer to Sim, and one of the questions I had sitting down to re-read Cerebus is “how come this guy hasn’t become a cult figure on the alt-right?”. Reading it sorted that one out: Sim’s views on gender and politics are ordinary enough in those circles, but his religious convictions are intense and bizarre and inseparable from anything else he thinks, worlds away from the convenient surface performances that pass for faith on much of the right, and grossly heretical to anyone who does believe.”

Well, there’s also the paradox at the heart of extremist movements. The worst thing you can do is ACTUALLY BELIEVE.

The ones who rise to the top tend to be grifters and carpetbaggers. People with no real ideological attachment to the cause, but who have glommed onto it as a way to raise their own status. (Example: one of the main figures of the GamerGate movement was Milo Yiannopolis, who a year previously had tweeted that men who play videogames are losers.)

The grifter’s strength lies in knowing when to backpedal, when to apologize, when to moderate their words and behavior. They have rabbit ears to how they (and their movement) are perceived by outsiders, and are willing to pull things back to the center (at least on a shallow rhetorical level). They play the game.

Dave Sim does not play the game. He doesn’t think it’s a game at all. He’s on a holy quest to share the truth which supersedes all politics and optics. He either doesn’t know how repellant he looks or doesn’t care.

Hardcore culture-warriors of every stripe—Ayn Rand, Andrea Dworkin, Kellie-Jay Keen—often end up as pariahs in their own movements. Their charisma and force of will gets bums onto pews, but eventually, they bog the movement down, jamming it up with their unwillingness to compromise. Not that Dave Sim is necessarily on a level with those people (he’s not charismatic), but the same principal applies.

I mostly stand by that, although Milo Yiannopolis did not call gamers losers, he said “Few things are more embarrassing than grown men getting over-excited about video games”. I have unalived myself in Minecraft for this error.

But I also deleted the latter half of my comment, because I wasn’t sure how it would be received.

One of Ewing’s recurrent points is that Sim’s “madness”, when verbalized, sounds like standard cant for parts of the extreme right. There is some truth to that. But that doesn’t mean Sim also isn’t mad. It is not true that being mad gives you a unique and interesting perspective on life. Often the opposite is the case.

We have this cultural idea of mad people that isn’t true to reality. Louis Wain drew cute cats. As his schizophrenia advanced, the cats become distorted and twisted, resembling owls and hyenas and demons, before finally becoming abstract detonations of light. (Or so goes the story. Much of Wain’s work is undated and often nobody knows when a certain illustration is from.) Madness, like what happened to Bowie in 1976, gets seen as a kind of kind of gnostic initiation. Sane people have a locked door at the back of their minds, leading to worlds undreamed. Madness turns the key.

But that’s not how to works. In reality, mad people are usually the dullest people you will ever meet. They waste their lives retweeting political slogans on Twitter. They tumble down into predictable conspiracist obsessions. They end up as hollow spaces, filled with wind, chanted slogans, and fragmenting memories. They are tragic, but also boring and tedious.

Obviously it’s not the job of mentally ill people to be entertaining. That’s offensive—they’re not zoo animals. But there’s a stark difference between madness as popularly portrayed and madness as it truly exists. I dislike the pop cultural idea that mad people are “gifted” or have some creative spark denied to sane people. Madness isn’t creative freedom, it’s chains.

My father suffered a slow and hideous decline. He spent his final days nearly catatonic, watching Yes Minister DVDs. Occasionally he’d enter a manic state and “clean the house” (frantically strew rubbish everywhere, and then leave it like that until someone else tidied the mess.) When he stopped taking his medicine he did things that were embarrassing and out of character. At one point, he asked me to copyedit his autobiography. I agreed, and he he emailed me a few pages of rambling nonsense that trailed off mid-sentence. I found the document heartbreaking, and although I have kept it, I still wonder why I did. There is nothing of my father in that document. I am preserving some scrambled words that could have been generated by a Markov chain. In any meaningful sense, my dad died before he wrote it.

Sometimes crazy people are interesting (I know some), but they are not the plurality. Madness (on the whole), is “an empty head thinking as hard as it can.”

No Comments »

Comments are moderated and may take up to 24 hours to appear.

No comments yet.

RSS TrackBack URL

Leave a comment