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.”

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Sorry about the silence. I have been busy. If you haven’t heard the news, my Hollywood career recently didn’t skyrocket. I have been not cast in Black Widow 2, and not rehearsing for this film now occupies the majority of my time. I can’t wait for you to not see me acting alongside Scarlett Johansson. The film’s script does not contain a sex scene between us, and Ms Johansson did not whisper that perhaps we could violate SAG-AFTA rules and perform it unsimulated, and I have not decided whether to not be lead by my head or my heart on this issue. Let’s talk about My Terrible Life by Sunny McCreary.

McCreary is a pen name of Michael Kelly, an online humorist who went viral in nineteen-ninety-$DATE with Roy Orbison in Clingfilm. These surreal vignettes describe German citizen Ulrich Haarbürste, who is a fan of rockabilly legend Roy Orbison, wrapping his idol in clingfilm.

It always starts the same way. I am in the garden airing my terrapin Jetta when he walks past my gate, that mysterious man in black.

‘Hello Roy,’ I say. ‘What are you doing in Dusseldorf?’

‘Attending to certain matters,’ he replies.

‘Ah,’ I say.

He apprises Jetta’s lines with a keen eye. ‘That is a well-groomed terrapin,’ he says.

‘Her name is Jetta.’ I say. ‘Perhaps you would like to come inside?’

‘Very well.’ He says.

Roy Orbison walks inside my house and sits down on my couch. We talk urbanely of various issues of the day. Presently I say, ‘Perhaps you would like to see my cling-film?’

‘By all means.’ I cannot see his eyes through his trademark dark glasses and I have no idea if he is merely being polite or if he genuinely has an interest in cling-film.

I bring it from the kitchen, all the rolls of it. ‘I have a surprising amount of clingfilm,’ I say with a nervous laugh. Roy merely nods.

‘I estimate I must have nearly a kilometre in the kitchen alone.’

‘As much as that?’ He says in surprise. ‘So.’

‘Mind you, people do not realize how much is on each roll. I bet that with a single roll alone I could wrap you up entirely.’

Roy Orbison in Clingfilm stories stick to your brain like leeches. Even if you don’t laugh, you also don’t forget. Taking a stab at why, it’s because they’re so specific.

Every detail is memorable. Ulrich Haarbürste (lit: “Hairbrush”) is a funny name. Germany (aside from 1933-1945 and some select periods before and after) is a funny country. Haarbürste’s writing is strange, possessing the grammatically correct yet “wrong” register of an educated man who has learned English as a second language. A terrapin is an unusual pet, and “Jetta” an incongruous name for one (cars are known for being fast, turtles are known for being slow.)

And although Roy Orbison is portrayed as a willing (if occasionally reluctant) partner in Ulrich Haarbürste’s games, the idea of a fan wrapping a celebrity in clingfilm is peculiar and evokes the behavior of the Bjork stalker (a psychosexual desire to possess and control and objectify). And at least Bjork is an attractive woman, while Roy Orbison—who achieved fame in the 60s, was stomped flat by the British Invasion, and then staged a latter-day comeback—was a weedy, gangly, jug-eared man (it was laughable whenever a photographer posed Orbison next to a sexy car: he looked like a Make-A-Wish kid whose dying request was to be James Dean.) Making him the target of Haarbürste’s obsession is yet another individualistic fingerprint in a crime scene full of them. Specificity = good. Genericity = bad.

Am I explaining the obvious? Probably, but it eludes most writers, who hate specificity like it murdered their puppy. It’s believed now that writing must be “relatable”: your story should be set in Anytown USA, starring a character exactly like the reader. No deviation is allowed: if you describe your hero as enjoying marmalade on his toast (so the thinking goes), you’ve alienated the book-reading section of the market that prefers jam on theirs. And since you cannot predict the tastes of nine billion people, the only solution is to write characters with no traits at all.

Think of Harry Potter. He has no personality. JK Rowling actually writes good characters most of the time: Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger are incandescent on the page, and even controversial later additions like Stepin Fetchit the House Elf, Shlomo Shekelstein the Goblin Banker, and the Trans Bathroom Molester are vividly memorable. Harry, however, is boring. He is not an interesting person, he is a person that interesting things happen to. I read the The Deathly Hallows‘s final chapter with a sense of embarrassment. “Wait, you think I care about Harry’s life after he defeats Voldemort?”

Online, we see too many attempts to recapture whatever Roy Orbison in Clingfilm had. Most fail, because they’re too general, too “relatable”, too Harry Potter. They take the form of “I’m a 20 year old boy with a hot sister and [something wacky happens]”. They cast too wide a net and lack the sting and punch of the particular. They do not contain terrapins called Jetta.

I was delighted to discover that Michael Kelly has a website (and book) full of Roy Orbison in Clingfilm stories. I was also delighted to discover that this is not his best work. Not by a long shot!

One of his many projects is My Godawful Life. Which I haven’t discussed at all.

Kept in a bird-coop by his parents, Sunny McCreary endured a childhood of neglect, abuse and being bullied by pigeons, only to find it was all downhill from there. In the course of the most painful life ever, he survived tragedy and maiming, a savage convent school education, being pimped out in pink-satin hot pants, a degrading addiction to helium, and having a baboon’s arse grafted onto his face. Then things got really bad.

This book is a parody of “misery lit” such as Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It. These books, with their combination of luridly-described child abuse and sanctimonious hustle-positivity (“as my stepfather shoved my entire face into a woodchipper, I reflected that each day is a blessing from God”), provide a satirical target a mile wide, but what monster would mock the memoirs of abused children? The same monster who would wrap Roy Orbison in clingfilm, that’s who.

The book is so goddamn funny it’s unreal. It just keeps going and going and going. You’d think the joke would get played out somewhere around page zero, but it never does. Each chapter has a new outrage, a new horror, a new source of ridiculousness. The part where Sunny halfheartedly attempts suicide by jumping in front of parked cars and out of ground-floor windows.

Mr Kelly seems to have soured on the book. Which is a shame. It’s great!

[Edit, 2013: I repent this now, in fact I would pretty much like to forget I wrote it. It has moments of inspiration but it also has moments of the most appalling playground crassness. I would still maintain the things I was parodying are worse, but it crosses lines, sometimes with purpose but sometimes gratuitously, and what was bracing in the original five-page bit becomes wearing stretched to 300. Also, I wanted it to be more than a rag-bag of sick jokes, so it’s a rag-bag of sick jokes that develops delusions of grandeur.

What are these delusions of grandeur?

Well, midway through, Sunny adopts an autistic child with “Tourettes” called Euphemia. (I don’t exactly remember the circumstances: I’m reviewing this from memory because I gave my only copy away to a girl who has now moved far away from me for reasons which may or may not be related.) I find “genius child” tropes tedious, and was expecting and hoping for her to die. She doesn’t, and gradually mutates into arguably the book’s most vivid character.

Euphemia provides another source of comedy, but also acts as a foil to Sunny: pushing and provoking him to leave his shell. They fight a lot, but in the end form a good pair. Their interplay adds a lot of muscle and fiber to the book (which, I’ll admit, is mostly one note banged on a piano over and over.) The final couple of chapters are actually written by Euphemia, and basically address the phenomenon of misery lit head on, without a satiric voice. There is great evil in the world. But there’s also a force adjacent to great evil: a force that compels people to watch and stare and rubberneck at car accidents and enjoy outrage and misery. Suffering as entertainment. Is there something wrong with people who buy and read misery lit? Michael Kelly seems to think there is, and I would agree. It inspires the same revulsion in me as people who have sex with their furniture: even if the act itself isn’t wrong, enjoying it indicates there’s something wrong with the actor. The book might embarrass Kelly now, but it has only become more and more relevant, as this stuff continues to encroach into the mainstream.

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Kim Jong Il was Supreme Leader of North Korea. He was also a prolific writer. Wikipedia tells us that “Kim published some 890 works during a period of his career from June 1964 to June 1994”. That sounds like a lot, though I hear most of those books were actually vampire/werewolf erotica.

This particular book is adapted from a speech the man gave in 1991, in the midst of the crash of the Soviet Union. It’s 54 pages in length, so quite a long speech—I hope nobody had to go to the bathroom. I read it to learn about the Juche school of Marxist-Leninism, and was disappointed. Kim Jong Il is not one for boring the audience with theory. His descriptions of how the Juche system works all go like this:

The Juche idea is a man-centred outlook on the world. It has clarified the essential qualities of man as a social being with independence, creativity and consciousness. It has, on this basis, evolved the new philosophical principle that man is the master of everything and decides everything.

The Juche idea has raised man’s dignity and value to the highest level.

In our socialist society, which is the application of the man-centred Juche idea, the interests of every
individual are respected.

Because it is the embodiment of the Juche idea, our socialism is a man-centred socialism under which man is the master of everything and everything serves him.

Fluffy stuff. I am reminded of the time Neil deGrasse Tyson proposed a nation called “Rationalia”, with just one line in its constitution. “All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence.” It’s really easy to run a country: just make laws based on evidence. While I’m relieved that there’s such a simple road to paradise, in practice there seem to be devils lurking in the details. Likewise, a founding principle of “man is the master of everything” sounds good, but what does it mean? Is man also the master of other men? I suppose North Korea is a eighty-year experiment in answering that question with “yes”.

Hitler’s Mein Kampf isn’t my favorite book—it’s dull, and has some problematic bits (he repeatedly calls Joseph Stalin an “autistic [r-slur]”, and the chapter spent discussing his favorite anime shows is beyond the pale), but it’s big and hefty. There’s the implication of thought behind it. Even if it’s mad thought, it’s a believable and credible basis for a movement. You could use the hardback edition of Mein Kampf to club an enemy to death.

Kim Jong Il’s writing falls to the other extreme. Although light and readable, it displays no evidence of thought whatsoever. It’s just rah-rah feelgood nice stuff, emptily asserting that the Juche philosophy means certain things, regardless of how improbable or self-contradictory they might be.

Socialism is a new social system which differs fundamentally from all the exploitative societies that have existed in human history. As such, it has to blaze a trail despite fierce struggles against the class
enemies. Therefore, it may meet with transient setbacks in its progress. However, mankind’s advance along the road of socialism is a law of historical development, and no force can ever check it.

To be honest, it doesn’t “read” like something a Marxist-Leninist would write: it has the prose style of a tech CEO who hires PR firms to scrub his Wikipedia page of sexual harassment allegations. You could not beat an enemy to death with Our Socialism Centered On the Masses Shall Not Perish. Whack someone with this book and they would gain life-force somehow. Wrinkles would mysteriously disappear from around their eyes. The spring would return to their step. Only by staring at the page through a microscope can you discern any influence from, say, Hegel (note that the rise of socialism isn’t a fact contingent on particular circumstances, it’s a law. But somehow we still have to fight for it…).

The book swings like a weathervane from the banal to the palpably absurd.

The Juche idea’s approach towards people of different classes and strata is that they should be judged by
their ideas and actions

The pampered heir apparent of North Korea, gifted hundreds of totally undeserved jobs, positions, and titles by his father—could actually write (and say) this without provoking gales of laughter. Such was his power. I think I would prefer to live in a society that’s openly tyrannical and reft by classism, rather than a variant of the same that hides tyranny under classlessness. I can’t find the tweet that went something like “At least medieval peasants weren’t subjected to the humiliating fiction that their king wanted to have a beer with them.”

Pictured: a brave Hillary Clinton ventures into the house of a common person

It appears that Juche’s main point of disagreement with mainline Marxist-Leninism is its emphasis on North Korean independence and national identity. It’s an isolationist cover of a familiar tune. The very first line of the book is “WORKING PEOPLE OF THE WHOLE WORLD, UNITE!”, but Juche socialism was not based on any sort of global class unity. So far as Kim Jong Il was concerned, the working people of the world could go pound sand, jump in the sea, and throw a flying fuck at a rolling donut. Juche was about improving the standing of North Korea. One family in North Korea in particular.

This speech was made in 1991, when North Korea was clearly rotten to the core. Half a decade later, wracked by famine and stripped of Soviet aid, it had become possibly the worst place in the world. Kim Jong-Il would later refer to these years of starvation as “arduous march”; a hiking trip to some glorious destination that some citizens (perhaps three million) were regrettably not fit enough to survive. He still found ways to enrich himself. A slogan I remember from this book is “When the Party is determined, we can do anything!” He should have said “I can do anything”.

But again, you have to give Kim Jong Il his due. This is not a book, it’s a speech, printed and sold as a book for some reason. What can you expect? And it’s not like the audience had to be convinced. They were already “pre-sold”: maybe at bayonet point, that the Juche system kicked ass. Even though there may not have been a Juche system at all, just a blank unwritten idea that allowed the Kim dynasty—Sung Il, Jong Il, and now Jong Un—to impose their real ideas on their people.

You can either read this book or avoid it. There’s not much to it, either. It’s just 54 pages, and that’s with the lines of text ludicrously double-spaced, like a padded college essay. Those empty spaces should be funny, but they’re not. I gaze into them and unpleasant images flood out. Each seems to have starved and rotting bodies inside it.

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