Madness as Refuge in the American Literary Tradition

by Will on October 25, 2010

Yesterday evening I saw the movie It’s Kind of a Funny Story. This is a comedy about a suicidal teen whose advantageous station in life has made him feel a level of pressure that makes him miserable — pressure to get good grades, to get into a good college, to be a successful professional, to get a serious girlfriend. Even though he has everything he could want materially and socially, he cannot be happy. So he checks himself into a psychiatric ward where they keep him for five days. While there he must socialize with a comical array of maladjusted characters. It turns out that some of them, for all their maladjustments, have remarkable insights about how to live the Good Life. And so at the end of the movie when the kid leaves the hospital, he has found a sense of confidence, comfort with the possibility of failure, and a promising romantic entanglement.

This reflects a venerable literary tradition in America, going back to Washington Irving, if not further. Many gifted writers have told us stories that teach us that the mad — with their disconnection from the real world and its problems — are actually in a way more sane and rational than those of sound mind, dealing with the rat race, conformism, and all sorts of weird behavioral norms. Huckleberry Finn is one of the best expressions of this idea, where Huck’s escape from American society, into Indian territory, is the only way he can maintain his desire to be happy and do right. Slaughterhouse Five is another masterful telling of this idea: Billy Pilgrim can deal with the madness of war, of his family problems, and of his unhappy personal life, only by drifting into a fantasy world where he goes to another planet and is kept as a zoo exhibit with an altruistic female mate who pampers his fragile ego. And other examples are sundry. There is a closely related literary trope that posits death as a comforting refuge from irrational society and troublesome history: the Nick Cave/Johnny Cash song I wrote about some time ago is one example. Another is Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, where Quentin’s highly aesthetic sense of propriety will not allow him to make peace with the reality of the South’s decline, of his family’s decline, of his sister’s promiscuity, and of his father’s amoralism, and so he resorts to the cold comfort of suicide.

This notion that life’s pressures destroy the sane and ethical person is one rather unique to American literature. It stems, I believe, from the fact that we have had a formally classless society since 1820 in most of the country: we imagine that we all start out with equal opportunity of succeeding, and that where we end up is a simple function of how hard we tried and how good we are. And so we feel immense pressure to be conspicuously good: as a student, as a participant in the economy, as a lover, and in every way that will win us more status. In a way we are lucky to live in such a society. But it also has its costs. A British person born to the working class knows that no matter how good he is or how hard he tries, he’ll never enjoy the full esteem of his social “betters”, so he’s not going to stress about winning it. And the born aristocrat knows that no matter how bad he messes up, he’ll always have the status that his class affords him. There is a way in which such an arrangement limits the possibility of happiness, but also a way in which it guards it by creating realistic expectations.

And the problem with our naive meritcratic outlook is that while effort and quality of work do have some relationship to outcomes, the correspondence is not one-to-one. Chance plays a large role. The vast majority of businesses that people start fail: some of those were badly conceived and badly run, but many were just unlucky. And some ventures succeed due to dumb luck or starting advantage: is Facebook really so much better than all the other social networking sites? Would Paris Hilton have achieved celebrity if not for her inheritance of lavish wealth? And so outcomes are often unjust. And so history is often unjust. And this weighs heavy on us, as we are invested in thinking that our system is fundamentally a fair one. And so we imagine that madness or death would be easier, and read and write books and movies to this effect.

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