On Madness and Oddities

I am thoroughly enjoying the delights of re-reading books, and far from being “not amused,” I am still very much amused at the gems I find on second, third, fourth and fifth readings. Here are a few thoughts that shone brightly upon my 4th/5th reading (or listening, because much as I hate to admit, it is different) of GK Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. (Thankfully at least two have been “readings.”)

The first thing that caught my eye this time around was in his illustrations of the mind of the lunatic or “madman,” at which he does a splendid and thorough job; it is sadly too long to condense properly, and I always hate to condense GKC. But here are the bits that stood out to me and by which I traveled to a slightly different (if inferior) point.

 

If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.

The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Nevertheless he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed. Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large. A bullet is quite as round as the world, but it is not the world. There is such a thing as a narrow universality; there is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity; you may see it in many modern religions.

Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable MARK of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. The lunatic’s theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way.

Suppose, for instance, it were the first case that I took as typical; suppose it were the case of a man who accused everybody of conspiring against him. If we could express our deepest feelings of protest and appeal against this obsession, I suppose we should say something like this: “Oh, I admit that you have your case and have it by heart, and that many things do fit into other things as you say. I admit that your explanation explains a great deal; but what a great deal it leaves out! Are there no other stories in the world except yours; and are all men busy with your business? Suppose we grant the details; perhaps when the man in the street did not seem to see you it was only his cunning; perhaps when the policeman asked you your name it was only because he knew it already. But how much happier you would be if you only knew that these people cared nothing about you! How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it; if you could really look at other men with common curiosity and pleasure; if you could see them walking as they are in their sunny selfishness and their virile indifference! You would begin to be interested in them, because they were not interested in you. You would break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your own little plot is always being played, and you would find yourself under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers.”

This chapter is purely practical and is concerned with what actually is the chief mark and element of insanity; we may say in summary that it is reason used without root, reason in the void. The man who begins to think without the proper first principles goes mad; he begins to think at the wrong end.

 

A couple of ideas stood out to me. First, an interesting example of first causes or principles: that some ideas are larger than others. And the larger the idea or the concept is, the more it encompasses, and the higher up it must come on the ladder as we utilize our reason and judgment. A  first principle must reasonably precede the smaller or second principles.

Secondly, I thought that when we make “self” our main focus or first principle, it is not a large enough thing to support a normal, healthy life; as it can only care for the needs of one, namely ourselves. So the person who is egocentric is a smaller person, because his focus is on one small thing – himself. A thing that is in itself a worthy and good ideal, if you will; but simply not large enough to be the only ideal by which to judge and guide our entire life; for it cannot encompass all the things that must be a part of that thing we call “life.” And so the more we focus on ourselves, our desires, our needs, and what we want, the more we slowly go off track, or become “insane”. (JRR Tolkien’s Gollum springs to mind.)

If we want things to go right, we must judge from a concept that is “larger”; that is, from a place that is able to think not only of one’s self, but also of others. (It lends further meaning as scattered mentions of the “bigger man” come to mind.) It is the saner and larger person who can, as Chesterton said, “Really look at other men with common curiosity and pleasure; if you could see them walking as they are in their sunny selfishness and their virile indifference! You would begin to be interested in them, because they were not interested in you. You would break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your own little plot is always being played, and you would find yourself under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers.”

It is interesting to ponder as I observe my own touch of mania, and that of those around me. And yet thankfully, this itself is a mark of a sane person, that he can observe his own oddities; for “Oddities only strike ordinary people.” Hooray for ordinary people – and hooray for Mr. Chesterton.

 

~ Watergirl