Invisible Madness / Essay Excerpt
Go on your way.
The evening raises its white baton above the pedestrians.
The cattle’s horns in the abundant evenings sow terror on the boulevard.
Go on your way.
Now is the shining convoluted coil of the hour.
A death struggle. The referee counts 70 . . .
Go on your way,” the French surrealist Robert Desnos directs at the beginning of the above quote from his poem “Rencontre” (“Meeting”).
But where does one “go on” to?
Desnos’ answer is clear: one must go on to where one already is, that is, one must reenter the ordinary in such a way that it is experienced differently, that its taken-for-grantedness is stripped of its overly familiar veneer and revealed for what it is: a violent sensuousness that overwhelms. This process of re-seeing entails the death of previous seeings. As a result, one descends into a redefined time and a previously lost but now unburied space. Desnos calls this combination “the shining convoluted coil of the hour.” The shining here is the new light that floods in through the fissures created when an old habit of seeing is fractured. Now nothing is as it once seemed. The birth of new insights requires the cremation of an old way of life, the price of stability is to first experience the nausea of dislocation. As Desnos goes on to say
life’s ashes dry my poem
noon the love hour deftly tortures
our sick ears.
Along with such images, Desnos also provides one that at first sounds almost sentimental when he asserts the existence of "supernatural children [who] dress like you and me." But by supernatural Desnos doesn't mean the sappy pre-adolescent “inner child” romanticized in late 20th century America by New Age therapists. Rather the child he conceptualizes is the reborn self stripped of delusions. The word "supernatural" doesn't imply, in Desnos' hands, a traditional otherworldliness but rather a state of unfetteredness, a freedom from socialized consciousness. This is why the child dresses “like you and me,” because it exists as a potential within all of us. The self that has achieved this state, or that longs to achieve it, aches not for la-la land or for Marx's famous opium of the people, but for reality, albeit a newly opened-up reality. It wants to confront the world in all its rawness -- its naked infrastructure, its bleeding facts, its disconcerting, but mind enriching, flood of sensations. Yet developing such a relationship with the world isn't easy. The self feels crippled by what it has been previously taught is true and untrue. In despair, the self recognizes that authentic liberation requires understanding what it does not understand: realities that have been ruled off-limits by the status quo. It is precisely such realities with which Desnos is preoccupied. He is obsessed with what the indoctrinated eye can't see and with what the indoctrinated mind can't fathom. He is therefore on a mission to rediscover reality, to locate the invisible -- i.e. the ignored, the taken for granted, the censored, the hidden -- and to make it visible. He knows there is something "out there" that, because it is sensed by us but not known by us, haunts our existence. This sense of being haunted by an undefined reality is communicated by Desnos when he proclaims in another line from the poem --
On the deserted square invisible madness leaves its footstep on the wet sand.
A madness that is invisible? What is he talking about?
When Desnos uses the phrase "invisible madness," he knows he's presenting the phrase to an audience that, for the most part, believes all madness is visible -- visible in the sense that madness' symptoms are identifiable/seeable, since they are, besides being evidenced in the acts of madmen, listed and explained in textbooks. This visibility, which makes madness subject to study and analysis, guarantees that madness can be cured, if it can be cured at all, only through methodicalness -- i.e., through specific dosages of certain medicines or through shock treatments, etc. -- not through impulse or indiscipline or unsanctioned techniques. Any other type of madness, any madness rumored to thrive outside the existing categories and therefore not subject to the remedies suggested by them, is by definition (from the dominant culture's perspective) unimaginable, unreal. It is this unreality that Desnos challenges when he proclaims that the symptoms, the footprints, of invisible madness exist. He is proclaiming that the theoretically unreal, that which has been left out of the vocabulary given to us by the powers that be, is in fact REAL. It may be undescribed but it is THERE. It EXISTS.
But what is it, exactly, that exists? What is the unreal? What is invisible madness? What point is Desnos trying to make to us across the decades?
In general terms, invisible madness is the nameless anxiety that exists beyond the borders of what we have been taught is true. It is the madness, pain and trauma that come from dreaming unsanctioned dreams. In the contemporary world, it is the mind that becomes damaged because the heart yearns for fulfillments that have been labeled taboo by the existing authorities: homosexual satisfaction, the Sioux's urge to live at one with the prairie again, the underclass's "irrational" rage, etc. But because such invisible madnesses live in exile, excommunicated from official history by preachers and teachers and politicians and government bureaucrats, they can only express themselves in apparently "unreal" or "meaningless" areas: in the silence between the depressed person's words, in the emptiness at the edges of a junkie's blissed-out smile, in the anxiety dreams of homeless people sleeping in an alley where U.S. history has turned the color of a rat's gray eyes. It is precisely here -- i.e., in the world of the allegedly meaningless -- that we begin to unearth the profoundest meanings. But unburying what is buried or making the invisible visible is not merely a momentary act of will. It requires something more sustained, more systematic: it requires a vocabulary capable of naming and describing its actions. A great wrenching apart and recreation of the existing language is needed. More so than the boulder that supposedly blocked the entrance to the tomb of the mythological Jesus, society's official language blocks and prevents us from resurrecting buried meanings. So, the time has come for us to pulverize language so we can unbury and then define realities that for too long have been secret and hidden, "not there."
Fact: Our language lags behind evolution.
Fact: Our language is a penal system in which the only crime for which the death sentence may be given is the search for unsanctioned meanings.
And so everywhere turmoils seethe beneath surfaces we incorrectly think possess no depths. Although many here in the U.S. cherish our English, take a weird pride in being a one-language nation that hates bilingualism, and laugh at those cultures which aren't as “advanced” as we are, we sense, against our wills, that something is wrong with the world we have created. Yet ironically, given our pride in our "down to earth English" and our "American way of thinking," we don't have at our disposal the words to express the dangers we sense all around us. Instead, we refer vaguely to lost values and the lack of respect for traditional institutions, as if replicating the past in the present was the only way to redeem the present from itself. When such replication reveals itself as useless nostalgia, the nation resorts to stridency and bullying to prove its “advanced” moral character.
Nationally, we are on a collision course with a suicidal destiny that none of our pundits can find the words to describe. Therefore, unable to define where we are going, we remain incapable of confronting, analyzing or reinventing our destiny. Except for the noise generated by self-deceptive vocabularies rooted in imperial delusions of grandeur, we are condemned to silence.
To transcend this fate, we must ransack the graveyard outside language’s traditional boundaries. It is there that meaning is buried. We must claw the dirt to uncover what we are.