Sunday, November 25, 2012

Madness and Writing

On the margins of society they live, the ill, the different, the mad, the other.

The signifier is the word, the meaning is only the written or the spoken echo of the word. The signifier ignites the signified. The signified is the image, the individual  interpretation of the word. The signified creates the world. Literature is not a mirror of the world, literature creates a new reality through the use of the signifier and the signified as the ultimate binary, using language as the ultimate metaphor.

The literary characters I'll discuss are hovering on the margins of the margins of what is considered normality, of what is considered sanity. Madness is silent. The moment one applies reason to madness, the moment one stops up and looks at oneself, saying, wow, I am so mad, that would be the moment the madness had passed. The tale of madness is always in retrospect, and also it might (and probably is) be narrated by others, making way for the question of memory. For what is memory, and how will a memory change over time? Have we really an accurate description of madness? And who made the rules for where normality ended and madness began?
The ability to apply and even use imagination in the perception of the world in the Victorian age could and would offer severe difficulties. And God forbid you ever saw a ghost or encountered the monsters within, you would be even more marginalized. Both men and women had to act according to what society expected. The rules of conduct were strict, and any deviation from normality, or "normality" would not first of all be condemned, but it would definitely not be understood. And what people did not understand, they feared. And when people are afraid, they do not act or speak within the boundaries of reason, making the question of madness and reason one of those vicious circles of life.

Hiding away the sick and the dying has been done since biblical times. People suffering from leprosy would be hidden away on the outskirts of the cities, in separate colonies, and then later in institutions built for that purpose alone, hiding the things only God understood, at the mercy of that same God that would offer no explanation, healing or understanding. When leprosy was declared extinct, these institutions were filled with the ill, the demented and the mad, placing that which was different, and even dangerous, on the margins still. And at one point the madness or the illness would not only be institutionalized but it would be completely excluded from touching land. Focault's Stultifera Navis tells about floating boats that were filled with "fools". Fools as they did not have the ability or voice to tell the world that they needed help, not exclusion, being watched by "the other" fools on the shore...for believing that the ships were the solution to the difficulties of the different, the mad, the other. Different is frightening, even to this day when we are supposed to know better. Today we have educational systems and means to treat the mentally ill, but in society as such, we fear that which we can not understand.
And also today, female deviated behaviour, in particular, is looked at from a demeaning and belittling perspective. In the Victorian age it was considered different and strange on the margins of different and strange when a woman experiences post natal depression, PMS, or other hormonal influenced disorders. Women were (and sometimes still are) considered the other, even to women.
Women had few routes of escape from the caged world she was forced to live in. In fact, only three ways would be a woman's way out of her generalized angel-of-the-house-bearing-babies-being-invisible-unless-she-could-fulfil-the-need-of-her-binary-counterpart-man, and that was through starvation, madness or death, one would not exclude the other.

When talking about binaries, one can present doubles, opposites, dichotomies as pairs, but one will always be considered better than the other. Sun-moon, life-death, self-other. This becomes apparent in the two texts I'll discuss in detail here, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.

"Everyone is only everyone else"*, and everyone in the entire world will be at the center of their own perception of reality, who is really to say when something is not normal?
At Wuthering Heights a young boy is brought home, he has no name and no beginning.
The master names him Heathcliff.
He is not given a family name, he is simply Heathcliff. We follow his story from child to adulthood, making Wuthering Heights a buildungsroman to some extent. Heathcliff never becomes anyone else than Heathcliff, he has no real development. And though he is, from some points of view, considered the protagonist of the story, he is not in the possession of a higher truth in the end. From the story we get that he is of Gypsy background, a group that historically has always been located at the edges of society, on the margins of conduct and behaviour. They are a people living in close relations with nature, a people with a different set of thoughts than the Victorian society as such. So from the very beginning Heathcliff is considered below the servants, yet he is to be considered a son in the house. But Heathcliff has to fight for his place in the family as well as in society. Only in Kathy does he find his soul, and only in Heathcliff does Kathy find her soul.
They are one.
One can not exist without the other. They are one unstoppable force of nature throughout the story. They are the horned God and Goddess, and if one is tamed they both will wither away and perish form this world to enter whatever afterlife they are presented with. Their connection is of such magnitude that they can not survive as one unit, they will never be equals, as they are one and the same.
When Heathcliff is fiery and unstoppable, Kathy is cold and filled with reason. When Heathcliff is cold and rational, even scheming and hateful, Kathy is irrational, hysterical and filled with a roaring fire. She can not have Heathcliff, but no one else can have him either.
Heathcliff does not see Kathy's marriage to Edgar as a betrayal, but he sees Kathy sleeping with her husband as the deepest of betrayals. Kathy's body belongs to him. He ends up trying to get back at every single person in the story, even Kathy. He loves her so much he hates her. And when she dies, he dies with her. His body remains alive until he stops it himself. Since they are one, Heathcliff and Kathy, their double must be Edgar. He is the opposite to their urge and need to live in and around nature. He remains the representative for the Victorian society through the virtues of education, politeness and means. He is also a representative for reason in Kathy's fiery madness. Yet he is fuled by his love for his wife and for his child, making him a double in himself.
Heathcliff descends into madness when he loses Kathy to the afterlife. He curses her like a demon, making him a manifestation of some kind of devil, maybe even the devil. He schemes and plots to take his revenge. He had acquired wealth and social standings, but not to become a citizen of the society he never would be acknowledged by, but through his wish to make every person see his side, make every person pay for his misfortune when losing Kathy to decorum.
Kathy and Heathcliff's tragic flaw makes it impossible for them to exit this story alive, and faced with their passing one get a sense of catharsis.

Freud did not invent the subconscious, but it is mainly through his thoughts we are familiarized with the concepts of id, ego and super-ego.
Hearton, Kathy's hateful brother, who has few redeeming sides to his person, has a son, Linton. Linton is through neglect from his father as a child, and further neglect and hatred from Heathcliff as a young adult, brought up as close to an orphan. The buildungsroman could apply in his case. He ends up finding language, intellect and identity through Edgar and Kathy's daughter, Katherine, and her taking an interest in him as she sits at the deathbed of her husband (Heathcliff's son). Linton could be a representation of the super-ego. He holds both the id, Heathcliff, and the ego, Kathy, in his past, his present and his future. He ends up displaying mind over matter, finding that happy ending that eluded and escaped Edgar, Hearton, Heathcliff and Kathy.

Jane Eyre is, like Heathcliff, an orphan. The orphan is the child that is seemingly easy to shape in one's image. But in many of the buildungsromans I have encountered, the orphan is born with a sense of right and wrong, a sense of where to head to reach elusive bliss and where to turn and walk the other way to avoid danger and fear. They all go through violent and loveless childhoods, only few glimpses of closeness and humanity define them. They often seek a sense of belonging through imagination, skill and determination to find any kind of future.
A child was through the ages looked to as the other. They were small, looked like tiny versions of the adult, but did not have the capabilities to do the same thing as an adult. Only in modern times did the concept of childhood become a term to discuss. A child should not stand up to or talk to talk back to the adult, and if a child displayed violent emotions, either those of love, anger or sadness, the child would be punished. Yet, through language we find identity, and through identity we find purpose. As long as we have language, we are presented with a way above survival of the fittest, a way above eat or be eaten. Though the orphans in our stories are faced with fighting for their rights to exist, they do so through language and imagery. They refuse to remain in the margins, they refuse to stay on the ship of fools.

Jane Eyre is placed in the house of family, only family is nothing more than blood relatives, a relation that should portrait a certain sense of belonging, but ends up excluding her completely, as she is forced upon them. Like with Cinderella, her family are constantly reminding her of her position, and they do not represent any kind of loving or life guiding presence. Even the servants consider her below them, as she is only a burden who never contributes. She escapes into the world of words and imagination, longing for time to freeze as she sits with her stories.
Even though Jane is a child, she has a strong sense of self, and of justice. This is a notion she brings with her to the end. But, she has a moment in front of the mirror where Jane becomes the signifier looking at the signified, the image in the mirror, and finding no connection between the two. What is on the inside does not correspond with what she sees. This happens while she is locked inside the red room, and this is a foreshadowing of the events to come. Jane's double through this story is the mad woman who is locked away in the third story at Thornfield.
Bertha, is Rochester's mad wife, the mother of his "secret" child, Adele, and the woman Jane will turn into if she compromises her strong sense of self and her strong sense of justice. Maybe the image Jane is seeing that day in the red room is the image of the mad woman within? Bertha is hidden away in the attic, and in search of the madness above, maybe even the madness inside, Jane encounters the madness at Thornfield. Bertha is a large and colourful woman, a foreign, an other. And through her descent to madness she has no language left, and almost no identity. The only thing that remains is the madness. She is behaving like a caged animal, standing on all four, grunting and sneering. She is Jane's double being her opposite. Jane is tiny, pale and in control of her identity and intellect, at least as such. Jane is told to lock her door from the inside, Bertha is locked in from the outside. Both women are caged, but Jane has the opportunity to escape when she wants. Bertha's escape is forced and violent and ends in disaster and the cleansing fire that finally makes Rochester and Jane equals. He has to wipe the slates clean to be able to live his preferred life with Jane. Was he to get his will and marry Jane the first time, she would have made the compromise that might have cost her her sanity.

Rochester is also looking for his sense of self. He is bound by his secrets, and his search for love. He considers marriage to Blance, who on her side is looking for a man of means and not particularly for love. Blanche is untouched and unspoiled. Blanche's double is Adele, the "foreign" child that Jane is set to teach. It remains a secret whether she is Rochester's daughter or not, but who else would she be? And that raises the question on whether Bertha's madness was caused by post natal depression, turning into psychosis, turning into the mad woman in the attic.
Rochester is looking for closeness, but he looks in the wrong place when looking to Blanche. She is blank, she is without depth and without substance. And when Jane leaves, he is no longer capable to keeping up appearances to Blanche, because he is drawn to the strangeness, the depth and mystery, and intelligence that Jane possesses.

Rochester represent ice, and Jane represent fire, and St.John represents reason and the Victorian society. Jane finds her three fairy godmothers in her cousins. From having chosen a path of starvation when running away from Rochester, she heals and finds purpose and will to live with her three loving family members. And having gone through a spiritual cleansing, still managing to hold on to her strong sense of self and her strong sense of justice, she is able to return to Rochester and be with him as Jane Eyre, heir to control and escape, and to imagination and reason. When good fortune does find Jane, she shares her inheritance with her new found family.

Jane is faced with starvation (both a physical and a mental starvation) and madness, but escapes death and gets her life, whereas Kathy and Heathcliff are faced with madness, starvation and death, death being the only way out of the madness.

Madness remains silent, but through language, through metaphors and through imagery we can have a peek at what we fear, we can have a peek at what we do not fully understand.

"It's so clear, we can see the madness perfectly from here"*

* The Space, and Asylum Satellite One, by Marillion

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