Mad Meanings and Meaningful Madness


…Madness. A word so loosely descriptive that society, science and their lovechild, psychiatry, have spent the best part of the past 150 years attempting to divide/deride it into a manageable nomenclature. A state of mind that is often denied by those supposedly experiencing it, yet more recently one which has been embraced for its very vagueness; that quality proving emancipatory for those of us wounded by the knife of psychiatric terminology. A terminology which cuts people adrift from an unstated yet implied ‘normal’; which provides society with justification to other us and discriminate against us; to lock us up against our will having committed no crime other than difference; to inflict with legal ‘justification’ medications which turn out the lights, cut us off from our stories and cause iatrogenic effects that, on average, steal ten years of life from us[1]. All this under the guise of compassion and medicine, a corrective mechanics for malfunctioning cyborgs who’ve tuned in too far to the echoes of memory and history….


…As Foucault, Laing, Cooper and Szasz all highlighted, the label ‘mad’ served the enlightenment project perfectly. The loss of reason (in the most narrowly defined sense of the word) was at various points put down to primitivism, race and ethnicity, gender or culture. But as society supposedly rid itself of the shackles of racism and sexism and the law sluggishly moved to follow this trend, the mad found themselves enshrined in law as the sick, society (un)coincidentally managing to find a nomenclature where sexism and racism thrived under an illusion of medical objectivity…

… I live among a largely educated generation, who are now rightly outraged by examples of racial or gendered insult. Yet my friends often still use ‘nutter’ or ‘mental’ to describe people or opinions they disagree with at home, in work and in public, and use a cultivated learnedness around ‘mental illness’– pushed at us from internet adverts, billboards, celebrity endorsed anti-stigma campaigns and documentaries – to analyse or judge their friends unwell, whispering behind their backs that they should take medication or be locked up, that they lack insight; ultimately implying that their all too real struggles and distress are merely the meaningless symptoms of their psychopathology, and that the ill deserve their sympathy, perhaps, but not their attentive ears as equal makers of meaning about what it is to be human. ..

… The problem with the leading anti-psychiatric figures is that they too were really of the ‘sane’, looking with fascination at the ‘insane’, at least when not dabbling with mind altering substances. Ultimately, they still treated the ‘mad’ as ‘broken’, just broken by other means than pathology. For Szasz, ultimately, the Mad were just Bad; for Laing they were broken by their home or society; for Cooper, by language and its politics. While I agree with many of their ideas, these figures set the tone of anti-psychiatry for too long without foregrounding the voices of those labelled mad themselves. Laing, especially, makes elegant statements in his writing about how the mad are abnormally alienated and thus free of the normal alienation that is cultivated by society and serves as the status quo, positioning madness as a potentially radical mode of being[2]. His notion of schizophrenia as ‘one of the forms in which, often through quite ordinary people, the light began to break in the cracks of our all-too-closed minds’[3] has been taken up by sections of the Mad community, such as Mad Pride and The Icarus Project, as a part of a foregrounding of the prophetic and visionary potential residing in Mad experience[4]. More recent writers about spiritual dimensions of Mad experience hark back to Laing as a counter to what they see as the secularization and normalizing approach of some within Mad activism, who, drawing on the social dimensions approach of disability studies, try to position Mad people as survivors of systems that disable them but in doing so diminish the radically altered perspectives that Mad experience can give. Seth Farber is one such contemporary advocate for Laingian ways of thinking, and draws heavily on his ideas in his book The Spiritual Gift of Madness, but Farber too is a professional positioning himself as an ally of the Mad and despite going further than Laing in giving space to uninterpreted Mad voices via interviews and testimonials in his books, he still often projects his own strongly held beliefs and meanings onto their experiences[5]. He is obviously taking Laing’s lead in doing this, yet my central difficulty with reading Laing as a Mad person is that when talking about actual people he encounters in his psychiatric practice, he often builds his meanings onto their experiences rather than letting their own voice be heard. When we hear what madness means in Laing, we are often hearing what madness means for Laing, not for his patients. Is he thus simply replacing one voice speaking for the person’s experience with another? Frustratingly, to me it often seems so, and by avoiding the challenge this poses, Farber and others who develop Laingian ideas uncritically perpetuate this sympathetic silencing…

…Society is captivated by the notion of ‘the fine line between madness and genius’, and yet who judges what side of this metaphorical divide a piece of thinking lies on? Ultimately, society still evaluates this from a ‘sane’ perspective; if we can’t understand something, it is non-sense, mad, worthless. Karl Jaspers famously stated a true delusion was one that’s characteristic was ‘un-understandability’, but who gets to decide on whether the belief has meaning or not? Very often it is not the person deemed mad or identifying their experience as mad. An exception seems to be made if its attributable to some theory of madness or ‘mad play’ coined by a thinker who has perhaps dipped their toes into madness, but has ultimately been judged – through judicious explanation of their thinking process, by their distancing of their own experience along prescribed and academic lines until its acceptable, or just through the privilege invested in them by society – to be sane. I find much of interest in writers such as Derrida, and especially in Deleuze and Guattari, but again, when they talk of ‘schizo-analysis’ and of ‘the schizophrenic’, it is of some state of mind or person who is fascinating for their distance from humanity, as an organ-machine, a conduit through which history and politics are expressed, and the experience of the people they speak for is never received unfettered by their interpretation – and that of other academic and medical professionals – in their work[6]. Though they are sympathetic to the ‘schizophrenic experience’ – and suggest ways in which it is a meaningful one – as a Mad person I find the anthropological slant of their writing troubling and at points quite hurtful. Who are the sane, however sympathetic, to decide whether our Mad experience is the ultimate expression of ‘transcendental empiricism?’ Would we allow someone male to be the ultimate authority on how meaningful a female authors representation of her experience is? Would we support the white American professor who judged the work of Nigerian novelist Chimimanda Ngozie Adichie ‘not authentically African’?[7] In most fields of academic study it is no longer acceptable to position your subject as a passive object of study, but when discussing Madness we are still scared to give the Mad themselves a voice, or when we do, we treat it with medically ratified suspicion, a form of sanctioned stigmatization that people working in the field of Mad Studies have argued should be labelled ‘Sanism’[8]

… There is increasingly an acknowledgment even within medical circles that we need a move towards a hermeneutic understanding of madness, but the prosaic way in which psychological narrative is captured often fails to capture the reality of mad experience due to the fact it is preoccupied with sense making, with writing madness for the sane[9]. Mad Studies demands that Mad people be involved in shaping societies laws, attitudes and philosophy on madness, and, in a similar vein, I believe a Mad Criticism is required in literary studies, adopting the general perspective of Mad Studies that – instead of ‘psychiatry’, which has ‘always seemed to narrow understanding’– ‘excites through the breadth and focus of its discussion’ as an alternative to the ‘psychiatric reductionism’[10]. It should align itself with objectives set out by Mad people working in academia, such as to ‘recognize the lived experience of madness as a fundamental form of human knowledge’[11]. Mad critics should respond to texts with their own lived experience of madness itself, to seek out and celebrate expressions of states which are recognised as similar– though not the same – as those experienced by a huge and silent Mad minority, who for good reason are often fearful of expressing and communicating their madness externally due to the stigma and state apparatus that suppress or humour it…

… Literary Criticism often seeks to find reason of some level in difficult texts in order to rescue the author from the charge of madness, or acknowledge that madness plays a part but speak as if the meaning was made despite the madness, rather than because of it, a charge often reversed in the testimony of Mad people themselves, such as Mary O’Hagan in her powerful short Madness Made Me[12]. This has occurred particularly prevalently in the field of Blake Studies, in which figures such as Yeats, Northrop Frye and Leo Damrosch have gone to great lengths of spectacular mental gymnastics to ‘un-mad’ Blake, and others from Swinburne to Youngquist, among many others, have dismissed the parts of the work they struggle with as mad – or in the latter’s case – pathological, and thus as signifying failures in the work. This implicit ‘sanism’ in criticism also makes us feel like certain writers are difficult because we are fearful of accepting madness as it is and feel the need to decode it by a process of theoretical codification, naming it or breaking it down according to psychological or psychiatric dogma. The Madder the writing, the more complex the diagnosis or formulation we need, until, to me as a Mad reader, the criticism along these lines is often only transferring its fear about its method’s limitations onto its failures to adequately explain what’s going on in the text, or in its writer. You can understand more about the insecurities of these modes of enquiry through reading such responses to Mad writing than you can derive any understanding of madness…

… I want to investigate whether such texts are actually are difficult or whether it’s more the case that they are difficult to interpret using the tautological frameworks of interpretation we adopt from the ‘psy’ disciplines and from theory – frameworks which they evade. Why is it that poets such as Blake have such a large following among Mad communities? Perhaps it’s because he very effectively and accurately speaks to madness, that to properly understand Blake is either to be mad or to be driven so by the work, and that to be sane is to never experience the texts as Blake intended them to be received. Their purpose was to reorganise our consciousness away from ‘the sleep of reason’ and towards something ebullient and excessive, in an ever-evolving state of contrary turmoil; something which psychiatry would fearfully label as pathological. David Fuller is the contemporary Blake critic who perhaps gets nearest to understanding this in his 2005 essay ‘Madness as a Refuge From Unbelief: Blake and the Sanity of Dissidence’, in which he writes ‘what is true for the writer is also true for the reader: it is impossible to hear a great or noble thing unless the spirit is moved. The reader as well as the poet needs to be in some sense “mad”’[13]

…This new Mad criticism must break some of the conventions of the academy by necessity… those effects valued by the academy – the strong argument, the confident conclusion – are all tools that enshrine reason, reductionism and capture of a moment isolated from its infinite context  the ‘wellspring of sense’ Derrida describes – as the bedrock of critical writing[14]. A Mad critique must also by necessity critique the way critical writing style serves a certain way of conceiving of knowledge, must make bare its emotionality, its subjectivity and its transience. As Audrey Lorde puts it, ‘the masters tools will never dismantle the masters house’[15]. Mad criticism must discard divisive terms which literary criticism has adopted too unquestioningly from the ‘psy’ disciplines, and thus reclaim the right of people’s Madness to express itself unfettered, as I suggest Blake’s did in his work. Madness’s inability to be pinned down, it’s evasion even of its own definitions as they come into being, is characterized in Blake’s work, and makes even the systems it necessarily creates for itself transient and un-transferable, perhaps making of the fallen world, which Blake suggests we can’t escape, a Diagrammatic Assemblage – as Guattari might put it in one of his more useful formulations on the radical potential in such thinking – that forces new modes of thought, new lines of flight, makes breakthroughs of our breakdowns and always challenges accepted modalities of thinking about politics, art, theology, sexuality…life in all its fullness. If we can celebrate the Madness of those whose writing speaks to our own, and share their terror, joy and pain – share their vision – then so many of us will feel less alone and may learn, in time, to speak and write ourselves freer of psychiatry’s, society’s and, because we are of them, our own ‘mind forg’d manacles’. And society, if its embedded ‘sanism’ diminishes, may come, via attentiveness to the messages in people’s madness, to break some of its chains too …




[1] Schizophrenia, neuroleptic medication and mortality.  Joukamaa, M. British Journal of Psychiatry 188 (2006):122-127


[2] R. D Laing, The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise (London: Penguin Books, 1967) p. 25

[3] Ibid. p. 107

[4] <> [accessed 20th November 2018]

[5] Farber, Seth. The Spiritual Gift Of Madness: The Failure of Psychiatry and the Rise of the Mad Pride Movement. (Toronto: Inner Traditions, 2012) pp.50-52


[6] Gilles Deleuze, ‘Schizophrenia and Society’ in Two Regimes of Madness (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2007) pp. 17-28

[7] Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, The Danger of A Single Story <> [accessed 13th Novemember 2018]

[8] Mad Matters ed. Brenda LeFrancois, Robert Menzies and Geoffrey Reaume (Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press, 2013) p. 339

[9] Bracken, Pat. ‘Towards a Hermeneutic Shift In Psychiatry’ World Psychiatry, October 2014, Vol.13(3), pp.241-243


[10] Mad Matters ed. Brenda LeFrancois, Robert Menzies and Geoffrey Reaume (Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press, 2013) pp. xi-xii


[11] Mad Matters ed. Brenda LeFrancois, Robert Menzies and Geoffrey Reaume (Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press, 2013) p. 188


[12] Mary O’Hagan, Madness Made Me <> [accessed 20th Novemember 2018]

[13] David Fuller. ‘Mad as a refuge from unbelief : Blake and the sanity of dissidence.’, in Madness and creativity in literature and culture. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan,2005) pp. 121-143.


[14] Jacques Derrida. Writing and Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978) p. 62

[15] Audrey Lorde. The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House [accessed 15th November 2018)