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Michael Cisco
Posted on Thursday, March 13, 2003 - 06:29 pm:   

At first, I thought I might bring this up on the fantastical thread, but I didn't want to raise the issue of fantasy directly around these books.
I've always been fascinated by the art and literature of the insane, but all too often, one discovers that what one actually wanted was something more like a performance than the real thing. The writing of truly insane people tends to read like: "I went to the post office, I already explained to them that I needed letter delivered to next address 47. I spoke with the supervisor she told me the letter had already been delivered. I told her it needed to be, but she said it was. I told her I needed the letter to be delivered to the new address, and she said ..." etc. With a footnote that says toothpaste toothpaste toothpase toothpaste toothpaste
Not edifying, but there are some exceptions, and Daniel Schreber's MEMOIRS OF MY NERVOUS ILLNESS is one of them. Schreber was a nineteenth-century Prussian judge, the equivalent of a supreme court justice, in fact, who was institutionalized in an insane asylum, convinced the world had already ended, that the people around him were flimsy puppets, and that God was going to turn him into a pregnant woman so that he might restart the human race.
Being a judge, and a good one, Schreber gives us a presentation of his madness that is well-organized and replete with technical terms coined to describe various experiences. MEMOIRS has only just come back into print ...
I'd be very interested to know if anyone has any similar titles to share. I've read Carrington's book about her time in an institution; has anyone seen a book called KOERPER, GEHIRN, SEELE, GOTT (Body, Brain, Soul, God), by a German doctor named Carl Gehrmann?
Or Carl Friedrich Anton Schmidt's LEBEN UND WISSENSCHAFT IN IHREN ELEMENTEN UND GESETZEN (Life and Science in their Elements and Situations)?
Or of a poet named Hermann von Gilm?
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LeslieWhat
Posted on Friday, March 14, 2003 - 01:21 pm:   

Mark Vonnegut's "The Eden Express" was quite fine and I'm told by friends with schizophrenia really nails how it feels.

Leslie
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Jack Haringa
Posted on Friday, March 21, 2003 - 10:12 am:   

Would the writings of people on and about drug experience qualify in this category? I'm thinking specifically about Burroughs's Junky and DeQuincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Being a psychopharmaceutcial coward of sorts, I find that kind of reading fascinating.

There's a certain magic to the transitional writing of authors who were slipping into madness but were still coherent enough to put images on paper--later Nietzsche, Baudelaire, and other 19th Century dissipates in particular.

~Jack~
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Michael Cisco
Posted on Friday, March 21, 2003 - 09:27 pm:   

I would put dope-n-tell books in a distinct category, neither higher nor lower than insane writings. Thing is, neither Junky nor CEOE are good dope books - as opposed to Fear and Loathing in LV, let's say. Their excellence lies in entirely different dimensions.

The nineteenth century types, and don't forget Holderlin, whose late poetry, to be appreciated, must be read hastily, almost tripping over the words.
Recently, I read a truly insightful article by Walter Benjamin on Robert Walser: Walser's characters are all people who have been healed. They are convalescents, and so they enjoy everything. They are children again. This is exactly the sort of thing that has moved me the most in these "insane" writings - not the dark brooding frightening material, but the in many ways more frightening joy and innocence of these authors. I like dangerous innocence, because it tears the idea of happiness loose from the complacent images that surround it. Reading most fiction, you get the impression that happiness is something desperately to be avoided, that only pain is worth talking about, as though happiness were boring, simple. Even if happiness is simple, and I don't know that it is, it has the simplicity of something you may contemplate forever. It is not something we all automatically understand and don't need to think about, as banal as a ... happy face *%)
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paul witcover
Posted on Saturday, May 10, 2003 - 04:21 am:   

Anyone interested in the writing (or art, generally) of the insane should check out Madness and Modernism, by Louis Sass. A fascinating and deeply provocative book, tending as it does to blur the line between what we think of as madness and esoteric artistic productions and modes of thought.

John MacGregor's The Art of the Insane, and his recent book on Henry Darger, are also of interest. MacGregor champions Darger's writing as on a part with that of Lewis Carroll -- take it from me: it's not. Not nearly. But awful as it is -- and it IS awful -- it's also fascinating, especially as a complement to Darger's unforgettable pictures.

And there's a show of Adolf Wolfi's art going on right now here in NYC at the Museum of Folk Art.
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Michael Cisco
Posted on Saturday, May 10, 2003 - 04:19 pm:   

I've read Sass' book, albeit not recently enough to remember what I liked about it, and I actually have read Henry Darger. I agree that his writing is fascinating without being really any good. Darger, more me, is more interesting as a representative figure. I look around at the various nondescripts on the subways and wonder if any of them go home to labor on such things. Darger may not have had much talent, but he had what appears to me to be a heroic endurance, and dedication.
I should check Wolfi out. There are a few artists whose astounding work I feel I ought to mention: PAUL LAFFOLEY, VON STROPP (uses other pseudonyms as well), and DONALD PASS. I wouldn't call any of them insane, but their work is extremely strange. Joe Coleman is already sufficiently well-known, I think, to require any promotion here. You can find images of paintings by all of them on line.
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paulw
Posted on Sunday, May 11, 2003 - 03:54 am:   

Yes, I used to play "spot that Pynchon" with homeless people.

The Museum of Outsider Art in Baltimore is really cool. There you find artworks by people whose obsessions are far more obscure and mysterious than Darger's -- bundles of dark cloth; shapes of tightly wound string -- that to me have an almost prehistoric resonance. Were the cave paintings at Lescaux and elsewhere the first outsider art -- or I guess that should be insider art!

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Michael Cisco
Posted on Saturday, May 17, 2003 - 05:39 pm:   

Yesterday, I attended the Wolfli exhibition mentioned above. The work was far more extraordinary than I had expected it to be, although I can't say I came away with any great love for AW. These drawings were like visual headaches, and represented all too well the suffocating atmosphere of compulsive thinking which gave rise to them. But they were also admirable works of exacting draughtsmanship; AW's ability to draw straight lines freehand, and the assurance of his hand, were remarkable. Every piece reflects enormous patience, attention to detail, and sheer physical and mental endurance; but AW's greatest artistic gift is most obvious in the overall design scheme of each drawing or set. The images are so fantastically, maddeningly busy that one really has to approach them from a distance, and wait for the master-pattern to emerge. The images have to make the overture to the observer, as opposed to those landscapes or impressionist paintings which draw us in and invite a kind of visual penetration. AW's is like a gazeteer of different visual styles; one can easily see Medieval, Ethiopian, Celtic, and Indian design schemes in his work. I'm glad you mentioned this exhibit!

I ran across our old friend Darger on the ground floor - this is the first time I've ever seen his work firsthand, and I was struck by how much brighter and more vivid his colors are, in comparison with the reproductions I've seen in books. The books don't fully capture the lightness of the images either; they look like projected slides, in impossibly sharp focus. Much of the fascination of these images has to do with the weird combination of artful arrangement and completely disconnected, weirdly rigid figures. By tracing pre-existing drawings, he manages to present groups of figures that have nothing whatever to do with each other, who occupy entirely different spaces which they sort of allusively bring along with them. It's also really interesting to see paintings like these, in which narrative is of paramount importance, so that each image is only a fragment of a vaguely-defined, vaster story. Nothing like this is being done today.

The current interest in outsider art or whatever we want to call it seems to arise as a response to the exhaustion of this imploding gallery culture. Painting has become such a navel-gazing business, and the entire art world has become so thoroughly preoccupied with itself, that practically anything not touching upon gallery culture is coming from "outside." The outside of gallery culture is bigger than the inside, and more interesting.
Part of what I like about these so-called outsiders (I don't believe Darger ever tried that hard to get his work published or recognized - it seems he just went ahead and did it, and that was that) is their obvious intention to make a world for themselves, or represent the world according to self-established principles. I admire this wherever I see it. I think there's something stirring in this surprisingly deep and productive self-reliance, which makes many of the gallery artists feel a bit conformist, or boring, in comparison.
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paulw
Posted on Sunday, May 18, 2003 - 12:07 pm:   

I agree totally about seeing Darger "live" as it were. The colors, not to mention the sheer size of the compositions, lose a lot in reproduction.

As for Wolfi -- I wish that they'd issued magnifying glasses to visitors like the exhibit of Victorian Fairy Painters did a few years ago. Actually, for Wolfi you would need first a telescope, then a microscope. The strangest thing about his art, to me, was how it seemed to have an almost fractal-like quality to it -- there was a sense of random immersion at a particular scalar level, above and beneath which (Little, Big) similar (but by no means identical) designs and iterations were going on; some things, from our present vantage, were visible completely, others only partially (and enigmatically), others not at all directly, yet with a strange shadowy presence nonetheless, if that makes sense.
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paulw
Posted on Wednesday, May 28, 2003 - 11:56 am:   

Hi Michael,

Can you shoot me an email at acronus@yahoo.com? There's something I'd like to ask you!

Thanks.
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Bjoern Quiring
Posted on Sunday, October 19, 2003 - 03:12 pm:   

On my website, you'll find a selection of links to texts by people classified as 'insane' (including Schreber)

The address is:
http://userpage.fu-berlin.de/~quirrrrl/ASYLUM.htm

I especially recommend the "Skull" by Anthony Mannix. It may just be a simulation, but if it is, it's a very good one.
Some links on the site are broken, sorry, can't fix it from here.
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Michael Cisco
Posted on Monday, October 20, 2003 - 01:12 am:   

I like the look of the Skull ... I will read it more carefully ... Thank you for showing it to me.

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