Commuting fragments

My ride is half an hour

Beside me, left and right,

Private conversations

Blown to the stale wind.

Cognac on the menu tonight?

I’ve got a few hours to kill

Before the footy.

The nagging phone call

From the end of the day.

Sounds like we’re in.

But we don’t want you.

We just want to help

In any way we can.

None of these words

Are worked to rhyme

Or reason, only marked

By my arbitrary stop

The dreams of my day.

Why is alcohol policy difficult?

About 10 years ago I took a job running an alcohol and drug policy unit in the minor provincial government in which I serve as a lowly under-castellan.

It turned out to be a very rewarding experience, at least if you count the intrinsic rewards of work as the most important. I met some remarkable people – Robin Room, Stefan Grunert, David Best – and also struggled with some of the hardest questions, so it seemed at the time, of public policy.

Alcohol, so my colleagues kept telling me, was one of those wicked problems. For me though, coming to terms with the difficulty of alcohol policy was something more of a personal journey of recovery.

Serving the wayward and the drunken, it turned out, did very little for my career. I plunged deeper and deeper into a kind of career crisis, in a smelly eddy far away from the flow of success. But I also accomplished many things, and not the least of those things was a kind of understanding of my conservative disposition in which grew my attachment to the ethos of my institution.

It was that ethos that I saw forgotten and dishonoured all around me. It was the realisation that I had fused my identity with a culture that was disappearing from the world that would in time lead me into despair. About a year or so after leaving the alcohol and drug policy job, I wrote a conference paper that tried to make sense of it all. I gave this conference paper to the Kettl Bruun Society conference.

You can read it here:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/265728731_Why_is_alcohol_policy_difficult_Reflections_of_a_bureaucrat

Or if you don’t want to bother with research gate, try this Why is alcohol policy difficult Kettl Bruun conference September 2014

Some time later, a student interviewed me about the experience when another great city took fate in its hand and succumbed to the grand follies of controlling the availability of alcohol.

Sponges, metamorphoses and psyche

Sponges, metamorphoses and psyche

After a morning during which I searched my ravaged memory for the concealed door to my troubles, I opened an old box which contained five old, forgotten notebooks of mine. Their black covers and red spines revealed nothing to me of when I last used them to gather observations, thoughts, fragments of lines, like a dark sponge wiping up the mess of my mental life.

I opened the first notebook of the pile, and flicked through the pages. Quickly I dated it to the months or years around 1999.  There I have noted the words spoken by Steve Bracks on election night in 1999, when he defeated the apparently invincible, more despised, but more enduring figure of Jeff Kennett. Bracks: “a victory for decency, honour, compassion.” Beside it, I have scrawled thoughts that record my state of mind – “the joy of seeing a tyrant brought to his knees. The reminder that government is not execution. A child’s eyes pleading for mercy in the midst of horror. A reminder that there can be a reward for waiting and persistence. The heroism of enduring.”

They are not surprising thoughts, except I am struck today with the sense then that the dramas of even minor provincial politics still held for me this fascination to find ordinary virtues – “the heroism of enduring” – in my struggles as a lowly under-castellan.

But these residues of reactions to old news are not the most surprising finding in this notebook. There in the early pages I have written:

Francis Ponge wrote this (or something like this) “an artist has one duty to set up a workshop and to bring in the world for repair as he finds it in pieces.” So the experience, day to day, is transcribed and out of intuition, some poetry found.

Ponge was one of the many French writers who I came to know through my strange search for an artistic identity through the works of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. I was in my 20s and at university, and my first sally into the world of adult identity had failed dismally, when I had sought election as a student politician and failed. I never really belonged to that world in any case, and my true affiliation was with the worlds of dream, madness, transgression and outlandish thought. It was this world that welcomed me as an outcast from reason, familial life and all practical careers, which I believed myself then to be.

Through them, and the ultimately futile attempt to think like them and not like myself, I discovered Ponge, and Leiris, Blanchot, Bataille, Rene Char, Beckett in a new way, Artaud, and the truly enigmatic Raymond Roussel. I tried but could not really understand the philosophy, but I completely absorbed the idea of consecrating my life through an unique and idiosyncratic practice of writing. Just now I picked up Leiris’ Manhood from my shelf, with its frightening, disturbing image of a naked Judith holding a knife and the severed head of Holofernes,

Leiris.jpg

and read from the prologue these words, which spoke to me then and still do today:

My chief activity is literature, a term greatly disparaged today. I do not hesitate to use it, however, for it is a question of fact: one is a literary man as one is a botanist, a philosopher, an astronomer, a physicist, a doctor. There is no point inventing other terms, other excuses to justify one’s predilection for writing: anyone who likes to think with a pen in his hand is a writer. The few books I have published have won me no fame. I do not complain of this, any more than I brag of it, for I feel the same distaste for the “popular author’ genre as for that of the “neglected poet.” (Michel Leiris, Manhood, p 4)

Unlike Leiris or Bataille, to whom Leiris dedicated his self-inquiry, or Bataille’s friend Blanchot, I never gathered on my shelves the works of Francis Ponge. Where I learnt of the quotation that the artist brings into his workshop items of the world to repair one at a time, I do not know, and a cursory google search cannot conceal the sloppiness of my literary scholarship in that notebook, penned at a time of desperation, when I did not know how to continue being what I was, a literary man, and still succeed in the world.

All I remember of reading Ponge is struggling to find my way through Derrida’s essay Signponge – and wondering what it was that provoked such an extraordinary text. I think now, as I read more of Ponge’s attention to the thing itself, simple things, ordinary things, reimagined with puns, dad jokes, word play, that it was simplicity itself that so infuriated Derrida, and made him turn the pun of Ponge’s name into an attack on any aspiration to find meaning in things themselves, outside the endless commentary of differance.

At the same time I would deliberately set aside the too difficult question announced by this word; it escapes any frontal approach, and the thing [Ponge’s name, the thing that is not a thing, and yet is declared in Derrida’s sentence] that I am going to talk about obliges me to reconsider mimesis through and through, as an open-ended question, but also as a miniscule vanishing point at the already sunlit abyssal depths of the mimosa. (Derrida, Signponge, (1976, trans 1984) p. 4

The aggressive brio of the scholar. Shots fired a the podium. Words as weapons.

Derrida’s words no longer fascinate me. But through Ponge I discover things that can renew poetry. I read also that Ponge became a recluse in his later life. In this fate he shared with Blanchot, I see my own. The writer who is a recluse looks like Narcissus into the pool and hopes to see his psyche’s echo.

It reminds me of the poem I published in ars poetica IV in May 1997, a couple of years before I penned my thoughts in this notebook, at a time when I hoped to escape the dreariness of a life in servitude as a lowly under-castellan to a minor provincial government, an escape which I have never been able to effect.

 

Dream Life

I

In that small moment dream takes

to fly from memory and become

the nagging image of forgetfulness

the muted clank of psyche’s hold

I can turn too well in bed

and learn the pains of comfort.

II

Whenever these rivers of the night

Dry hard into red scorched beds

Depression takes over my daily self

Like the avenging angel of time.

Scouring winds rub out the image

Leaving behind the carcase of summer.

III

Suppose thought gave way to dream.

Bridges would collapse. Our simple talk

Would become a spree of metaphor

Not even poets could afford.

Self would reign over all meaning

And again the tower would fall.

IV

But why do these solitary creations

reveal their meaning first to others

as if the dreaming tongue betrayed

its beloved solipsism? Eyes wrapped

in fabrics of truth and lies,

the dream asks its interlocutor: who?

V

A tree springs from my stomach.

Nebuchadnezzar’s madness overcomes time and reason

to plant itself in my soil

to come alive again as if

all history is compressed by night

into an image none can forget.

VI

This drowning boat, this fish river,

this medusa returning as a bowl

of squirming snakes which I eat:

these dreams lie like abandoned gifts

but still share their secret being

with listeners to my night’s echo

 

Jeff Rich (1997)

boyd nebuchadnezzar

(Image: Arthur Boyd, Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream of a Tree)

The first line of Derrida’s Psyche: Inventions of the other: “What else am I going to be able to invent?”

Metamorphosis

You can twist at the foot of the stems
The elastic of your heart
It is not like chenille
That you will know the flowers
When more than one sign
Your Rush to Happiness

He shuddered and jumped
Joined the butterflies …

Francis Ponge

Strange salt

Strange salt

All I’ve suffered, and all the suffering I’ve  caused, might have arisen from the lack of a little salt in my brain.”

Robert Lowell

I have been reading Kay Redfield Jamison’s Robert Lowell. Setting the River on Fire: a study of genius, mania and character. It is a lusciously detailed and clinically informed study of Lowell bipolar disorder, its treatments and the endurance of his writing through the many crises his madness bestowed on him.

In the late 60s Lowell began to take lithium for his illness. Lithium, this strange and ancient salt, would change Lowell’s experience of illness and mania. For the next 15 years the frequent, yearly or more, attacks of mania would subside. These attacks had harrowed Lowell’s soul and left him with a constant fear of the recurrence of mania. Jamison insightfully compares the trauma of mania or other psychotic episodes to the trauma of war. After lithium Lowell could live through a late peace.

There is a debate about the quality of Lowell’s poetry in these years of less strife and torment. Jamison takes the view the lithium gave Lowell more years to write without the ravages of madness. Jamison can speak with authority. She has known those manias and the falls, and has written a wonderful account of her own descent as a psychiatrist into her personal bipolar hell. I share her view, knowing in my own life how a little pill can school an errant mind.

Surely poetry, literature, art do not demand the sacrifice of the poet, writer, artist, prophet to the destructive gods of madness. Surely we can shift the inner circles of body and mind, just as we remake nature with culture which is after all part of nature. Surely we can make this small offering of a little salt or a pill to appease the gods of destruction.

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat

“Psychoanalysts don’t usually write essays; they tend to write lectures or papers or chapters, or what are called, perhaps optimistically, contributions.” Adam Phillips “Coda: up to a point” in One Way or Another: New and Selected Essays

If Phillips’ invitation, masked in the form of a provocation, is true of psychoanalysis, how much more true is it of my own profession – public servant, civil servant, bureaucrat. Bureaucrats do not write essays, or so some people might believe. They write briefs, presentations, summaries, talking points – in descending order of intellectual significance. Indeed among many of the bureaucrats among whom I have made a kind of living – like some transplanted flower placed by a bumbling gardener in too much sun or too much shade, in the acid soil, where its roots soak all day in water – to write an essay is a phrase to denigrate a staff member who has put too much thought into a paper, and simply cannot reduce it down to memorisable talking points to be scanned for performance in front of your superiors. “Don’t give me an essay…” they will say “just tell me what I need to know.”

Is it because of the general contempt in this profession of contumely for the most inventive and flexible genre of prose that fiction writers have left us more caricatures and few grand characters who are bureaucrats? A few years ago I recall a lifeless panel run by the local institute of public administration that asked the latest bunch of mini (very) celebrity bureaucrats what books they felt best represented life in the bureaucracy. The responses were so pallid, except for one, from a genuine reader, who nominated Hilary Mantel’s rich portrait of that man of affairs, Thomas Cromwell, in Wolf Hall and its sequels. When you search google for best novels about the bureaucracy, you get a rather tired old list. Kafka’s Castle. Heller’s Catch 22. Gogol’s Dead Souls. and then a few references to satires of communist bureaucracy – as if it were only an East European institution – before slipping in a reference to Yes, Minister, or similar light television comedies, including in the Australian context Utopia. A few mention David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest or Pale King – from which I recall surely one of the funniest literary names for a government department – the United States Office of Unspecified Services – USOUS – which you may well pronounce as youse owe us.

But these representations of life in the bureaucracy have never really registered with me as genuine engagements with the life of the mind as it is practised in our government offices. Yet, it is that very culture, with its foibles and traps and few moments of genius, that I have dedicated the greater part of my working life to. It is that life of the mind in which I have experienced problems as deep, ethical dilemmas as thorny, practical judgements as meticulous as any second-rate university research seminar. But the world would not know this – because bureaucrats do not write essays.

So maybe they should, and maybe I should, and maybe I have already begun. Adam Phillips is an inspiration to me in this task, this attempt, this essay, in more ways than one. He has stepped outside the sterile code of his profession and lifted from its place, discarded on the floor, one of the traditions that exceed the profession’s histories. After all, Freud was a great essayist, perhaps a greater essayist than a psychologist (the opposite may be said of his disciple turned rival Carl Jung). And within my profession – with some flexible interpretation of its boundaries across a long and diverse global history – there have been some great essayists, some great investigators of the human spirit as it is tested in the public life of the mind. There are the Chinese ancients for a start. Confucius was, after all, a public official dismayed at the demoralisation of conduct in public office, who roamed the country for years with his teachings that sought to inspire a nobler spirit of duty. There were the great Byzantine scholar-bureaucrats. Indeed, there is the extraordinary  Anna Comnena and her portrait of her father, Alexiad. There is Francis Bacon  – although we might reach with him perhaps more for the title of statesman and grandee, but still government official he was. His essays speak still across the centuries to the peculiar obligations, duties and privileges of the bureaucrat who offers advice to a modern-day prince. “The greatest trust, between man and man,” Bacon wrote around 1600 “is the trust of giving counsel.” (Francis Bacon, “Of Counsel”, The Essays)

So if Bacon’s essays can endure these 400 years, and preserve a wisp of this peculiar, secreted and yet all too human life that I have led as a government official, surely I should honor this tradition by picking it up from its dusty corner and finding a new reinvention of the essay form to speak of the true experience of bureaucracy.

Long ago – maybe ten years ago – I took it into my head to write one such essay about the real life of the mind of bureaucrats – at least the kind of public official that I aspire to be – that would take its cue from Wallace Stevens “Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird.” Over the years the yearning to express the true spirit has grown stronger as I have watched public institutions and public culture decay around me, and read other testimony of such decay, as in Francis Fukuyama’s Political Order  and Political Decay. The first impulse of this essay was to speak as a wistful, even comic, challenge to the many “stakeholders” I had met over the years who had treated me and other faithful public servants with sneering contempt. Take a look at the world through my eyes for a minute, if you will. Think of me as Stevens’ manifold blackbird, and do not fixate on a cardboard cut-out image of who I am, what I do, and especially how I think.

As the years have rolled on, however, my thoughts on the essay have turned in different directions. I have wanted to write a “J’Accuse” to all the treasonous clerks who have profited from office, sought to break the greater traditions of the profession, and betrayed the higher purposes of public service. Some even proclaim nonsense like the “public purpose sector” to describe all the consultocrats and tax farming firms who thrive on advantageous government contracts, tolls and partnerships. In yet another mood, “Thirteen ways of looking at a bureaucrat” is an elegy for a kind of life of the mind that has died around me. I sing my sad songs and hope the gods will resurrect this tradition. But the odds on that seem to grow slimmer by the day.

Still, what is writing for, if not to write sad songs that honour the traditions that represent the best of who you are? And who can say that my laments may not inspire at least one of my fellow officials to rise above the muck of daily talking points, the ill-considered decisions, the bluff and bluster of those consultocratic courtiers who know no better way?

So with those questions, let me end for tonight, and promise a mini-series of posts – 13 episodes in all – each prompted by that great poem on perspective – “Thirteen ways of looking at a bureaucrat.”

The book of my soul

The book of my soul

Image source: Gitksan woman Shaman and Chief, Kispiox, British Columbia, 1909, by George Thornton Emmons Collection no. 131 (University of Washington Libraries) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Why do we write poetry? In a world of inexhaustible archives, where we are overwhelmed with voices, why would we ply our own into the unending and infinite conversation? Why do this when although we have control over the words we write, we have no control over their reception in the world or the fruits of the work?

“Alas! What boots it with uncessant care

To tend the homely slighted shepherd’s trade,

And strictly meditate the thankless Muse?” (Milton, Lycidas)

My last post on conceptual poetry prompted me to think on this, since there is a way in which the proponents of the cutting edge have abandoned the thankless muse and turned their poetry into a species of barren, mechanical marketing. They abolish the anxiety of authentic authorship by turning everything into a cheap showman’s trick.

My post also prompted thoughtful responses from one of my readers, Daniel Paul Marshall, who says, quite beautifully, that “my entire reason to write poetry is due to Wallace Stevens saying it isn’t everyday the world forms into a poem.”

Daniel also pointed me towards the Inflectionist Review, which does articulate a sense of poetry as belonging to a long and deep tradition of infinite conversation between readers and writers, who are readers, rather than a ceaseless war of the new against the old, of radicalism against tradition.

At the Inflectionist Review they say, in describing their poetry movement:

The literary tradition is as ancient as our capacity for verbal communication. Through ages, most of the core human concerns have remained the same, although our ability to analyze and discuss them has evolved. Poetry has remained essentially the same in that it elicits our reaction by appealing to those concerns indirectly.

They also say “Poetry seeks to represent the type of human interaction that causes a positive spark, an epiphany, a sense of growth.” This connection of poetry to psyche or to soul seems to me, as I discussed in an earlier post, what Wallace Stevens referred to when he spoke of nobility in poetry. The poet’s special privilege and responsibility is an ecstatic freedom of the mind, and the worst forms of literary avant-gardism abandon and abuse this privilege.

Now, I am not one to raise an aesthetic war banner and plant it in the ground, but I do see my poetry – and my writing more generally, my prose and whatever the art form that this blog is attempting to shape – as part of a longer, humbler and more secret tradition than the loud brash declarations of the avant-garde.

When I write I belong in Milton’s homely slighted shepherd’s trade, and to the spirit worlds of all the unknown shamans of the world, who sang their chants, beat their drums, and went on unknowable journeys into the night.

Instead of a statement of an aesthetic philosophy, my mind turned to a poem I wrote some years back, and included in my self-published e-book, After the Pills. It was the first poem in the second half of that collection, which were poems written after I began to take medication for my mental illness. It was one of the first poems I wrote after that time, and it marked, perhaps even broke open the ground that made possible, the beginning of a more productive, more enjoyable, more free writing life.

Here it is.

The book of my soul

“The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof but canst not tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth.”
John, chapter 3. verse 8.

In a plain bound book
I tattoo white paper in blue
Then wrap myself in this shaman’s cloak
To fly with the eagle to a sky renewed.

I sing words salvaged from the press
In the intervals of Te Deum,
Stolen from its church,
Sung so only its melancholy shines.

Pärt turned to church and tradition
Amidst a century of horror
And I turn to these conjured spirits
In a world polluted by podcast trash.

Inwardly, I turn – not without question.
The simplest words are sewn with elaborate doubt.
But into the image of inwardness
I dive deeper, and there find reasons to go on.

In the mandalas, strange mazes, of this book
I encircle, tame, and then hold fast
The sound of the blowing wind.

Jeff Rich

If this kind of writing practice makes me a traditionalist or even a conservative, who will never be fashionable, so be it. I do not seek fame or fashion from what I do with my voices, and I draw inspiration from others who do the same. The poem refers to the music of Arvo Pärt, the Estonian composer, who fled Soviet repression, and produced some of the most beautiful music of the twentieth century, springing from the traditions of church music.

Here is a performance of Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum if you do not know it, via YouTube and created by Akademisk Kor, Akademisk Orkester, Nenia Zenana, conductor.
Marianne G. Nielsen, solist. I can think of no more fitting end.

The Great Confinement

The Great Confinement

Image Source: photograph, Sarah Lee, Bethlem Museum of the Mind exhibition, The Guardian

From Keats, Hyperion:

Just at the self-same beat of Time’s wide wings
Hyperion slid into the rustled air,
And Saturn gain’d with Thea that sad place
Where Cybele and the bruised Titans mourn’d.
It was a den where no insulting light
Could glimmer on their tears; where their own groans
They felt, but heard not, for the solid roar
Of thunderous waterfalls and torrents hoarse,
Pouring a constant bulk, uncertain where.
Crag jutting forth to crag, and rocks that seem’d
Ever as if just rising from a sleep,
Forehead to forehead held their monstrous horns;
And thus in thousand hugest phantasies
Made a fit roofing to this nest of woe

I have taken up again, after a break of two months, Andrew Scull’s Madness in Civilization: a cultural history of insanity. Here I learn that the archetypal lunatic asylum of the English speaking world, Bedlam or Bethlem Hospital , featured two large statues on plinths at its gates. These statues (pictured above) were of the figures of melancholy and raving madness. Melancholy madness lay imprisoned and disabled by his sadness. Raving madness, full of impotent torrents hoarse, lay shackled. These two statues, according to Scull, were alluded to by Keats in his poem of the fall of the titans, Hyperion, which I confess I have not read until prompted to by Scull’s account. They appear as the bruis’d Titans, who make a fit roofing for this nest of woe.

Whether we know them as asylums or mental hospitals or rehabilitation clinics, these places, which I have known as a visitor, but not a patient, have long been nests of woe. But Scull does a fine job of showing that they can at times be more than that, and that beneath the lurid and dark imaginings, the grotesque exploitation of the insane and the infirm for profit or for poetry, there are other motives and other experiences of caring and protection in these places. Of course, he does not minimise the cruelty and the suffering known in these places, but he also sees the compassion of those who cared and sought to find a place of refuge for their ill family members, and, with a modern perspective, sees the struggle of families in a world with few supports to take care of their mad members and to protect all who knew them from their worst excesses.

So, where the French radical literary tradition celebrated de Sade as the great libertine whose texts speak of excess and transgression that defy the law that sought to confine him with lettres de cachet, Scull gives attention to his despairing mother-in-law who saw her daughter lost in de Sade’s fantasy world and betrayed by de Sade’s affairs with her sister and many prostitutes. So Madame de Montreuil lured de Sade with a ruse to Paris, where she confined him in the Chateau de Vincennes and then the Bastille. Every loving family member of a person who is experiencing the extremes of psychotic behaviour can understand what she did, without recourse to Foucault’s grand myth of resistance to reason, the Great Confinement. Indeed this radical literary tradition celebrating de Sade culminated in Foucault’s celebration of the remorseless libertine in both his texts and his life.

This myth, Scull shows, was mistaken about the true historical circumstances. The idea that Foucault put forward, that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, through a strange shifting of symbols and discourse in the minds of Western man (since Foucault did indeed think in such terms), there was a Great Confinement of the insane “vastly overstates the true state of affairs.” (p 127) The insane were a small and secondary population in the great congregations of the broken in the new French general hospitals, such as the Saltpetriere. Even more so in the rural Europe, most of the mad who were confined were a danger to themselves or others, and most the mad were dealt with, often inadequately, within families, poor houses or religious institutions.

Still the image created by Foucault, in that strangely mesmerizing yet unsatisfying book,  Folie et Deraison (translated as Madness and Civilization in English), has an enduring magic. “By a strange act of force, the classical age was to reduce to silence the madness whose voices the Renaissance had liberated, but whose voices it had already tamed,” Foucault wrote (Madness and Civilization, p 38). For me this grand gesture of retrieving from confined silence the voices of madness has always had a strange power. It has made me overlook all the errors and inconsistencies of Foucault’s argument. It has made me pass over the crude recycled Marxism of Foucault’s interpretation of the great confinement as an act of power asserting order.

But I cannot overlook this any more. There it is, in his text, the absurd statement that the Hopital General (apologies for no accents or diacritical marks since I do not yet know how to produce them from my keyboard) and all the professions of medical care for the insane “had nothing to do with any medical concept. It was an instance of order, of the monarchical and bourgeois order being organized in France during this period.” (p. 40) And later, “Confinement … is a ‘police’ matter. Police, in the precise sense that the classical epoch gave to it – that is, the totality of measures which make work possible and necessary for all those who could not live without it…. What made it necessary was an imperative of labor. Our philanthopy prefers to recognize the signs of a benevolence toward sickness where there is only condemnation of idleness” (Madness and Civilization p 46).

So Foucault turns all the complex storm of emotions, thought and practice provoked by the still deeply mysterious presence of madness in our lives to an old-fashioned Marxist conspiracy theory that condemns the bourgeois in a stance of radical defiance. As Roger Scruton says in his essay on Foucault in Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, Foucault “devoted his work to unmasking the bourgeoisie, and showing that all the given ways of shaping civil society are reducible in the last analysis to forms of domination.” In the end, this rhetoric is helpless before the real experience of falling into madness or caring for a loved one who is mentally ill.

Scruton also identifies the enduring power of Foucault’s writings. His essay is a sensitive and remarkable tribute, yet a scathing critique. He writes of Foucault with a generosity and admiration not dispensed on other fools, frauds and firebrands, such as Sartre, Habermas or the entirely despicable Jacques Lacan. “His imagination and intellectual fluency,” Scruton writes,”have generated theories, concepts and insights by the score, and the synthesising poetry of his style rises above the murky sludge of left-wing writing like an eagle over mud-flats.” He identifies that Foucault’s great book on madness retells the Hegelian master-slave story as a conflict between reason and madness, and it is perhaps my own experience of struggling to find my way between these two experiences that had led to my long enchantment with Foucault’s metaphors and my long search through his radical pantheon of mad anti-gods. As Scruton writes from the revolt of the Romantics and the early modernists through to the twentieth century:

Madness is out of the cage, and confronting us with our truth. At the end of Foucault’s drama the gods of the French post-war Olympus enter stage left, to stick out their tongues at the bourgeoisie in the stalls. Goya, de Sade, Holderlin, Nerval, Van Gogh, Artaud, Nietzsche, all are proof, for Foucault, that the voice of unreason (deraison) can no longer be silenced, and that the reign of bourgeois normality is over.” (Scruton, Fools, Frauds and Firebrands)

This great dreamt titanic struggle between shackled raving madness and its captor, ordinary life has both sustained me and led me many times astray. Still, I feel Foucault could only have written this great book by knowing the borderlands of madness and reason from the inside, and this experience speaks in the poetry of his style in a way that his drier and more pedantic critics cannot attain, despite all their evidence and good sense.

Yet today, I let it go in the knowledge that the voices of madness have never wholly be silenced nor confined. So instead of Keats’ epic vision of madness, as much a vision from the outside as the confining, caring doctors in Foucault’s own poetic epic, let us recall that even in an asylum, with medical confinement, the voice of John Keats’ near contemporary, John Clare, could still speak and break the silence, with a tone quite different to Artaud’s obscene laden rants, and in a way that reaches to every one who writes, and so asserts their being, however diminished by the vast shipwreck of any life. Here, in closing, is John Clare’s poem “I am”.

I am (John Clare)

I am: yet what I am none cares or knows

My friends forsake me like a memory lost,

I am the self-consumer of my woes –

They rise and vanish in oblivious host,

Like shadows in love’s frenzied, stifled throes –

And yet I am, and live – like vapors tossed

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,

Into the living sea of waking dreams,

Where there is neither sense of life or joys,

But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;

Even the dearest, that I love the best,

Are strange – nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes, where mam hath never trod,

A place where woman never smiled or wept –

There to abide with My Creator, God,

And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,

Untroubling, and untroubled where I lie,

The grass below – above the vaulted sky.

John Clare (composed some time between 1842-64 in Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, now St Andrew’s Hospital).)

john-clare