The question is, of course, whether a writer genuinely reveals anything, and whether a reader can discover what it is.
—Philip Rousseau (‘Knowing Theodoret: Text and Self’, p. 277)1
It is difficult to know how to read books about psychosis. Unless one has also experienced abnormal mental states, sympathy – in the sense of feeling or suffering with the narrator – is impossible; at best one can achieve empathy, but this is contingent (at least in part) on the force of the presentation. In the case of a ‘neurodivergent’ author, this involves either bridging the gap between ‘normal’ and ‘divergent’ or harnessing the divergence to fashion a simulacrum, a mask, with which the ‘neurotypical’ can, at least, begin to engage, if not to comprehend.2
It is with this in mind that I say I found it hard to know what to make (if anything) of The Collected Schizophrenias. I initially attempted to read it when it first came out, but was so disgusted by the arrogant privilege of the life presented that I had to set it aside. It continued to bother me, though – and I returned to it mostly to make sense of my own discomfort and explore the limen, as it were.3 There is a part of one essay where the author4 observes that, in multiple psychiatric evaluations, she was evaluated as having ‘poor insight’, and much of the collection seems to be an attempt to rebut that assessment. As might be expected, it is only partially successful in doing so, perhaps because she presents only her ‘best and most beautiful self, for the most part’. Self-image is not the same as self-perception – or self-knowledge.5
To my mind, the definition of childhood is very simple: belief in the stability and the goodness of the world. Take away that belief, and childhood comes to an end.
Am I overcome with emotion at the joy of innocence and childlike naivety? Not at all: I abhor that state of innocence precisely because it is ignorant of the real world in all its magnificence, horror and divinity. To accept the world and love it just as it is – herein lies the glory of mankind. It would be too easy to love a good world.
—Banine (Days in the Caucasus, p. 145)
Talk about the book (or at least such talk as I noticed) mentioned the ‘philosophical’ qualities of the essays, but although the experience of neurodivergence raises many interesting philosophical questions, it did not seem to me that the collection truly engaged with them. Instead, the text remains on the level of surfaces or appearances – or projection.6 This is perhaps a strategy necessary for the author’s ability to be in the world – questioning what reality is and if it exists is perhaps not a best practice when one is living in a liminal state between one’s personal reality and the reality commonly accepted by others (and watching a movie carries one across that threshold): ‘The idea of “believing” something turns porous as I repeat the tenets of reality like a good girl. […] I know what is supposed to be true, and that includes a reality without shadowy demons or sudden trapdoors’ (128). As a result of this disassociation between mental state and physical being, most of the essays present a mask, usually one edited for the situation (as in the talks she gives to different audiences, patient and practitioner, at a mental health clinic): ‘I believed that it made sense to playact normalcy’ (148). Play, as Huizinga and others point out, creates a real world, but it is also not real – and the uncanny essay in which the author talks about blurring the boundaries of games with her friends as a child creates unease: is the same thing happening in this text?7
…by none of my philosophical tendencies was I so carried away as by scepticism, which at one time led me to the verge of insanity. I imagined that besides myself nobody and nothing existed in the universe, that objects were not objects at all, but images which appeared only when I paid attention to them, and that as soon I left off thinking of them, these images immediately disappeared. In a word, I coincided with Schelling in the conviction that not objects exist but my relation to them. There were moments when, under the influence of this idée fixe, I reached such a state of insanity that I sometimes looked rapidly round to one side, hoping to catch emptiness (néant) unawares where I was not.
A pitiful, trivial spring of mental action is the mind of man! My feeble mind could not penetrate the impenetrable, and in that effort lost, one by one, the convictions which, for my life’s happiness, I ought never to have dared to disturb.
—Tolstoy (Boyhood, p. 197)
Books, by nature, move the reader out of reality and take one outside of one’s own lived experience at least in so far as one enters the lived experience of being a reader. There is the sense that one is being taken for a ride: not because one is going to be transported to any particular destination, but because it is necessary that one pay a fare, but here there is too much of a hard sell. There is a hint of desperation in the name dropping of universities, designers, and other markers of authority – as though adhering to a particular style, be it particular discontinued red lipstick or the conventions of the American Psychological Association – will make the world comprehensible.8 One wonders if this is because, as the author continually notes, being able to hold down a job is a mark of being ‘high-functioning’ (51, passim) and she needs to convince the audience, convince herself, that – through the success of the book, through being able to make a living through the book, through writing – she has succeeded in functioning for another day.
Perhaps part of my difficulty with the text is that it is unclear to me how artful it is. If it lacks the layers which can be read onto it, then it is simply a mediocre book – but that does not feel particularly fair. If it is successful as a creation (that is, if it is good as a book), then it seems less satisfactory as a moral object – but is the category of morality relevant in this particular context? I don’t know and, while there are many things that I don’t know, this makes me nervous. Is this intentional? Is the reader meant to be as disoriented9 about the limits of meaning in the text in a way similar to the author’s confusion about the limits of reality? Is interpretation hallucination?10
I feel myself open to the charge – ‘You don’t understand!’ This is an accurate assessment. I do not understand. Yet I wished to understand – which is why I read the book. But after reading it, I still don’t understand and, more disconcerting, I am not sure that there is something to understand and, if there is, that it would possible for me to do so. Perhaps my concern, though, is that a book is a mirror – and I do not particularly like what I see in this one.
- Please note that the quotations included here are not essential for illuminating what I have to say or the book in question – they seemed to me, being read at the same time, to resonate with elements of my difficulties in interpretation. [↩]
- ‘Everything has two handles, the one by which it may be carried, the other by which it cannot,’ quoth Epictetus in The Encheiridion (§43, as translated by Elizabeth Carter). I am not sure that the idea of the ‘normal’ (or ‘neurotypical’) is one of the usable ones – please therefore forgive the scare quotes. [↩]
- This is not said without irony. [↩]
- There is perhaps a distinction between the author, the narrator, and the person. I am not interested in that here and use the term ‘author’ to refer to the first two without the distinction; the third is unknown to me and is, quite explicitly, not wholly communicated in this text, viz., the chapter in which the reader is told they do not deserve some specific details – this is naturally true, but it does not particularly need saying: any reading of autobiographical writing is by its nature voyeuristic, and some authors enjoy the exhibitionism more than others (thinking particularly of Augustine and Rousseau here). [↩]
- I should perhaps clarify that I do not believe myself to be speaking from a place of superior self-knowledge – or even self-perception. [↩]
- An example of what I mean. In one of the stronger essays in the collection, the author is helping her husband back out of a parking spot. At the time, she is experiencing Cotard’s syndrome and believes she is not alive. A stranger walking past turns his head to look at her – her response: ‘Yes, I thought, our eyes meeting, you may think I’m hot, but I’m also a rotting corpse. Sucks to be you, sir’ (154). Humor is intended here, but I find it troubling. How does one presume to know what someone else is thinking? Perhaps her lipstick was smudged. Perhaps her bra strap was showing. perhaps her hair was a peculiar color. Perhaps he was not looking at her at all but was lost in his own thoughts and turned his head for reasons that had nothing to do with her at all and the eye contact was accidental, incidental. The author presents herself as knowing what the stranger is thinking; she also presents herself as knowing that she is a corpse. What, then, is known? What does it mean to know something? I’ve been sort of noodling through (or around) Bergson and Locke lately, which forms the backdrop for this crankiness. [↩]
- Is this understanding the world as a child? Or have childish things been put away? It is not clear. [↩]
- The question of religion, too is an interesting one, which could have been expanded; in the chapter in which she contemplates a conversion to Catholicism (for marriage), it is the theatre of ritual that draws the attention. The wrestling with faith and belief mostly happens ‘offstage’. [↩]
- Others have noted the ‘pervasive disorientation’ in the text. [↩]
- That seems like the sort of horrible thing a person who has not experienced a hallucination would say, something that is connected neither to horror of the lived experience of hallucination nor with an empathetic reading of the text. [↩]