How often have you heard it said, in hushed tones, through gritted teeth: ‘X is driving me round the bend’? It’s a common one, isn’t it? Certain people press your buttons; their words, attitude, and general droning on drives you nuts, yet the person next to you is unaffected, it rolls off them like rain falling on a well-waxed Barbour coat. How is that someone – or something – can get in under your skin and test your sanity? Off you go: fixated, ruminating, chewing on it like tough steak, burrowing steep-sided thought tunnels, impossible to climb out of. A form of craziness kicks in.
We are about to enter the season that can ramp up the madness. It’s that sticky time of year when we become expert at driving ourselves, and others, around the bend. The parties, the shopping, the cooking, the pressure to be ‘doing’ – all of it stirs us up. It shouldn’t be that way, and those of you who are wise or lucky (maybe both), will manage to either exile or protect yourself from the cyclone of insanity that can sometimes be whipped up around the festive season. Some feel forced to endure gatherings, then feel guilty about not enjoying them. From where you are standing, maybe it looks like everyone else’s family is straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting; inter-generational groups happily seated around the table in anticipation of father carving the turkey. If only. And not all of us can be the stoic described in Rudyard Kipling’s poem, ‘If’: “If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you.” More realistic, it seems to me, is: if you can lose your head without too much drama, recognise you’re going mad, and take yourself off to a quiet place for a melt down, it’ll do you the world of good.
There’s a film called, ‘The Homesman’ that I recently watched and enjoyed. It’s a Western, set in mid-19th-century Nebraska, and it’s a masterful study on madness. Not the lightest of films, the story is of a frontier farmer woman (Mary Bee Cuddy) who escorts three women who have suffered breakdowns to the relative safety and civilisation of Iowa. The Nebraska winter, on top of an already grim frontier life, has cracked them open, so Cuddy brings them, chained up in the back of a wagon, through dangerous terrain, herself going mad in the process whilst her seemingly insane companion (outlaw, George Briggs) survives the physical and mental trials of the journey. Reflecting on their shackled cargo, Briggs says to Cuddy: “People like to talk about death and taxes, but when it comes to crazy, they stay hushed up.”
You might say Shakespeare was a little fixated with madness, so much so one must assume he had experienced it himself. Many of his great heroes were driven around the proverbial bend with distraction: Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, Othello. King Lear unsuccessfully railed against going mad, begging for divine intervention, “O! Let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven; keep me in temper; I would not be mad!” Whereas Hamlet clung to his madness, almost seeming to enjoy his lunacy: “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.” The phrase, ‘method in one’s madness,’ is derived from ‘Hamlet’, indicating that erratic behaviour might actually lead to a resolution, to a better place.
Should we allow ourselves ‘an acceptable level of madness’? It seems to me that Emily Dickinson did. She welcomed being different; not thinking as others did. She turned it all on its head, arguing that the majority of us are mad for how we conform and fall into line with what is expected, and that she, the non-conformist, considered mad, was in fact the most sane. She fought against society’s tainted view of herself as crazy, and pointed the finger back at them.
Good luck out there in the weeks to come. Don’t feel as though you have to stay hushed up when you’re going round the bend. If you lose it, if you think you’re going mad, just remember, you’re in great company.
Much Madness is divinest Sense, by Emily Dickinson
Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
’Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain –