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Dealing With Iconoclasts-turned-icons

Behold the state of psychiatry in the 50s and 60s. Ripe with over-diagnosis, misdiagnosis and bias, making it up as it went along, which R. D. Laing was so brave enough to expose…

At the same time, the above is a reminder of the Paragon Paradox: how a surprisingly large number of individuals — whose work we consider important — were at some point or other deemed mad by our standards; not just in the past, but to this day.

To this day, we continue to point fingers and call people crazy, locking them up to punish them for challenging the norms and for calling our paradigms into question.

It’s a sad setup. Our progress may be tangible, but some things haven’t changed. From the dungeons of religion and absolute monarchy, the king’s or queen’s pleasure, or God’s will, or any deity’s whim, we have moved to the bible of psychopathology and the royal decree of psychiatry. Same old story, new narrative style. We love to label people nuts and put them away, to brand and exile them, to marginalize and persecute them, all because we fear the Other.

Which raises the question: how far have we truly progressed? Are we making real progress or merely changing our problems by degree, our issues remaining unaddressed? Are we still cave people, stuck in our tribal mindsets, worshipping the shadows on the wall, albeit now in command of jet engines and microwaves and the mass media, willing to bash one another over the head in the name of cave order? When are we finally going to shed those skins and step out into the open where innovation and order co-exist, where the different aren’t automatically crushed?

Here’s another question, more central to the world we live in:

Are we, perchance, pathologizing achievement, clarity, and genius? Are we creating problems for those with visionary ability or larger-than-life perspectives? Our eagerness to find symptoms in anyone who stands out is worrisome and dangerous.

It also seems that we’re living in a truly broken world where we aspire to certain things while at the same time we live our lives according to rules that negate, if not oppose, the very values we aspire to. We take one step back with every step forward, praising ourselves with one hand and slapping ourselves with the other. We’re confused and disoriented, unable to keep our course. Our doctrines are in conflict with our actions, our beliefs not followed through.

If Jesus taught transcendence, for example, why are we taught to play the role of meek lambs instead of emulating His actions? What kind of dogma creates an abyss between teacher and student, a gap that is meant to be bridged by the student never attaining the teacher’s status? Why is obedience the goal, at the end of which awaits the promise of heaven’s organic farm (vs. hell’s abattoir)?

It goes on, and not just in terms of religion. Secular, rational society is equally broken. If freedom and self-determination and higher achievement are values we cherish, why do we deem Nietzsche’s insight psychotic? What is wrong with having the courage to change one’s convictions or addressing the weak links in any arrangement?

And why is Joyce deemed more of a druggie heretic outcast than a visionary, his name finding its way on psychiatry’s black lists?

In fact, if innovation and daring are important in life, why is conformity so high on the agenda?

If one is supposed to blend in and not revere iconoclasts, how is the next Stephen Hawking going to develop his or her or ze theories about the universe?

If breaking the rules is such a bad thing, how does one account for the Boston Tea Party? The French Revolution? The Industrial Revolution that challenged the cultural ethics of the day? The creation of Facebook by a couple of Harvard students who went rogue on the university’s online systems to come up with a thing called FaceMash that would eventually morph into the world’s biggest social media platform?

And if Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. hadn’t stood up to his law-invoking oppressors, how would the cause of civil rights have advanced?

And if Virginia Woolf were treated like any woman of her time — deemed a hysterical creature in need of mind-numbing treatment — how on earth would she have written her paradigm-shattering, life-changing literature?

And if Virginia Woolf was indeed symptomatic of some kind of psychopathology, by objective and sober standards, perhaps we ought to acknowledge her symptoms all the same, even as we revere her writings. (Warning: Curveball!) It would certainly strengthen her work, calling things by their name, augmenting our understanding of her oeuvre and the world she spoke about. Sexism and chauvinism in Woolf’s time would be identified, her feminist and humanist aspects traced out, understood in conjunction with her personality, but not reified into scripture. Glorification is tricky practice. Woolf’s bipolar, possibly schizoaffective episodes — and her overall state of mind — would be acknowledged, perhaps even understood in terms of the context, the life experience of a female author in Britain in the 1920s and the 1930s, but mostly as the personal manifestations of Woolf herself; a symbol rather than a cornerstone. An example rather than exemplary; the rough edges to an otherwise brilliant outlook, perhaps even necessary flaws and evils. All gems have them — flaws and imperfections that add value. It is said that great art relies on its flaws and imperfections, and one may say the same about character, perhaps even culture.

The distinction is important. Readers and future generations at large have a duty to themselves to scrutinize their icons. Glorification can take the back seat alongside judgment and pigeonholing. Readers have an obligation to enquire. Just because society over-diagnoses doesn’t mean that all diagnosis is useless. Throwing out the symptoms with the day’s bias is as ignorant an approach as wanton labeling.

Having spun the curveball, let us now proceed to a brief but constructive un-deification of Virginia Woolf and Friedrich Nietzsche, two important minds whose writings have great influence round the world. They will serve as our symbolic case studies for pioneers at large.

Note: one needn’t dig too deep into these two authors’ canon and personal lives. The argument doesn’t require it.

The premise is simple: Woolf’s writing was driven by insight and instinct that was well ahead of her time. At the same time, in addition to her illustriousness, Woolf was tormented. Her anguish was part of her brilliance; she used it to channel her energy, and inserted it in stories where the text, on account of its structure, turned into context — and not only did she deliver a different kind of story, she also told it in a fresh manner. She was successful in experimenting with time and perspective, imbuing her prose with musicality, her tone compelling, visionary, sagacious, uncompromising, and refreshingly ruthless.

And part of that writing, as it stands, cannot but be described in terms of raw pathology. Woolf’s genius and disorder are interlinked. The grandiosity in Orlando, the suicidal tendencies in Mrs. Dalloway, the despair and melancholy, the fierceness that turns vicious at times, single-minded, sharp in its anguish, anguished in the wake (and prospect of) oppression, eager to break free and survive. Pure Virginia Woolf. She is an icon because she broke boundaries, but she hurt herself doing it — or may have been damaged already — and her writing captures and encapsulates those injuries.

(Let us register how pacifism and humanism, like all -isms, have to fight to survive.)

Virginia Woolf, like any writer, was driven by a set of feelings, obsessions, and ideas. Without having to delve into the psychosynthesis of her characters, we can make the argument safely: that to glorify this dazzling author (one of the most influential on Yours Truly!) is misguided. Her outlook is her own, not the world’s, nor some kind of omniscient, universal divination of the human condition at large. She is a pioneer, not a mold. Her work is just one piece of the mosaic; pioneering, yes, but not fit for deification; no writer deserves such a curse. There is no room whatsoever for worship in the arts and sciences. (Let the world’s religions and cults have it, where impressions and deference are more important than substance.)

Woolf was, in fact, human, all too human, to borrow a phrase from a notorious misogynist. (Warning: Curveball Number Two! Let none be offended. The drop of a hat, a jibe, or the thick veils of propriety wafting shredded in the breeze — could they ever ruffle the feathers of those who seek knowledge?) Woolf’s readers know this, as do the readers of Nietzsche, Joyce and other such authors: notorious agent(e)s provocateurs/provocatrices who refused to play it safe, advancing the conversation by pushing boundaries and breaking down stereotypes.

This article, as such, is not a safe space either. There are no padded walls, no barriers to separate entitlement from critical thinking. All doors and corridors are open, all arguments in play. No stops, no safety nets. There’s no regard for anything but an exacting truth, if such a thing can ever exist. Those who are easily offended, this is your stop. From here on it’s a route only for those who don’t take themselves too seriously, and who are able to adjust to the ever-dynamic nature of the critical field. This is an arena, not a home care center. The pursuit of knowledge is ruthless, devoted chiefly to incisive argument. No quarter is given, save the places of rest for those in need of temporary respite from the grueling trials of introspection. No mollycoddling, no reservations, and zero loyalty to anything other than reason and inquiry, meaning and purpose i.e. the purpose of the argument at hand.

Warning: the above was a tangent, a side-track that brings us back to the stop for a short rest before we resume our journey.

As we rest, let’s entertain the notions of curiosity and discovery. Let fresh or forgotten truth come to light, enriching the narrative, enhancing the debate, sharpening the intellect and honing the spirit to ever more crucial points.

So yes, Woolf was all too human, as insightful as she was flawed, as fierce as she was self-serving, like all writers who wrestle with truths that have been suppressed for too long.

No wonder that she was met with derision from many of her contemporaries, mostly men, but also women. Woolf was too acerbic for the larger audience, a little tart, as one might say, at least in her non-fiction, and that made people bitter, afraid, and eager to reject her writing and perhaps even brand her a lunatic, using her as an example why things should remain put; why women should not ‘be granted’ more freedom.

If this is the paragon of the new womanhood, Woolf’s critics would say, a vicious assault on all things male, plus a thinly-stretched hold on reality — if Woolf is one more artist losing her mind between projects, or during them — then shut down the feminist cause and keep an eye on art in general because look at it, so full of degenerates it is, perhaps our greatest source of corruption, the devil’s playground, etc.

In part, Woolf’s enemies succeeded. It took a while for her work to be recognized and for the cause to break through. And women, their time overdue, gained and suffered at the same time, elevated and branded along the way. They shattered glass ceilings with Woolf’s help, the hypocrisies of chauvinistic society exposed. Having been subdued all this time, they were finally given a voice, a platform from which to take on the entrenched.

In fact, Woolf’s work was in many ways valuable to more than just women, inspiring the manhandled everywhere.

In that respect, Woolf was a prophet and liberator.

But the reverence she commands to this day is also a liability. To deem her oeuvre as gospel is all kinds of wrong, a page out of religion’s operating manual.

As for Woolf’s psychosynthesis, it was too volatile for comfort, and the effect she had on future generations was not wholly constructive.

I mean, we deem Jesus Christ — the symbol of the patriarchical Church — symptomatic of paranoid schizophrenia, and are perfectly willing to criticize the founding principles of the Christian doctrine, finding symptoms in the dogma, so by that token…

Here’s the thing. The teachings of Christ are best taken with a grain of salt (lest we turn into pillars of solid brine, tall and monolithic and desiccated for all time), and the same holds for all icons. We would be wise to extend the courtesy of circumspection to them.

Woolf, a literary and cultural giant, as it happens, is the first of two case studies on our aforementioned and briary list (Nietzsche to follow soon, getting his own), so Woolf, as she would have preferred, gets to lead the argument, always lead, always always always — probably not to her credit — an argument which the power-obsessed, lip-hirsute Nietzsche will close, having the last word, always the last word, always and forever, probably not to his credit either. Such obsession, although a great driver for achievement, can be pathological, something of which both our showcases are guilty.

(The above was Tangent Number Two, which gives us the opportunity to be irreverent, setting up the next part about safety.)

Like I said, this is not a safe space, not by a long shot, not even for our icons. No pampering or special favors, no bowing, wowing, or licking literary, philosophical, trendy boots. This space is a grinder, a mill of ideas and associations that aim to produce something of value. Everything is fair game. Everyone goes through the crunch until something of use is extracted. Great benefits await the non-precious and inquisitive, but not without a price. Side effects aplenty, and they include shaken faith, cracked certainty, shattered entitlements, disillusionment, insurrection (upon insurrection, to which not even the insurrectionists — past or present — are immune).

They also include a shifting landscape, a thick skin, and a complete lack of dependence on any single source of knowledge.

Side effects may also involve the willingness to look ahead for direction and over one’s shoulders for information.

So, yes, let’s call out the world for its nasty habit to brand mad the seditious ‘pricks’ and ‘bitches’ who dare stand out to challenge our norms (‘they said what? who do they think they are?’); who recalibrate the scene by offering the world new perspectives (‘how dare they! crucify them! lock them up! get rid of them!’).

At the same time, let us be wary of and objective about the trailblazers we absolve. We must be ready to apply our hard-earned knowledge to them, not letting them off the hook, none of them, especially not on account of their celebrity status or gender, their nationality, their authority, their cultural and political affiliations; their age, their lineage, their school of thought, or anything other than what they offer to the debate.

Easier said than done. Iconoclasm is hard work, especially when one is dealing with iconoclasts-turned-icons. We tend to forgive their faults and defects. Madness, trauma, vindication-cum-revenge, obsession, profanity, sedition — we find a way to rationalize and incorporate everything. In their name we demonize all those who disagree with them, spinning the very wires with which our predecessors had strung the world from the rafters, all in the name of a better, sounder, juster world.

The term used to be ‘fairer’ — a ‘fairer’ world. But that term is dead. Fair is bad, privileged. The new terms are ‘social’ and ‘justice’ and ‘cross-sectional’ (old concepts recycled) and the game of the day is, Point your finger, start a pogrom. Sins of the father etc. Avenge and destroy, and make it look like progress, and do it in the name of revered figures whose status and words no one dares oppose, lest one be branded anti-this or -that.

It’s a page out of every religion’s manual, alongside every sect, cult, regime or cause gone mad in its pursuit of power.

It’s all about power. Nietzsche, our insightful psychotic prophet was right. Life may be about many things, but power is central, like food to the mouth, the fangs, the claws, the guns, the words that shatter bones when stones are not enough. We go about finding nourishment in a variety of methods and tactics — we hunt, forage, farm, cultivate, invest, cooperate, take risks — but in the end, we thrive on the nutrients that burn in our stomachs.

And it’s the same with power. Say anything we want, present ourselves and our causes in any number of ways — act in the name of deities, God, party leaders, race and human gender, in the name of the grand human spirit itself — but what fuels our engines is the power we exercise over others. The way we impose ourselves over our rivals, the way we justify our excesses and slip-ups. The little lies we repeat to ourselves to set up the bigger lies, the delusion that history ends with us — that we have found the only way ahead. There lies the rub, our tragedy, and we give in to it and bear it with every cause we champion. Blissfully, perhaps even wilfully ignorant of our limitations, we disregard how the world is a process, a ladder of which we are but a rung that leads to the next level.

Rungs all the way up, but we expect more. We crave mountaintops, heavens, pinnacles, the last word as well as the first. We are so sure of ourselves, so swept up in the righteousness of our choices, we forget that no cause, not even the philosophy that holds our nature accountable to our innermost judge — not even the Nietzschean school of thought — is immune to corruption.

Poor Nietzsche. He forgot that to be true to the spirit of his worldview, he should have made his creed flexible, not absolute. He expected total faith in his philosophy, which defeated its own purpose.

It was a step forward that was executed by taking a step back. Neither enlightened nor libertarian, the philosophy ended up as nothing more than more of the same: redressed, recycled control jargon sold as brand new. Nietzsche came up with a perspective that redefined the way we looked at things, shattering old habits, rules and delusions, casting doubt over the obsessions of the day (religion and orthodoxy) only to become part of the problem.

Irony is never absent from our journey forward.

Then again, no one said the path to knowledge, progress and respectability was going to be easy.

I mean, not even God gets away with things, not if you’re a free-thinking person. Everyone and everything is accountable in the true grown-up world, and that includes the deities, the legends, and the deified personas, especially them, because think about it: what better way to get away with murder than to mold one’s convictions in the words of icons one has elevated to legendary, if not superhuman, status — icons whom no one may address critically, not without a backlash?

Yes, we must hold them accountable, especially if they’re important.

Note: As with Woolf, so with Nietzsche. The famously misogynist and toxically paranoid philosopher, brilliantly insightful as he was on a number of psychological issues, is responsible for a number of cultural diversions into precarious areas. His hard truths are both useful and dangerous at the same time, and we better pay attention to the danger.

The trick is to acknowledge the over-diagnosis-cum-labeling associated with those who stand out, while at the same time acknowledging how the world we live in is propped on blatant contradictions, values that are at odds with one another, and actions that undermine the very belief that drives them.

There’s a reason we keep going round in circles, and perhaps it’s best to speak in terms of a dangerously confused society.

And then, to really bring the point home, one requires the courage of one’s convictions to point out that it’s usually a bit of both: larger-than-life people are both inspirational and dangerous — to themselves, to others — and we need to proceed with optimistic, forward-thinking caution. Virginia Woolf was a pioneer, but she may well have normalized and spread a manic-depressive mindset among readers round the world. And Nietzsche, he may have done the same in terms of paranoid psychosis.

In other words, their respective viewpoints have value, but were also skewed, their psyche so scarred and pained that their writings may afflict readers in a manner not always constructive.

The answer isn’t censorship, of course. We live in a dangerous world, and the way ahead doesn’t involve shutting down those who disturb us, ad hoc. Nor is it to live in a broken world of contradictions, where we concurrently approve of and reject the very writings that break yesterday’s mire. We can do better than that, fixing what is broken, reconciling the contradictions by advancing the debate in a manner that challenges our prejudice. We can make life better by being accurate in what we say, by employing our acumen, and by helping others get stronger.

From your socratic Spin Doctor