“The Madhouse” by Francisco Goya [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
So brilliant: an implicitly ironic but outwardly straight-faced reading of the DSM-5 as a dystopian horror novel, complete with a quasi-Ligottian assessment of the book’s narrative voice and view of humanity.
Great dystopia isn’t so much fantasy as a kind of estrangement or dislocation from the present; the ability to stand outside time and see the situation in its full hideousness. The dystopian novel doesn’t necessarily have to be a novel. . . . Something has gone terribly wrong in the world; we are living the wrong life, a life without any real fulfillment. The newly published DSM-5 is a classic dystopian novel in this mold.
Here, we have an entire book, something that purports to be a kind of encyclopedia of madness, a Library of Babel for the mind, containing everything that can possibly be wrong with a human being. . . . DSM-5 arranges its various strains of madness solely in terms of the behaviors exhibited. This is a recurring theme in the novel, while any consideration of the mind itself is entirely absent. . . . The idea emerges that every person’s illness is somehow their own fault, that it comes from nowhere but themselves: their genes, their addictions, and their inherent human insufficiency. We enter a strange shadow-world where for someone to engage in prostitution isn’t the result of intersecting environmental factors (gender relations, economic class, family and social relationships) but a symptom of “conduct disorder,” along with “lying, truancy, [and] running away.” A mad person is like a faulty machine. The pseudo-objective gaze only sees what they do, rather than what they think or how they feel. A person who shits on the kitchen floor because it gives them erotic pleasure and a person who shits on the kitchen floor to ward off the demons living in the cupboard are both shunted into the diagnostic category of encopresis. It’s not just that their thought-processes don’t matter, it’s as if they don’t exist. The human being is a web of flesh spun over a void.
. . . The word “disorder” occurs so many times that it almost detaches itself from any real signification, so that the implied existence of an ordered state against which a disorder can be measured nearly vanishes is almost forgotten. Throughout the novel, this ordered normality never appears except as an inference; it is the object of a subdued, hopeless yearning. With normality as a negatively defined and nebulously perfect ideal, anything and everything can then be condemned as a deviation from it. . . . If there is a normality here, it’s a state of near-catatonia. DSM-5 seems to have no definition of happiness other than the absence of suffering. The normal individual in this book is tranquilized and bovine-eyed, mutely accepting everything in a sometimes painful world without ever feeling much in the way of anything about it. The vast absurd excesses of passion that form the raw matter of art, literature, love, and humanity are too distressing; it’s easier to stop being human altogether, to simply plod on as a heaped collection of diagnoses with a body vaguely attached.
. . . For all the subtlety of its characterization, the book doesn’t just provide a chilling psychological portrait, it conjures up an entire world. The clue is in the name: On some level we’re to imagine that the American Psychiatric Association is a body with real powers, that the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual” is something that might actually be used, and that its caricature of our inner lives could have serious consequences. Sections like those on the personality disorders offer a terrifying glimpse of a futuristic system of repression, one in which deviance isn’t furiously stamped out like it is in Orwell’s unsubtle Oceania, but pathologized instead. Here there’s no need for any rats, and the diagnostician can honestly believe she’s doing the right thing; it’s all in the name of restoring the sick to health. DSM-5 describes a nightmare society in which human beings are individuated, sick, and alone. For much of the novel, what the narrator of this story is describing is its own solitude, its own inability to appreciate other people, and its own overpowering desire for death — but the real horror lies in the world that could produce such a voice.
MORE: “Book of Lamentations“
For more on the DSM-V and the controversy it has elicited, see this.
From a long and uncommonly engrossing essay by Victoria Best at Open Letters Monthly about the relationship between life, art, madness, and the occult in the work and person of Shirley Jackson:
She believed [writing] had a protective function, too, a kind of mental hygiene that allowed her to be herself: “The very nicest thing about being a writer is that you can afford to indulge yourself endlessly with oddness, and nobody can really do anything about it, so long as you keep writing and kind of using it up, as it were. […] So long as you write it away regularly, nothing can really hurt you.”
. . . Witchcraft and magic had oddly analogous functions to writing, in the way they were transformational and protective. And their appeal was just as compelling. By sixteen Jackson had set herself the task of reading everything she could find on the subject, and the research was combined with her own uncanny sixth sense and her eagerness to stick pins in wax dolls. “That’s not a good way for a girl to grow up,” she wrote in her last, unfinished novel, Come Along With Me, which was the closest she came to reproducing her childhood under the guise of fiction. “How can anyone handle things if her head is full of voices and her world is full of things no one else can see?”
. . . Jackson encouraged an occult atmosphere around her; she surrounded herself with a collection of amulets and charms, she liked to freak people out. But she was often tight-lipped or diversionary when asked direct questions. “She wanted very much to find provable magic,” her daughter, Sally, said. “And I think by the time I met her she’d gotten to the kind of point where she pretended she already had, and she wouldn’t talk about it because her mystique would be blown.”
However ‘real’ her experiences of the supernatural may have been, the practice of witchcraft, which was where Shirley began, was, if nothing else, an appeal to a different kind of potency. As the strong-willed daughter of a controlling mother, Shirley was always interested in power, and particularly in subversive forms of it. She was clear-sighted enough to know that power was always elusive, sinuously resistant, sometimes autonomous; in her good, strong adult years she wielded it unflinchingly, never afraid to dominate her own family. But in troubled times, she felt fragile and undefended, acted upon by forces that seemed to come from outside of herself, out of control in fundamental and terrifying ways.
. . . It is no wonder that Shirley Jackson was unable to leave her house while she was writing herself into a vindication of her own neuroses [with her final novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the writing of which brought her to a state of nervous collapse and creative block]. No wonder, when her mother crossed the invisible boundary and attacked Shirley in her most vulnerable place that the trap sprang shut with Shirley inside it. Her mantra that “so long as you write it away regularly, nothing can hurt you,” had been proved false, and writing itself had followed the uncanny pattern that she had written about all those years: it had turned out to have danger lurking at its core.
COMPLETE ESSAY: “Nothing Like Being Scared“
(UPDATE May 2014: The complete essay is no longer freely available; it can only be read by subscribers to Open Letters Monthly.)