Going Insane in a Foreign Land
We've probably all experienced this, or have been in the presence of someone else who has, the sense of insanity that comes from being displaced. For me, when I occasionally have to live in the midst of people I have nothing in common with, I become extremely performative, I start waving my hands and making speeches, I make scenes, and so on. I'm not proud of it, I've gotten into stupid fights for absurd reasons. Or, if I'm friends with a foreigner, I will see him make these inexplicable scenes, much ado over nothing, apparently. There is this cool scene in the Heart of Darkness about this, where Conrad tells us that a Swede named Fresleven, "the most peaceful man you'll ever meet", feeling himself cheated over a deal involving two black hens, "finally felt the need to assert himself or something", went to the village chief and started beating him mercilessly with a stick. "Everyone stood by awestruck" ... until the chief's son, finally feeling the need to do something, "made a tentative jab with a spear, which of course went right through the ribcage." The storyteller says something to the effect of, "perhaps the weather got to him, or the land".
What keeps us sane, when we are at home? Maybe it's a sense of being able to analyze the situation, of being in control, despite whatever may happen. There is this coolness, for example, which says that boys will be boys. People fight it out, knowing all the while not to hurt each other too much, or knowing that there is some kind of catharsis there, and that it will be over tomorrow. Whatever the conflict, there is perhaps a sense that we can understand each other, and we can even understand the various performances being made -- so, for example, in Hollywood movies, although there is conflict, there is still meaning there, and what we would call a "good movie" is basically on where all the sides of a conflict appear reasonable.
Now, there is something still honest or genuine about domestic insanity, but there is also the sense of the people knowing too well what to do, and that it's just a big conspiracy. This is why male aggression is sometimes associated with homosexuality, since there is the sense that there is always a deeper level of understanding underneath the fight.
But if you have ever caught this strange, foreign insanity, then it is as though you have become /possessed/. The genuineness is still there it seems, but you are speaking, on and on, in the midst of people who do not respond. What seemed so interactive in the native land becomes based primarily on /memory/ in the foreign land, as, basically, you put on this one man show -- ie, you speak like a man possessed or a man traumatized.
In the domestic scene, we view intention as arising from the person, and we make an effort to understand that person. But, in the case of the foreign scene, attempting to understand the person would be the wrong approach to take. We always tell the person to be cool, and we try to make sense of the situation in the terms that we are used to, and we feel we have reached some understanding, until the whole thing happens all over again, as if to mock us. There is indeed a sense of helplessness there.
Our goals are no longer therapeutic, because therapy can no longer reach a deeper understanding or a resolution of the situation, but can, at most, treat the symptoms -- because, basically, therapy is unable to deal with foreign insanity. If we return briefly, to our spoiler-free analysis of Shutter Island, then we would have to say that, despite the fact that the film is about the failure of therapy, it still does not think the full foreign insanity because, in the final scene, it pins the problem on /transference/ -- which is the process by which the therapy becomes helpless because the patient expects the therapy and works the therapy into his insanity. But transference, an interesting hypothesis, still sees everything in terms of cause and effect -- it still sees a "fight", an explicable one, between the patient and the therapist. In other words, trauma, possession, or foreign insanity is a condition that therapy fundamentally cannot deal with -- and transference is merely an attempt to account for the unstoppable returns that keep on coming.
The most we can do, I argue, is to attempt to understand foreign insanity (rather than treat it)... if we define foreign insanity as the condition of being haunted, then that would mean allowing ourselves to be haunted in turn.
What's interesting about this foreign insanity (and all of the Heart of Darkness is in fact about this insanity, not merely the scene related to Fresleven -- perhaps the very book itself can be said to be written by a man possessed) is that it gives us a chance to think about the nature of intention.
The subconscious is a text. The resolution of a domestic dispute involves the interpretation of the text in a way that satisfies both parties -- so that, even if the problem returns, we can at least be satisfied that there has been progress, and that it is a /different/ issue we are now dealing with. "Look, all you are trying to do is ... and all you are trying to do is ... but in the end, you can both get along, because ..." I say "text" here, merely to point out that there is nothing "immediate" about the subconscious, that it is not causal. When you get in a fight or an argument, the predominant feeling is one of speaking /very fast/, without thinking. This is not so much because the animal instincts take over the rational instincts, but rather because /we are performing from memory/. The thinking, at these moments, is not the thinking of reasoning, a step by step thinking, but more like the slow buildup of one who revises -- the thinking of a painter or a composer, who steps back from the canvas or the piece and adds a bit there, or alters a bit there, and so on -- in short, it is based on /perfection/. Arguments are like a /recital/ (in the sense of, a piano recital) of a perfected piece, that we have been nursing for a long time, and -- if they are so meaningful -- it is precisely because they are a result of /too much thinking/ rather than any kind of "immediacy or passion".
In the analysis of what we call foreign insanity (which is perhaps equivalent to "literature"), our goals are no longer to give the illusion of progress and difference, but rather to read this perfected piece. The question now is, what is the piece /about/, what is the person speaking /about/? It is impossible to answer this question without being haunted in turn ...
TBC: Ghosts and the Haunted
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