Kay Redfield Jamison quotes Plato in her book Touched With Fire that explores Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament:
Madness, provided it comes as the gift of heaven, is the channel by which we receive the greatest blessings… the men of old who gave things their names saw no disgrace or reproach in madness; otherwise they would not have connected it with the name of the noblest of all arts, the art of discerning the future, and called it the manic art… So, according to the evidence provided by our ancestors, madness is a thing nobler than sober sense… madness comes from God, whereas sober sense is merely human.
–Plato, Phaedrus and the Seventh and Eighth Letters, trans. Walter Hamilton (Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1974), pp. 46-47
Of course madness is a dangerous game, a fire that burns as easily as it illumines. But there is a Divine sort of madness that is the fountain of all discovery. It enables a man to sail the surface of the seas and all its perils like Magellan, and to navigate the depths and all of its mysteries like Nemo. The manic-depressive life is an incandescent one, and an incendiary one all at once, and when the fire dwindles to a dim ember the terrors often creep into the psyche. In a somewhat elliptical fashion I want to wander through the labyrinth of madness and melancholy and find the anchor point for both in Christ, because in the final estimation this is what grounds me in hope and carries my feet onward in the face of life’s many perils.
I have learned the value of modern medicine and therapy can ameliorate the worst effects of madness and the painful pits of despair. The relative stability of proper treatment affords me the stability that (contrary to some bipolar patients who refuse responsible care) serves to open up new vistas of exploration with a sort of serene detachment. It’s harder work to roam in the expanse than relying on the heat of mania and the deep-freeze of despair to discover what seems impenetrable at my baseline. However, over time I have learned again how to tread these paths from a more stable place. While this calm is always tenuous, it is real. What I have found is something transcendent that I can connect to any time I am connected to God. I have discovered an observant center of the soul anchored in God that allows me to see, however dimly into the cyclonic forces that drive me while remaining apart from them. This gives me a certain wonder to what the human soul is – namely a gift. The soul as gift is the open door to endless possibilities of participation in the Divine life through the mercy of Christ that transcends all passion and disquiet, because at the core is a silent resolve that draws off of the transcendent gift of existence.
I suppose the value of madness is that it removes all illusions that this world is a sane place – for all the so-called sober thinking of level-headed men, the world is in constant peril. The world with all of its resplendent beauty is a brutal and violent place, where children suffer, wars ravage families, the poor are marginalized, and the alien maligned. If this is sanity, then I choose madness. I choose the liminal zone where Heaven touches Earth and pulls it, however slowly to its inexorable end where all of the madness of the present age will at last give way to a hopeful new world where all madness ceases. If I am to be sane, let it be for God; if I am to be mad, let it be for him as well.
In his daunting opus In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust settles in upon the immortality of art, the creative act that gives itself again and again to the deepest possibilities of meaning. I think this is because as creatures bearing the image of God in Christ, however effaced that image is in this present age, we find the undeniable pull to the art and beauty that gives order to our lives and meaning against the nihilistic chaos of a cosmos that seems utterly indifferent to our existence. Perhaps the most powerful example of God’s Presence can be found in his (apparent) Absence. To borrow a concept from Karl Barth in his commentary on The Epistle to the Romans; God’s overwhelming Yes to the whole of humanity which has been elected in Christ can only be grasped when we acknowledge his unequivocal No to all of the values and modes of existing in the world.
The crucifixion is God’s final indictment on the world. It is the terminus of wrath and mercy. Given the fallen nature of the present order, there was only one thing we could do to God when he walked among us – murder him with malice aforethought. The most lucid event in the whole catastrophe of human history was a dying God, a truly innocent victim that suffered at the hand of human violence in a repudiation of all violence as Rene Girard so cogently observes. It is easy to abstract the horrors of the cross and to place the blame on ‘those guys’ way back when, and absolve ourselves of complicity in Deicide, as if the death of God isn’t somehow at our hands. So, let me play the part of the Nietzsche’s Madman and Dostoevsky’s Inquisitor:
God is dead, and I have killed him. I am the madman fleeing the cathedral for the marketplace with his blood on my hands. I killed him because he has no place in this world, and no right to change it into that other world that is solely, and wholly his. I do not wish for another world, or for that other Kingdom to transfigure my present shame into immortality. My present shame is my glory. How dare he insist that there is a better glory? The beauty of this world is is violence, and he has no right to bring it peace. It is I, Ciaphas. It is I, Pilate. It is I, Peter who denies and flees in the night. What right has he to come into this world and offer an unbearable freedom? What right has he to baptize with fire that will purge all that I hold dear? Yet his holy kiss lingers on my lips. He withholds the malediction I so desire and insists ‘Father forgive him, he knows not what he does.’
Jesus was killed for many reasons, but among the chief justifications offered for his torture and judicial murder was the thread he posed to the status quo. He inverted madness and sanity and insisted that the great hope for the world existed in an unseen Kingdom beyond it. In the modern era, the great temptation is to reduce faith to rational assent to events and persons who no longer walk the earth and have bequeathed to us their testimony in writing. They are Scripture to be sure, but the miracle of Scripture comes through the radical, suprarational insistence that beyond all the madness there is a God who will, in the final vindication of his work in an among us, make all creation afire like the burning bush that the flames touched but did not consume. Out of the crises that define our history and reduce it to nothing, God bring into existence of a renewed world out of that horrendous tapestry weaved by the evil threads of the non-existent abyss. It is a violent peace that finally condemns violence and creates something entirely new that will at once redeem and repudiate the world as it stands.
Like I said, this is all indirect and looping. Perhaps because the incessant desire to get to the point misses it entirely. We live in a mad, mad, mad world and perhaps it is the courage to yield to the Divine madness, of which Plato writes, that that allows us to point beyond this world’s pretense for sober precision and calculated sanity to something, the only Someone, whose Absence is the only Presence for which we can legitimately hope. So, forgive these wild cries in the night, they are only an insistent hope that light shines through the darkness. Sometimes madness is the sanest disposition we can possess.
Ex Tenebris Lux
2 thoughts on “Platonic Madness – Heaven’s Gift”
Thank you. This is one of the best articles I have read in some time. It is well written, smart but unpretentious, honoring the Christ without shoving the gospel in one’s face and very inspiring. It has been rare for me to read something that equally impresses the heart and mind. I too am a recovering alcoholic, and have traded the spirits for Spirit (in the words of Jung’s letter to Bill W.). Again, thank you.
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Thank you for your kind words Michael.