09 July 2015

Sanity still

In George Eliot’s Middlemarch Mrs. Cadwallader urges Dorothea, now a widow, not to stay alone in the house at Lowick. Having devoted her life to the dry, esoteric studies of her husband, Mr. Casaubon, Dorothea is left at his death seemingly without purpose. Of course, over the eighteen or so months of her marriage Dorothea has become disillusioned with her husband’s obsessive, unfinishable and useless study in which he attempted to unify all of the world’s myths: he is researching and writing the Key to All Mythologies. Just twenty-one years old, Dorothea has married a man who lacks all passion and is more than twice her age. As she closes his affairs, she encloses Casaubon’s cheat-sheet, a “Synoptical Tabulation for the use of Mrs. Casaubon” into an envelope with a note that reads, “I could not use it. Do you not see now that I could not submit my soul to yours by working hopelessly at what I have no belief in?” Her marriage is lifeless if not also loveless. For the sake of an intended higher purpose—an idealism that could ever be realized—Dorothea has sacrificed her life.
            At Casaubon’s death and after a suitable period of mourning during which she resided at her uncle’s home, Dorothea returned to Lowick where she intended to live a solitary life engaged in various liberal and progressive social programs in the environs of Middlemarch that will improve the lives of the more needy workers. Hers is a noble purpose. And I think that no one in Middlemarch criticizes her intent.
            But Mrs. Cadwallader cautions Dorothea: “You will certainly go mad in this house alone, my dear. We have all got to exert ourselves to keep sane, and call things by the same names as other people call them by.” I find this interesting advice, given my interest in sanity and insanity. On the one hand, Mrs. Cadwallader acknowledges that staying sane requires effort, and that perhaps it is our natural inclination not to name things by the same names as do others. Mrs. Cadwallader might be suggesting that it is normal to be insane, and that sanity often represents a deprivation and distortion of our basic humanity. Thus, as D.W. Winnicott says, “We are poor indeed if we are only sane.” Adam Phillips acknowledges that we get a glimpse of the behavior our sanity suppresses if we examine the actions of children: that is, what adults feel is mad is normal for the child. Or in our attitudes towards sex: “If it is sane to abide by the rules . . . then sex becomes a form of madness.” In sex to be sane is to sacrifice desire for duty! Indeed, says, Phillips, “Sanity, as the project of keeping ourselves recognizably human, therefore has to limit the range of human experience.” Autistic and schizophrenic people pay no attention to what the world demands of them despite our insistence that they conform.
            But it might be true that to live in the world with others requires that we appear sane. And sanity would mean to adapt the strategies of madness as psychological tools when they are deemed necessary. Polonius says of Hamlet’s talk, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.” And Polonius admits that in his ‘madness’ Hamlet can say things that ‘reason and sanity’ could not so prosperously be delivered of.” Insanity has its freedom and benefits.
            Dorothea Casaubon opts for insanity. She answers Mrs. Cadwallader, “I never called everything by the same name that all the people about me did.” In the words of an earlier bard, Dorothea has marched to the beat of a different drummer. However, her refusal to call anything by the same name as the people about her (who all had spoken against her engagement and marriage to Casaubon) led her to follow what she took as her desire into a passionless and unhappy marriage to Casaubon. And so Mrs. Cadwallader answers, “But I suppose you have found out your mistake, my dear, and that is the proof of sanity.” And Dorothea answers that no, indeed, that to call things by names different than the people about her might reflect her sanity, since, she says, “the greater part of the world has often had to come round from its opinion.” Hers is a noble sentiment, though I doubt its accuracy. But I think that Dorothea speaks to a deeper sanity than is meant by our common perspective on the state. Sometimes that deeper sanity appears to others as insane, but in their sanity they are mistaken.
            Maybe safety is to be wished for but not always sought.


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27 October, 2018 13:57  

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