UnReason and Madness – “The Corner That Held Them” – Chapter 3

Michel Foucault in his History of Madness was able to separate the concepts of unreason and madness among those in the Renaissance. Romantic notions of madness in ancient times up to the middle ages meant that madness was seen as being touched by the gods. In Warner’s case in her novel, The Corner That Held Them, she writes, “There is no sin in madness, only God’s wrath.” In such early times, the 1300s, how could anyone be critical of a convent in Oby suffering their own versions of madness and unreason? While it stands that we, as modern readers, seem to know the differences much better than they did, still the question remains whether we will be looked at by those of the distant future in the same way. Will we exist on the continuum of ignorance? Or do we have something wise to add?

The embarrassing moments of ignorance in Warner’s book are easy enough to see. Foisting a black cock onto the head of a priest in order to stymie madness seems to have no good or ill result (though it is very funny to imagine). Equally, to imagine that Jackie is becoming a man and would like to have sex is not madness or unreason at all, but as natural as we can claim the world to be.

In her third chapter, Warner is less interested in what is madness and what is unreason, and more interested in how those two things can provide a utility or value addition to the community. For example, the hope of Sir Ralph’s brief moment of madness is to have a wiser and more profound priest on the other side. Dame Isabel thought:

Madness was a whole new world, and surely he would have some interesting news of it? Her hopes were dashed. The simile of the waking infant was only too true; he sat smiling at her bedside saying how wonderfully well he felt, and that in spite of the drought he had never seen the harvest so promising.

But as a bishop, who arrives to inspect the dilapidated state of Oby, grows sick of a cold near the end of the chapter, he sees the mad priest and a modest nun in a new light. What is the big deal, he thinks. They seem perfectly suited to serve the community.

One never knows how things can be evaluated.

There is a problem of navigating the strange nature of creativity borne out of madness. On the one hand, to imagine someone who is infinitely creative sounds great at first, but with no desire to see projects through, or to imagine creativity to be insular and self-serving, like a never-ending diary, it is hard to incorporate that creativity into any valuation of an individual, a community, or a company.

To imagine no creativity of any kind seems not to be human, merely an organ or a facet of a factory carrying out instructions, a task so simple that robots could do. This does not speak to ingenuity either.

The nuns at Oby must constantly juggle the ridiculous hopes of each nun, as well as the business ventures of such costly expenditures as the spire. To some, the spire is at the very least extortion, and at the most a madness of its own.

But beyond the scope of the madness of material things, there is another perspective. To think of only material things, without any speculation of what the world holds, Dame Isabella thinks, is just as mad. Here she is again, saving the day, in one of the best passages I have liked thus far:

Recently the prioress had made many references to the desirability of death, the comfort of being released from worldly cares and disappointments. Part of this, Dame Isabella knew, was on the account of the convent’s money troubles, the prioress’s scruples about that lesser tithe of Methley, her uneasy conviction that the spire, somehow, would the be worse for it; but another part was meant for consolation. Studying the prioress’s face, a round moon-face clouded with uncertainties as the moon’s disk is tarnished with cloud-rack, the young nun assented to the consolations; but under her assent she reckoned the years she must forfeit, the events which would happen and which she would not see, the many thoughts she might have had – and no one else would think them. The world was deeply interesting and a convent the ideal place in which to mediate on the world. She was twenty-three. If she should live to forty, to sixty, her love of thinking would not be satiated. And yet Dame Agnes, who could remember the Jews in England and the Te Deums that had been sung at their expulsion, and Dame Blanch who was older still, so old that she remembered nothing, had never spent an hour of their lives in speculation.

Busyness is not Happiness

God bless Dame Isabella.

I quote the whole paragraph because I think it expresses so many of the problems we currently face. I was texting a friend, suggesting that my leaving the school I recently taught was a good decision, regardless of the difficulty I now faced in getting back into teaching. Because how else would I have forced myself into this speculation that Dame Isabella refers to?

Meditating since April, I have found that being “lost in thought” may be the true madness. Rather than taking the time away from society to address my own mind, I might have spent the entire summer recording videos and making assignments for students. This might have assured a sense of education, but as I have discovered in my time in school, education and learning are not the same thing.

America has had a distinct problem with the coronavirus, one that runs to the core of our personalities. Like Dame Agnes, America is obsessed with busyness. I can recall the times where my mother exhausted herself by running me to baseball practice, and then to football practice. I was in every choir and theater performance, involved in every activity our Quaker church could drum up, and each time an opportunity was made for a mission trip to some foreign country, or a summer camp to the midwest, my parents signed me up. Now I can see my cousins in the same boat. They play sports year round, have a calendar snuggly filled with all kinds of stimulating activities. The assumption is this: that stimulating social events is somehow equated with flourishing and happiness.

Now in the time of coronavirus the chances to be busy are thoroughly complicated. And parents, used to the intense schedule they set out for themselves to project the most stimulating world for their children, are reeling from the prospect that an ounce of stillness, a moment of leisure, may cause their children to be depressed, or worse, slothful.

The binary of indolence and frenetic fun has decimated many children’s quests for inwardness. We have decided that speculation is inefficient in America, to the detriment of our posterity.

In one paragraph, I have fallen for Dame Isabella, because she is able to speak to the madness that is lurking in all of us. Beyond the obvious silliness of attaching poultry to the tops of people’s heads lies the secret sickness of thinking that being lost in thought is akin to happiness.

The biggest realization of meditation for me has been to separate my identity from my thoughts. It is an important marker of well-being in cognitive behavioral therapy, and whether or not you struggle with mental health, it still holds considerable value. Being lost in thought has been an education of its own kind, waged either explicitly or inexplicitly in the United States. Buy products, invest your hard-earned time in activities and pursuits. And when you are old, restless, and have no sound friendship with your own frazzled mind, we’ll have a product for that too.

The faulty assumption in the West, and notably America, is that activity is the solution to all problems. In coronavirus-world that has been found to be incorrect. To continue to operate under the assumption that acting is beneficial apriori, in defiance to the virus, is our current madness.

Warner’s caution in the third chapter of The Corner That Held Them, like Foucault, is in reappropriating the term of madness. For Foucault, understanding how civilization treats its mad people helps us to define what they consider civilization. It is a structural analysis. Warner’s madness lies in the blind spots of history. What is avoided at all costs becomes its own kind of madness. Whatever is overlooked, either due to false intuitions or to ignorance or negligence, that is the malady of the insane.

Do not worry about the people who go away to contemplate. Instead, fear and pity those who desire normalcy no matter the cost.

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