PRINT September 1977

Madness in the Arena

AN ART THAT IS SUPPOSED to imitate reality, but that does not succeed in reflecting it convincingly, is untrue. As our laws of nature are supposed to reflect an existing state of affairs we consider them to be true. But how absolute are scientific laws? Kant himself claimed to have produced a Copernican revolution, first by assuming that objects conform to our intuition, and, second, by concluding that these objects are governed by laws of the mind.1 Kant thus made of man virtually the lawmaker of nature. This is why we can say that laws of nature are falsifiable, or cease to be true, when they fail to account for a new set of facts.2

In a philosophy based on intuition, what truth is to science, sincerity is to art. In Western culture sincerity is historically linked to confession. Theologically speaking, we sin as a consequence of our alienation from God because of original sin. In the name of sincerity the Romantic poet discovered that his task was to express his “alienated” or “unhappy” soul, to use expressions coined by Hegel.3

In our century the substitution of the Freudian unconscious for the Kantian intuition made it possible for the intellectuals to view the id as a source of goodness that their predecessors had failed to discover in Rousseau’s “noble savage.” More daring than D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller in regard to sex alone, Surrealists envisioned the overthrow of moral taboos in conjunction with a struggle to free the masses from economic oppression. Neither, it seemed, could be achieved without resorting to violence. So what was admirable in the savage was his savagery. The poet Antonin Artaud undertook to develop a theater in which the subjective criterion of cruelty was substituted for the objective one of the tragic situation. Hans Bellmer pictured his erotic fancies in exquisite drawings of women metamorphosed into carnal anagrams. Georges Bataille, in L’Erotisme,4 interpreted love as fulfillment through the annihilation of the beloved. Appropriately enough, the Surrealists made a totem of the praying mantis, especially since in French la mante religieuse puns with l’amante religieuse (the amorous nun).

The psychoanalytic stream of consciousness prompted the Surrealists of the 1920s to explore the field of automatic writing in both literature and painting. By tripping the text of any passage that might have been dictated by the superego, the Surrealists believed that they could produce a purer poetry. What they undoubtedly did was to enrich poetry and the visual arts with a new set of metaphors. It never occurred to them that the unconscious may identify with its censor rather than with its repressed self, or id. According to Wilhelm Reich, the suppression of basic material needs of the masses incites to rebellion, while the suppression of sexual needs (as much as they can be repressed) withdraws erotic desires from consciousness and identifies their interdiction with a moral defense which, in turn, forbids rebellion against the suppression of both sexual and material needs. As a consequence of this process “the inhibition of rebellion itself is repressed.”5

An unconscious identification with his repressing agent—in the last analysis, his castrator—could lead an artist to exploit Surrealist techniques to express his unconscious admiration for his moral censor. Reappraising Dali’s early Surrealist masterpieces in terms of the reactionary esthetic and political views he espoused since the late ’30s, one could claim, with Wilhelm Reich’s theory in mind, that the voice of Dali’s unconscious is that of his internalized superego, not of his id.

After World War II the submissiveness of the European masses to their respective middle-class rulers reinforced the opinion of many disillusioned radical intellectuals that any attempt at revolt against the existing socio-economic order was unrealistic. Similarly, by shifting emphasis from the “formative period” of the child’s unconscious that preoccupied Freud, to an emphasis on “total personality,” Erich Fromm, Clara Thomson, and Harry Stack Sullivan shifted from psychoanalyzing to moralizing in the name of existentialism. Their procedure has been exposed and denounced by Herbert Marcuse in the epilogue of Eros and Civilization.

What Surrealism is to the Freudian unconscious Harold Rosenberg’s “action painting” is to existentialism. Rosenberg considers art and poetry in terms of a “process of the personality.” For him the work, or rather the act, “translates the psychologically given into the intentional, into a ‘world’—and thus transcends it.” For Rosenberg, the painter “has become an actor” who therefore “must think about his painting in terms of a vocabulary of action.”6 Actually, it was the late Hannah Arendt who converted disillusioned American radicals of the ’30s to a doctrine of wisdom-through-action. According to this theory homo faber (man the maker) is a person who acts out wisdom.7 I deduce that Harold Rosenberg’s action painters act out wisdom much the way the Surrealists expose the unconscious.

Hannah Arendt’s credo serves to dispel the guilt feelings of a prosperous middle class brought up on the Protestant ethic of work and traditionally concerned with the “goodness” of such nonutilitarian objects as works of art. From the Hegelian viewpoint of unhappy consciousness action is appraised either in terms of work (not differentiated from labor) or language. “Language and labor are outer expressions in which the individual no longer retains possession of himself per se, but lets the inner get right outside him, and surrenders it to something else.” The evaluation of working in terms of the alienation of the worker from the product of his work was studied by Marx, as alienation from the language of the unconscious was analyzed by Freud.

The literary counterpart of action painting is traceable back to Charles Olson and the beatniks, who identify poetry with the act of breathing. (It should be recalled that breathing is a synonym for inspiring.) Those poets seemingly imply that total action is found in inspiring-and-expiring. No wonder Allen Ginsberg came to associate his breathing with Hindu Yogi and Buddhist meditation. The French poet Alain Jouffroy discovered an affinity between the beatniks and the Surrealists, but in contradistinction to Breton, Éluard and Peret, the followers of Charles Olson not unreasonably associate breathing specifically with oral, rather than written, poetry. More recently, David Antin placed the emphasis in oral poetry on talking, or more precisely on “talking-to-name,” as an activity that should be differentiated from naming in order to identify things. Antin suggests that talking-to-name could be accompanied by a hand dance in a string set for the purpose of constructing new narratives.8 But we no more need new narratives per se than we need new paintings or new dances. We are in quest of Wisdom!

According to Jacques Lacan, Freud’s “Copernican revolution” consisted in his discovery that the nucleus of our being cannot be attained by acquiring more knowledge, as is suggested by the Greek adage “Know Thyself,” but, on the contrary, only by our bearing witness to those things that actually made us what we are—whims, aberrations, phobias, fetishes—and which, all together, constitute the opposite of what we call knowledge, that is Folly.9

Prior to the seventeenth century, individuals who had visions and heard voices were said to be carriers of mysterious (divine or diabolic) messages. Only from the age of rationalism onward was madness equated with unreason due to illness of the organs of the brain. In his History of Madness Michel Foucault traces the gradual shift in the medical view from doctors observing madmen through the bars of their cages to approaching the insane as patients, striving to understand the language of their madness. A great step forward was made when madness came to be described in terms of “psychotic experience.” According to Karl Jaspers, that is a process consisting of deceptive perceptions, pseudo-hallucinations and illusory conceptions of the environment, interrelated to form a continuous way of life that is detached from real life for a given period of time, whether of days, months or years.10

Of particular interest for art are mental patients whose hallucinations involve the fantastic and who live simultaneously in two worlds, the real one which they can conceive and judge with clarity and the one of their psychosis. Actually, from the patient’s point of view, the psychotic reality is the only true reality, while the other is but an appearance in which he knows how to orient himself.

Karl Jaspers’ preoccupation with this problem led him to study the case histories of some exceptional men known or suspected of having been schizophrenic.11 From the work and life history of Swedenborg, Hoelderlin, Strindberg and van Gogh, Jaspers concluded that these geniuses had used their talent to convey states of mind generated by their psychotic experience. He was, furthermore, convinced that schizophrenia has only a marginal, strictly stylistic, effect upon the work itself. As for the keen interest that these exceptional figures had had for their contemporaries, Jaspers believed that we must attribute it to the fact that, through their work, we come for a moment in contact with a most intimate source of existence. It is as if depths hidden during a whole life were suddenly revealed in the work. Jaspers believed that what attracted people as different as theosophists, formalists, “primitivists” to praise the merits of Hoelderlin, Strindberg and van Gogh is their common revulsion toward the inauthenticity, sterility and death that permeates our modern civilization.

The authenticity that Jaspers detects in schizophrenic artistic geniuses would justify one calling also the automatic writing of the Surrealist writers and painters authentic. Both the Surrealists and the schizophrenics refuse to give up their world of illusion for the sake of a return to reality through psychoanalytic treatment. While the former want to insert their fantasies into reality, the latter repudiate reality. To the extent that both make works of art they function as artists.

It is in the work of art, painting or poem, that we are to look for authenticity, not in the artist’s experience. Goya’s talent enabled him to convey a sense of horror through the re-creations of scenes of war that he composed by borrowing from various sources. Whether he actually witnessed them or not does not affect the artistic quality of the work. Guernica does not present the same problem, for horror is depicted in terms of a pattern that Picasso presented as being homologous with, or corresponding to, an event that had shocked him but which he had not witnessed—the bombardment of Guernica. Guernica strikes one as authentic because it forms a pattern that repeats, renews and expands the pictorial language which Picasso played with through the years. It is unmistakably an expression of his outrage.

The modern artist forms patterns that correspond either to a state of mind or to a state of affairs. The earnestness of the artist’s efforts—surmised by his trials and errors, from repetitions and variations—justifies one’s asking Nietzsche’s agonizing question: Who speaks? Freud answered: Oedipus. Unlike the scientist, who has his “truths” confirmed by experiments, the poet must reassert himself again and again in his work. The poet writes to write the next poem, as the painter paints to paint the next picture, and in so doing he perfects a strategy for winning his own game and for surpassing himself.

In discussing the relation of art to insanity one must make the distinction between an artist such as van Gogh, who borrowed artistic elements from the accomplishments of Millet, and some artist striving for a breakthrough in his work on the model of van Gogh, where van Gogh himself achieved his at the price of a psychotic experience that cannot be duplicated.

As science does not actually start from intuition, as Kant taught, but from problems,12 art also may be said to start from problems—with this difference: while science seeks for solutions, art and poetry focus on conflicts. The understanding of poetry in reference to conflicts goes back to Aristotle’s interpretation of the role of tragedy in terms of a catharsis (or sublimation). And Freud, internalizing a Greek tragedy without knowing it, paved the way for the cultivation of an art and poetry that serves as the complementary opposite of therapeutic analysis, an art of self-interpretation in which the poet assumes the role of the sphinx. The metamorphosis of Oedipus into sphinx develops what might be called the dialectics of concealing and revealing. He assumes that the unknown is mystic (derived from the Greek term mysticon: secret). Existentially the hidden is either within us or in the universe, within or without the totality of the individual.

I suggest Jackson Pollock manifests the unknown in terms of a pictorial totality homologous to both the mystic self and the mystic universe; Mondrian manifests equivalences of an inner and outer balance; Barnett Newman manifests aloneness in the uniqueness of the poet for others to experience in their uniqueness. What is said of the vertical stripes of Newman isolated in a field of color is true also of the isolated mannikins of de Chirico and the lost wanderers of Giacometti.

“I is another” said Rimbaud, the poet who freed metaphor from the fetters of logic. By enriching lyrical poetry with Oedipian metaphors, Surrealism laid bare the prosaic character of the post-Romantic theater. The Surrealist poet and playwright Antonin Artaud attempted to reduce all struggle for power, viewed as source of conflict, to the common denominator of sado-masochism. Artaud considered replacing the traditional play with a primitive feast that would involve the audience. Such a transformation would have required the reinstitution of the magician who, in primitive societies, possesses irrational powers. A schizophrenic might serve as his modern counterpart. The theater of Robert Wilson, comprised of uncast players, prompts the acting out on stage of solo fantasies around a loosely knit theme, as in his A Letter for Queen Victoria.

Some metaphysically oriented thinkers like R.D. Laing would seemingly want to reinstate the schizophrenic as a magus. Laing has said “Our sanity is not ‘true’ as their madness is not ‘true’ madness”13 But before him the abuses of power by Stalin and Hitler prompted Albert Camus to identify irresponsibility with insanity, a theme he developed brilliantly in his play Caligula. Samuel Beckett, in Waiting for Godot, treats alienation in terms of a helplessness that achieves tragic grandeur. The collapse of a genius under extreme pressure is exposed in Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo. In Marat/Sade Peter Weiss made of two radical visionaries the principals of a play, supposedly acted by madmen for the madmen, in order to dramatize the horror of living in a society in which the non-conformists are treated as psychotics.

With psychoanalysis it has become anachronistic to speak of the poet as being inspired, as it was after Descartes to call the madman inspired. The artist is a formulator of plans which in our day he may not even want to execute. Most artists who stress this point call themselves conceptualists. This is unfortunate, for the term “concept” implies that the structure was generated spontaneously, when actually it was planned.

Certain structures presented as conceptual make more sense when appraised in a theatrical context than in a lyrical one. The shift of emphasis today from a single object to an environment—by, among others, Joseph Beuys, Dennis Oppenheim, Janis Kounellis, Michael Heizer and Lucas Samaras—predisposes one to reconsider works of art in terms of a totality for which the theater is the prototype. Famed earlier pieces might be reconsidered as accessories to be introduced into the world of Artaud, the bent threefold giant saw of Claes Oldenburg, the vertical bed of Robert Rauschenberg, the Sculpmetal lightbulb of Jasper Johns. The cult of personality that bestowed upon Stalin, Hitler and Mao the aura of infallibility served to dramatize the insoluble contradictions faced by the totalitarian state. In the long run the ruling caste finds itself compelled to promote a schizophrenic relationship rather than tolerate constructive criticism, as is suggested by more recent developments in the USSR. The Constitution grants rights to the individual which he is expected not to use. Should he attempt to assert these rights, he risks being pronounced a non-person, a criminal, a madman or parasite.

In the West we are free to enjoy the parade of follies in the arena, but woe to the democracy that would transform its forums into a circus.

Nicolas Calas, long-time friend of the Surrealists, is author of Art in the Age of Risks.



1. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, introduction to 2nd edition.

2. Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, London, 1959, Appendix I, “Indication and Documentation.”

3. George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Phenomenology of the Mind, chapter titled “Freedom of Self-Consciousness.”

4. Georges Bataille, L’Erotisme, Paris, 1957.

5 Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, English translation from the German, New York, 1970, p. 31.

6. Harold Rosenberg, The Tradition of the New, New York, 1961, chapter 2.

7. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, New York, 1959, chapter 6.

8. David Antin, “The Human Condition,” Alcheringa, New Series 12, 1975.

9. Jacques Lacan, “The Insistence of the Letter of the Unconscious,” Yale French Studies, “Structuralism,” 1966, p. 47.

10. Karl Jaspers. Psychopathologie Generale, Paris, 1953, pp. 546–548.

11. Karl Jaspers, Strindberg et van Gogh, Paris, 1953, chapter 6.

12. Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, London, 1963.

13. R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience, New York, 1967, chapter titled “The Schizophrenic Experience.”