Thursday, June 28, 2007

In the Realms of the Unreal

In the Realms of the Unreal is a collection of writings from people who have been labelled insane and are, mostly, institutionalized. I've been wanting this for a while and have gotten a hold of it and read quite a bit.

Why read writings from people who are crazy? Well, often the crazy people, in particular the schizophrenics who are hallucinating constantly and have religious visions, have particular insights gleaned from their particular state of mind that are very hard for people without that state of mind to have access to. By learning and getting exposed to particular schizophrenic worldviews it causes the mind of the reader to learn a new language, so to speak, and possibly get a few new ways of thinking about the world.

The writings by the mentally ill represent a particularly pure form of "Outsider Art", typified by untrained people who either write or, more commonly, make visual art. Outsider Art is valuable because although untrained, and possibly made by people with severe mental impairments, it expresses a purity of artistic vision that more refined work sometimes lacks. With writing it's not just a purity of vision but access to a certain purity of ideas, unencumbered by normal standards of what's appropriate, what's not appropriate, what makes sense, what doesn't make sense, what you should talk about, what you shouldn't, what's real, what's fantasy. Schizophrenic people tend to have a direct mainline to their subconscious, which they can't shut off. Indeed, if you ever meet a schizophrenic person the thing that you'll notice is that it's impossible to get them to shut up. They just can't. Their mental life is an ever evolving procession of images, ideas, conspiracies, paranoia, and religious phenomenon going on and on and on.

It's also hella interesting. Particularly so in this volume are the writings by Adolph Wölfli, a mental patient in Switzerland from the turn if the 20th century on, who wrote an "Autobiography" that totalled 2,700 pages, with drawings interspersed, and which drifted from straight autobiography into fantasy after the first couple of pages. There are excerpts, missives, and general letters. Unfortunately I could only find one monograph of translated work, which I probably won't be getting any time soon.

Here's an excerpt from "The Schüpfen Letter":

"Now listen. From the hour of my birth on, March 1, 1,864: I travelled with all my family members and over 5,000, male and female friends from our home and fatherland, Switzerland, with the almighty family and its whole, gigantic, Travelling-Avantt-Gaarde, in not less than 10, each, separate Travelling periods, on its tremendous Travelling-Object, Giant-Lightening-Transparantt, in all directions of the Wind-Rose, from Star to Star, through the whole and entire, highly proper, old and new, St. Adolph-Giant-Creation: As well as, a large part of the Endless and infinite, consisting of absolute, pure Nothing, eternity, at the occasion of which I saw, experienced and learnt much and, now one way, now another had to endure, a total of over 10,000 fatal accidents:...."

Interesting stuff. In fact, paying attention to the work of the mentally ill is only the last or latest step in the search for a method of short circuiting the conscious mind in order to let unfettered creativity through. The Surrealists did this through collective games, automatic writing, the deliberate breaking of all and every moral and ethical rule in their fiction, destroying the very structure of novels, stories, and poems, sometimes reassembling them into new forms, often not doing much with them. Drugs and alcohol, of course, but those are so tired and worn out; the artificial, non-chemical, means of getting new creativity going is much more interesting, unless you're one of those rare individuals who actually know how to use the substances to really effect creative flow. What else in terms of derangement of the senses....pursuing symbolism and symbolic images in writing to the detriment of realism, based on the quite rational belief that the world of imagination and symbolic reality, including myth, is a better way of understanding the meaning of the world, not what actually happens in an exact sense but rather how to interpret it, than is simply reproducing reality while trying to de-emphasize narrative intervention in order to present a more 'objective' picture. Myths, fairy tales, both are untutored and both are things remembered on the fringes of society. This impulse for finding stuff of this sort was what impelled the abstract expressionist painter Paul Klee to study the drawings of children.

Jean Dubuffet was the guy who started the formal search for outsider art, calling it "Art Brut", and whose style deliberately incorporated notions gained from studying outside art.

Oh, this is just an added note, how could I forget the 'Pataphysicians in discussing ways to get around the conscious mind and around conventional notions of reality? 'Pataphysics is essentially the art and science of inventing imaginary solutions, for instance systems of science that have nothing to do with actual reality, as well as machines which have no functional properties, and which might be actually impossible, well often impossible in fact, to actually construct in the real world, which are based on imagined scientific principles. 'Pataphysics is a mostly literary movement. Alfred Jarry, the author of the "Ubu Roi" series of plays, was the originator of the concept, including in his fiction such things as a fucking machine that's tested against a superhuman mutant in a competition to see who can last the longest in the act of love, as well as in his unpublished work "Adventures of Dr. Faustroll, 'Pataphysician" a copper wire bed that's used as a ship sailing across the sea of Paris, powered by the oars of a hapless passenger. It also includes the invention of a baboon with a set of buttocks implanted on its face whose only function is to interrupt people and say "Haw-Haw" when someone is going on too long, although according to Faustroll he also speaks some phrases in perfect Flemish.

Offended? Shocked? Good, you should be. You should see the erotica of Guillaume Apollinaire. It's so extreme that I'd probably be kicked off blogger if I reproduced some of it from memory.

Well, these are some examples of how to get around the conscious mind and around convention, in the case of the examples above by trampling it and burning it utterly to the ground, and then stamping on the little bits, getting naked, rolling around in them, and then running into a large crowd of people.

1 comment:

Robert said...

fantastic post, sir

just thought this may be of interest to you because it relates to the linkage between surrealism and schizophrenia: