Larivière - The Sunland Seminars …and then there is Madness

The Sunland Seminars 

…and then there is Madness


by Michael Larivière, Ph.D.

June 17, 2006



« Words are for those with a promise to keep. »

                  Wystan Hugh Auden

« If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise. »

William Blake 




We are told there will be words, that we will hear them and speak them.

But we are first revealed the traces of the silence that must precede them: what one writes before one begins writing.

What is first revealed is the joy of writing, as well as what this joy requires: solitude and stillness.


We were urged not to consider analysis in a context of moral purpose and conduct. We were given a chance to question the vulgate on which so much of would-be “modern” psychoanalysis has been nurtured; “modern”, i.e. “post-freudian”, as if such a concept made any sense – but I shan’t just now visit that monument of obscurantism, cowardice and hatred. Freud can wait: he has been the hunted long enough to no longer fear the threats made against him by his so-called heirs, who claim to have turned his method into a technique more total and effective than he would have ever imagined possible, and who have degraded the dignity of his approach to the level of orthopaedic strictures. “Modern” psychoanalytic discourse has lost both the luminous elegance and the Lutheran simplicity in which its Jewish inventor had embedded his questions. His concepts with them grew at once more inconsistent and ambiguous. Instead of rigour, there is rigidity. Instead of precise usage, there is jargon. All the technical “innovations” of the various “post-freudian” psychologies – “self”, “ego”, “inter-subjective”, or however else they have been labelled – accumulate to the same essential failure (not of the kind I will shortly talk about): their languages no longer sharpen thought but blur it. Everywhere this has happened, something essential might not recover. The mandarins of the “post-freudian” empire produced a fearful composite of so-called empathy and stupidity which made the word psychoanalysis an equivalent for tin pot psychology. This condition will undoubtedly last for a long time to come.


We were offered a different perspective by an analyst who, much like the character presented in the opening pages, has obviously long dwelled in representations and fictions. Who indeed trusts that there will be words and that they will be heard and spoken. She asks how it is “possible to represent the energy and vitality the analytic process possesses in the moment, as it is taking place”, and “how it is possible to show the animating and reciprocal impact of theory on and in this practice.” She addresses “these two inter-related, but distinct problems in writing psychoanalysis by means of a fiction.” In addressing these two questions in this way she is doing something reminiscent of what Georges Bataille did: he practiced literature, as we would speak of practicing psychoanalysis, in order to break with all that had up to then been understood as “literature” (i.e. literature, as Borges would have said, in the acoustic-decorative sense of the term). Writing, for Bataille, was a practice that aimed at doing away with the idea, or concept, of “communication”. Rather than seeing writing as a means to make possible the merging, or fusion, of writer and reader, he saw it as the inscription of the impossibility of “communication” – something reminiscent of what we were told about failure and its necessity. All this was of course present in literature before Bataille. For example, in Proust, who Sharon quotes. Proust’s Recherche is not only a new literary genre, it is first and foremost a new writing device, almost a new writing purview: what Proust tells us is that what is found, what is restituted is only ever found as that which is lost. The kind of psychoanalysis written here doesn’t let itself be persuaded by illusory redemptive harmonies, nor does it betray any taste for the pompous clichés that have been drilled in many a “therapeutic mind”: “understanding”, “empathy”, “communication”, “honest speech”, etc. We are instead reminded that the reason for which Freud’s case studies make for such important reading is that they are mostly failures. “Case studies”, says Sharon, “are failures because they must be failures.” We can indeed only fail at trying to perform an exhaustive reading of the stories we are presented with: these stories are indeed manifestly unreadable. If such were not the case patients would not need treatment.


It is this unreadability that I wish here to equate with what is referred to as madness. Samuel Beckett thought that we were all born mad but that only some of us remained so. Artists for example. I use the term artist in the broadest possible sense, to include all those who not only accept  the unreadability of their own story but who in this unreadability elect their domicile and offer to the rest of us, as a gift, the madness that ensues. I say this thinking of William Blake, who suggests in one of his Proverbs of Hell that if others had not been foolish, we then should be so. Artists, it might be argued, are mad in our stead. But this begs the question: where do we belong? What is our place? Do we or do we not all partake in the madness made manifest only in a few? And what is their place in our lives? Theirs is not my place – but they do have a place, indeed they do take place in my life, in me. The question of madness which is, amongst others, the question of the unreadability of all stories, subverts all the limits without which life would be impossible. Something takes place within the solitude of those who make madness manifest, that concerns us all.


If all this sounds somewhat too abstract or too vague, think of those families where one member, often (but not always) a child, designated by the rest as the “difficult” one, either because she or he is “unmanageable”, “emotionally disturbed”, or, indeed, “mad”. We all know of such situations. Who knows, it might even be the case that such a signal honour fell to the lot of one of us. Fancy that: there might be a “mad” one amongst us now, or one who once upon a time had to endure the consequences of such a branding. But surely the joke is in bad taste, so: back to Blake. If others had not been mad, thus ensuring the fragile unity of the would-be “community”, we then should be so.


Madness, generally speaking, marks a place of exclusion, it is looked upon as that which is foreign to a given culture. But of course it isn’t. Madness is commonplace. And as such it marks a place of inclusion, it belongs to the culture that pretends not to partake in what it manifests. The consequence of this being that no discourse that speaks of madness can know if it partakes or not in the madness it purports to “understand”. Michel Foucault has written a good deal of what needs to be said on this matter, so I shan’t insist.




In a book published in 1978, La folie et la chose littéraire (Madness and Literature), my friend Shoshana Felman suggests that one shouldn’t try to answer the question « what is madness ? », but that one should only question the question. What we need to examine are the consequences and implications of asking such a question. Which is a way of talking about madness. But what can it mean, to talk about madness? Shoshana Felman reminds us that it has been said and repeated, with and since Foucault, that madness is the absence of language, the absence of work/opus/oeuvre, it is the silence of a stifled, repressed language. Our task, therefore, is to give madness its language back. Which means trying to read the unreadable, hear the inaudible.


Hegel, whom Sharon makes reference to, wrote (in his Encyclopaedia) that it is because we have the privilege of thinking that we also have the unhappy privilege of being capable of madness. In other words: madness and reason are linked, always. The question of madness is precisely what makes the question of thought a question. Whereas Hegel situated madness within thought, Nietzsche situated thought within madness. Nietzsche was the first philosopher to go mad. Strange philosopher, or mad philosopher, poet philosopher, figure of the non-philosopher who lent himself to many a confiscation, usually under the guise of a brutal exit from philosophy: one could dance away from philosophy, is he said to have said. This is an oversimplification, to say the least. It is a view held by those, from the far left to the extreme right of the political spectrum, who brandish would-be nietzschean slogans. I don’t here have the time to examine all that the nietzschean corpus puts into play, so I will say only this: Nietzsche spent a lifetime throwing back into question everything that was said by philosophers since Plato about the concept of truth. And this is what brought him to madness. But – no one can say what this “madness” was truly. I repeat: he was the first philosopher to go mad. The question is: was this madness an accident or was it programmed? Philosophy, it could be argued, always is a defence against madness. So we must ask: what did Nietzsche do in going mad? Perhaps what he did was to carry out Philosophy’s main project, i.e. put philosophical thought back into play as the work of madness. This is something that has been said by many thinkers, writers and artists. Kierkegaard spoke of the “instant of decision” as madness. Joyce said of his Ulysses that it was a dangerous, risky book, separated from madness by a mere transparent sheet. It is the same transparent sheet that Kierkegaard alludes to: decision is another word for crisis, which translates the Greek Krisis, itself derived from Krinein, which means to choose, to separate. That separation is the one Parmenides indicated in his poem, between the road of the Logos and the labyrinth in which the Logos is lost. Another word for labyrinth is the name chosen by Joyce for his hero: daedalus. The decision is between being and non-being. It is the crisis of the Logos separating from itself and going into the exile that is madness, where it forgets its origin and its very possibility. As Derrida tells us in the last lines of his commentary of Foucault’s History of Madness, there are fits of reason strangely party to what the world calls fits of madness. What we call “madness” may very well be one of the guises under which “reason” manifests itself.


But what about creativity, creation? How does it relate to reason and/or madness? Can the works, for example, of philosophers such as Nietzsche, of poets such as Hölderlin, of painters such as van Gogh, of writers such as Kafka, of musicians such as Glenn Gould – examples are legion – be considered to proceed from madness? Is it possible to “understand” anyone’s work, whether it be philosophical, literary, artistic or scientific, as resulting or proceeding from one form or other of madness? I think not. It is the opposite that I believe is true: there is something maddening in the philosophical, artistic, literary or scientific work when it is taken, accompanied or endured to the limits of their very possibility, when they are taken, accompanied or endured to the point at which thought, conception, representation and expression become impossible. Or, to use the term suggested by Sharon, when they are brought to the point at which they can only fail. When he reached that point Nietzsche stopped writing. Hölderlin went mute and spent the last thirty-four years of his life at a carpenter’s, in a tower. Paul Celan killed himself. Robert Walser lay face down in the snow and died. The list is interminable. I would venture that those works that are merely the product, or the result of their author’s madness will not be remembered. That will only be remembered the names of those whose work took them and/or was taken to the point of their essential failure. As for Yayoi Kusama, I can’t tell. Is it “psychotic art”? it was asked. I am not sure I understand the question. I am not even sure the question does have much meaning. Is the art produced by someone who is indeed psychotic itself psychotic? One need only, to realize how absurd the premise, ask the question of Ezra Pound’s or Sylvia Plath’s poetry, of Cantor’s mathematics, or of Bobby Fisher’s chess playing. Why not ask if the Caravaggio’s painting is psychopathic? My point here, and it will be my last, is that the psychobiographical approach to art is a parochialism that can only enforce what George Steiner would probably call a grammar of mediocrity, itself steeped in detergent emptiness.


                                                            Strasbourg, June 4-12, 2006


Dr. Larivière was born in Montreal, Canada. He moved to France in 1971 to study Philosophy and eventually earned doctoral degrees in Philosophy, Psychology, and French Literature. He has met and worked with many scholars including Derrida, Barthes, Lacan, Lyotard and Dolto. Dr. Larivière speaks (and works) in four languages: English, French, Italian and German. Currently, his practice is in France and he has lead seminars internationally in Italy, Canada, United States and Switzerland.


Dr. Larivière may be contacted at:

7A Rue Turenne, 67000 Strassbourg, FRANCE