Opinion | How mental disorders make influencers influential4 min read . Updated: 14 Jul 2019, 09:17 PM IST
What if many things that we now call philosophies had emerged from a mental disorder?
I propose a theory about influence. A long time ago, when things were yet to be named, a schizophrenic sees a vision. He transmits it to the world. He has such faith in his vision that other people begin to see what he sees. They accept his idea, misunderstanding it to varying degrees to suit their own interests. The vision becomes a society’s purpose, and the sane then try to imitate the insane to achieve its promise.
This could be the history of cults, communism, intense love for nature, the notion of enlightenment, and that all life in the universe is interconnected by a force which also resides in the base of the human spine, and that everything is a mere illusion, and that misery is the inescapable fate of life, and even the idea of meditation, which used to mean a proper trance when I was a boy but has now been downgraded by a mysterious white authority as merely “watching your breath". Have you noticed, the defining aspect of our most powerful ideas is that we will always fall short of comprehending it?
What if many things that we call philosophies today had emerged from a mental disorder? What if influencers are influential chiefly because of their mental anomalies? The sane trying to emulate the insane—what if all our tumults arise from this?
In The Collected Schizophrenias, a young American writer named Esmé Weijun Wang tells the story of her own schizoaffective disorder. She has been hospitalized several times. She has dodged invisible demons, which were not metaphorical, and seen a train hurtle towards her and vanish. She makes one passing observation: “Sometimes I encounter people who don’t believe in mental illness…Often, they claim that such diagnoses are oppressive to those with unique abilities…I am frequently told with great sincerity that in other cultures, a person who would be diagnosed with schizophrenia in the West might be lauded as a shaman and healer. Have you ever considered, they ask, that schizophrenia might be a spiritual characteristic, and not a malady?"
She scoffs at the notion that a torturous disease must be mistaken for talent, but at once she also hopes that her mental condition is a pathway to “spirituality". What is clear is that if she had not revealed her mental disorders and instead written about, say, the meaning of life, she would have portrayed, in a highly influential way, a hopeless world. Thousands of writers before her with mental disorders achieved just that, and there are thousands today who continue to shape the views of the world because of their mental condition. A sense of doom is far more captivating than the mirth of a healthy mind.
This is one of the major forces behind the prevailing paranoia around politics and the fear of “the return of fascism". This is the reason why many intellectuals frequently invoke George Orwell, who wrote gloomy stories about the future of civilization. Intellectuals try to see sense in his prose, but the fact is he was completely wrong about politics and the present world, which is a vastly better place than his mind conjured. Orwell, not surprisingly, had serious health problems.
About 15 years ago, a study by Caritas St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Boston suggested that the affliction of tuberculosis and other misfortunes affected his mental state. Orwell himself had told his friends that he would’ve been more cheerful had he not been so ill. Yet, he managed to influence future intellectuals precisely because of his paranoia. In the arts, a happy truth does not travel as far as a gloomy lie.
The contemporary world of humanitarian lament, too, contains players who have been diagnosed with a range of mental disorders that makes them highly persuasive narrators. There is a popular belief that their suffering makes them feel more deeply about the problems of others. This is a myth. Empathy is merely a form of self-absorption and self-obsession. The ill create a gloomy world because that is what they see and that is what comforts them.
Recently, when Somi Das, a student of clinical psychology, was interning at a psychiatric care centre, she observed in a Facebook post that many patients with serious mental ailments were “hyper-clued into political news". They spoke with more clarity about politics and elections than about their own lives. This phenomenon points to the possibility that the modern obsession with news may be an expression of a malady even in people who do not exhibit any symptoms of mental disorder. People are not consuming news, they are consuming anxiety.
You may know of people who appear to be normal and even wise, but are always lamenting excessively about things, about how the world is warming, how there is so much plastic in our rivers, how the government will spy on us through our Aadhaar numbers. These are not unworthy issues and these people are not mentally ill, but they have a tendency to be agitated by the alarm in the air, whose hidden origins are from the darkest depths of the mind.
In the transmission of gloom and paranoia there are many concentric circles of influence. The originators themselves may not be highly influential, but they influence the influencers who have political or economic reasons to buy into ideas, or are themselves on the edges of the spectrum of mental ailments. To be impervious to the most powerful influences of our times, to be outside all the circles of influence, is the very meaning of being sane today. Very few people can achieve that. Sanity, it turns out, is a minority condition.
Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous