Tag Archives: madness

Intimate with Madness

Lance is having a funny reaction to the sea.  Left to his own, he’d probably be happy staying out of the water.  He does not seem to have any curiosity about it. Only when Geoff or I go swimming, does Lance make a dash into the waves.  He hates it, I can tell.  He whines and steps timorously over the baby wavelets as if walking on shards of glass.  He’d really prefer going back to the house and resuming his perch on the porch.

The sight of his human cohorts disappearing into this strange, moving, noisy, foaming mass that Lance has no frame of reference to understand, however, moves him to override his fear. At least he attempts to override his fear.  He doesn’t get far.  The first biggish wave sends Lance in an abrupt dancing retreat.  It’s interesting to watch him weigh his options and evaluate the competing threats.  He hates the ocean, but he also hates being separated from the pack.  So his fear of the pack breaking up temporarily trumps his fear of death-by-water.  Until the water grows larger than his brief courage.  Then he flees to the beach and the torture of indecision.

Once in a while, Geoff  stays on the beach, while I swim.  That doesn’t help much.  Lance runs back and forth between Geoff and the shallow waves, barking in a state of high anxiety, as if to say: “Go in there and get her!  Are you mad?  How can you stand there and do nothing?!”  Then he advances to the point where the gentlest wave edge brushes his toenails, plops his butt in the sand and stares at me in agony until I return from the sea.  Poor dog.  He’ll never come on vacation with us again.  Between the Trivial Pursuit and the bathing, this trip has been one trauma after another.

The moon still hangs in the sky this morning.  A pale white shadow against blue.  It was full a couple of days ago, and it doesn’t seem to want to give up the stage.  The wind has died down from the storm.  The water is barely moving today.  Maybe Lance will feel more inclined to swim in this gentle sea.

Emily sent the following:

#1284, c. 1783

Had we our senses
But perhaps ’tis well they’re not at Home
So intimate with Madness
He’s liable with them
Had we the eyes within our Head —
How well that we are Blind —
We could not look upon the Earth —
So utterly unmoved —

The world is shocking. Maybe it is better that most of us sleepwalk through it. If we were fully awake with open eyes, we’d stay fixed on the beach and not move. Too dangerous.

Of course, Emily doesn’t really mean what she says. She’s toying with our complacency. However, the suggestion that paying attention with our full range of senses might lead to madness or at least feel like madness is not her joke. Rather, it is her isolation. It’s an intimacy with chaos that she is willing to live with but no one else would.

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Emily and Jeanne

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany and the 599th birthday of our patron Saint Jeanne d’Arc.  Epiphany babies often have an aura of destiny about them.  As a birth placement, this day can be almost literally brilliant.  According to the Christ myth, today the light of the world appears to those who have been seeking it.  Those who might believe in it.  I’m going to celebrate this evening with the Krewe de Jeanne d’Arc which will parade through the Vieux Carre and end at the golden statue of the Maid of Orleans near the Market.  I’ll give you a full report tomorrow.  Maybe.  If I’m not carried away by some errant tide of joy.  That could happen.  You never know.

In honor of her soul sister Jeanne, Emily sent this note from the dark.

#1323, ca. 1874

I never hear that one is dead
Without the chance of Life
Afresh annihilating me
That mightiest Belief,

Too mighty for the Daily mind
That tilling its abyss,
Had Madness, had it once or twice
The yawning Consciousness,

Beliefs are Bandaged, like the Tongue
When Terror were it told
In any Tone commensurate
Would strike us instant Dead

I do not know the man so bold
He dare in lonely Place
That awful stranger Consciousness
Deliberately face —

There is so much in this poem that I can’t hold it all at once. I’ll try to swim a straight line through it. My first response is to observe the similarities between Jeanne d’Arc and Emily Dickinson. They were both precocious, neurasthenic young girls with talents far exceeding their society’s ability to appreciate. Both were caught in a time that could not comprehend a woman of any age who possessed the power that each wielded in her own way.

Both, I’d argue here, were “afflicted” with consciousness. By that I mean that these two were both missing a layer or two of the usual protection (that “bandage”) that most of us carry around with us. The layers that shield us from a too intimate knowledge of ourselves or our consciousness. These two could not escape or ignore the experience of awareness. Most mortals can’t survive without ignoring their own consciousness. Em alludes to this protection in the line: “Too mighty for the Daily Mind”. A lesser sort born with Emily’s raw openness to the eternity within would fall into that “Madness.” No one sinks into the darkness behind her own eyes with any real willingness. It’s usually a forced step. Emily is the one with the curiosity and the courage to go there as a regular practice. And then write about it. Maybe that writing spared her from the madness. She was angling slant-wise toward this when she wrote “The Truth must dazzle gradually/ Or every man be blind —” The fact of conscious existence, our ability to be aware of our awareness, is too excruciating to dwell on in any direct or lengthy manner. For Emily, the most excruciating part, is her ability to hold awareness of life beyond death.

I’ll warrant that Jeanne wondered if she was going mad, as well. Both of these extraordinary girls were shocked, dazzled, and then finally drunk like madwomen on their own talent. Their power to “see”. Both had the sight or visions, which of course, according to the contractual terms of magical power, comes with a big responsibility. The difference between them is that Jeanne left the safe anonymity of her family and went out into the world to become a warrior of enormous political influence. While our little brown sparrow, Emily stayed home and drove herself deeper inward. Her vision bored infinitely into that mustard seed, her kingdom of Heaven.

Emily’s power exploded onto the page in private. “My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun —” She knew what she was sitting on—an atomic bomb of awareness, her own consciousness. Maybe it was out of compassion for her society that she withheld herself from public view. If she had unleashed her vision, she might have brought a nation to its knees (like Jeanne), and she might have been torn to pieces for her crime of greatness (like Jeanne). So a little of both. Pity for the ignorant society she was given at birth. And a healthy dose of self-preservation.

Who can say what was the better path?  Jeanne changed the tide of history and died in agony before her 20th birthday.  No one got to see Emily’s iconoclastic poems in her life time, but she was granted a long career, made good use of her time, and died as quietly as she lived.  I guess we need both of them.

The gift I receive from Emily is a trapdoor and an invitation. She lifts the cover from the opening and points into the darkness. Readers like me may descend, floating on a dark wave, comfortable, room temperature. There limits melt and open toward the infinite unfolding that lies just outside our peripheral vision. Emily shows us how to turn and see deeply behind our own eyes. That loss of solid space/time boundaries might scare us back toward front and center. But no. It’s okay to follow Emily’s directive. She’s gone there first. We don’t have to be afraid.

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