I recently received an email headed 'Literature and Madness Network' inviting me to the '1st Seminar of the Madness and Literature Network', which is to culminate in the '1st International Conference in Health Humanities' in 2010. Leave aside the use of the word 'network', and the mystery of 'Health Humanities': at least the upshot is a conference, which is something I can grasp. What got me stuck for a moment was the Literature and Madness of the subject line, and the Madness and Literature in the body of the email. I find I'm always pretty near the edge of Alice's rabbit hole, but the apparent randomness of Literature and Madness and Madness and Literature - the 'do cats eat bats or bats eat cats' quality of the switch - almost had me tumbling. Which? Does it mean what it says or say what it means? Does it matter? Carroll says: 'As she couldn't answer either question, it didn't matter much which way she put it.' Well, it does matter, I think, though I'm not totally sure. One seems to be a category (unfortunately) within the discipline of literature, while the other suggests two equal but different disciplines. Still, I'm at a loss to know what question is asked by either. But then I read the seminar title, 'Fat beyond the Call of Duty: The Nature in Power within Psychiatry', and I quite lost my footing. There are certain verbal nonsenses that induce the feeling - check the marmalade on the shelves and practise curtseying for when you land - that Alice experienced. Just close enough to sense and yet entirely meaningless. Unless, that is, I've drifted into a state where the sense of the world no longer functions: if it persists we call it madness. I was saved by changing the t in 'fat' to an r, and replacing 'in' with 'of'. 'Far beyond the Call of Duty: The Nature of Power within Psychiatry'. Typos can be dangerous. Reality may not be as exciting, but finding it can be a great relief to a troubled mind.
LRB 6 November 2008 | PDF Download