To What Extent is the World Going Mad?

On stage in an oversize army shirt below a mass of greying wavy hair was the artist, Michael Leunig. He had a felt pen in one hand and spoke off the cuff. In the audience, using drug company ballpoints to write on drug company notepads were hundreds of psychiatrists. Apart from the note-taking – thought by some (though not by Freud) to be a feature of psychiatric sessions – the roles seemed to have been reversed. Leunig, not the shrinks, was asking the enigmatic questions. He was the one talking about the unconscious. It was Leunig who followed Freud, and wondered about free-floating attention. While the psychiatrists absorbed papers that would have repelled Freud (such as ‘Internet-Diagnosis’), the artist free-associated. To what extent, he wanted to know, is the world going mad?

It is an intriguing question; one I often contemplate when thinking about the way mental health is now understood. To me the focus on medication that masks symptoms and cognitive learning that stays on the surface is a folly. It treats us as if we are machines. Indeed, the brain-blame account of human misery is one that denies subjectivity. This was Leunig’s point. That he made it during a Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists conference made it even more pointed. He was saying to the shrinks – the unconscious is real for me, why not for you? It is a view that has become increasingly marginalised among mental health professionals, but interestingly, not among artists and writers. Psychiatry may have lost its soul to reductive biology and the discipline that rivals it for influence – psychology – become a cult of counting (statistics), but the creative world still takes its lead from Passage to India author E.M. Forster who defined writing as throwing a bucket into the unconscious to see what comes up.

Much of this is to do with money, some of it with our aversion to reality. As Freud noted “society makes what is disagreeable into what is untrue.” The poet, T.S. Eliot, agreed. We can’t tolerate too much reality, he said. But life, as Eliot knew, is an ongoing struggle to think well of ourselves. In this endeavour, the temptation of the sugar or serotonin coating is ever present, and when it fails, there is the fantasy that we can wrest control via willpower. It is a fairy story, a bit like the Happy Ever After plots of ‘Hello’ magazine. But this was not what Leunig was offering. Artists, he said, stare into the same abyss as shrinks, only without an arsenal of drugs to disguise despair; this prompted bums to shift uneasily on seats.

Outside in the foyer, where the drug companies sponsoring the event had stalls, despair was hidden behind displays claiming that depressed artists, like Beethoven and Virginia Woolf would have been better off if Prozac had been around. Drug maker Wyeth did not highlight the reported side effects of its antidepressant, ‘Efexor’, but then this was spin not science. Leunig was no scientist, but he had experimented with suffering which meant that, unlike many giving papers, he ventured into the subjective, using Freud’s word “soul” to talk about distress. Watching on, a Sydney shrink summed up the dilemma. “We (psychiatrists have a terrible fear of saying that we have to go (away from brain and) back to mind,” he said. “It’s a fear of losing credibility.” Leunig, who was inspired to become a cartoonist in the 1960’s by the shrink-behind-the-couch drawings in ‘The New Yorker’, appeared puzzled. “Subconscious is absolutely fundamental to art,” he said, “but maybe it’s lost to psychiatry.”

The unconscious, that is, our personal submerged history, is being filtered out of psychiatry and psychology. The result is a system that fixes on symptoms, not causes, and sees a type of cure in covering up, rather than weighing up the complexity of existence. It means we have management rather than treatment, and consumers rather than patients. To wonder why is to go back to Leunig’s question: to what extent is the world going mad?

The question is best dealt with in art. In George Orwell’s novel, ‘1984’, madness is the outcome of the kind of uniformity that is now emerging in mental health. The novel coined the terms Big Brother, the Ministry of Truth and the Thought Police. Orwell’s protagonist, Winston Smith, does not want to conform to the dictates of these agencies and tries to rebel. He is told: “You would not make the act of submission which is the price of sanity.” Winston’s way of avoiding madness is to fall asleep murmuring “sanity is not statistical,” a line that always makes me think of modern psychology. Big Brother argues that it is sane to keep meaninglessness at bay, but Winston wants the right to be unhappy, to know his unconscious.

Nearly 25 years after 1984, this right is on the line and that is a madness of its own. I remember talking to a funeral director who told me that he wanted to employ a psychologist because so many of those attending his services were depressed. I was stunned. Had Freud’s distinction between mourning and melancholia disappeared as well? The craziness is also in the categories that now stand in for understanding mental states. There is a sense that, if only we can get our definitions right, then the mystery of the mind will be sorted. But the will to conclusive definitions, so clear in DSM, the bible of modern psychiatry and psychology, is at best a sign of doubt and at worst a sign of defeat. It is not just as the 17th century French writer, Blaise Pascal, said; men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness. It is that our complex mental lives are being reduced to formulas that can be assessed by questionnaire.

In this, psychoanalysis, from which modern psychology arose, is side-lined, which is a shame, because while Freud is best known for studying the mad, he was primarily interested in the mainstream, which is to say, the majority that are, to some extent or other, neurotic. This for Freud went beyond the frenetic emotionality now associated with the term. For him, it included being “petty, egoistic, dishonest, lacking independence, one whose sole aim has been to hide the weakness of his own nature.

That the above descriptions of personality are no longer considered signs of illness or even aberrant tells you how far we have drifted. The last one – hiding weakness – could be thought of as avoiding one’s vulnerability, something Leunig has commented upon. He will do so again, publicly, on August 9 at an Australian Centre for Psychoanalysis conference on love. The conference, at Melbourne University’s Graduate Centre, will provide Leunig with a chance to talk purely personally about love as clear vision.