Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Monday, 23 April 2007

"Madness and Modernism" by Louis A. Sass (Harvard University Press. 1994)

Some definitions of schizophrenia match definitions of modernism/post-modernism so closely that comparisons are inevitable. Both concepts are rather fuzzy though.


Schizoid traits overlap other ones - "test results are frequently indistinguishable from those given by normal but highly creative subjects in studies of creativity", (p.127). Unconventional behaviour is less likely nowadays to be considered uncivilised behaviour and thus the Freudian result of infantile regression. But much unconventional behaviour that's not autistic can easily be classed as schizoid. Though Sass admits that "while one can assert that 'schizophrenics are idiosyncratic, unique, inappropriate, or bizarre ... any further elaboration is impossible'" (p.133) he tries to classify the traits into problems of cognition, attention, language, self. Here are some examples

  • "The most prominent characteristics of schizoid persons are an apparent asociality and indifference, often combined with introversion ... their emotions do not flow in a natural and spontaneous way; instead they seem forced or stiff, and others may find them cold and unfeeling, perhaps overly cerebral", (p.77)
  • "the tendency, common in schizoids ... to be acutely sensitive to the repetitive or hackneyed aspect of what they observe", (p.96)
  • "schizoid personality is characterised by an essential disharmony, a proneness to fragmentation and conflict, both with the world and within the self ... a propensity for willful unconventionality and flaunted inauthenticity, and a pervasive attitude of ironic detachment", (p.109)
  • "The schizophrenic's facetiousness, antagonism, or mockery can also be expressed in more muted fashion - in, for instance, sardonic comments, often delivered in deadpan style", (p.112)
  • "the schizophrenic often seems aware of a vast number of possibilities; but instead of focusing on only one, such as color or shape, it is as if he takes all the possibilities into simultaneous consideration", (p.129)
  • "the schizophrenic's frequent shifting among conceptual frames of reference that are not regulated with each other leads to a loss of solidarity and coherence", (p.130)
  • "a tendency to order the world in accordance with highly idiosyncratic and impractical perspectives", (p.126)
  • "It is hard to know whether, or to what extent, such obscurity is willful. It is clear, however, that schizophrenics frequently ignore the pragmatic rules of conversation, failing to orient the listener by providing the necessary background or contextual cues or to establish the kinds of logical connections that make for a coherent and readily grasped utterance", (p.178)
  • "Schizophrenic people also pay inordinate attention to the graphic appearance or sound of words .. and they too are highly sensitive to puns ... They are also inclined to have a heightened awareness of ambiguities", (p.201)

One can see how easily these observations match particular artistic movements. One can also see how the observations seem contradictory - schizoid readers might treat a text as marks on paper or as a pretext for wild leaps of imagination. He resolves this by suggesting that "schizoids ... are best characterized by their propensity to be not at any single point but at the extremes of a dimension indicating degree of sensitivity to the environment", (p.80), and this applies to several of the features - they're at both extremes rather than in the middle somewhere.


He's "not suggesting that madness and modernism are alike in all important respects", (p.9) - though the artists tend to be adversarial, affected, mannered dandies/loners, the works tend to be multi-Point-of-View, willfully obscure, fragmented, I-less, and many of the styles are schizoid: Dada, Surrealism, Nouveau Roman, Cubism, etc. Modernism (and in particular post-modernism) offers many points of correspondence

  • "[in postmodernism] instead of being rejected, conventions are actually embraced and exaggerated", p.30
  • "Oddity and fluidity of perspective are widespread features of the culture of modernism and postmodernism", p.134
  • "the characteristics that make schizophrenic stories unlike the standard narrative form are much the same as those that differentiate traditional from modernist literature in general", p.159

Inner speech

He says that "The features of inner speech that Vygotsky describes are also found in much of the literature of the twentieth-century avant-garde and are central, too, in the desocialised speech so characteristic of schizophrenia", (p.194). In this "inner speech, language becomes abbreviated or telegraphic: syntax is simplified, explicit causal and logical connections are omitted, and there is an absence of framing devices such as those normally used to distinguish metaphorical from literal meanings of verbal images", (p.194). "The advent of literary modernism has sometimes been identified with the inhabiting of just such a language - an inner speech that is markedly similar to the desocialized schizophrenic language discussed earlier", (p.193).


He sees Modernism in dialog with Romanticism

  • "Unlike their distinguished predecessors, the German and English romantics of the early nineteenth century, the modernists have not sustained hope in the possibility of unifying subject with object or human being with nature", (p.37)
  • "It is understandable that the romantics' acute awareness of fragmentation, estrangement and devitalization should have led at times, by way of reaction, to a yearning for something antithetical", (p.342)
  • "modernism often does reject the aspirations of romanticism - replacing the goal of a reconciliation or higher integration (of mind with nature, subject with object, or form with content)", (p.343)
  • "Romantic or quasi-romantic elements are, in fact, rather prominent in many classic works of the 'high modernist' period ... But if we turn to many of the aesthetic works and ideologies associated with the term postmodernism, ... the lingering vestiges of romanticism seem to have been banished almost entirely", p.343-344

Schizoid culture

"as Karl Jaspers has pointed out, the number of schizophrenics who have been of profound cultural importance in European society since 1800 is quite remarkable; Jaspers also notes that he cannot find any such persons who were of importance before 1800", (p.366). Has society changed that much? Have Holderlin, Strindberg, Kafka, Beckett and Warhol really taken over? "Might insanity be, in some sense, a disease of certain highly advanced forms of cultural organisation ... And if so, is this because modern culture creates the conditions for the genesis of schizophrenia ... ? Or might it be more the other way round", (p.357). Perhaps we're only now realising that modern life's schizoid

  • "Do the affinities with modern thought and expression suggest that there is something especially sophisticated, insightful, or self-aware about the condition - or that, perhaps in some tragic sense, such persons are more in touch with the true human condition than is the normal or average individual?", (p.339)
  • "if one were to take [Derrida's] hypermodernist philosophy literally, imagining an actual living out of its claims, the existence one would arrive at might well resemble the schizophrenic condition I have been describing in this book", (p.348)

At the end (before the 160 pages of notes) he puts forward some tentative answers to these questions (presenting epidemiological studies, etc), and I'm sure that elsewhere others have considered the issue in more depth. Western society (cities in particular) helps schizoids to remain functional - there are bigger niches where they can survive (universities, the arts, etc). In these niches they find like people and little pressure to conform to wider society's norms. In the first half of the 20th century they could claim fortuitous confirmation of their approach from Relativistic science and the era's leading artists (Eliot, etc). With that confidence and validation they broke out of the niche. Their borderline representatives found that they were within the mainstream. Positive feedback loop developed.

People with borderline Tourette's syndrome sometimes adopt a personality which can exploit their tics. Borderline autists in modern society can find well-paid jobs that suit them. Perhaps in the past there were few profitable outlets for schizoids. Now things have changed. Schiziods are tempted to develop their artistic side, leading in turn to more schizoid art.

I think I'd have liked more sociological information, but it's an interesting read.

No comments:

Post a Comment