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Norway, Madness and the Power of Narrative

A note about this blog. It is merely a thinking aloud. I am driven to make my internal home through language and when I type it, it is like building with stones, balancing them awkwardly on top of one another with gaps that cold draughts blow through. If others want to read, then they are welcome to rest with me awhile before returning to their own, hopefully cosier, home. If in their reading they want to add their own thoughts, all good. But my thoughts here are a process, not a product, and some of my posts are wildly unpolished for that reason.

There was a discussion this morning on the Today programme about whether it would be wiser, better? (I never quite got a handle on it) to attribute the atrocities of Anders Behring Breivik to someone in the grip of madness, or as the actions of a terrorist seeking to promote a political ideology (albeit his own) in the most gruesome and abhorrent way.

There is no one answer to the question posed this morning; as with most things in life extreme (insane if you wish) behaviour can occur in the rich conjunction of potent internal and external narratives. Evidentially, one might suggest Breivik’s internal narrative consisted of being a lone warrior figure, but did this self-characterisation exist before his story met the external narrative of wider racial, religious and political intolerance? Did it develop that way because he came across an external story that fitted his internal view of himself and his place in the world.

I can believe as many things as I like in my mind but if I never express them and function in a ‘normal’ way I will never be adjudged mad. If I begin to share some of my personal narrative and it does not fit with the majority view, the more socially acceptable view, or just the dominant view, I may be on shifting sands mentally because my internal reality is invalidated.

At this point, I may or may not reach for an external narrative that will bolster, or chime with my own shaky internal one. Something that is so much easier with the Internet at our fingers. Or I might create a new narrative for myself, something more publically palatable. But where does the old one go? For you cannot kill a good story as the Murdochs could attest.

And I can quietly find people who agree with me to help me out if I am aware I have a minority view of myself, or the world. A silly example: if I tell someone at work, in passing, that I believe that I am the reincarnation of Queen Elizabeth I, then they may ask questions about my right-mindedness. But I don’t and I don’t. If I did, then I could go home and privately while away hours on the web finding people who are into reincarnation and who would probably affirm my belief. Is that mad? Or a harmless eccentricity? The latter presumably, unless I become more forthright in my beliefs and seek to impose them on a world that doesn’t share my view. Insight is a key theme in the diagnosis of a psychosis, but sometimes insight does not help, it can be akin to a newsreader you don’t like broadcasting your own narrative – your news, to you – block your ears, close your eyes, switch the channel.

Can thoughts really be mad, unless they drive the thinker mad, or are expressed in behaviour or output that does not fit with society’s ideals or ideas for palatable consumption? I can be as crazy as I like and no-one will know, or care much, if I do it quietly.

But is that the madness under discussion this morning? If there is no expression of it in thought, word or deed, how can we say it is madness, in truth. I have met people, in mental health settings, who, with perfect equanimity, would announce that they thought I should bath in curry powder with hi-fi speakers, or that a dog was their brother. On the other hand, I have met people in incoherent deep pain who only express a coherent version of such. Both types are equally recognised in the mental health system, both offered chemical cudgels to ease their brains, or their pains and the distinction in their manners given a differential diagnosis so we know. We know this one has this and this one has that and from time to time we might lock them up when they become a danger to themselves or others.

And that is where the madness we fear and that reared its many-headed Hydra in the debate this morning makes its intractable entrance. A mad woman mumbling on a street corner, or shouting at the moon is a personal tragedy perhaps, but of no especial interest. A casualty of life. It is when narratives collide, and a madness is acted out violently that we are forced to take notice.

Even then, you might point out that if that howling at the moon is a song that can be sold and sung along to, or a painting that can be bought, hung and admired, then, that’s ok, that is the creative genius.

My own view is one of damage. We are all damaged, we are all undamaged, but it is the story of the damage or undamage that we tell ourselves that matters the most, not what was done, undone or never done. Perhaps the most pernicious damage is one where the story is untold, only hinted at and never given the opportunity for the chapter’s ending. Because that kind of story cannot have a conclusion, it can only exist as news, and at anytime it might become the headline in your head if that disembodied broadcaster decides to make it so. You have lost control of your own narrative. That might be one of my views of what some might call madness.

The horror of events in Norway make me think perhaps it is when our personal narratives collide and meld with socio-political narratives that we can become the most force for good, or something else. How that country chooses to frame and express this tragic story may partly define its socio-political future.

I am not sure personal madness comes into it until the cogent narrative self is completely subsumed and in the case of Breivik, appearances would suggest that it has very much not.