Madness in a Mad World, or How to Stay Cool in a Warming World?
Draft version, November 6, 2020 Wouter Kusters, philosopher, writer and ‘expert by experience’
“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you”, says Yossarian, the main character of the famous novel Catch-22 (Joseph Heller, 1961). This satirical, though tragical, famous sentence is uttered in World War II, during which Yossarian, serving in the U.S. army as a bombardier in Italy, is in the grip of fear. He thinks there are clear signs that they are after him – which they are.
In 1958 an important study by Klaus Conrad is published, Die beginnende Schizophrenie, in which the German psychiatrist describes in close detail the various phases of what he calls ‘beginning schizophrenia’, and what we today prefer to call the stages of a florid psychosis: from the delusional mood, to a revelatory phase, an interplay of delusions and hallucinations, ending in an ‘apocalyptic phase’. This study is of high value, being the first of its kind that takes such a close look at what is actually going on in the experience of a psychotic shift. And its special merit is that it is not a single case study, but examines a large group of psychotic persons, all of the same age, same gender, under similar circumstances.
During World War II Conrad was, like most of his colleagues at the time, a member of the Nazi doctor union, and he was in the situation to be at the spot where it all happened: studying German front soldiers going mad. But although the occurrence of high anxiety and violent ideation in Conrad’s set of cases is remarkable, these peculiar circumstances of his field research are rarely taken into account when further examining his analyses. Instead, the coded and uncoded outcries from hell have only been inscribed quasi-neutrally and then locked away into medical archives as symptoms of an illness, not as signs of more comprehensive social, not to say, existential circumstances. Indications of what was actually at stake can be read only between the lines, e.g. Conrad (1958, 47): “In 1943 the boy again became seriously ill, was committed to a number of mental hospitals, and was finally a victim of the euthanasia movement.”
What will be the fate of the voices and lives of young people today, confronted with the prospects and facts of ecological destruction and climate catastrophes? How will psychiatrists describe their cases? How can it be avoided that their voices become neutralized, psychologized, stigmatized, and be silenced by the powers that be?
In this short paper I will sketch the psychodynamics of becoming aware of the looming climate catastrophes as a wakening process, analogous to individual psychotic processes. I assume that a psychosis can be considered as a perhaps impractical, but nevertheless meaningful answer to an existential crisis (cf. Kusters, 2020). I will draw these parallels under four psychosis related headings; intrusive messages, perplexity; trauma and mourning, and recovery – if any.
Let’s start with some facts. Global mean temperature will rise between 1.5 to 5 degrees Celsius this century. This leads to longer, more intense and frequent heatwaves, and unpredictable and heavier rainfall and thunderstorms. Oceans are becoming warmer and more acidic. The permafrost, the polar ice caps and the major glaciers are melting. Sea levels are rising, and cities like Dhaka, Jakarta, Lagos, Shanghai, London and New York are threatened. Large stretches of land will become uninhabitable, because of the heat, the droughts, the lack of food and drinking water, which will probably lead to catastrophes like mass famines, mass migrations and war.
The facts and predictions are well-known, but what do they imply for our sanity and insanities, how do these facts influence our spiritual, mental and physical well-being? How can we stay calm and sane in this madness of world catastrophes?
Let’s take a look first at the individual level of a person with the first signs of a looming psychosis. At this stage things that used to be taken as normal at face value by that individual, now appear in a different light. The world has become a strange place to live, and daily routines and habits make place for an uncanny sphere of wonder, puzzlement, awe and anxiety. When this pre-psychotic onset develops you start to receive signs and messages through various media about a suggested secret, an idea, a vague plan or even conspiracy that lies at the heart of this strange world. Slowly you detect that everything is connected, and that the vague allusions and signs should be interpreted as indicating that everything evolves towards some kind of deeper cosmic change, towards a kind of revelation or apocalypse (see Kusters, 2020).
Examining individual psychosis, it is often assumed that these vague feelings and ponderings about meanings, mysteries and signs of revelations and catastrophes, only belong to an individual disturbed subjective reality, not matching objective reality. But when we examine the analogous path on the macro-level of the climate crisis, things turn out different. The intrusive signs and messages that we receive concerning the climate crisis, are from reliable sources in shared reality, and most messages refer eventually to our common practices of scientific research, with evidence-based and statistically proven hypotheses and facts. These signs and messages reach us through the internet and other mass media, and when we get in their spell, we find apocalyptic signs everywhere: in the air, in the water, in the subnarratives and hidden assumptions of numerous conversations today; in the background whisperings of the natural environment that is dying, and last but not least in the cries of anger and despair of especially the younger generations who take head to the streets.
Recently the signs and messages from the climate crisis found their expression on the human face of one of those youngsters. It was the at that time 15-years old Greta Thunberg, who had gone through a so-called episode of depression, anxiety, and autism. Her ponderings and utterances have been spared from the medical archives so far, and she has become the intrusive face of climate madness, of despair, shock and truth and at the same time the face of stubborn consciousness and action.
Perplexity: shock and truth
When further stretching the comparison between psychosis with climate crisis awareness, we see that just as individual pre-psychotic experiences may develop into a full-blown florid psychosis, all the climate signs and messages may also turn into feelings of general climate alarm, panic, anxiety, confusion, not to say, madness. But in contrast, while most people think that a florid psychosis is to be avoided at all costs, many of us think that these feelings of climate alarm and climate panic need first to be promoted, ‘lived through’, and to be processed in order to start to act authentically and to be able to live in truth. Or, as Greta Thurnberg put it in her Davos speech (2019):
“I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”
So when being overwhelmed by the messages of doom, you may enter this phase of shock and truth. The better-informed psychopathologists (see Sass, 1992, Podvoll, 1990), and many of the experts by experience, know that on the psychotic path there is this sublime and terrifying moment of shock and truth, which might be a source of inspiration and wonder, but often also of awe, anxiety and confusion (see Kusters, 2020). At that moment the psychotic person is confronted with the truth of the depth of the abyss, or the unground of her existence; she is in radical doubt about everything in time and space, in history and geography, and she experiences, as the DSM calls it, perplexity at the height of the psychotic episode.
On the macro-level of the climate catastrophe it is not seldom found that people also mention a moment or a short period in time in which the truth about climate change really shocks them into perplexity. They become deeply confused and their whole world view tumbles down and turns around. As an example, some quotes from Mary Annaïse Heglar, communications professional in New York at the Natural Resources Defense Council (2018):
“…there was a moment when we had to face the reality of climate change. For most of us, I bet that moment hurt. I know it did for me… I skipped denial and went right to shock. I floated around on a dark, dark cloud. I frequently and randomly burst into tears… Where other people saw bustling crowds of people, I saw death and destruction. Even as I walked on dry land, I saw floods. I imagined wild animals, especially snakes, getting out of the zoos in the aftermath of natural disasters.”
Trauma and mourning
It may be quite a shock to find out that because of climate disruption all received wisdom, all earlier ideas about sense and meaning, and our place in history are no longer relevant. The truth of the climate crisis may well be followed by a so-called climate trauma. The Australian philosopher, Clive Hamilton (2014) said:
“Insight into climate change is not only achieved by knowing the numbers. There is also a profound feeling that you only experience when the facts touch you fully. Some call this the Oh shit, we are really in trouble moment. One achieves it by reading a scientific article, others because they, already familiar with the facts, undergo a profound experience in nature. Or they discover in another crushing way that their vision of the world is destroyed. Such an experience is inevitably traumatic and if you have not experienced it, you will not understand the problem either, because it is immensely large and transforming. The insight gained changes your mood, it fills your mind, it changes the wallpaper of your life. ”
Hamilton loosely introduces here the term trauma in the context of climate change, but how does this traumatic experience relate to other more usual individual traumas? The climate trauma first of all differs in the fact that the trauma inducing events lie in the future and have not yet become fully present reality. Normal traumas have their origin in events in the past, which slowly sinks further and further away into history. This slow distancing provides the possibilities in time and space for absorbing and processing the trauma. In the case of the climate trauma, however, the more time passes, the more serious and real the traumatic events become. We could say that while past traumas originate in the real, they develop and spread through the imaginary level, and become eventually part of the symbolic. This future climate trauma starts on the symbolic – theoretical and informative – level, develops into the imaginary, and ends into the real of a catastrophe sooner or later. Secondly, in the case of the climate trauma we know beforehand about the traumatic events and their possible consequences. In contrast with the usual traumas, we cannot say that we did not see it coming. Bruno Latour, the famous French philosopher remarks about this situation (2017: 25): “People have opened their eyes, they have seen, they have known, and they have forged straight ahead with their eyes shut tight.”
But how then could we live truthfully with these prospects, and deal with climate trauma? Just as with other traumas, the first thing to do is to acknowledge the truth, to be conscious about what exactly happened, or in this case, what will exactly happen. We should know and examine the truth, not hide ourselves from it, nor deny it, downplay it, or run away from it. Because, there is no time or place on earth to hide from the truth of climate catastrophes. The second step in trauma processing is to work through all the various emotional reactions that the climate truth invokes. Some of these emotions, like anger, grief and concern can be further processed in acting out, living more environmentally aware, and in connecting and sharing climate worries with others.
However, many of the emotions around the climate crisis do not so straightforwardly lead to new satisfying, positive practices. Many people have become cynical, apathetic, aggressive or deeply melancholic, despairing and inconsolable. They do not so easily connect to the mores and habits of the environmental movement, where the unwritten rules of conduct are all too often that you should hold up hope, and remain positive. For these negative traumatic feelings, there has been some attention among psychoanalysts and psychotherapists. Perhaps best known in this field of ecological psychology is Renee Lertzman, who says (2015: xiii): “The grief, mourning, anger, confusion and overwhelm that can accompany awareness of environmental issues remain largely unaddressed, private and professionally and socially taboo.” She then argues for a more compassionate and therapeutic approach towards those who suffer from environmental degradation, and who cannot or do not express their capacity for care in a positive way. She stresses the need to explore how and in what way individuals lost their relations to the natural environment, and the need to share and mourn about what we have lost already, and what we will further lose in the future.
Such approaches by psychiatrists and psychoanalysts could be helpful in guiding people through our bitter times. However, all too often it is assumed that climate anxieties and grief can in principle be taken away from the individual, be dealt with, without essential changes to our common ways of being, to our subjectivities, identities and ways of life. These essential changes – these miracles – did however not yet occur. And therefore, the experiences and fate of many is like that of Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist, who has been seriously affected by everything he has learned about the climate future. He writes: “I lose sleep over climate change almost every single night. I can’t remember how long this has been happening, but it’s been quite a while, and it’s only getting worse. I confess: I need help.” Holthaus went to see a counselor and, as he put it, the therapist “seemed unprepared for my emotional crisis. His simple advice was only, ‘do what you can.’”
The future, without miracles, is expected to be very bleak, and in terms of turmoil, world destruction, starvation, death and madness it looks too extreme and shocking to be manageable by therapies that focus on individual adaptation. ‘Do what you can’ is not enough to save us from despair. But then, how to deal with deep grief, anxiety and confusion, when mourning is no longer enough?
Schizo Recovery – if any
Sarah Myhre, an oceanologist and climate scientist, founder of the Rowan Institute, https://www.rowaninstitute.org/ says (2019): “I experience a profound level of grief on a daily basis because of the scale of the crisis that is coming, and I feel I’m doing all I can but it’s not enough. I don’t have clinical depression. I have anxiety exacerbated by the constant background of doom and gloom of science. It’s not stopping me from doing my work, but it’s an impediment. It is like I’m looking at the world through a looking glass, like I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole. I feel like I’m walking around in an isolation chamber.”
This is not the place, nor is it my expertise, to come up with a solution that liberates the world from climate catastrophes. Instead, I will sketch roughly some ways-out, and ways-through found on the individual paths of psychosis, that may be of interest for those who suffer from feelings of world catastrophe. Perhaps we can learn from them, from us, who have gone through similar states of minds, through unspeakable fears of world destruction, along experiences of apocalypse, loss of trust in the world, fragmentations and revelations. Because in that frightening state of chaos, also uncanny new connections and new realities are explored. In a similar vein, Kylie Harris, psychologist, writer and activist, says: “Individuals healing their own personal trauma or crisis can become part of a larger movement geared towards healing the entire planet. Importantly, we propose that the emergency mode offers an empowering psychological state for individuals to navigate experiences of crisis. Rather than a state that exacerbates negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, panic, or paranoia, it is a state that can facilitate enhanced awareness and collective transformative action.” When examining these states, this ‘emergency mode’, as Harris calls it, what kind of help can experts by experience, with their real experiences with rabbit holes and isolation chambers, offer to people like Sarah Myhre – and by implication, to the whole world? A few suggestions are as follows.
Those who have been there before, have easier access to other ways of connecting with time and history, and therefore, with the future. In our normal non-psychotic lives before our climate awakenings we navigated on a kind of hidden clock and common calendar in which this morning is nearer to us than last week, and last year nearer than thousand years ago. But under climate change as well as in psychotic life temporal experience is different. Our time frames of our past and of human history explode into vast geological and cosmic times. The events of these decades of climate disruption resonate with those of 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs became extinct. The pace of human history fuses and is confused with that of natural history, and our minds lose themselves and fall back in the unthinkable fantasms and realities of dark time-spaces of the deep past.
Paradoxically, at the same time, we get out of our minds, seduced, inspired and fascinated by the fact that in exactly our life time, in exactly these decades, these years, these very months, weeks, days, and right now, humanity is on a cosmic time peak level. We may ruminate and phantasize over the graphs of rising carbon levels, that had been constant for millions of years, suddenly, exactly in this last decade, out of all times, shoot into the sky. We celebrate the intensity of these very moments that everything is being concentrated into our minds, the whole cosmos, the living natural species and the dead ones, into our knowledge, and from this intensity we may shift and drift away from all normalcy into the wild life and death. Every minor individual act in our age of disruptive climate change reaches out to cosmic times, to the creation and destruction of world, species, forces of ice, air and water.
My first suggestion then would be to develop a different stance towards time. Instead of using clock and calendar time as a means of knowing objective reality, and become paralysed by the seemingly determinate future, we ‘d better use dreaming time and imaginative time frames as ways of modulating time and reality experience in the present.
In our times we ourselves have become so powerful that we are able to influence, modify and destroy much of the ecological fine-balanced tissue on earth. We are powerful, we have knowledge, and this same power has grown so strong, that it undermines itself, and threatens its own ground of existence. This resonates with the paradoxical schizo-mix of megalomania and paranoia, in which we feel ourselves as master of our minds, that stretch out over all universe, and at the same time as being delivered to that same universe that overwhelms us. My second suggestion is then to learn from the seemingly deviant schizo ways of dealing with the paradoxes of feeling infinitisemally small and infinitely large at the same time, now that we live in a time where these paradoxes have become more evident and thrown in our faces in the real of the non-schizo experience as well. The climate crisis induces arousal, feelings of urgency, of high importance about everything that happens. It leads to a kind of strong moralization of everyday life. Every small decision has an influence on the whole, and we, schizos and non-schizos now live in a time that every minor act spreads through all networks on all levels at once, and then turns back to itself. Everything is connected, and everything is processed and counted in terms of its effects on the whole. The totality of networks acts as a new ‘superorganism’ of which we are all part. It is as if an imaginary Eye and Mind of Nature is watching us, and through the lens of which we also watch ourselves. Such vaguely abstract loops, such suspicions of agencies, and immediate paradoxical connections between yourself and the Whole, are the playground and the unbearable bottom of reality that are roamed on in schizo experience. My third suggestion is to learn from schizo experience how nonhuman forces and other ways of life are experienced, are absorbed into of schizo narratives and new kinds of ethics, in order to enlarge our sensories to reconnect with the desperate voices of Nature.
In conclusion, perhaps it is time to learn from the wisdom of how to navigate in these unknown territories from those who are experts by experience. And perhaps at least a tiny part of future solutions may lie in acting against the madness of the world, by learning from the mad – and keeping in mind what a modern Yossarian would say: “Just because you’re psychotic, doesn’t mean that world catastrophe is not happening.”
Conrad, Klaus. 1958. Die beginnende Schizophrenie: Versuch einer Gestaltanalyse des Wahns. Stuttgart: Thieme Verlag.
Hamilton, Clive (2014). It is already too late. Interview in Vrij Nederland, https://www.vn.nl/klimaatexpert-clive-hamilton-het-is-al-te-laat/
Harris, Kylie (2020). The Rebirth of People and Planet in a Time of Global Emergency. An Open Letter from the Spiritual Emergence(y) Community. https://medium.com/illumination/the-rebirth-of-people-and-planet-in-a-time-of-global-emergency-ce83d222c813
Heglar, Mary Annaïse, (2018). When Climate Change Broke My Heart and Forced Me to Grow Up, https://medium.com/@maryheglar/when-climate-change-broke-my-heart-and-forced-me-to-grow-up-dcffc8d763b8
Heller, Joseph, (1961). Catch-22. New York: Simon & Schuster. Holthaus, Eric, (2018).
Climate Change Blues. Sierra Magazine, https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/2018-2-march-april/last-words/eric-holthaus-got-those-climate-change-blues
Kusters, W. (2020). A Philosophy of Madness. The Experience of Psychotic Thinking. Cambrigde (MA): MIT Press.
Latour, Bruno (2017 ) Oog in oog met Gaia. Acht lezingen over het Nieuwe Klimaatregime. Translated from the French by Rokus Hofstede en Katrien Vandenberghe, Face a Gaïa. Huit conférences sur le Nouveau Régime Climatique. Amsterdam: Octavo.
Lertzman, Renee, (2015). Environmental Melancholia: Psychoanalytic dimensions of engagement. London: Routledge.
Myre, Sarah, (2019). It’s the End of the World as They Know It. The distinct burden of being a climate scientist. Mother Jones, https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2019/07/weight-of-the-world-climate-change-scientist-grief/
Podvoll, E. (1990). The Seduction of Madness: Revolutionary Insights into the World of Psychosis and a Compassionate Approach to Recovery at Home. New York: HarperCollins.
Sass, Louis (1992). Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature And Thought. New York: Basic Books.
Thurnberg, Greta (2019). Davos Speech. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/25/our-house-is-on-fire-greta-thunberg16-urges-leaders-to-act-on-climate
Wouter Kusters (1966) is a philosopher, linguist and writer. He wrote his dissertation in linguistics in 2003 on language change and societal change. In 2004 he published his first book on psychosis and philosophy, Pure Waanzin (Pure Madness). In this book Kusters connects lived experience of psychosis (his own autobiographical notes) to the so-called third person perspective of nurses, psychologists and psychiatrists. This book won the Van Helsdingen Award for the best work in the boundary domain of philosophy and psychiatry, and also the Socrates Award for the best book in philosophy in Dutch of the year. After a career switch to philosophy and writing, in 2007 Kusters published Alleen (Alone), together with co-author Sam Gerrits and artist Jannemiek Tukker in 2007, in which various stories are told about and from the isolation cell in a psychiatric hospital. In 2014 Kusters’ last and final work on madness and philosophy is published: Filosofie van de Waanzin. Fundamentele en grensoverschrijdende inzichten, in which Kusters present an all-ecompassing view on madness and philosophy. This work also receives the Socrates Award, and has been translated into English in 2020. Translations to Chinese and Arabic are expected in 2022 and 2023. Today Wouter Kusters is a self-employed writer, teacher, coach and editor, who often works on the limit area of philosophy and madness, and who has been extending his thoughts of expertise in madness and philosophy to more social and historical themes, that also concern madness on a super-personal level of analysis.
from Bio from Dr. Wouter Kusters Talk at https://suicide-and-its-prevention.eu/speakers/dr-wouter-kusters/
Publications and academic work
Kusters, W. (2021). Ontsnappen aan de verschrikking. Inleiding in het denken van Frederic Neyrat, [To Escape from he Fright. An introduction in the thinking of Frederic Neyrat]. Amsterdam: Lontano.
Kusters, W. (2020). A Philosophy of Madness. The Experience of Psychotic Thinking. Cambridge (MA): MIT Press.
Kusters, W. (2016). Philosophy and Madness. Radical Turns in the Natural Attitude to Life. Philosophy, Psychiatry & Psychology, 23: 2, pp. 129 – 146.
Kusters, W.(2004). Pure waanzin [Pure Madness].
Kusters, W. (2003). Linguistic Complexity: The Influence of Social Change on Verbal Inflection. PhD Dissertation. Utrecht: LOT Dissertation Series 77.
Feature photo Jonathan Bowers
ALL WRITING IN THIS POST IS A COPYRIGHT OF WOUTER KUSTERS. THIS AN AUTHORIZED DUPLICATION WITH PERMISSION AND EXPRESSED CONSENT