Musings on culture and madness

If you wish to experience (not intellectually understand, but in your body, feel) a culture gone mad, go and watch Mad Max 4. Preferably alone, on a large screen, with the bass up high. Preferably when you will come out of the theatre afterwards into the night, with the feeling lingering, the recoiling horror.

All my life I’ve been haunted by a powerful sense that the world does not make sense. All my life I’ve sought to understand this, to find where the flaw was, to unpick and rebuild the reasoning that led to unsolvable equations, data errors. Mad Max was a final piece for me, not known but experienced – experience being the key way we are designed to learn – mind and body in a feedback system of what is felt not just what is known. Into this space; the understanding of people as creatures of prediction, comes art, comes imagination.

Culture is our first, last and most powerful religion. It defines our beliefs. Our response to it, our acceptance or rejection or critical engagement with it determine key aspects of our lives. Culture tells us what is ‘normal’, and normal is holy.

Madness is the (often involuntary and destructive) rejection of culture. Common when the culture prevents a fundamental need from being met. In madness lie the seeds of our greatest strength – to reject the culture and to define our own.

All things have a culture. Your time in the history of the world. Your nationality. Your race. Your religion. Your gender. Your home town. Your workplace. Your family of origin. Your home. Your lovers. The inside of your own mind.

In all these places, normal is defined, holy is defined, insanity is defined. In all these places we succeed or fail, we fit or don’t fit, we embrace or reject, we obey or are excluded. In all these places, we are in a world unto itself, and must transition to the slightly different, or radically different cultures of the other worlds. Each world brings out a different ‘self’ in us, if we are adaptive. Each transition, each culture in context of another culture, creates tensions. Our plurality is both essential and potentially lethal, becoming deceit, two-faced, double minded, double-think, compartmentalisation not only of action and belief but also values. Or a terrifying simplicity of one value – to obey the culture – if this world tells me to love I am loving, if that world tells me to kill, I kill without regret.

Obedience to culture destroys freedom. Rejection of culture isolates and alienates us. To perceive culture as artificial, a construct, built by fallible minds, by accidents, by use and misuse of power, by the most glorious dreams and horrifying nightmares of human capacity is to take the first step back from fusing with it. No culture is ‘natural’. No cultural claim to truth, beauty, normality, holiness, or sanity is above examination. To grasp the power to shape culture, to assimilate that which seeks to assimilate us, is the work of a lifetime. To digest culture, embrace what is valuable, reject what is degrading, and bring your own wisdom to the challenge knowing you are also fallible, and to accept the costs of doing so, is a kind of freedom, and a kind of bondage.

What is it to be human? Culture gives us answers, so surely and subtly we don’t recognise we imbibe them. Culture is Kant’s Guardians who brook no questioning. Freedom and power and great suffering and loneliness lie in seeking or being forced to seek our own answers to those questions.

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