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  • Will Britt

Psychosis in Verse

I am at the Austen Riggs Center this semester as a scholar in residence, consulting with clinicians for a book on the unified human meaning of psychosis. In the course of my research, I have run across a couple of poems that I think indicate some really important things about madness.

1. The first is from Shakespeare's Hamlet, where a guard describes the experience of listening to the speech of someone psychotic:

… [Ophelia] speaks things in doubt,

That carry but half sense. Her speech is nothing,

Yet the unshaped use of it doth move

The hearers to collection. They aim at it,

And botch the words up fit to their own thoughts,

Which, as her winks and nods and gestures yield them,

Indeed would make one think there might be thought,

Though nothing sure, yet much unhappily.

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act 4, Scene 5, Lines 6-13

(in The Oxford Shakespeare, 2005)

Three things strike me here: the partial possibility of empathic human understanding, even for the bizarre things psychotic sufferers say; the opposing danger of overriding what people in annihilation states are trying to say with our own too eager understanding; and the underlying tone of mourning ("much unhappily") that is probably also suffused with terror.

2. The second poem speaks not from the outside but from the inside, as it were. Dr. Ann Olson is a schizophrenia sufferer who has gotten a doctorate in and worked in the field of mental healthcare. Each chapter of her self-help book for those diagnosed with schizophrenia is headed by an original poem. To begin a discussion of Suicide and Psychosis, she writes:

Thoughts sting like wasps on the skin of my edgy mind

Sense of self it shrivels like a frog left in the sun

Dreams that burst like eggshells

Bleed the yokes of the unborn

Emerging as clean, fine clichés precipitous of lies

Faceless forget-me-knots of love's past memories

Trellis my blue heart attached to arteries and veins

And mortal, I said mortal, commonly we seek

This sweating grime of ways tantalizing but mundane

I realize the scorching fire of my synaptic dreams

To a bleak starless heaven, a slow and somber moon

In melancholy rising, with cast-eyed lunacy

And that is all, is all henceforth, this lesson granted me

A splattering of insect blood stains my rosebud mouth

And I know you know I know, it stains on your mouth, too

"Faceless forget-me knots," in Ann Olson, Illuminating Schizophrenia

(Newark Educational and Psychological Publications, 2013), p. 89

Many things are worthy of thought here, but I will just point to a few: thoughts are painful and encountered as physically penetrating; the self is overexposed and thereby minimized; her dreams (presumably in both senses) burst and bleed, but what emerges turns to lies, which are yoked to her, knotted memories that cannot be inhabited ("faceless") yet reach directly to her heart, both granting it its shape and threatening it with death ("mortal"); the appeal to a common search and a common stain that reminds us no one is completely removed from the danger, "the scorching fire," of madness.

3. Finally, that poet to whom everyone rightly turns for articulations of psychotic experience, Antonin Artaud, offers what is not even a poem but a poetic description, or perhaps evocation, in a self-published essay:

  I have aspired no further than the clockwork of the soul, I have transcribed only the pain of an abortive adjustment.       I am a total abyss. Those who believed me capable of a whole pain, a beautiful pain, a dense and fleshy anguish, an anguish which is a mixture of objects, an effervescent grinding of forces rather than a suspended point       —and yet with restless, uprooting impulses which come from the confrontation of my forces with these abysses of offered finality       (from the confrontation of forces of powerful size),       and there is nothing left but the voluminous abysses, the immobility, the cold—       in short, those who attributed to me more life, who thought me at an earlier stage in the fall of the self, who believed me immersed in a tormented noise, in a violent darkness with which I struggled       —are lost in the shadows of man.

  In sleep, nerves tensed the whole length of my legs.       Sleep came from a shifting of belief, the pressure eased, absurdity stepped on my toes.

  It must be understood that all of intelligence is only a vast contingency, and that one can lose it, not like a lunatic who is dead, but like a living person who is in life and who feels working on himself its attraction and its inspiration (of intelligence, not of life).       The titillations of intelligence and this sudden reversal of contending parties.       Words halfway to intelligence.       This possibility of thinking in reverse and of suddenly reviling one’s thought.       This dialogue in thought.       The ingestion, the breaking off of everything.       And all at once this trickle of water on a volcano, the thin, slow falling of the mind.

  To find oneself again in a state of extreme shock, clarified by unreality, with, in a corner of oneself, some fragments of the real world.

[I think this is from Victor Corti's translation of "Nerve Scales,"

in Collected Works, vol. 1 (Riverrun Press, 1999)]

Here I would highlight "the fall of the self" and "the thin, slow falling of the mind" as the loss of intelligence while still feeling its "attraction" and "inspiration," its "titillations"; or, put another way, "the breaking off of everything," the "total abyss" and the "suspended point," within which there remain only "fragments of the real world." The "abortive adjustment" might well articulate his attempts to belong to the shared world in a way that would be limitedly vulnerable, exposed to "a whole pain," rather than immovably fragmented in the cold of the "voluminous abysses."


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