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Madness – curse or gift?

 Prosto Neba (Ukraine) 19 January 2019

There are always people in society who are ''different from the majority''- either because their appearance or behaviour. By unwritten rule this kind of people try to isolate themselves from the community. It might not be easy to describe that ''abnormality'' but each of us could point out immediately the person in crowd who has that stamp. But, cultural rules on how to identify someone’s (ab)normality are not universal. And what’s more - these rules are only a small part of a mirror of how people perceive each other and how to form opinions about their environment. (1196 Words) - By Carolina Kozyura

What is madness to us, to our neighbors could be a wonderful talent. So where is the limit of (ab)normality? Who defines it? How much of our image depends on us and how much depends on the way other see it? How we are perceived by the environment -as normal or abnormal?

As a rule in our culture ''weirdos'' and ''rebels'' are excluded from the community. In the Middle Ages human defects - whether physical or mental - were considered to be as "a sign of the devil." They were doomed to begging and expulsion, unless they were ''lucky'' enough to become a sideshow for an audience at a fair or in circus. With time a ''Christianization'' occurred in attitudes towards these people - they were taken to hospital and treated so they could return to society, or at least were not a threat to others .

Obviously, we should not go now to the history of a single epoch. Each of them had its own limit of normality , had its own cannons and ideals. It should however be noted that the main feature of our culture is a rejection of abnormalities. And we see it at every turn. Anyone of us without hesitation can name immediately  ''that weirdo  who it is better not to talk to.'' Who do we say this about? About him whose behaviour or  lifestyle are different from norms  which are considered to be generally accepted? For example, we have a neighbour who lives close to us with ten cats. We would call her "weirdo" rather than " pet lover"', and we would not think even for a moment about the purpose and desire of that woman. First we will condemn this person and then dissociate.

For example, in Poznan everybody knows the movie buffs - old married couple. This couple can be seen at every festival, at every premier. However they do not look like ordinary movie lovers. They look like seriously ill older people who may not even to have a home. Some of us can appreciate their hobby but others can only think ''what a weirdoes''

Guided by a matrix which is in our head, we unanimously will rate this old couple (despite obvious sympathy towards them) as weirdoes. However, we consider to be normal people who work 30 - 40 years at the same place, wear the same working uniform, perform monotonous work. This existence may seem as sad and monotonous but we would rather say that this is a normal course of life.

Madness as a talent

In many cultures, especially traditional,  tribal and nomadic societies (from the Buryats, who lived in northern Siberia to the tribe Yanomami, settled on the banks of the Amazon in South America) madness was considered to be a positive sign even though each of these cultures had formed their own religious and social system. Common to them is the figure of the shaman, who had a role as a mediator between worlds of humans and gods. He held the highest position, he was respected and feared. Not everybody could perform the function of shaman, gods themselves chose the mediator for them by granting  him some defect.

In many South America Indian cultures albinoes were especially honoured (a genetic disease in which skin pigmentation is absent) and twins. The shaman of the Mongolian nomands can be considered a kind of entry into a state of madness by stupefying drugs, music or singing. From our point of view when shaman has gone into trance, he becomes a madman and loses contact with reality. But for himself and his culture this is a special state in which he can talk to the gods, cross to another parallel world, become part of nature or an animal. Finally can become a doctor and heal the sick member of the group. Shamanism is a sign of  being chosen. In this case the abnormality is desirable for community.


Society as a prison.

So, normality is not a global phenomenon. Each culture, each society, defines their own limits of "madness". According to the famous French philosopher Michel Foucault society is disciplined by itself and takes control by excluding those who don't fit. It is strange and seemingly impossible. Man used to think that he was the one with the power (as a control) over his life. In fact, we live in a state that regulates the legal side of our being, school teaches us how to think and behave, and family how to control our emotions and morality. You can count to infinity the institutions which supervise and discipline us, but Foucault says we are the ones who implement these practices.

For the philosopher the example of the way society operates and how it practices authority is explained by a French prison - Panocticon. It has the shape of a cylinder, inside which is situated high tower.

Cells are situated in the cylinder wall, each with has two windows. One faced inside (with a view on tower) another one outside, so that the sunlight lit up the room. This is good way for prisoner guard to watch after prisoners from tower, who never know when they are watched. To control the prisoners it is enough to watch them and isolate them from other prisoners.

There was, however, no need for a guard watching in the tower all the time. It was enough for prisoners to think that they could be watched at any minute. That's why they watched their behavior and disciplined themselves. The source of the prison guards' power was in the prisoners themselves. For Foucault this is an example of society functioning. It is as if we have a predetermined idea of how people, ourselves and others, should behave. If someone is different from this (from our imaginary matrix) than he is immediately singled out, satirized and isolated from society.

There is no definition for "abnormality". It is a category made by us to subdivide people. If we could look at our behaviour from a distance and ponder it, how many of us could be called "normal"? Who would be a "weirdo"?  Maybe sometimes we should leave the prisons created by ourselves and our surroundings, and consider from a distance at our own life and the lives of people around us? Maybe those people who we consider to be weirdos in another culture and other time would be respectable shamans

Translated from Ukrainian into English  by Nataliia Riabchynska

(Перекладено на англійську Н.Рябчинська)

Originally published by Prosto Neba ©

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