The Madness and Stupor of History.

September 5, 2012, 12:44 am

A serendipitous confluence: This week This American Life re-ran “Fear of Sleep,” which begins with Ira Glass meditating on the dangers of that altered state, in which we – whatever and whoever we are – vanish, perhaps to dream strange dreams, walk perilously, even die; from which we can wake to unexpected faces and changed places. The recent New Yorker includes Oliver Sacks’s “Altered States,” a memoir – maybe a confessional – of his youthful enthusiasm for mind-altering substances (it was, he says, the 1960s and for some of the time, for him, it was California: even so, he seems to have been an avid and various consumer). Sacks reports on the thin difference – a few chemical micrograms – between our ordinary selves and psychosis, schizophrenia, hallucination, or an insinuation of heaven. In an amphetamine haze he absorbed Liveing on Megrim and as a result wrote his own Migraine, in which (as I recall, from my own headache-clouded perusal) he persuasively speculated that the religious visions of Hildegard of Bingen might have resulted from some mental state similar to the migraine.

The history we write generally presumes a state of mind comprehensible through language to other minds. Even if we do not, with social-scientific short-hand, resort to the rational actor or some other cartoon homunculus, we go about our business of ascribing motive based on the presumption that motive can be rationally ascertained. But how often is this a warranted assumption? Perhaps it is an abuse of the language of mental illness to say that many of our leaders are psychopaths, as Jon Ronson suggests; but maybe it isn’t. And if it isn’t mental illness that drives Wall Street binges, maybe it’s cocaine. Furthermore, Jon Stewart jokes that there is a President Obama only Republicans can see: but what if in some way this is literally, at least subjectively, true?

Leaving politics and economic catastrophe out of it, how much of our experience is inflected by sleep, boredom, booze, or some other shadow on human minds seeking relief because nothing hurts when I go to sleep? How much of our history-writing would change if we could truly know the answer to that question? Would World War II have turned out differently if Winston Churchill had been less prone to empicklement? How much of our time is spent finding rational explanations for actions that would more properly be described as occurring “because s/he was nuts/drunk/high/sleep-deprived” etc.?

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