A mind map of the soul
A problematic yet evocative term, madness has been commandeered by legions of artists who are searching for meaning and, often, for God
In his biography People Funny Boy, reggae producer and artist Lee Perry responds to questions about the origin of the song I Am a Madman by saying: “When I tell people to repent in Jamaica then them say me mad, so me just compete with what they say. I didn’t say I am mad, they say I am mad. So if they say I am mad, then I say yes, I am a mad man.”
Madness is often used as a catchall pejorative for people with varying manifestations of mental illness. However, many have exercised the great liberatory power of reclaiming it, especially with an artistic or philosophical riposte.
Sometimes, the people who have adopted the persona of the so-called “madman” do it cheaply, to mine its mystique. At other times, it represents the failings of language — a quickness to label what we do not understand or what will not subscribe to our mores.
Speaking about her book Call It a Difficult Night, author Mishka Hoosen told The Daily Vox that she uses the “archaic and very problematic term madness”, because “it is more accurate for me because it allows for more kinds of definition. A big part of the book is talking about that, about those different ways of being that can’t necessarily be reduced to a staid and clinicised term.”
The following procession of quotes and fragments follows no apparent train of thought. But, as a series of images, it seeks to map the lived conditions under which this label prevails and, perhaps, celebrates those who speak back to it.
“I have found both freedom and safety in my madness; the freedom of loneliness and the safety from being understood, for those who understand us enslave something in us. But let me not be too proud of my safety. Even a thief in a jail is safe from another thief.” — Khalil Gibran, introduction to
“I am a badman. I am a madman yeah yeah yeah/ Human rights declaration throughout the universe. Say Lord/ … Shaking hand with lightning, shaking hand with thunder. Riddim from the earth …/ I was taught by all spliff, banana spliff.” Lee Perry,
Master Allah Divine — The Supreme Alphabet
“It’s often hard to see the line between religious fanaticism and mental illness. Talking to God is considered a sign of religious devotion, but when God talks back, it’s a symptom of schizophrenia … Moses communicated with a burning bush. John the Baptist lived in the wilderness and warned of the end of the world. Jesus Christ said things to the ruling authorities that made his family worry that he was a danger to himself.” — Farah Stockman, the
June 10 2014 “The beat don’t stop when soulless matter blows/ Into the cosmos, trying to be stars/ The beat don’t stop when Earth sends out satellites/ To spy on Saturnites and control Mars/ ’Cause niggas got a peace treaty with Martians/ And we be keepin’ ’em up to date with sacred gibberish/ Like ‘sho’ nuff’ and ‘it’s on’/ The beat goes on, the beat goes on. The beat goes ‘ohm’.” — Saul Williams,
“Wasigabhelani ispani mfwethu? [Why did you quit your job?]” Asked daily in many black households
“From the Inquisition and the Salem witch trials to the Soviet trials of the 1930s and Abu Ghraib, varieties of ‘extreme interrogation’, or outright physical and mental torture, have been used to extract religious or political ‘confessions’. While such interrogation may be designed to extract information in the first place, its deeper intentions may be to brainwash, to effect genuine change of mind, to fill it with implanted, selfinculpatory memories — and in this, it may be frighteningly successful. (There is no parable more relevant here than [George] Orwell’s 1984, where Winston, at the end, under unbearable pressure, is finally broken, betrays Julia, betrays himself and all his ideals, betrays his memory and judgment, too, and ends up loving Big Brother.)” — Oliver Sacks, in the chapter “The Fallibility of Memory” from “Like many other UCKG [Universal Church of the Kingdom of God] members and pastors, Phukile asserted that her family, friends, fellow churchgoers, neighbours and total strangers, for instance, might all be working against her and ought not to be trusted.
“Foremost among her enemies was Phukile’s aunt, who allegedly ‘worked’ to keep her poor and unlucky. On the other hand, the church’s claims to privileged knowledge of the spiritual war implied an ethical responsibility towards people who ‘do not know the truth about the demons’ … Phukile took this responsibility seriously by urging me to attend an isiwasho (spiritual cleansing) service and by surreptitiously daubing holy oil and blessed water on her aunt’s house.
“Many other members similarly protected the homes and bodies of their non-UCKG family and friends and sprinkled the church’s holy substances on roads, in homes, in food and on clothing.” — from Ilana van Wyk’s “Ek vat hulle almal aan: almal die slamse, almal die lying jews en almal die mal christians [I take them all on: all the Muslims, all the lying Jews and all the mad Christians]. I feel immeasurably sad that people have sold their lives so easily to religion, have sold their souls to pastors, imams, rabbis that offer them nothing but enslavement.
“One of my great predecessor gurus said ‘the ecclesiastical thieves have dammed the river of spirituality and replaced it with the lakes of dogma’. And what is dog ma, mother of dog, barking, barking, this is mine, my Earth, my religion, my God, only my saviour can save you, my god is bigger than yours.” — Zebulon Dread connects with Gael Reagon in a small ashram on the Cape Flats. He drops jewels about the “misidentification of the self with the body” and “the differentiation between madness and sanity”. July 2014)
“Hey Kwanele, do you know how Kwa Mai-Mai [a Johannesburg market] actually got its name?”
“I don’t, but it sounds like the screams of a boy who will never see his father again.”
“Well, you know, the Zulus were the first group to be brought to Johannesburg. So in that state, of
— Master raconteur S’fiso Ntuli sits down on his storytelling chair in a new section of the Roving Bantu Kitchen in Caroline Street, Brixton, November
“What time is it?”
“Team time, huuh!”
— National Basketball Association team war cry
“It’s a blessing to live another day they say/ ’Cause the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away/ So my niggas pray five times a day and still/ Carry a trey-five-seven (on the planet, as it is in heaven).” — Ras Kass,
from the album “In pre-Christian times in the Roman Empire, kuriakos … signified ‘imperial’ or ‘belonging to the lord’, the emperor. As the empire became Christian, it is not surprising that they would modify ‘belonging to the lord’ to relate to Christ as a part of their protest against Caesar-worship. As time went by, many of the rules of the Sabbath were transferred to the first day of the week, but this was rejected in the Reformation by Luther and Calvin. Calvin even proposed to adopt Thursday in the place of Sunday. May we rightly consider Thursday as the Lord’s day? Yes, Thursday is the Lord’s day!” — Cecil Hook, (who could have foreseen the links to Phuza Thursday?)
“Blacks certainly don’t have the monopoly on madness. There is ‘queer madness’, of course. A man I met just the other day at the gym, a journalist, shared with me the survivor’s guilt he still feels over the deaths of his friends during the Aids crisis in the Eighties. After attending a funeral every week for months, he shut down, then broke down.” — Max S Gordon on “black madness”, which he describes in the essay
as a response to living a life constantly subjected to violence — psychic, physical, social, political
Short Story Day Africa: A male writer writing a female heroine, while not unheard of, is unusual. In fact, some could call it career suicide and there is data to support this stance. What was it about Taty that made you need to tell it through her eyes rather than, say, Tau’s?
Nikhil: I’m not male, I’m Venusian. Your gender bias, although not unexpected, is still no better than an assumption. Don’t judge me by your own limitations. Thanks! PS: I could really give a fuck about data. — From an 2016 Short Story Day Africa interview with Nikhil Singh about the illustrated novel “I dwell in the midst of a perfect race, I the most imperfect/ I, a human chaos, a nebula of confused elements/ I move amongst finished worlds — peoples of complete laws and pure order/ Whose thoughts are assorted, whose dreams are arranged, and whose/ Visions are enrolled and registered.” — Khalil Gibran, excerpt from the chapter “The Perfect World” in
Lee Perry: ‘If they say I am mad, then I say yes, I am a mad man.’ Photo: James Green/Getty Images