Monday, January 17, 2005

An exploration of logical madness

Why, yes Mr HD, I'd be glad to elaborate, any excuse to write some pseudo-philosophy! It sounds like a ridiculous oxymoron and it was perhaps a slightly lazy shorthand on my part, so let's explore the connotations of what I have termed 'logical madness'.

Put simply I mean the kind of extreme actions that could arise naturally from a sound, logical plan. In Home the character's initial ideas were simple: he didn't want to go out, so he decided to set-up an experiment to see whether he could stay in. The parameters were also reasonable enough, he decided not to set foot outside the house, not to use the phone or initiate contact with the outside world in any way, to live off only what was in the house. Indeed he was quite lucid when formulating this plan, but a quick extrapolation starts to hint that all may not go well. What will happen when the food runs out? What will happen when his work colleagues try to make contact? Will he stop his experiment, or will he descend into madness? Thus the madness is already implicit in the logical plan, but not a foregone conclusion – any of us could decide to follow a similar scheme but decide to quit before any extreme results were reached (death, murder, madness etc.).

Another example of this kind of behaviour is Marco Fogg in Auster's Moon Palace. He plans to read all of the books his uncle has left him, selling those he has read but allowing himself no other activity to earn money or food. It is obvious that once this course of action has begun there will be no easy conclusion or way out, yet at the same time this path offers a beautiful simplicity and freedom.

"As I sold off the books, my apartment went through many changes. That was inevitable, for each time I opened another box I simultaneously destroyed another piece of furniture. My bed was dismantled, my chairs shrank and disappeared, my desk atrophied into empty space. My life had become a gathering zero, and it was a thing I could actually see: a palpable, burgeoning emptiness. Each time I ventured into my uncle's past, it produced a physical result, an effect in the real world. The consequences were therefore always before my eyes, and there was no way to escape them. So many boxes were left, so many boxes were gone. I had only to look at my room to know what was happening. The room was a machine that measured my condition: how much of me remained, how much of me was no longer there. I was both perpetrator and witness, both actor and audience in a theatre of one. I could follow the progress of my own dismemberment. Piece by piece, I could watch myself disappear."

And Fogg almost does disappear, indeed he wishes it: "So began the summer of 1969. It seemed almost certain to be the last summer I spent on earth." And he finds a certain kind of freedom as his mind drifts through his books and, later, his empty apartment. As he becomes starved madness encroaches, but it is madness with a cause, madness that has been bidden welcome by Fogg's actions. To achieve this true freedom madness must occur, it is only then that the set parameters become our entire world, only then that we are free of the constraints imposed on us by others and free of physical burdens. Both these characters find their freedom, but only through the mental and physical trauma of starvation and obsession, not a route which most of us would wish to follow.

A less terminal example is the action of the executives in Ballard's Super-Cannes. To alleviate the stress of the business park and the day job they take to driving around nearby towns as vigilante gangs, fighting and murdering as they see fit. These are completely insane actions, but they find that it is the only way that they can maintain sanity throughout the rest of their lives. Thus we again have an insane situation arising from logical thought.

Obviously fiction is the natural home for these kinds of extreme logic, I doubt that anyone would consider following these plans to their fullest in the real world (unless they were already insane), but they do ask the question of exactly how far can we go, and why should we want to? In these situations freedom and madness become one and the same, mind and body drift freely – it is only through this complete loss of self and other, time and space, that we can gain this freedom. Logic is extrapolated to its natural, illogical, conclusion.


Blogger paulhd said...

It's kind of like a methodical decent into madness based on an less than rational premise. It's not insane to read books and then sell then doing nothing else to survive but it's less than wise, ditto for locking yourself in your house and shunning the outside world.
Moon Palace is a good example but I reckon most of Auster's books fall into the same catagory (of course he essential writes the same thing over and over again!) Actually, I fancy rereading Moon Palace again now.

17/1/05 8:00 pm  
Blogger paul said...

Yeah, totally agree. Much of what I've read of Auster has very similar themes and invariably involves someone disappearing, or almost disappearing, into literature or simply the self in similar ways. And all very good. Much Ballard that I've read is similar too, he has many short stories exploring similar themes, but he tends to go to the other extreme in the conclusion – there is no disappearance, instead we have unequivocal action.

I agree with the 'methodical descent into madness' but I'm not so keen on these ideas being a 'less than rational premise'. They are perfectly rational in most respects, to choose to follow an interest or lifestyle at the exclusion of all else, a philosophical life experiment, it's just unfortunate that they tend to fall apart due to circumstances beyond the individuals control. Actually, this makes me suppose that my claim of rationality is just a convenient scheme to try and wish away physical reality (food, exercise etc.) and the demands of society (job, money etc.), I know it wouldn't work out but these flights of fancy are so compelling that I want to believe!

18/1/05 8:32 pm  
Blogger paulhd said...

Well exactly. It’d be nice to do away with the demands life forces on us such as food, exercise, work, money, but at the end of the day we can’t. The idea that we can logically follow one course of action to the exclusion of all other considerations is ultimately flawed (something Auster seems to understand as his books rely on (and exploit and examine) coincidence, it’s required to allow the characters to go their philosophical journeys without requiring them to fully carry through their intitial plans) and therefore not rational. Also I think that when people (usually fictional) come up with these plans they are already losing touch with the rational and either the plan is a product of that or the plan is the excuse they need to decend into madness.

19/1/05 9:46 pm  

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