Understanding the Madness Within
On All Hallows’ Eve, people delight in the ghouls and goblins that go bump in the night. We squeal and giggle over the prospect of external terrors that our minds remind us are only fantasies – we are safe. But what happens when the mind itself turns on us and the lines between reality and fantasy blur? Could the potential of madness fester right beneath our skin waiting to consume us hungrily and leave only a shell, a skeleton, of who we once were? Or might the madness set us free from from the constraint of shackled rationality?
The question of madness as monster or madness as liberator is at the center of Jacqueline Sheean’s comparative literature doctoral research. And luckily for USC students, Jacqueline is bringing her research to the classroom as one of this year’s Provost Mentored Teaching Fellows. In an interview with the USC Graduate School, Jacqueline discusses her 2017 spring semester course that poses the question, “What is the relationship between madness and genius?”
Why is madness such a prolific topic in literature and other media?
Madness is scary. It is hard to clarify. Reading about and observing people falling into madness reminds us how little we actually know the workings of the mind. People are always afraid of the unknown, especially when it could be us.
How did you decide to study this topic and what are you looking for in your research?
I had read and explored a great deal of literature on cultural constructs and coping with insanity across several cultures, but saw a gap in the research in, specifically, Hispanic literature. Miguel de Cervantes’, “Don Quixote” is heralded as the quintessential spiral into insanity as Quixote pursues his windmill foes. But I saw Don Quixote’s madness not just as a meaningless folly. His madness made him bypass reason to create vision – a vision of chivalry and righting the wrongs of the world. There is so much tension in literature to cast madmen out of society for their afflictions versus seeing them for their creative output. And this is also true to real life – consider the genius of Mozart amidst reportings of his wild and erratic behavior.
So, what should students expect from taking your class?
The course is a comparative literature course called Madness and Vision in Literature, Art, and Film through Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Science. We will be exploring philosophical and cultural constructs dating back to Plato and Aristotle. We will discuss the psychoanalytic texts of Freud in his medical and psychological attempts to explain the brain and mind. And then we will examine writings from Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, surrealist poetry, and, of course, parts of Don Quixote, as we work to understand the seemingly irrational behavior of madmen, as we work to deconstruct the reason/unreason binary.
Any last thoughts?
Aristotle said that “No excellent soul is exempt from a mixture of madness.” Ultimately, we all have the ability to slip into “madness”, as in erratic behavior, even if temporarily. So much of how we understand mental illness and the mind is cultural and personal perception. There is such a fine line between valuing the genius of seemingly “strange” behavior and devaluing people that are different from us. It is a matter of time, moment, and circumstance for all of us.
Madness and Vision in Literature, Art, and Film is listed as COLT: 381 Psychoanalysis and the Arts. The class will held be Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 11:00 – 11:50 AM during the spring 2017 semester. Course location TBD.
About Jacqueline Sheean
Jacqueline received her bachelor’s degree in journalism and Spanish at the University of Oregon. Currently, Jacqueline is on track to present her dissertation in 2018.