Napoleon once said that The great proof of Madness is the disproportion of one’s designs to one’s means; life-enhancing ambition or delusion like Don Quixote.
Napoleon crossing the Alps by David
In America, the expression to be mad, means to be angry. In this country it might refer something ridiculous or fun. There is even a pop group called Madness (who are excellent by the way).
What we are really looking at, is mental illness which is not so fun and difficult to understand from the outside. In the worst case it leads to suicide which is often seen as a personal choice rather than the end stage of a debilitating illness.
Shakespeare was fascinated by mental illness which had little effective treatment in his time. You see delusions in MacBeth and Hamlet and paranoia in King Lear and Othello. Here is a little quote from MacBeth;
Macbeth: How does your patient, doctor?
Doctor: Not so sick, my lord, as she is troubled with thick-coming fancies that keep her from rest.
Macbeth: Cure her of that! Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased, pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, raze out the written troubles of the brain, and with some sweet oblivious antidote cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff which weighs upon her heart.
More recent literature is also littered with characters who are `insane’ like the attic bound wife in Jane Eyre or Cathy in Wuthering Heights.
For myself, I best like writing that is closest to the subject. The Diary of a Madman by mentally-ill Gogol is painfully realistic even if it did breed the archetype of the `Napoleon Complex’.
Chekhov wrote the insightful, dark Ward six and The Black Monk.
In modern times sufferers write even blogs and meet on internet forums. We are in a different world, fortunately and there are effective treatments.
As late as Victorian times, I might have had my head shaved and dunked in cold water according to the teaching of ancient Greeks who thought that internal heat (unbalanced humours) caused the problems. Oddly though it was ancient Greeks who unwittingly hit upon our most effective medication. As early as 200 AD they noted that a certain spring helped patients with mental illness, recently it was found to contain Lithium.
Apparent cruelty in the past was sometimes due to the fact that people simply did not know what to do. Mental illness untreated tends to worsen. Modern treatment combines medication and a host of targeted psychological therapies which are monitored and adjusted where needed.
I enjoy a few benefits of being bipolar (short mild manic bursts) but for the most part mental illness is a frightening experience that affects your whole body (after all the brain is the body CPU), all your waking hours and fitful sleep. With proper management, you can enjoy life, take control and do things you didn’t think possible. I haven’t of course, mentioned the continuing stigma of mental illness. Mockery, derision, contempt, fear and rejection are not unusual at all. I asked some bipolar friends whether they would say put on a job application that they were bipolar (forms ask about mental illness) and all said no.
However, I am glad to live in this century and get up feeling OK most days.
We have a complex relationship with space or more correctly the Universe outside of Earth. It was once called `the Heavens’ which gives you an idea of our perception. It used to be (and still is for many people) the home of the gods. Ancient Egyptians believed the sky to be the body of the goddess Nut.
The Goddess Nut
It must have helped to give the sky a name and identity because we seem to need an explanation for pretty much everything around us. As science unravelled much of the magic and superstition on Earth, it has opened up a magical, fantastic new realm over our heads.
The draw was irresistible and as soon as science and finances allowed humans began reach out and grasp at the infinite possibilities just as Earth becomes less and less inhabitable. However, in the latter vein, there are two points of view emerging in our modern relationship with the universe.
In the first place, I think there is an ongoing desire to start again afresh and do things better.
In the second, there is huge commercial pressure to exploit alien resources and resupply our dwindling fuel and mineral wealth in order to sustain our modern way of life.
You can read about the more positive view in Ray Bradbury’s `The Fire Balloons’ or `The Million Year Picnic’ or a more dystopian one in any of Phillip K Dick’s short stories or novels.
At present, there is some debate about potential mining, although there is an alarm possibility of us looking up at mining works every night. Here is an article on those possibilities.
At the same time, there is talk of sending humans to Mars . However, I am also fond of probes because we can see so much further, Voyager 1, launched way back in 1977, for instance, reached interstellar space in 2013 and transmitted those brilliant close-up images of Jupiter and Saturn we see so much. This vessel is still exciting because it may yet be found by the intelligent aliens whose company we crave in spite of the risk that they might see us as ripe for exploitation.
Finally, there is the massive SETI project that scans the sky for transmissions from alien life forms.
All this work is slow and so I hope we can look after our own planet long enough to find our alien friends and new untouched planets.
Along with some bright sunshine, the beginning of the month was cheered by April Fools’ Day.
I made a slight, but successful effort this year and swapped my son’s cup of tea for a cup of cold porridge. This caused entertainment for the rest of the morning as he attempted exact revenge. April Fools’ Day is celebrated around the world. The earliest possible mention of it is in Chaucer’s famous Canterbury Tales in 1386.
A scholar of Anglo-Saxon history once told me that he believed the UK origins of April Fools’ Day are ancient because it has to end at midday. In UK tradition, anyone who creates a prank after midday is the fool themselves instead of the other way round. This is interesting because the Celtic day ended at noon . . .
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There was some discussion this week about why the word `Easter’ was dropped from the packaging of seasonal chocolate eggs. It seems likely to me that confectionery companies simply want to encourage people to eat the Eggs all year round, not just at Easter. In a way that is quite sensible.
As a child, I often had half a dozen large chocolate eggs given to me at Easter and I did my utmost, like most English children, to eat them all on Easter Sunday. The results were predictable and lamentable.
The odd thing about the word `Easter’ itself, is that it likely relates to the ancient Northern European goddess Oestre who was symbolised by the rabbit or hare. The goddess faded into history but her name stubbornly persists and we still expect that the Easter bunny will bring us eggs.
The other event this weekend is, the often forgotten, changing- of- the -clocks. We finally have reached British Summer Time when the clocks go forward an hour. This means our mornings will be darker (but not so we’d notice) and our evenings lighter. It seems to come as something of a relief and I have often wondered why the clocks ever went back in first place.
Clocks did not really impose themselves on British life at all until the Industrial Revolution when the factories needed large numbers of people turning up on time. The other impetus was the expansion of the railway system in Britain which uncovered the strange fact that time in our small nation was not uniform, Oxford, for instance, was four minutes adrift of GMT and Bristol ten minutes. To science and engineering-loving Victorians this was arcane and intolerable. Railway Time was introduced by Great Western Railway in 1840 and uniformity across the country began, but was not uncompleted, until 1880.
New Zealander George Vernon Hudson proposed to change the clocks seasonally in 1895 in order to allow more productive daylight hours. This idea was taken up with enthusiasm by William Willett, Great-great-grandfather of Coldplay’s Chris Martin coincidentally.
There was some support for the idea but it finally became law in 1916 shortly after Germany adopted the same scheme.
The First World War was of course, the catalyst, as both governments were desperate to improve productivity and help to end the brutal stalemate in the trenches.
This was meant to be a temporary measure and there is often discussion of ending it, not least by those of us caught out each year and confused for hours at a time.
I come from the coast. When I think of home, I think of family and then I think of the sea, you always miss the sea when you grew up with it. You find yourself often thinking, a sea view but ‘where’s the beach’ in some dismay as you walk about inland. It is difficult to sum of up our affection for the sea in Britain because it is an emotional tie. It’s not often that we find contentment sitting on the beach because the weather won’t let that happen.
Preparation for Flight
It’s coming up to Easter, our ancient festival dictated by the cycles of the moon. Alas, it is early this year and liable to be cold, although we do have the lovely daffodils and crocuses to brighten it up. Like so many of these events, they tug us home to our families, to curl up together and mark the passing of winter, no matter how much the weather might mock our celebrations.
There is an astonishing changing combination of sea and sky, loved by artists like JLL Turner, you learn to appreciate the off-season beach for its very unpredictability. There is also something about the sea that speaks of possibilities and in that is hope.
You imagine yourself a traveller on the great watery road to any destination you might like and if you didn’t know what was actually over the sea you can make the place up. You forever wonder what is on the other side and you are tantalised by the strange debris that you find on the shore, sharks teeth, shells, bits of wood, whole logs or trees or mysterious objects. With this prompting, imagination flows and then ambition that has taken people round the globe.
There have been many extraordinary sea-going British explorers such as Captain Cook, Matthew Flinders or Walter Raleigh. It was not acceptable socially for women to take to sea as a career until recently. Our great Queen Elizabeth did not lead her fleet like the ancient Queen Artemisia but cheered Frances Drake’s efforts from the shore. Of course, not all women did what was socially acceptable and there were pirates like the infamous Anne Bonny or Mary Read.
Even if you did not take to the waters yourself, however, the sea can still open up new worlds. Mary Anning, for instance, an eminently respectable but poor young lady beachcombed around the crumbly cliffs of Lyme Regis for a living. She pieced her findings together, working out the alien anatomy, and sequencing the development from primitive into more sophisticated creatures. Her fossil collection, including her invaluable knowledge, were sold to wealthy Londoners, including Charles Darwin for small change. You can still find wonderful fossil around Lyme Regis and in the summer you can hear the constant sound of hammers on rocks as tourists try to discover something hidden for millions of years.
The sea has the capacity to hide the largest object but it can also uncover the tiniest precious treasures and that will always draw us to the beach.
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