Insanity as Redemption in Contemporary American Fiction: Inmates Running the Asylum

Insanity as Redemption in Contemporary American Fiction: Inmates Running the Asylum

Insanity as Redemption in Contemporary American Fiction: Inmates Running the Asylum

Insanity as Redemption in Contemporary American Fiction: Inmates Running the Asylum

Synopsis

Although madness is a popular theme in literature, contemporary American writers use that theme in a new and unfamiliar way, not just to convey the result of an unnerving or infuriating reality but also to comment on its hypocrisies.

Barbara Tepa Lupack examines the cultural and literary contexts of five major works of contemporary fiction: Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961), Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), Jerzy Kosinski's Being There (1971), and William Styron's Sophie's Choice (1979). She shows that each book is complex, with deep roots in American political reality, and each portrays a protagonist who is mad or is considered to be mad--but who reveals a special insight into the dangers of social, political, and cultural conformity. Each of these characters dwells in a sort of wasteland, ranging from the corrupt military base of Pianosa to the plastic suburb of Ilium, from the Nazi death camps to the ravaged Eternal City and bombed-out Dresden. All seek confirmation of their authenticity, and all offer social and ethical remedies that challenge bureaucratic institutions--solutions that amount to inmates running the asylum.

Excerpt

"O! matter and impertinency mix'd; Reason in madness." King Lear

Madness has been a familiar motif in literature for centuries, from the myths and legends underlying the works of Homer, the Bible, and ancient Greek tragedy to the novels and poems of the present day. As Marilyn Yalom writes, "The greatest of writers -- Aeschylus, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Kafka -- and their somewhat less celebrated brothers -- E. T. A. Hoffmann, Gérard de Nerval, Rimbaud, Trakl, Lautréamont, Artaud, Salinger, Roethke -- have explored that underworld where unconscious processes run amuck and created characters who often express profound human truths that lie beyond the threshold of reason."

The contemporary American novelist, however, uses the familiar motif of madness in an unfamiliar way: not just to convey the result of an unnerving, disquieting, even infuriating reality, but also to comment on its hypocrisies. Symbolizing modern man's alienation from the goals of a mechanized society which deemphasizes humanistic -- and humane -- values, madness seems, especially in fiction, to be an effective method of challenging the social order. Out of step with the absurd world around them, "mad" protagonists typically withdraw from society as they struggle to internalize issues of family, culture, and history and ultimately return (though somewhat circuitously) to effect some kind of social amelioration, a process that is a variation of the monomythic pattern of departureinitiation-return described by Joseph Campbell.

Yet the withdrawal is not always voluntary: for presuming to challenge the Establishment, the protagonist is frequently relegated to the asylum or to some similar rehabilitative agency (for example, to the educational network of WESCAC in John Barth's Giles Goat-Boy; the prison ward of Walker Percy's Lancelot; or the military hospital of William Wharton's Birdy, Joseph Heller's Catch-22, and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five). Those agen-

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