Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the thirst that is the drink.
Our definition of mental illness is broadening every day even as its subdivisions divide into ever finer specificities. That's great, because we're all crazy now, and we can each identify our particular mental deformity. But we also have more accurate ways to describe the mental deformities of others. We don't like insanity. And we don't tolerate evidence of it. We don't tolerate people who evince insanity – it's fine to be crazy, just don't act crazy. I understand why. We're trying to create a rational civil society. But I think all this emphasis on sane behavior is making us crazy.
A couple of friends of mine were telling me about the book they're writing for a musical. I was pleasantly surprised by its operatic, melodramatic, Shakespearean or Jacobean themes: murder, rape, incest, betrayal, mutilation, seduction, revenge – reminiscent of palace intrigue – the kind of plot elements many people who hate Game of Thrones complain about. Yet Game of Thrones is an extremely popular fantasy. Dostoyevsky's novels were often occupied with such elements of high melodramatic tragedy as well. The more compelling work of Dickens divulged weird family secrets, and relied on cruelty of a type modern audiences consider the stuff of either fantastic tales or stories set in the developing world.
Take, for instance, the movie Lion, about an impoverished family whose child disappears and is raised by a family in New Zealand. The emotional second half, dominated by Dev Patel's performance of self-discovery, search for his original family, torment on their behalf as he ponders their torment, and shrieking in his hapless girlfriend's face, dramatizes the abject emotional upheaval within privileged civil society when it feels invaded by the kind of suffering it considers unthinkable. The only thing believable about Patel's performance of distress is the feeling it evokes in the audience of being subjected to the polemic of a socially-conscious activist about the injustices inflicted by the imperial West upon the rest of the world. We see his foaming at the mouth and misdirected anger as juvenile, the way we think of many of those we might deride as "social justice warriors."
We stigmatize sexual relationship infidelity, certain types of passion, anger, vengeful scheming, secret addictions, as "drama." "I don't need any drama in my life," we sane people say. And if we're keeping our shit together, we feel we have a legitimate complaint if our lives are infiltrated by someone with "issues." I think on some level we associate such "issues" with poverty. Those of us struggling to maintain a home, a job, a family, or even simply a middle-class-seeming existence, don't like detecting cracks in our vessel into which the stink of failure might leak. And drama is the first sign of our material becoming compromised.
There is certain drama that is not openly stigmatized: medical misfortunes, primarily. A major illness or accident in a family is tragic. We empathize with the struggle. If we're not Republicans in our hearts, we don't think less of a family who suffers such a tragedy. We do, however, expect them to conduct themselves with dignity, and to avoid becoming impoverished by the tragedy. Should they lose their home, we might wonder what they'd done to bring such misfortune upon themselves. Why weren't they better prepared? There are thousands of anecdotes about people losing all their friends when their economic status declines.
And that's just when we detect drama we excuse as psychologically unavoidable. Any tragedy one might attribute to psychological weakness – sexual indiscretions, relationship failures, violence, sneakily undermining someone professionally and being found out, addictions – these are almost by default considered to have been brought upon those involved in the drama through their own psychological or even intellectual weakness.
And when I say "we" I mean "we." Because many of us know we ought to sympathize and many of us try hard to sympathize and many of us commit to sympathetic actions. But the culture tells us something else, and we are fighting that, I believe, whether we're aware of it or not.
Think how "normal" or naturalist a story like "Terms of Endearment" seems, as opposed to "Blue Velvet." The stylistic differences, I would argue, are dictated by the presumed attitude of the audience, the civilized audience, the normal audience. Who are we? Are we normal? Are we neutral? Do we have an excess of tragedy in our lives, enough to bring down social judgment upon us? Have we suffered so much that we're damaged? Do we inhabit a world parts of which are squalid enough to be in a David Lynch movie? Or are we living up to the expectations of a sober patriarch, or a surrogate patriarch like Judd Hirsch?
In the palace intrigues when we were poisoning each other and having sex with our widowed sisters-in-law, we had an outlet for our creepiest desires. Did those desires go away? Or are we putting them somewhere else?
Have we offshored them to the developing world? Is that the arena where our suppressed unhealthy desires emerge?
Artists have ways of channeling the demons which build up in them when they're oppressed by expectations of normalcy. So do social rebels. There are social niches in which "drama" is considered part of the normal. There's a price to be paid, though, and that is any expectation of security. Poverty is the expected outcome, unless you're the fortunate black sheep of a rich family.
Those few with surplus wealth can make drama seem attractive, sometimes, but today we see the short life of Lisa Left-Eye Lopez as tainted by a "ghetto" lack of self-control, and the death of Heath Ledger as potentially creepy, though probably just an accident – but possibly due to a lack of self-control.
The separation between contemporary civilization and tragedy is odd, considering the level of moral development at which our species seems stuck. We certainly haven't come anywhere close to achieving a level of civilization in which suffering has been eradicated, or can usually be avoided. We treat people terribly. We enslave them. We indenture them. We imprison them. We torture and kill them. Most of that we do in other countries.
And life ends, for all of us. That's tragic. That's universal. What the hell is wrong with us? Why do we put people in such untenable situations, and why are we such hard-asses toward people with problems?
Remember in Ordinary People, how one really wealthy family's personal tragedy tore it apart, mostly because Mary Tyler Moore was frigid, I think? Somebody had to be the fall guy for that tragedy. Of course it was the emotionally weak, unstable woman, who was also somehow emotionally stifled. The surviving son's distress was completely understandable, as Judd Hirsch told him during their therapy sessions. The unrealistically skinny father was just bewildered – what am I supposed to do with all the unshackled emotions of my wife and my son flying back and forth around me?
Now imagine if Dennis Hopper inhaling some mind-altering gas had entered the picture. Imagine the movie it would have become. Imagine the filth beneath the otherwise civilized surface. Imagine spotting a severed ear on a nicely manicured lawn.
We like gossip. But we don't like to think of ourselves as worthy of really juicy gossip, do we? Our lives are qualitatively different from those of a family so poor their underage children have to migrate to do menial labor in order that they might eat. Any suggestion we might be connected to such a circumstance is grounds for a crazy scenery-chewing tantrum in which we act out our perturbations on our significant other. How can I be that? How can that touch me? How can my life, which I've gone to such pains to make impervious to the vicissitudes of poverty, have sprung such an unpardonable, embarrassing leak? And who can I blame besides myself?
What our current political situation reminds us is that the entire world is vulnerable. And we hate vulnerability. We hate it and mock it and delight in it as entertainment when we see it in others. And we hate ourselves when it's exposed in us. It's why we hate the sick and the old and the poor and the suffering. They remind us of what we have to fear.
Hating oneself for what will inevitably befall us all is sick. We are a society of sick people, lashing out like Dev Patel at revelations we hardly realize are about ourselves. We barely have the tools for such recognition. I'm sure if the tools were introduced to us we would hate them as well.
An instinctive understanding that tragedy is a typical part of everyone's life seems outside the capabilities of even many people prepared to sympathize with the suffering of others. Those who are not so prepared are even worse off. And it seems like unsympathetic people are ascendant at the moment. So a sick society is growing sicker, led by the sick. This is the fruit of our self-deception, and if even the best of us seem barely capable of awakening to the universality of despair, what hope is there for those of us less- exceptional people to guide our collective efforts toward a better course than the one we currently travel? Are we destined to fail? Haven't we failed over and over, throughout history? We know the future can be different. The future is an opportunity for difference. It hasn't happened yet, so anything is possible. But we can only get to the future through the present. Can we really get somewhere better from here?
This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!