The Madness of Reason

I can still reason-I studied mathematics, which is the madness of reason-but now I want the plasma-I want to eat straight from the placenta.

The other day I posted some thoughts about Clarice Lispector’s brilliant Água Viva. Often when I complete a book, particularly one as rich as this one, I’ll spend some time on a second close-reading, looking for patterns and motifs I may have missed on my first reading.

I became ensnared by the sentence quoted above, specifically the phrase, ‘the madness of reason’. The phrase links two words that could almost be binary opposites. Madness, aside from its use to define mental illness, is linked to extreme foolishness, wildness, chaos. Reason, however, is identified with logic, practicality, common sense.

I decided the answer lay in Foucault and spent three pleasant hours immersed in his texts, specifically his argument that, at a specific period, madness was isolated from reason as unreason. Madness reached a symbolic peak during the Renaissance, depicted in the art, philosophy and literature of the time as innate in man. You only have to recall Shakespeare’s fools, my favourites are the gravediggers in Hamlet, whose role is to undermine reason with folly, demonstrating the madness of reason.

Though I haven’t yet bought Benjamin Moser’s Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector I found an excerpt, which made more of the phrase, “mathematics, which is the madness of reason,” and Lispector’s mystical use of numbers. In this lay an answer of sorts.

“My passion for the essence of numbers, wherein I foretell the core of their own rigid and fatal destiny,” was, like her meditations on the neutral pronoun “it,” a desire for the pure truth, neutral,unclassifiable and beyond language, that was the ultimate mystical reality. In her late works, bare numbers themselves are conflated with God, now without the mathematics that binds them, one to another, to lend them a syntactical meaning. On their own, numbers like the paintings she created at the end of her life, were pure abstractions, and as such connected to the random mystery of life itself. In her late abstract masterpiece Água Viva she rejects “the meaning that her father’s mathematics provide and elects instead the sheer “it” of the unadorned number: “I still have the power of reason-I studied mathematics which is the madness of reason-but now I want the plasma-I want to feed directly from the placenta.”

I rarely read secondary literature until exhausting a writer’s own oeuvre, though I am wondering whether I ought to reverse  that custom.

8 thoughts on “The Madness of Reason

  1. Hi Anthony – well, from a psychological viewpoint, an excess of ‘reason’ is as likely to culminate in ‘madness’ – if we define this as an imbalance that leads to delusion, and an inability to fully integrate and express all the diverse aspects of being, including in this case the feeling nature, which all too often ‘reason’ debunks – as an excess of ‘irrationality’ or pronounced emotional reactivity…

    • Hi Roselle, thanks for your comments. I like this idea, ‘an excess of reason’. Your comment juxtaposes with one of Mary Ruefle’s essays that I’ve been reading carefully this morning. Its theme is the distinction between emotions and feelings, and why the latter is the province of poets.

  2. I guess I should have added that in some lights mathematics (thinking here of the extreme attachment to the world of figures exhibited in eg severe autism, at the expense of human relationality) IS reason taken to its limits, which will necessarily give a lopsidedness to a personality… But I believe we are all on the spectrum of ‘madness’ – maybe it’s the human condition!

    Interesting blog. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to ponder further one of my hobby horses – what we have sacrificed, as well as gained, since the so-called Enlightenment’s championing of Reason… IMO!

  3. Anthony, thanks for both responses. I’ll follow the SB-C link. I’d be glad to have a link to the Mary Ruefle essay – though perhaps you will, or maybe have already, post/ed a blog on it?

    As regards this notion (feelings vs emotions) I utterly agree that there’s a fine distinction between emotions (reactivity) and feelings – which partake of a ‘purer’ ‘higher-heart’ mode – as a pro poet myself I think a lot about the difference between the two: the former tending towards self-referential melodrama of course, and the latter towards a subtler transpersonal (perhaps) sensibility of the shared great experiences of being human, eg joy, empathy, compassion, response to beauty etc (and including too I think sorrow).

    I wonder if you’d agree?

    • Roselle, the distinction that Mary Ruefle makes between emotion and fear is a little different and one I like very much.

      Here’s a quote:

      Neurobiologists have distinguished emotions from feelings, though I am afraid our language has for so long used the two terms as equivalent currency that it is a hopeless task to expect any listener to hear one word and not think of the other. Emotions are hardwired, biological functions of the nervous system such as fear, terror, sexual attraction, and hunger-impelled action (also called “feeding behaviors”). They are each purely physical reactions over which one has no control, and they are common to all animals with a central nervous system. The emotion of fear is what drives all animals away from life-threatening situations, and that is not the kind of fear I have in mind. Feelings, on the other hand, are more complicated and involve cognitive reactions that combine, or can be combined, with emotions, memories, experience, and intelligence. That is the kind of fear I have in mind—the feeling of fear that involves an intelligent, cognitive reaction. Fear that requires self-consciousness.

      The essay is from a collection called ‘Madness, Rack, and Honey’ that I am enjoying very much, but I found the particularly essay online too.

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