Madness and Agency

A friend clicked a photograph of us on her new Polaroid camera — something to remember our times as she left and I remained. She took out her phone to click a photograph of the freshly-printed picture and as she was sending it to me, I saw something in her phone gallery that I couldn’t understand. A flash and it was gone; like the blurry shapes through a car screen on a rainy day.

“What was that?”

She laughed as I asked her, and said it was just bad photography. I urged her to show it nevertheless and she did, adding that she looked ugly. I looked at the photograph for a while. She had a face where the smile did not reach her eyes and she looked tired. She said, “Well?” I said she looked like Hamlet’s Ophelia.

“You mean I look mad?” she laughed. I said that Ophelia had a lot of agency when she was deemed mad. My friend laughed. As literature students, we have delved into the dynamics of madness in the context of Shakespeare’s texts countless times.

Do the people deemed ‘mad’ have more agency?

Madness, in how it’s generally perceived, does not always entail looking a particular way. It is also about a lot more than what is usually hidden behind a clinical understanding of a ‘mad’ person. More often than not, it means defying what is usually considered  ‘normal’. It has an element of deviance, something that is not considered socially acceptable.

The use of the term ‘madness’ has always been more fluid than we’d like to admit. What one considers mad differs depending on one’s views. For the purpose of this essay, I will refer to what is generally considered to be outside the norm. It is safe to argue that all of us, at some point, have been shut down because of our deviance. Madness at one time may have implied staying up till the wee hours of the night and at other times, it may have meant wearing clothes that weren’t considered ‘appropriate’. Or even eating in a way that’s different from others. One could call you ‘mad’ on a whim if you wear the same dress every day or if you dress in a way that is considered unusual.

Madness, in everyday usage, sometimes denotes a repeated form of excess. It is an excess that is not socially condoned (unlike spending excessively for a wedding ceremony) and/or considered desirable. An excess of speech on ‘delicate’ matters like sexuality or politics. Madness is fearlessly expressing what should be kept concealed, as was depicted in ‘The Madness of George III’. You do not reveal your sexuality wearing a particular kind of clothes, you do not behave like a ‘man’ if you are a ‘woman’. A few times, people would laugh and think it is endearing. A few more times and it may entail polite apologies to puzzled onlookers. More than that, it enters dangerous territories. Territories that shouldn’t be charted, and most significantly, not in public.

Being called crazy for one’s deviance inevitably implies that the mad person is always under scrutiny. Personal experience tells me that if you sit with your friends and eat pizza by the layer, first scraping off the cheese and then all the vegetables, instead of shoving the entire thing in your mouth at once, by the time you finish your meal, you will notice everyone at the table staring at you. This gaze is intensified depending on who you are with. What does the ‘crazy’ one feel as they are stared at? Do they then hold their head up high and continue doing what they do to scandalise the onlookers more? Or do they then retreat into their shells to hide their true selves, who they really are and what they really like doing under the stony gaze of a society that is simultaneously disgusted and curious?

In that sense, does such behaviour often depend on a discourse created by the gazer through the gazing?

Society often shuns people it cannot understand. They are often left alone and are able to cope with it, but sometimes they cannot. There is a story by Satyajit Ray called ‘Brojburo’ which we read as children. It was about an old man who lived alone in his home and everyone in the neighbourhood was afraid of him due to the noises that emanated from his flat late in the night. Whenever he saw children, he would ask them to play with him. Upon further investigation, it was finally revealed that he was an old man who played with his toys from his childhood which led to the noise. The old man desired companionship, which he never got. This has psychological significance in how people are afraid of the madmen in their society and will do anything to avoid and shun them.

This is also significant in the narratives of women characters who exert agency and are thus shrouded in mystery. Like the old woman in Ray’s ‘Pather Panchali’ who defied societal expectations by living a solitary life. The inhabitants of the village had spun a tale of her being a witch who could suck life out of you in a single gaze, making the gaze of the madwoman a significant feature. The young boy, Apu, runs away from her in fear, and after her death, understands that she was just a woman who lived alone.

Does madness then imply and provide agency to someone who lies outside the norms of the society? Someone who is generally known as a crazy person, would all their actions be condoned because they are expected to behave that way? Or would they be silenced in whatever ways possible and necessary?

Michel Foucault in his discourse on madness argues the significance given to the madman’s words because they are believed to carry deeper truths than what society can possibly fathom. The agent of madness in society often becomes the foreseer of change but their position changes from epoch to epoch. Does this supposition apply to our times? Can we see madness as defiance of societal norms instead of putting the clinical understandings of it on a pedestal?

By extension, when an artist — a painter, a performer or a writer — is deemed ‘mad’, what is the implication? Most often, it is shorthand for radical work they do by carving a path for themselves and inventing new things. It is much later that their artistic expression is considered revolutionary. Sometimes, instead of persecution due to deviance, some artists are revered either due to the fact that their art was ‘different’ from acceptable standards, or perhaps because the viewers understood its meaning or at the very least, accepted and allowed their unique form of expression. For such artists, this unique difference, this ‘madness’ is then mandatory in every future creation. Madness then becomes an exhibit, to be viewed and appreciated.

What is appreciable, what is normal, depends on what is condoned in a particular era, what is understood and what is within the realm of the knowable. And that is never fixed or set in stone.

What I meant when I called my friend Hamlet’s Ophelia was that she exposed patriarchal notions of beauty and portrayal of oneself in society. You are always expected to be a certain way as a woman. But she didn’t mean to click that photograph, let alone show it to anyone at all. My friend forced a smile in the picture and a smile is supposed to denote that she is happy, isn’t it? It didn’t show the bright lights she was posing with so that she would at least look happy, pretty. It didn’t mean to show how tired a postgraduate student’s eyes could look in a precarious world, making the smile an irony. Like in Eliot’s Prufrock, the photograph would sing: No that’s not what I meant, not what I meant to say at all. And yet it did.

Upasana Das is a student currently completing her undergraduate studies in the Department of English, Jadavpur University. Das is also a comic book writer and illustrator working at the intersections of film, theatre, art and literature.  Her work was exhibited as part of the Irregular Arts Fair x Pulp Society exhibition ‘This is (Now) Online.

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