“When the world itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies.”-Don Quixote, Man of La Mancha by Dale Wasserman.
A couple of years ago, after writing a novel from the perspective of a Christian minister, I decided that I wanted to become more familiar with the New Testament of the Bible. I wanted to read it through word for word, in the order that scholars believe it was written, and to form my own opinions of what I read. I tried, as much as I could, to put my preconceived notions aside. A number of things surprised me and caught my attention.
One was just how often Jesus goes around casting out demons. In the post-Enlightenment age, we tend to focus on his miraculous physical healings, but not so much on his demon casting. Generally speaking, modern people don’t believe in demons. In the Bible, there are demons everywhere. They were part of ancient society’s everyday understanding of how the world operated.
In one particular episode, Jesus speaks to a group of demons that are in possession of a man. (The man has a sense of humor about his condition. When Jesus asks his name he says it is Legion. “For we are many.”) The demons listen to Jesus and speak to him. It seems as though they recognize him as another supernatural being. (Although Jesus insists later that his disciples have all the same powers to do what he does if they would have faith.) The demons beg Jesus if he is going to cast them out to please cast them into a group of nearby pigs. He does, and the pigs run into the sea and drown.
This brought up a number of questions for me. What are demons? What did the authors of the Bible believe about demons? Why were there so many demon possessed people? What happens to the demons when they are cast out? Do they go to possess someone else? Do they die? Are they exiled? When Jesus sends them into the pigs, was it a trick? Did he agree out of compassion for the demons and their presence just drove the pigs mad? Or did he intend for them to drown? If he had to trick them, this would imply that he had to negotiate with them and that they have powers that he might not be able to counteract. Or did the pigs run into the sea for comic effect in an era when most people didn’t read and stories were passed along through memorable performance? The other interesting thing is that pigs are “unclean” animals, so the nearby pigs must have belonged to gentiles. Did he cast the demons out of the Jews and into Roman pigs and was there some subtext to that?
Luke’s account of the demon pig incident describes the man with the demons in a way that makes it clear he was what we would today call mentally ill. His description seems to be of a schizophrenic, which made me wonder if all of the people “plagued by unclean spirits” were suffering from mental illness. Could there have been so many schizophrenics? Is insanity shaped by culture just as sanity is? Do people go mad in ways that are shaped by the cultures in which they live?
Steve J. Ayan and Iris Tatjana Calliess, in a Scientific American article “Abnormal as Norm,” use the example of men in Malaysia who believe they have a condition called “koro” to illustrate how different cultures treat varied behaviors as normal. Men who think they have koro are afraid their genitals will retract into their bodies. So to prevent it, they hang weights on their penises.
“The fear, and the uncomfortable antidote, is not common, yet it is accepted in this long-standing culture,” they wrote, “But in a Western country, an adult male who acted on such a belief would certainly be labeled as emotionally disturbed.”
If pumping iron with your privates is normal in another part of the world, then maybe what we consider normal behavior is just as insane or conversely, what we call madness may be entirely normal. I have started reading a book called Constructing the Self, Constructing America by Philip Cushman. Cushman is a historian and psychologist and he explores the history of modern psychotherapy from a cultural perspective. He argues that each era develops a different conception of “what it means to be human.”
“…all of these selves have had important political and economic functions within their eras and that each profession responsible for healing the self has put forth the claim that the self of its era is the only proper self, that its technologies are the one true healing…I want to convince readers that there are good and bad things about any sociohistorical era. I want readers to agree that there is no single, transcendent truth that can be used by humans to heal in any perfect, universal, apolitical way.”
These are not easy questions for anyone to answer. They are the big questions of how to be human in the world. When should your beautiful, mad, messy personality be given expression and when should it be constrained? When should you resist conformity and when is resistance unhealthy? It takes a lifetime to work these things out. Anyone who says he has the answer is not telling the truth.
Here are a few of my related articles: