On Madness, for Index on Censorship, published / by Rich Hobbs

"In that direction," the Cat said, waving its right paw round, "lives a

Hatter: and in that direction, "waving the other paw, "lives a March Hare.

Visit either you like: they’re both mad."

"But I don’t want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.

"Oh, you can’t help that, "said the Cat: "we’re all mad here. I’m mad.

You’re mad."

You can appreciate Alice’s problem. Although the narrative parameters of

"Alice in Wonderland" place her in a dreamland, a oceanic maelstrom of

irrationality and unreality, within the context of the hyper-reality often

experienced in dreams she’s constantly sub-

consciously conscious of being the only sane Ulysses on an insane Odyssey.

But things wouldn’t have been much better once she woke up. Mad hatters

were proverbially mad as an occupational hazard: the mercurial steam they

used to mould the material they made the hats from drove them mad as a

matter of course; likewise, hares in March, in rutt, behave with such abnormal

abandon (for hares) that they are, by definition, mad.

But let’s stick with humans. Back from the rather terrifying (if amusing)

endemic madness of Wonderland, Alice found herself in a society which was

also endemically mad. The free and legal availability of opiates, taken with the

cocktail of chemicals the Victorians breathed courtesy of their industrial

revolution, meant that most of them were, at the very least, peculiar: the

cavalcade of eccentrics portrayed by Dickens are, by these lights, less likely to

be irritating whimsy than rather grim documentary. And it’s a small step from

that eccentricity to the Victorian fondness for Nonsense. Edward Lear’s fear

of his epilepsy (is that a kind of madness?) led him to disguise it with a

studied eccentricity that teetered on madness - he couched his only proposal of

marriage in an earnest inquiry of whether his beloved could sharpen pencils:

she said she couldn’t, so he said "oh dear" and walked away - while he found

comfort in Nonsense, an irrational security blanket to clutch in the face of an

unforgivingly Rational world.

After a career depicting the madness of the World, the great satirical

caricaturist James Gillray is believed to have leaped to his death from his

garret window above Mrs Humphrey’s print shop, a fortnight before the Battle

of Waterloo and eight years after he’d sunk into madness himself. He was the

only one of six children to reach adulthood, and was brought up as a

Moravian, a Protestant sect that viewed the world with horror and welcome

death as a (literally) blessed release; as he got older he suffered increasingly

from morbid depression and was growingly obsessed by his failing eyesight, a

condition exacerbated by his prolonged exposure to nitric acid, a chemical

central to the etching process. Did that help him, like the Mad Hatter, go mad,

or was it the circumstances of his childhood? Whatever the cause (and we

shouldn’t forget another kind of occupational hazard, the savage intensity with

which he chronicled a Mad World driving him, like Swift and Goya, mad too)

during a period of brief lucidity in 1813 Gillray gave an audience to Mrs

Humphrey’s latest protege George Cruikshank. The purpose of the audience

seems to have been a sort of satirical blessing, a kind of caricaturist’s apostolic

succession, but all Gillray would say was "You are not Cruikshank, but

Addison; my name is not Gillray, but Rubens." Cruikshank went away

unblessed, but later acquired Gillray’s table if not his madness. Later in his

career, when most people dismissed him as irredeemably eccentric,

Cruikshank became a warrior for Temperance, the Victorians’ very own War

on Drugs, against a self-imposed and not always temporary madness. Indeed,

they called it "Drink-madness", a blight on both productivity and decent

morality, even though, in his will, Cruikshank left his wine cellar to his


No human society has ever existed without some psychotropic or mood-

altering mechanism to allow us to look at the world in a different light to the

harsh and unbearable glare of Reality, be it booze, fags, dope, chocolate,

Dionysiac frenzies, political monomania or just sitting still and meditating on

the unknowable infinite. I’m told that if you don’t eat for a fortnight you get

wonderful visions, as religious mystics have for centuries. You can achieve

the same effect with Benalyn expectorant and vodka chasers. Gillray’s

contemporary William Blake seems to achieved this without the outside

catalyst, and is now universally recognised as the greatest English visionary,

offering us sight, two hundred years later, of a different, mystical, spiritual

England in opposition to the tyranny of Reason we’re currently enthralled to.

But look at his work, at those tiny, tiny printed pages (produced and coloured

in the same poisonous miasma that Gillray worked in) crammed with text

which then curls, madly, up into the margins to hammer the elusive point

home. This is the text-book stuff of schitzophrenia.

But so what? About twenty years ago an article in the British Medical Journal

deplored advances in the treatment of syphilis because the extirpation of

General Paralysis of the Insane, a frequent symptom of tertiary syphilis,

denied our antiseptic world the mad genius of Van Gogh, Nietzsche, Schubert

and many others. Unkissed by Venus, the Victorian painter Richard Dadd did

his best work in Bedlam, after going mad and killing his father with an axe.

The cat painter Louis Wain ended up in the same place, only with difficulty

explaining to a passing visitor that not only did he paint like Louis Wain, but

he was Louis Wain. "Of course you are," purred his well-meaning

interlocutor. Earlier, of course, Hogarth’s Rake ended up in a different

Bedlam, elsewhere, as an awful warning to the rest of us, before Madness

came to rank equal with Death as an exquisite and slightly delicious Romantic

fate. Think of Ruskin and the first Mrs Rochester. Much later think of hippy

Romance and the Rock ‘n’ Roll martyr Syd Barrett, the founding genius of

Pink Floyd, still alive but lost to us forever after frying his brain with LSD,

opening the Doors of Perception and thereafter drawing a blank.

And let’s finish with mad Dean Swift writing, in A Tale of a Tub, his

"Digression concerning the Original, the Use, and Improvement of Madness in

a Commonwealth", where madness, as manifested in political megalomania

and belicosity, is equated with an excess of semen being diverted to and

infecting the brain or the inability to have a damn good shit. The gag - the

ironic point - is that the inmates of Bedlam would function perfectly well in

the law, medicine, the church and politics if released into the outside world. In

between the ironies, however, is Swift’s true lesson, which is tolerance: it’s

the truly mad who, through philosophy, religion or politics, seek to make

everyone the same as them. In the face of this universally prevalent Madness,

Swift advises that we seek "the serene peaceful state, of being a fool among