The Language of Insanity

I don’t think Nigel Farage was much impressed with Mrs May’s showing in Florence.  After all, he just wants out.  No doubt many Brexiteers entertain nostalgic reminiscences of Mrs Thatcher lecturing the EU in rather hectoring tones:  “No, no, no!”  I thought of that this week while I chanced to hear an ancient recording of  Gertrude Lawrence singing The Saga of Jenny, with music by Kurt Weill and phenomenally inventive and funny lyrics by Ira Gershwin, an absurd tale told by a woman who couldn’t make up her mind, outlining the perils of doing the opposite and reaching a decision.

In twenty seven languages she couldn’t say no! 

Apposite.  Yet surely it’s all a side show compared with events on the other side of the planet.  In the rapidly escalating war of words between the President and the Supreme Leader, things have got personal.  Mr Trump has called “Rocket Man” a “maniac”, and Mr Kim has called Mr Trump a “lunatic” and a “dotard”.

“Dotard” was new to me.  I checked it out in Chambers.

Dot’ant (Shak.) a dotard; dot’ard one who dotes: one showing the weakness of old age, or excessive fondness. – adj, dot’ed (Spens.) stupid.

I suppose excessive fondness, otherwise known as love, is a kind of madness.  Yet, in this context, love is definitely not in the air.  Mr Kim, the younger man, seems to be mocking the President for his advanced years, so I suppose he is implying that the President is dementing.  As for the President, he just thinks Mr Kim is crazy.

Accusations of madness are extremely common in public life.  Madness has an extensive lay lexicon.  Nuts, round the bend, off his rocker, not the full shilling, one sandwich short of a picnic…  I used to be rather fond of some expressions I picked up in New Zealand, “out to lunch”, “special”, and “mad as a snake”.  I can’t think what it is about a snake that makes it mad, but there you are.  It’s only relatively recently that it has occurred to me that the random (random – another word) accusatory diagnosis of a mental health issue – often delivered remotely – might be objectionable.  Of course when one person accuses another (usually behind his back) of being mentally deranged, usually there is no serious intent to make a psychiatric diagnosis as it might be formally defined in ICD 10 or any equivalent authoritative reference manual.  An exception to this is that during the 2016 US Presidential election, and subsequently, a number of Mr Trump’s critics indulged in a spot of armchair psychiatry and gave him a psychiatric diagnosis, such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder, sans benefit of a medical consultation which would involve undertaking a psychiatric history and a mental state examination.  Spot diagnoses made by people watching the telly have landed even some eminent medical practitioners in very hot water.

Back in New Zealand, I remember seeing in the emergency department a patient, known to the psychiatric services, who presented with an ongoing mental health problem.  The template of the hospital record had a space for “presenting complaint”, into which I wrote “Psych patient”.  I can’t remember the details of the presentation, but it must have resulted in a referral to a consultant psychiatrist, because the consultant briskly got back in touch to criticise me for my use of the expression “Psych patient” which he considered to be demeaning, crass, and mindless.  Of course at the time I bridled; I might even have called the psychiatrist something like – to borrow an expression of President Trump – “a nut job”.  But – and take note of this – I never ever used the expression “Psych patient” again.  That is because, once I was able to get over the injury to my amour propre, I realised that the consultant psychiatrist was right.

What do we mean when we say of someone, “Oh, he’s off his head”?  Undoubtedly it’s a belittling statement.  Its intention is to discredit the person, to trash his reputation and standing, utterly.  His point of view, his deliberations, and his actions are fatally flawed because they lack any rationality; rather, his world view and his modus operandi are founded on the recognised elements of psychosis – divorce from reality, hallucinatory preoccupation, and paranoia.  It’s a damning indictment.  And that is why it is so often invoked.  It’s a shorthand, quick fire method of demolition.  Somebody says to you, what do you think of so-and-so?  You point a forefinger at your temple, rotate it in a gentle twirling motion, shrug, turn down the corners of your mouth, and raise your eyes to the ceiling.   ‘Nuff said.

This is the way that totalitarian regimes deal with dissident members of their population.  They shut them up in lunatic asylums, because their view of the world is so aberrant that clearly they are, well, daft as a brush.  It takes a great deal of self-belief, determination, and sheer naked courage for a person thus persecuted to hold on to his own sense of reality, and to realise that after all he might be the only sane person left in a country that has itself become a vast lunatic asylum.

To taunt anybody with an accusation of being psychotic is a terrible affront to people who have to endure such an illness.  That is why the trading of insults between Trump and Kim is so dispiriting.  They might be kids in the school playground calling one another “spastic”.  Remember how things used to blow up in the school playground.  The current spat over the 38th parallel is all the more dangerous because it has become puerile.  Since Hiroshima, writers have conjured various nightmarish scenarios of nuclear Armageddon.  They are familiar to most of us; in Dr Strangelove a rogue general launches an attack; in Failsafe a computer glitch cannot be reversed; in Thunderball a malignant criminal organization hijacks two nuclear warheads and holds the world to ransom.  I can’t think of a work of fiction that mirrors the current crisis.  Two heads of state who are both widely considered to be mad are threatening one another with nuclear attack.  It kind of puts the Brexit negotiations into the shade.

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