Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Power of the Half-Mad

If Daniil Kharms, a surrealist/absurdist writer who died in the psychiatric ward of Leningrad Prison No. 1 in 1942 was not completely bonkers, he was at least half-mad. Here's an informative review of experimental theater group Artel's current show, Kharmful Charms of Daniil Kharms, which I encourage any L.A. area person with an appetite for oddity to encounter. It's rife with mustaches, theramin-like sounds, and lines like "Gentlemen, let's drink vinegar!" My friend Katira is the dark-haired cutie who will tell you she's not afraid of anything in one of the more meaningful monologues, depending on the night.

But I'm not really a reviewer. I don't write reviews. At least, I don't write them for free on my blog.

Instead, Gorgeous Curiosity is a place to muse about how seeing Kharmful Charms of Daniil Kharms (I admit to forgetting the title of the show continuously, up until the night I saw it) and Burton's new Alice in Wonderland, in short succession, has convinced me that the world's revolutionaries, masters of protest and resistance, are all, necessarily, half-mad. Only half-mad, you see. Not entirely sane, and not resolutely insane. Halfway there. I consider it a conceptual rarity, but in this case, "half-there" is the place of power.

Kharms himself of course was persecuted during Stalin's 1930s, and in Burton's version of Alice, so is she. She's a prototype feminist--doesn't believe in corsets or stockings, doesn't feel like marrying a lord. She's also given opportunity throughout the movie to prove her "muchness"--which the Mad Hatter notices she's lacking at first. She's got to learn to believe impossible things. Madness. In Wonderland, this is fantastic and exciting! She slays a Jabberwocky and gets big and small and wears ribbon shoes and rides a hat and crawls across decapitated heads!

However, when she returns Home to the Real World, her "muchness," and her half-mad visionary power, is transformed into a sort of business acumen (which, if read historically, contributed to Britain's imperialist exploitation of China) that drew my bile. Ooooh look girls, if you're a strong woman you can be a capitalist just like the boys can! (The Disney version of feminism has only not angered me in Mulan, so far.)

In Wonderland, however, The Mad Hatter, who is a model of the half-mad, is the leader of a revolution against the Machiavellian Red Queen. He's occasionally out of control, violent, and hyperactive. He's also calculating, noble, and on the side of the just. What makes him most powerful is that he sees the world unbound. To him, Wonderland is fundamentally unfettered by the current rules. He sees through the game. He walks across the table if he must get to the other side quickly. He has ideas no one else has, makes hats no one else makes. He suggests to Alice that she could stay with him. I wish she had.

Daniil Kharms mades hats no one else made as well. And much like the Mad Hatter, he was working against political systems that oppressed creativity, feared the unknown reaches of human imagination. The Artel crew has taken his work and gone a bit crazy with it themselves--writing songs, designing dresses, infusing vodka with honey and selling it for $2 a shot (yes, darlings), and starting the show with a funeral processional in the parking lot for a couple of insects who got in a fatal brawl. Complete with tiny coffins.

The powerful position, the place of change, is to be cognizant of the systemic problems one is fighting, and also to be wildly imagining a future without them, ways out of them, ways into new and grander meanings, lives, worlds, people. To be an effective visionary you must have the actual vision of something that others think impossible (madness) and also the drive to communicate it, to ask for and accept help from other people. To this end, we could make an enormous list of people who were half-mad. We've never heard of the ones who went totally mad, or never got crazy enough.

If you're completely insane, you can be ignored/suppressed by those with power and thus dismissed by those without it. If you're completely sane, you are generally controlled by hegemonic ideologies that present themselves as "facts of life."

But if you're half-mad--if you've got ideas like cats that can apparate, or Kharms' deconstruction of Man, and also the presence of mind to write them down--Oh Mom. Oh Dear. Oh Yes. Oh Honey. Oh Honey-infused vodka and the tiny shot glass it came in.

My problem is usually a bit too much sanity, too much sober thinking. Walking through Disneyland last week on a mild mushroom trip, I decided this problem is actually a reactionary one--I over-developed my organizational and social skills after a childhood of deep imagination and weird, weird writing/drawing/dancing/etc., because I felt stupider than my academically-achieving sister. I was emotional, sensitive, strange sometimes even to myself, and got scared about this very young. So I suppressed, achieved, organized, succeeded. Now, I have to consciously boot myself out of the Super Functional in order to get to The Weird.

But the Super Functional does not slay the Jabberwocky. The girl who believes in six impossible things before breakfast does. The Super Functional does not scare Stalin with his anti-rational rhetoric or dandy outfit. And the Super Fuctional does not play a toy piano in a tiny theater on Santa Monica Blvd. to an audience of slightly uncomfortable, mostly delighted hipsters who wish they'd thought of it first. No. Therefore, my Super Functional self is heretofore relegated to the tasks of stamping envelopes and getting to school on time, so that the half-mad, the Weird, can do nearly everything else.


  1. you are half-mad.

    that's a compliment, obviously.
    I wish I had that sane half that you have...

  2. Oh mom! it's never actually half and half, though. The balance is always slightly tipped to sanity or insanity. all the yoga, all the drugs, all the books, all the Phish jams, etc. are just to give each side some weaponry.

  3. The balance. Tight-rope walking with a stack of tea-kettles. Fear tips, despair, but really fear. Maybe there's a long list of suicides of the half-mad before descent into madness or functionality. Bolano said he only made it through sometimes because he knew how to end his life.

    Super functional is merely afraid, its essential endpoint (its madness) is totalitarianism: the Red Queen is super-functionally mad in her control. The half-mad have learned defense against fear because they know the poetry of Cohen's escaped ski and Bukowski's horses. Revolutionaries (like Alice?) have a way of forgetting to stay half-mad continuous revolutionaries and stabilize into functionality, so the victory of half-mad Lenin and Trotsky persecutes under fear/power mad Stalin the half-mad brilliance of Kharms, and honestly that white queen worries me a bit too.

  4. Good point going get you got! The half-mad may be complimented by statements of total insanity, which they, and I do ever so very much hope its we, where/wear/ware like Superman's shield: tight and across the chest. The totally insane are unpersons: dangerous free-form blobs of existence which must be contained for the good of the general populace. They are unpredictable and unconcerned with our intelligence and our systems and often unhappy thinks eye because I can't read their faces like books like I can imagine you read mine and mine yours. It's madness when you can't blink your eyes. It's madness when you can't stop talking. It's just a job when your hulking pituitary-reject body tear gasses angry kids because yours are afraid the masked ones break a starbucks window. We call them half-mad when we can see the rabbit hole, even if we don't know how far up or down or splout it goknowshowrowrowrowyerboat.

  5. "A man needs little madness or else he never dares cut the rope and be free." This is one of my all time favorite quotes and it speaks about the same thing you are talking about. It's from the movie "Zorba, The Greek". Zorba, the leading character, is a man who dances when things look their worst. He reminds me of another endearing trait of the half-mad: a tenacious hold in the belief of the possibilities no one else can see. As the aforementioned dark haired cutie, I can tell you that this theatre group is full of half-mad people led by two half-mad visionaries with half-mad ideas of what theatre could, and should, be about.

  6. You are all so smart! And I think Linz is right--most half-mad people still tip one way or the other. And we reap the benefits of their madness afterward, while rarely hearing of the struggle to make whatever it is they are making. Art. Sounds. Love. Revolutions.