The Holy Other: Insanity, Spirituality, and Shakespeare
There is no difference in western society between a prophet and a madman. The two are one and the same.
Protestant Christianity has through centuries of proto-naturalism managed to sanitize the popular view of the former. Now, in an age of medicinal dominance, it seeks to render the latter a victim of disease. The human psyche cannot accept these attempts.
However much we rationalize on paper our view of prophetic-insanity, in our art we continue to venerate it as the holy Other.
One encounters Ophelia in Shakespeare and immediately sees this prophetic-insanity come into play. She speaks in the meter of peasant ditties and her songs resound with prophetic power. The use of common style in her songs is anachronistic, for she is noble and the songs are not.
This establishes her as one who transcends boundaries. I do not say one who crosses boundaries, for it is more accurate to state that the boundaries have become irrelevant.
Ophelia is no longer merely Ophelia. She is something less, in a material sense at least. “Say you? Nay, pray you, mark” she says, rebuking Gertrude (Hamlet, IV.V.33). The word “pray” is a double-entendre. In one sense, she is requesting (“pray”) Gertrude to listen. In another sense, she is reminding Gertrude that she represents the holy Other and is to be approached (“pray”) on spiritual terms.
We read her songs and comprehend this without ever thinking it, as evidenced by our desire to glean some hidden meaning from her songs. We read her gravestone song and wonder if it speaks about a spiritually ominous demise (IV.V.33-37). We read her song of St. Valentine and wonder if it references the loss of her virginity (IV.V.61-71).
There is an assumption that her words are pregnant with meaning (by instinct I say pregnant, which is interesting in itself), more so because she is mad. Implicit in this is the belief that there has been a fundamental change in Ophelia’s character. Either something has entered her from outside, or something has surfaced from within her.
The former would be possession, the latter would be obsession. Whatever the case may be, though, Ophelia is not as she once was. She is, in a very real way, different.
One cannot help but wonder, then, about the character of Edgar in King Lear. His own brief outburst into poetic nonsense (or, perhaps, prophetic augury) is perhaps more famous than even Ophelia’s. “Child Rowland to the dark tower came” we read, “his word was still, ‘fie, foh, and fum, / I smell the blood of a British man” (King Lear, III.V.195-198).
Wow. What a line.
With one sentence, Edgar has given rise to innumerable fictions by authors ranging from Stephen King to Robert Browning. It does not matter that Edgar’s madness is assumed willingly. The prophet may choose or may be chosen to become an embodiment of the holy Other. Either way, the self must capitulate to the Other.
Edgar changes just as Ophelia does. The fact that he willingly chooses the identity of Tom o’ Bedlam does not make his madness a disguise. The identity of Tom supplants his own just as Ophelia’s madness replaces her docile obedience.
Something, then, is at work here. Freud would likely call it the unconscious. Jung might explain this through the idea of the Shadow. I have opted to refer to it as the holy Other. Human beings have, for the history of the race, lived our lives as spiritual creatures.
Madness, in a literary sense, should be understood as a spiritual phenomenon. In modern culture and language, there has been an effort to frame forms of madness and insanity as types of obsession. That’s only natural. The Twenty-First Century is still toying with the idea of a materialist framework for culture and linguistics.
Still, this is not the most effective (or meaningful) way that humans communicate. When approaching the issue of insanity, then, it would be better to utilize a spiritual framework of culture and language. Madness is, ultimately, a type of possession more than it is a type of obsession.
The obvious psychological response to this is that it does not fit our therapies. We know insanity can be caused by chemical imbalances. We know that very often the solution to our problems involves looking within ourselves.
The first objection is the trickier one, but implicit within it is the belief that there is a difference between the matter inside our head and the matter outside of it. This is, obviously, not quite right. If I am a victim of the chemicals inside my brain, then there has to be something more to that I than mere chemicals. If I want to make a judgement regarding the proper amount and distribution of those chemicals, I presume that I am a rational actor whose judgement is more than a mere accident of chemistry.
The second objection is simpler to answer, but also more illuminating. Looking within ourselves often provides revelation concerning the nature of our psychological battles.
Yet the human psyche is not infinite. There are hard limits to how deep within myself I am capable of looking before I have knocked the bottom out of the barrel. Finally, there is the question of multiple personas competing for dominance of the mind and how they got there.
How did mad Ophelia manage to become a persona that could assume control of her body’s psyche? We do not know.
Edgar chose to manifest the persona of Tom o’ Bedlam; but there is nothing to suggest that he can control what thoughts spring unbidden into the speech of Tom.
How can this be? We do not know.
It does seem proper to conclude, however, that something in some sense external is at play. This force is the holy Other, which transcends the accepted boundaries of culture even as it threatens them.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. New Folger's ed. New York: Washington Square Press/Pocket Books, 1992.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. New Folger's ed. New York: Washington Square Press/Pocket Books, 1992.
 Possession in the classical religious sense, that is, of an external force entering into a person. Importantly, this may be against one’s own will or as the result of a Faustian bargain.