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Last night I saw Jocelyn Pook’s new piece, Hearing Voices – a combination of live performance and recordings which look at madness – specifically women’s madness – over several (unrelated) generations. It attends to the proximity of insanity – the normalcy of it, the myriad of words used to describe it, the frequency and unexpectedness of it, the fear and – once – the joy.

And then the evening’s compere came on stage and summed it up by praising the courage of the people described.  And suddenly they were objects again. Us (the lucky) and them (the Courageous).  All Pook’s use of real voices (nothing about us without us), all the staging that challenged the authority of the orchestra, the fixity of classical performance, the hierarchy of its club, dissolved into these final words – the closing of the book of the Other.

It was frustrating. I wondered whether the compere had listened to the piece. And I thought about our need to box up what we fear, as quickly as possible. The piece began with a doctor ‘teaching’ a mental health assessment, drawing attention to the arbitrary words, the vagueness of it, the absolute difference between an assessment of madness and an experience of it.  The absurdity of pinning down a quantity, or brand, of madness.  One woman said she had lived through nine diagnoses. Doubtless each one given in good faith. But these are definitions – like all definitions – that we invent.  We name things, and then the next generation laughs at the names, sees how they jar, how they fall off like ill-fitting clothes. And draws up a new suit.

What is ‘delirium’? Is it second sight?  Is it a failure, or a huge success?   Wrongness or clarity?  Both?  Fantasy or reality?  What is real? One’s own experience or someone else’s description?

Suffering seems to inhabit it so frequently as to be almost intrinsic. One of the voices last night suggested that people with mental illness (though I would stress they were discussing chronic illness, not episodic delirium) suffer what’s wrong with humanity on behalf of us all.

It is impossible after a sentence like that not to think about religion. And also about old medicine; about spiritual beings of one kind or another who draw the psychic poison from a person, or a community – who are a bridge between the earthly and the heavenly.  And in new medicine? It seems we separate the spirit from the body but people suffer in both, just the same. And as they do, their delirious stories edge irresistibly into a long cultural history of truths and foresights trapped in Delphic riddles, in Freudian dreams, in metaphors. So which is the tighter trap? A diagnostic tool or a literary one?

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