In the Realms of the Unreal, edited by John G. H. Oakes

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: In the Realms of the Unreal: “Insane Writings”

Editor: John G. H. Oakes

Type of Book: Non-fiction, collection, mental illness, outsider literature

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It studies the writings of people diagnosed with mental illness, including people with schizophrenia and people who spent their lifetime in mental institutions.  It sort of approaches being an “outsider” literature collection.

Availability: Published by Four Walls Eight Windows in 1991, you can get a copy here:

Comments:  It’s no secret that I am a sucker for books about mental illness.  Though many of the books I read are never discussed here, you could get a taste of my mental health reading habits on my dead site, I Read Everything.  As a person who struggles with a relatively mild mental condition (mild in the spectrum – it sucks, don’t get me wrong, but it’s nothing akin to having schizophrenia or bi-polar), I find reading about the illnesses of others illuminating and instructive.  But this book was important to me because it features work by Henry Darger.  The book takes its name from Darger’s work, and features a long sample of his work.  I’m in a Darger mood lately, collecting books about him, reading about him, watching the documentary about him over and over, so it was great when my sister-in-law sent me this book for Yule.

But along with my tendency to want to read about mental illness is my tendency to gather up lists of books I am interested in without knowing a whole lot about the books.  I couldn’t begin to tell you my decision calculus for obtaining a book, because it’s immediate, mercurial and often very shallow.  I sort of approach books the way a kid approaches candy.  I see some chocolate gum and think, “Hey, I like chocolate and gum, so let’s try it.”  And of course it sucks.   This book is not an utter failure, like chocolate gum.  It’s more like a delicious Belgian chocolate with a bitter licorice center.  This book is very interesting on some levels, but at it’s core, the book fails.  In spite of this, this is going to be a very long discussion because even as the book fails at its premise – an attempt to present the works of insane writers without comment – there are elements that are interesting and good enough that they, temporarily at least, overshadow the failure of the premise.  There are snippets of writing from genuinely mentally ill people that resonated with me deeply or troubled me, and the inclusion of two writers who were not really insane, Henry Darger and Mary MacLane, improved the reading experience.

So let me get to the premise problems that harm this collection.  In the Realms of the Unreal is a collection of various writings from people who, in some loose sense, fit the description of being “insane.” Sort of. The writings range from poems to involved works of fiction to intense biographies to snippets of what can only be called word salad. And when you have such a range of works under the heading of “insane writings,” it can make you wonder what the methodology of this book was. In the Editor’s Preface, it sort of explained things, but at the same time, it makes it clear that there really was no methodology beyond what the editors had access to within their parameters of unusual behavior.

From the editorial preface, an attempt is made to explain that insane means a lot of things and that their primary goal was to include a variety of writings, knowing full well some may not pass the sniff-test for true insanity.

An effort was made to include a wide variety of authors: living and dead, free and institutionalized, foreign and American, contemporary and antique.

But even within that paradigm, the editors give themselves a lot of wiggle room. They exclude the works of more famous “insane people,” like Antonin Artaud, because they made a living from their writing, but include Mary MacLane, whose writings were widely popular when they were initially published.  It’s also odd because MacLane was definitely not insane, period, and the explanation for her inclusion is odd.

…MacLane’s work was never accepted into the literary canon. She had the double strike against her of being a woman and an eccentric during a period when society was particularly unforgiving.

The editors also have to explain their inclusion of Henry Darger:

We were looking for unusual poems and stories, often by people who had been or were currently institutionalized – although someone like Henry Darger (whose epic text lent its title to this volume) to our knowledge was never treated for “mental illness.” The amount of material produced by these unusual thinkers has greatly diminished in the modern era, principally because of the use of psychiatric drugs that often dull creativity, even as they help a patient adjust to life in conventional society.

I don’t know what to think of that statement about drugs dulling creativity because in my experience it is definitely untrue and it is often the mantra that so often prevents people who need help from getting it, but okay, let’s just roll with it for the purposes of this book.   And as we roll with it, let’s just accept that “insanity,” for the purposes of this book, is whatever the editors decided it is.

But there is another problem with this collection.  Again, from the editor’s preface:

No common theme to the book should readily emerge. To again borrow a phrase of Roger Cardinal’s, we are exploring an archipelago of ideas, rather than a continent.
These writings are not presented as clues to someone’s “illness”: they are published for their intrinsic worth.

This approach is problematic.  Writings of genuinely insane people are chaotic at best.  Without a common theme or at least an attempt to classify these writings, the reader is confronted with a wall of illness-influenced words that become amorphous and meaningless without context.  The only divisions in the book are institutional and chronological, which is sort of helpful because one can almost see how anti-psychotic medications changed how mentally ill people interacted with their disease, but even that is not enough to give this work the sort of focus that prevents these works from becoming an assault on even readers who seek out this sort of literature.

Finally, I find the notion that “they are published for their intrinsic worth” to be utterly specious.  Much of the work in this book is not good, and failure to link the work to the illness that may have fueled its creation, in my opinion, strips the works of their worth.  To say that all of these pieces from the insane have intrinsic worth just because they were written by insane people is akin to saying that all diary entries from teenagers have intrinsic worth because they are from teenagers, or that all poems written by people in wheelchairs have intrinsic value because they were written by people in wheelchairs.  It is disingenuous to compile  a book of writings selected not because they were well-written but because they are the works of the “insane” and then tell the reader that one should not look at these works using a framework of insanity.

What other framework can the reader use to determine value?  Most of this book is not genius borne from madness.  It’s just madness.  With the exception of a handful of writers, including Darger and Mary MacLane, these are not the works of natural writers.   These are the works of people with a specific story to tell – the story of being mentally ill.  There is no way to evaluate these writings without discussing the illness and experience of illness that inspired the writing in the first place.  I think culturally we need to understand that 20 years ago, the liberal idea of colorblindness and being “handicapable” were in full swing.  One was not supposed to see color, race, religion, disability or illness.  One was just supposed to see people (leading to the now derided and utterly ridiculous insistence that black, white, pink, or purple, liberals don’t see color, just people).  It’s easy to understand this approach to egalitarianism but such an approach denies the experiences of specific people as we deliberately refuse to see the things that define another person’s experience in this world.

So now that you know that this is an unorganized collection of works from people that may be insane or may not be insane, that the works are not necessarily going to be good, and that I plan to completely ignore the exhortation that we overlook the insanity that may have fueled these writings, let’s discuss the individual components that made this book worth reading.