Wisdom, Madness and Folly: The Philosophy of a Lunatic

John Custance, London England, 1951

-a memoir of madness-

“What is “delusion” and what is “reality”; what is “a mere figment of the imagination” and what is “hard fact”?” 120

Have you ever wanted to peer into the mind of a man gone mad – a “madman”? Have you ever thirsted for a taste of insanity, without having to fall into its abyss?

As I peered through the dusty shelves of the library, I stumbled across this memoir. And lo and behold, it was exactly the kind of book for which I was searching. It details the true experiences and revelations of John Custance, a 33-year old English man who fell into the grips of a mental illness known as Manic-Depressive Psychosis.

My experience reading this book was twofold, as tends to be the case. There were periods of sheer boredom, and instances of deep discovery. To limit the selection of quotes to this (admittedly large) handful was a definite struggle, as it is difficult to truly summarize the breadth of topics discussed.

My most significant takeaway from this book was that reality is almost completely subjective to one’s own experience, and that an experience of “otherness” only becomes “insanity”  when the sufferer has lost control over their mind. There are significant parallels between the accounts of the enlightened mystic and the certified psychotic; both enter the shadowy realms of the unknown, and both are subject to experiences for which a comprehensive human vocabulary does not yet exist.

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From Man to Madman:

“While engaged on Intelligence work in 1944, I had a severe breakdown. I was transported from the atmosphere of my office, where we were engaged in an all-out effort to defeat the Germans, to the solitude of a side-room in a Mental Hospital, where I soon found myself in acute mania, coping with the fantastic creatures of the Unconscious.”  187

“The soul is not unlike the body in that as long as it is well one is barely conscious of it. Let something but go wrong with its mechanism, however, and the whole aspect of things alters in a moment. In my middle thirties I was attacked by not uncommon nervous disease known as manic-depression.” 12

“In some degree, too, I am attempting to psychoanalyze myself in the hope that when my devils are really neatly pinned and labeled like butterflies and moths in a collection they will leave me alone for good” 15

The Exhilarations of Mania:

“On the one hand the slope is green and fertile, leading to a lovely landscape where love, joy and the infinite beauties of nature and of dreams await the traveller; on the other a barren, rocky declivity, where lurk endless horrors of distorted imagination, descends to the bottomless pit.” 29

“At the same time I feel a mystic sense of unity with all fellow-creatures and the Universe as a whole; I am at peace with myself; and I have no sense of guilt whatsoever.” 42

“In a way I had fallen in love too – with the whole Universe. Everything felt akin. I was joined to Creation, no longer shut away in my little shell. And my vision of the Power of Love was the key to it all.” 47

“One of the most interesting features of this experience is the light it throws on the nature of the sexual urge in mania. This urge is almost entirely impersonal. The question of selecting an attractive girl, which normally plays a large part in sexual adventures, did not trouble me in the least. I was quite content to leave it to chance.” 49

“I feel so close to God, so inspired by His Spirit that in a sense I am God. I see the future, plan the Universe, save mankind; I am utterly and completely immortal; I am even male and female. The whole Universe, animate and inanimate, past, present and future, is within me.” 51

“There is a very close correlation between dreams and waking thoughts and imaginings. I wake up and my mind carries on the same train of thought which has been begun in a dream. I go to sleep and go on dreaming about the subjects I have been thinking about. This is presumably to be expected, since both dreams and the visions and train of thought in mania are governed by the Unconscious.” 58

‘Metabolism is rapid. I can stand cold without difficulty or discomfort; an inner warmth seems to pervade me… I fear nothing – freedom from fear is another notable symptom – so nothing seems to hurt me.” 59

“It may sound a delightful condition. Perhaps it would be if it were not such a nuisance to others and did not so easily change into its opposite.” 59

The Crippling Grasp of Depression: “Universe of Horror”

“… to move among a world of ghosts and feel myself the shadow of a dream” 60

“It is as though the shock or convulsion turned a great switch in my system, putting out the light, mad though it was, and plunging me into what the mystics…call the Dark Night of the Soul.”  60

“…a hardening of the shell of the ego. I seem shut into myself, withdrawn from real contact with the outer world as also from contact with God… I am shut in with my thoughts.” 61

“Instead of the light of ineffable revelation I seem to be in perpetual fog and darkness… [and have] lost [my] foothold on reality.”  61, 64

“I was barred, my mind began to repeat to me, barred from hope, there was no hope for me.” 65

“…the material world should seem less and less real. I felt myself to be gradually descending alive into the pit by a sort of metamorphosis of my surroundings.” 72

On suicide attempts:

“…but if I could only kill myself… I would get out of eternal torture and achieve the oblivion and nothingness for which my soul craved. I did in fact make three attempts at suicide, the most serious of which was when I tore myself from my attendant and threw myself in front of a car, with my poor wife, who was visiting me, looking on.” 67

On Philosophy:

“Through my illness I have been compelled to face those problems of ethics, conscious and religion which I have tried to evade, and this book is in part an attempt to come to terms with them.” 13

“In fact I have at the back of my mind the idea that the Almighty prefers people now and then to argue and even wrestle with him…to being surrounded with Yes-men like a dictator” 37-38

“I act “as if” there were a God; he acts “as if” there were atoms, electrons, and all the rest of it. That is all.” 120

“…  philosophy seems made for the healthy-minded, to whom crises of the soul are unknown” -p12

“I must assume that the human psyche, indeed, desires infinite expansion, the expansion in fact of a God” 51

“Paradoxes, however, seem to be inseparable from philosophy.” 131

“I was transported into an atmosphere of miracle and witchcraft, of all-pervading occult forces, although I had taken no interest whatever in these subjects prior to my illness.” 18

“Freedom, I have suggested, is essentially Negative. In the final analysis, freedom is freedom to do what we like, the freedom of the released Id in the Freudian sense, freedom from laws, restraints and inhibitions of all kinds. That is the Dionysian principle as opposed to the Apollonian, and it is basically anarchic. That such freedom is practically speaking impossible in a world where men have to live together, and thus to reconcile their instinctive urges, does not prevent it being a basic goal of the human psyche, and indeed of all life. But as the ultimate aim of the Negative is, as we have seen, to unite all creation in God and love, the uninhibited freedom it offers is that sensed by St Augustine in his famous phrase: Love, and do what you like”. 145-146

On the Past and Future:

“In the Negative Past there is peace; the fight is o’er, the battle won. In the Positive future there is war – war between a plurality of possibilities, The future does not require to be wooed, like the past. On the contrary, it woos us; it attacks us, thrusts itself upon us and through us, determined to actualize itself and attain peace in the past.” 177  

“Le Bon maintains that all history books must be regarded as the work of pure imagination. Events, and particularly great and exciting events, are invariably misreported. Hundreds of witnesses often testify to things which never happened at all, and Le Bon even goes so far as to say that the more witnesses can be found to testify to an event happening in one way the more certain we can be that the event happened quite differently, since collective crowd hallucinations are the most common of all.”  176

“But the past cannot be cut off; it cannot be banished into the limbo of forgotten things; it is, like the poor, always with us. The more it is rejected and ignored, the worse the revenge it takes.” 146

“The future, the Theory holds, is “actual” in a sense, just as is the past.” 175

On suffering and sacrifice:

“Looking back on my own life, which has not been without periods of suffering, I can sincerely say that were I now given the chance of living my life over again without those periods, with all the happiness and none of the misery, all the ups and none of the down, I would refuse… for, wonderful though the experience of the mountain-tops has been, I know that I have learnt far more in the valleys, and I believe that what I have learnt is of permanent value” 124

“Suffering is a necessary part of the education of souls, more particularly since it is a pre-condition of sacrifice – the only true way to salvation.” 125

“Nothing great ever comes to birth without sorrow and sacrifice.” 181

On criminality and soul-sickness:

“The commission of some really foul crime indicates as a rule that there is something radically wrong with the soul of the person in question. The fact that the crime has been committed does not make the soul or character of that person any worse; the criminal actions are merely the natural result of the evil which was already there. What it does do quite often, however, is to bring the individual up with a round turn and make him face the facts.” 126

Visions and Hallucinations:

“It seemed to me that a veil was lifted up before the eyes of my spirit, and that all the truths of human sciences, even those that I had not studied, became manifest to me by an infused knowledge.” 52

“When I think, for example, of the planet Mars, an inner voice “tells” me to remember that Mars is a very important god and must be treated with the greatest respect. When I see the lovely planet Venus in the morning or evening sky; I seem to “see” the form of a goddess in some trick of the light – no doubt an ordinary illusion. So I pray to “Venus” and I pray to “Mars”; I postulate that they are “real” persons; and effective results from my point of view ensue” 121

“It said… “Now that thou hast sold thy whole, undivided soul to me, and hast bowed down and worshipped me in token thereof, I give thee all Power, and all the kingdoms of the earth, in full reality. Thou shalt re-establish my priesthood, the covens of my worship, and then shall manage all the world. The black magic of the forgotten past shall live again, and control the science of the future. To thee, and to those whom thou shalt choose to be my managers, shall belong all the riches, all the pleasures that thou canst conceive in thy wildest dreams. All men shall be slaves of my Management of Unrighteousness. Only obey my voice, and when I command thee to slay, then slay and spare not. Through blood alone comes victory.” The voice ceased; the vision vanished.” 189 

“As I looked at this new vision, I seemed to be talking to the Iron Duke and his colleague. “Fear not,” they said. “What you see is a true vision, and it will come to pass in your lifetime. World War II is but an interlude in the great struggle. No peace will follow it, but at most an armed truce. Within some twenty years there will have been a third world war, in which we who speak to you will take our full part. Evil, which is not where men see it today, will be destroyed for a season, and what you see is peacemaking. Vienna will rise again as the city of Peace, and there a reasonable settlement of the problems of a devastated world will once more be arranged.” 190

Science vs. Spirituality:

“But religion without science leads to obscurantism, just as science without religion leads to hubris. Both are needed.” 212

“In the final analysis all scientific progress, however sceptical the methods used to bring it about, is based on faith. Man had to believe in matter in order to master it.” 213

The Theory of Actuality: 

“The Theory of Actuality recognizes no essential difference between the psychological and the physical, between Mind and Matter.” 156

“…to combine instinct with reason. And unless the whole thesis of this book is unsound, this is the only way to attain even to an approximation of ‘truth’.” 141

“it is frankly derived from the experiences of my illness, from what I have sensed and seen in both mania and depression, combined of course with my “normal” experience of the “real” world. I call it the “Theory of Actuality”.” 151

“…the vision has come to me, in however “insane” a manner, and I cannot help trying to convey it to others… I am optimistic enough to hope that this theory will be taken seriously, at any rate by psychologists, and possibly by the scientific world at large…It would prove the doctors to have been wrong to tell me I could not expect to solve all problems of the Universe. It would give everybody a logical, intelligible and satisfactory way of life for this world and the next. It would be indispensable … for every sensible person. And, last but not least, it would make both my reputation and my fortune.” 149

“I regard the products of my imagination, and particularly of the peculiar form of involuntarily imagination which, as it were, takes charge of my consciousness in abnormal mental states, as no more and no less “real” than, say, the pen I hold in my hand or the desk-chair on which I am sitting. This “equality of reality” is conveyed by the use of the word “actuality” as defined.” 154

“Regarded personally and purposively the Universe behaves in such a way that its action can be represented with successful practical results as that of a personal Being or beings. Regarded impersonally and mechanically, the whole Universe can be represented, also with successful practical results, by mathematical calculations.” 161

“It is, as I have repeatedly emphasized, the essential thesis of this book, which will be developed formally in the next and final chapter, that “spirit” and “flesh”, life and matter are one, and that the keys to the understanding of them are to be found within the psycho-physical systems of living creatures. More particularly, of course, they are to be found within the psycho-physical system of Man, the creature through the instrument of whom Life is struggling towards self-understanding, that is to say towards the understanding of both Life and Matter.” 148

“..the physical world or Universe does not exist in its own right, but only in intimate association with Life or “Spirit”.” 139

“The Theory of Actuality, I have suggested, can appropriately be tested in Mental Hospitals. It can be tested even better, perhaps, in that great lunatic asylum, the modern world.” 173

On Experiencing the Torture of Mental Hospitals:

“…There may therefore be some excuse for the degree of sadistic physical torture – no milder form of words will do – to which I was subjected in the hospital in question. To use the actual words of the attendant referred to by Beers, the nurses used “to punch hell out of me”, and seemed to me to “take delight” in doing it… I would be knocked down; one nurse would hold or sit on my head, another on my feet, while a third jumped up and down on my chest and solar plexus and the last punched me in the lower abdomen or kicked my testicles.” 205

Post-illness Reflections:

“But what is “normal” and what is “abnormal”? “Visions” that I had when “abnormal” seemed to me when I wrote the last chapter on the Theory of Actuality visions of a truth at least as “real” as the fact that I am typing this on a Corona typewriter, and still seem so.” 208 

“I am now out of a Mental Hospital, and officially recognized as compos mentis.” 208

“This really raises the question of whether there is such a thing as insanity at all. According to the Theory of Actuality, there is not. There are varying states of Actuality, or better, perhaps, of “apprehensions of Actuality”. That apprehension of Actuality which is the statistical average over humanity at large, or perhaps only for the particular group, comes to be taken as “normality” or “reality”. Those whose apprehension differs are prophets, or geniuses, or lunatics, or merely cranks, all according to the degree of difference on the one hand, and to their ability to relate their apprehension to that of the average on the other.” 209

“Unfortunately, when i come to read what I have written in cold blood, after the manic excitement has passed, I can barely make head or tail of it and very often its appalling egocentricity nearly makes me sick” 151

“…Of all the predicates, good and bad, that can be legitimately applied to me, “lunatic” is the one I would least like to dispense with. For it is through my “lunacy”, which, though perhaps no longer certifiable, is yet intimately a part of me, that I can alone hope to provide the objective proofs without which the Theory of Actuality cannot possibly establish itself.” 168
“It is, to say the least, a somewhat humorous paradox that I should get a far clearer and more accurate view of world affairs from within the walls of a lunatic asylum than I do elsewhere… in the first place the “actual atmosphere” of a Mental Hospital is probably in closer touch with the Collective Unconscious than that of anywhere else.” 191

The Ultimate End:

“I have not solved the riddle of the Universe – how dull would it be if I had! But I have perhaps shown that there is a wisdom in “madness” which has not yet been fully explored. If I have only done this, my book will not have been written in vain.” 216


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