Douglas Adams once wrote, “The chances of finding out what’s really going on in the universe are so remote, the only thing to do is hang the sense of it and keep yourself occupied.” While some would call Myers-Briggs psychological typing complete and utter nonsense, I think it is, at the very least, an interesting way to categorize people, regardless if it’s true or right. I am an INTJ: one of the rational types, the mastermind, the one who figures out how everything works and why. The last thing one of us would do is “hang the sense of it,” but it’s a necessary skill for survival, no? Many of the most influential writers to me—Jane Austen, C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, and Emily Brontë, to name a few—are also INTJs, non-sense-hanging lovers of everything rational. But we’ve adapted to survive, we’ve adapted to write. Lewis Carroll took it the farthest, obviously, but there’s an element of the absurd, an embrace of it even, in all their work. Because, let’s face it: people are absurd. There’s no getting around that fact.
One of my favorite novels, Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, addresses this: “It may help to understand human affairs,” they write, “to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people.” The human psyche is a strange animal, one often caged and probably for good reason. The uncaged mind is the brilliant mind, the creative mind, the mind tinted with madness. It is the mind of the writer. It is the mind of the madman.
“‘But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ Alice remarked.
‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat: ‘we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’
‘How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice.
‘You must be,’ said the Cat, ‘or you wouldn’t have come here.’”
It’s a process—this going mad—one often overlooked and undocumented in everyday cases. Occasionally it will happen all at once: “Would it save you a lot of time if I just gave up and went mad now?” one of the characters in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy asks. But mostly it’s a slow process; it’s the compulsive habits developed in spite of peers, the nervous tics resulting from stress, the obsessions with ideas, thoughts, things, people, self.
Short stories seem to address this phenomenon best. George Saunders, Robert Miltner, and Ryan Boudinot all face the descent into everyday madness with as much poise, rationality, and humor as they can muster. I admire them. Addressing the absurd is my immediate aspiration; understanding it is the ultimate goal. But how, Harold Fickett asks, “how, in a world that demands so much, can you find the time and the pluck to address the universe?” To that I give a shrug, a devil-may-care twitch of the shoulders and an irreverent smirk. You do what you gotta do, I respond, and I quote Lewis Carroll at him: “[You] begin at the beginning […] and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” If you have enough to say, I’ve found, pluck seems to find you.
It’s a feeling, first. “I cannot express it; but surely you and everybody have a notion that there is or should be an existence of yours beyond you. What were the use of my creation, if I were entirely contained here?” asks Catherine Earnshaw. We write to alleviate this feeling, we write to explore it. We write because we’re narcissists who hope that something of ours will live on after us. So then we train ourselves to see. We people watch and notice the quirks and habits and imagine what they could be given the full range of the human psyche. “Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art,” Oscar Wilde says. “Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art.” We write about the people we see—harmless observations. At first.
Next comes the writer’s descent into madness. He’s watched the everyday descent; he’s written the deep and meaningful descent. Now it’s his turn and he finds himself quite at a loss as to what to do with this odd sensation. So he turns to the writers he found comfort in initially and judges how they handled it—some with grace and class, others not so much. He emulates what he can and leaves the rest of it up to the fickle winds of fate. And he continues to write about it, his writing getting better and better and better. “There is no story that is not true,” says Chinua Achebe, and the writer comes to realize this, reveling in the truth of fiction, in the lies that tell the truth.
But he loves all of it nonetheless. He revels in his madness and the slow-burning madness of those around him and he smiles at everyone he passes because he is, somewhere deep down, truly happy with what he is and what he does. The smile is a little off kilter and is anything but comforting, but the effort is appreciated. Each person he passes on the street knows that somewhere inside he himself is slightly off kilter and so he excuses the crazy eyes and the manic smile and hopes that his own crazy is tightly clamped down somewhere out of sight.
I don’t know exactly where I fit into the grand scheme of things, where I sit on the scale of madness, both writerly and not. I don’t know if I’ll ever know, and I think I’m okay with that. I will most likely never understand life, the universe, and everything, so I will, as Douglas Adams suggests, hang sense and occupy myself. I’ll keep myself busy; I’ll keep myself happy. “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery,” Jane Austen says. “I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can.” There are enough writers out there who delve into misery, but the canon of the absurd is appallingly lacking. I’d like to contribute to this canon, if I can, delving instead into the absurdity of the human character and documenting this slow, humorous descent of the everyday man and woman into madness.
It’s daunting, to be sure, for to write about absurdity and madness is to write about humanity. But it’s a task worthy of undertaking for the rest of my life. “Let us think the unthinkable,” Douglas Adams says, “let us do the undoable, let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.” Because that’s all one can do in life, really: see if we may not eff it after all. Because who am I to address the universe? I am a slightly mad writer with a love of all things quirky. I am a nobody who writes things to become a somebody. “The only excuse for making a useless thing,” Oscar Wilde writes, “is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.” So here’s to intense admiration, deep exploration, necessary adaptation, and madness. Cheers.