After Word

Julie A. Carlson (University of California Santa Barbara)

This triad of essays invites us to think again about Romantic psychosis. What’s to think? There’s a well-established tradition of linking genius to madness and Romantic poetic genius to psychopathology. The linkage propels revolutionary thought in the Romantic era bent on destroying established habits of mind and their solidification into societal institutions and cognitive mechanisms. It prizes the perception of before-unapprehended connections between persons and things, and it honors the vitally metaphorical vocabulary of poets for exercising the capacity in less visionary persons. It wants to blow things up, de-link, vacate. This desire endangers the mind-brain-bodies that it inhabits. Neuropsychological studies of extraordinary creativity emphasize the salience of affective disorders, especially bipolar disorder, in creative writers, a connection that Kay Redfield Jamison amplifies in her analysis of Lord Byron where she lists some 14 British Romantic-era writers with “probable cyclothymia, major depression, or manic-depressive illness” (267). Subsequent studies such as those by Doina Cosman and Daniel Nettle foreground schizotypic traits. Some scholars characterize the distinction in literary-historical terms, with Romantic poetics aligned with affective disorders and Modernism with psychosis, as does Louis Sass.

The “creative personality” is not the focus or concern of these reflections on psychotic manifestations in Mary Wollstonecraft, Beau Brummell and the Prince Regent, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning nor is individual psychopathology, even if the personages on which they focus are often considered deranged by words and poetic wording. Each essayist leaves that domain to clinical experts and instead treats psychosis as a cultural-political diagnostic whose registering symptoms are linguistic and occasionally poetic. Moreover, their joint expertise in Lacanian psychoanalysis results in shared understandings and estimations of the cultural “benefits” of psychotic approaches to reality: apprehending the phallus as fictional, the unconscious as structured like a language, the Symbolic as vitally nonsensical, jouissance as the domain of the feminine. These impulses guide what the psychotic manifestations in their chosen texts are said to portend: ontological collapse of the subject (Singer-Wollstonecraft); pissing on walls as the jouissance of political writing (Fay-Brummell); women writers as keeping asynchronous time (Sigler-Barrett Browning). In this regard, the essays are “properly” schizoanalytic in Deleuze and Guattari’s sense. Their featured breakthroughs break through various Oedipal and capitalist strictures, unleashing particulates of the Real in subjects en route to becoming other.

Fay’s essay is the most direct in suggesting why we are being asked to think again about Romantic psychosis now. All signs indicate that our recent male leaders are psycho and that U.S. women in power are still being screwed. Fay argues that analyzing the breakdown in the friendship between Beau Brummell and the Prince Regent in 1811 illuminates one of the “zanier” episodes of Regency leadership culture and its exposure of lack in the lack thereof. But that situation, she suggests, is nothing compared to the “nearly incomprehensible psychotic” aspects of today’s bully pulpiteers and the fates of their closest associates, cut down and cut off at the first hint of betrayal. To the near-proverbial assertion on the Left that Trump is psycho, Fay adds a mind-blowing twist.


See Dean A. Haycock's Tyrannical Minds for more along this line.

Trump is a dandy. At the least, he sports the dandy’s constitutive split- “both phallic power and its empty shell, both manliness and its emasculated formality”—and shameless delight in “pissing on the world.” Fay’s Regency dandies, whose extravagant performativity and bankrupting extravagance forge the tight connection between Brummel and the Prince, are further useful in unmasking their own fictionality. The feigned equality among bro-players is always at risk of erosion when one player’s enjoyment is sovereign. Put a different way, even as “the trump card in the social register,” the dandy at his height takes countering culture only so far—that is, back to oedipalized routings. Brummel, through outlays and witticisms, “dewigs the signifier rather than unseats it,” reestablishing the order that such flows claim to flout. True dethroning comes from elsewhere. According to Fay, the schizoanalytic component of this breakup between dandified friends is expressed by the body of this pairing’s third party, the Regent’s legal wife and future queen, Caroline. Her significance as “fake” and “mythic” is right on the surface, a bodily surface that in its outflows—refusal of confinement and indifference to the gaze—“evinces a jouissance of her own.” Registering in the flesh the “ravages of the Regency’s play with Oedipal myths,” Caroline expresses a “clear rebuke to the status of the impossible woman under Regency psychosis.”

Fay leaves hanging, where her analysis takes us, a patently dewigged Trump: “If there are no lessons here for us to learn, there are at least warning signs we might do well to register.” Singer’s opening sentence registers the specter in characterizing The Vindication of the Rights of Woman as one of Wollstonecraft’s “most energetic rebukes” to “her own Trumpish king” but then moves on by moving back in time. What both Singer’s and Sigler’s essays share with Fay’s assessment is a “clear rebuke” to those who render the “impossibility” signified by Lacan’s “W/oman” into social policy by deriding women’s perspectives as lacking, demented, paranoid, insane. Thus, they concentrate on feminist textual poetics that they read as mobilizing this or that vector of nonphallic jouissance. For Singer, who reads The Wrongs of Woman; or Maria in the meandering, self-disseminating context of Letters Written during a Short Residence in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, nonphallic jouissance is envisaged as ecstatic “smorging” between a female narrator and her environs. If the initial setting of Maria in an asylum literalizes patriarchy’s license to categorize her delusional and intertextual desires as psychotic, the I of Letters Written pens an explosive missive: “a love letter to a jouissance freed from” a “human object, the symbolic law of (Fanny’s) father, any single object, and the notion of a discrete, self-enclosed object that would try but fail to substitute for the lack at the heart of the phallus.” Developed scenes of “intense mutual masturbation” of a periodically gushing I in a sinuous, vaporous landscape reveal Wollstonecraft “at her most psychotic” and psychosis as harbinger of an ontologically-different subject—at once human and nonhuman because so fully entangled with her environs or “something other than human altogether.” By contrast, Maria’s means of liberation take up the nonsymbolic but writerly dimensions of jouissance. Desirous exchanges between Maria and Darnford in the asylum, conveyed via marginal comments circulated in and through Rousseau’s Nouvelle Heloise, materialize an erotics of paratextuality that exceeds heteronormative paradigms and protocols: “Such paratext is not a supplement to the proper symbolic but rather an instance of Real materiality of affect that alters the text and its symbolic function.” The cut-off-ness by death of Wrongs of Woman renders inconclusive how other Maria becomes through this instance of paratextual-sexuality (it hardly penetrates Darnford). But it places books into the natural environment so salient in shaping the self as a human-nonhuman amalgam, especially for an “être écrivain.”

Sigler’s reading of Book One of Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh extends Singer’s tribute to Wollstonecraft’s “power of positive, delusional thinking” to a set of Romantic-era women writers who inform the nature and temporality depicted in this novel in verse. Barrett Browning’s repurposing of Coleridge’s lime tree from “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” reveals a “psychotic poetics” that builds on a “tradition of counter-temporal women’s writing inherited from Catherine Macaulay, Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Smith, and Mary Shelley” in order to counter the phallus-pleasuring (aka compensatory) gains of male romantic figural transport. In contrast to Coleridge’s lime tree bower that reminds a conversant male I of the hierarchical functioning and supremacy of consciousness, Barrett Browning’s isolated lime tree provokes major anxiety in the female protagonist. Perceived by Aurora through a window from within Leigh Hall, this tree “seemed to have come on purpose from the woods / To bring the house a message” (bk. 1, lines 484–85)—not simply that domesticity is imprisoning but, in Sigler’s estimation, that “the lime tree, and perhaps the English poetic tradition, may want something from her” beyond silence, subordination, or the promise of futurity via reproduction and procreation. In a word, it brings, by manifesting, foreclosure. The arrival of this message is “menacing” because it uproots the grounds of Aurora’s sanity and feminism: her conviction that the “life, thrust on me,” can be kept “on the outside / Of the inner life” (1.477–78). At the same time, it flattens her sense of perspective—whether she is looking at the tree or it is beholding her. Sigler reads this collapsed exchange as indicating “two asynchronous temporalities” within the poem: Aurora’s, whose present time is the aspirational future envisioned by the speaker and author of “This Lime-Tree Bower,” and the tree’s, whose arrival “on purpose” and past-perfectly tensed (“seemed to have come”) is, according to Sigler, the “externalized embodiment of the father’s signifier,” here a “love” permanently in absentia. This split time supported by the poem’s leveling of subject-object hierarchies, in turn, highlights what distinguishes Barrett Browning’s psychotic poetics from those of her female forebears. The material workings of their signifiers expose gaps in temporality but generally without employing psychotic content. Also, through Aurora’s collapse of the “I” into the category “woman,” she is “becoming-woman in Schreber’s sense and finding new arrangements for enjoyment that do not depend upon the cut of castration.”

Read as a unit, then, these accounts of Romantic psychosis, in the linkages they forge between Lacanian/post-Lacanian theory and Romantic women writers and queens, continue unmasking the fiction that dicks are mandated to reign or that those ruling us now ever try to rein themselves in. The essays clearly also want more than impasse for those assigned to the feminine. What more they seek and where it is heading is suggested by tracking verbal echoes among them. A “thing beyond” that is “coming” in “the air” or seeming “to come from” message-bearing trees, or from piss defacing not just walls but their ongoing erection, signals a more fluid realm of cogito-secretions. This emergence is accentuated in Singer’s exploration of vaporous pleasure undeferred but also prophetic. Prophecy cum jouissance, this spells the end to humankind as humans thus far have known it. Barrett Browning’s uptake and slap down of masculinist Romantic poetry “leaves Romanticism vulnerable to its future, which here never stops being written,” and is itself a harbinger of the “ontological change” that Queen Caroline embodies and Wollstonecraft envisions as “a matter of time.”

Landing us in a landscape of vibrant materialities and ontic-becomings is in some senses a logical outcome of using Romantic texts to think about psychosis. By linking the fields of literary-cultural studies and mind studies, Romantic psychosis highlights not only their convergence in poetics but also their joint program of rethinking thought as the way to a nonphallic or other-becoming futurity. From within the field, those like Kate Rigsby now read Romantic nature poems as exemplifying embodied and extended cognition. Psychosis shares with transcorporeal, biosemiotic, and neurodiverse forms of processing an emphasis on unconscious, nonconscious, thingified, and nonanthropocentric qualities of mentation. To an extent, it shares their ethos—that there are many ways to be a mind and such diversity does, and should, supersede enlightened, and exceptionalist, conceptions of reason. This is the apparent logic behind Sigler’s claim that “ordinary psychosis,” as theorized by Lacanian Jacques-Alain Miller, is particularly germane to “this historical moment of ours” because it posits a “fundamental kinship” between the “purportedly normal subject and the psychotic.” A subject’s status before the onset of a triggered psychosis, ordinary psychosis evinces “disturbance in the way you feel the surrounding world, in the way you feel your own body, and in the way you relate to your own ideas”; that is, disturbances at the “inmost juncture of a subject’s sense of life” (Miller 41).

A similar logic of nonconsciousness underlies the linkage between psychosis and poetics. De-emphasis on cognitive sense as what poetry is making, even as poems envelop listeners in the sensuous qualities of sound, is why poetry both appeals and is seen as speaking to the most nonlinear and nonconformist of minds. This argument is exemplified in Ralph Savarese’s concept of “neurocosmopolitanism,” whereby the aspiration it signifies, of moving beyond mere tolerance of neurodiversity toward an actual dethroning of neurotypicality, is best effected through poetry, the “linguistic meeting ground” between autists and neurotypicals (400). Because autists are primarily “sensing” creatures and neurotypicals are “interpretive” creatures, autists are less apt to filter out input from the environment in contrast to neurotypicals who quickly learn to attend to what is “self-significant.” Nor do autists privilege “human speech over all other sounds in the environment” but instead concentrate on patterning, rhythms, sounds, in other words, on paralinguistic and “precategorical auditory information” (397).

Without intending to conflate autism with psychosis, Savarese’s argument is useful for highlighting how recent discourses on schizophrenia converge with and diverge from a neurocosmopolitan ethos. Jonathan Metzl’s The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease is one of many sobering illustrations of how psychological diagnoses can become discriminatory acts of racial profiling. Reviewing clinical records in the United States from the 1960s to the 1990s, Metzl found that African-American men were diagnosed as having the paranoid subtype of schizophrenia five to seven times more often than white men (and more frequently than other ethnic minority groups). Not coincidentally, this “finding” only began to emerge at the start of the Civil Rights era in the United States. Up until then, schizophrenia primarily was associated with nonviolent, white, petty criminals, a considerable proportion being women. As relates to poetics, autobiographical as well as clinical accounts of schizophrenia have long highlighted resonances. Sometimes called “word salad,” psychotic speech can be radically agentive (speaking that occurs without the felt experience of an I as speaker) and thingified (words perceived as objects, as things in themselves) (Saks 124). Marguerite Sechehaye’s Autobiography of a Schizophrenic Girl describes how the “recurring syllables, ‘icthiou, gao, itivare’” and their like, “came of themselves and by themselves meant nothing. Only the sound, the rhythm of the pronunciation had sense” (120–21). Word-as-thing relates to the con/fusion between internal and external worlds so characteristic of schizophrenia. “Renee” experiences “the wind as bearing a message for me to divine” (32). “Denis” describes “his semen self” communing with “mountains, streams, or the wind” and “possessed of an intelligence that could inseminate relations with others” (Bollas, When the Sun Bursts 87). Schreber is inseminated by God’s rays—an experience, as Sigler notes, remarkably anticipated in Aurora Leigh when the sun comes into Aurora’s chamber “saying, ‘Shall I lift this light / Against the lime-tree, and you will not look?’”

These con/fusions of inner and outer—evident in phenomenological accounts of schizophrenia, poetics, and new materialism—are now being registered in neurobiological studies of first-episode schizophrenic patients. One could say that Vittorio Gallese’s team of researchers at the University of Parma are acquiring material evidence for why the life “thrust on me” is impossible to keep “on the outside / of the inner life” as a general condition of subjectivity but with a particular bearing on schizophrenic persons. Their work draws on neuropsychological and neuroimaging studies that have identified “candidate brain regions” responsible for self-experience and self-regulating processes in healthy subjects. Self-experience refers to regions responsible for the emergence of a minimal notion of the bodily or “core” self that establishes the “mineness” of the phenomenal field, embodiment of point of view, and issues of agency and bodily ownership. The basic finding is that the motor system plays a crucial role in how persons distinguish themselves, as bodily selves, from other human bodies and that self-related stimuli are processed faster and more accurately compared to other-related body stimuli. Evidence suggests “a tight relationship” between the “bodily self-related multimodal integration” carried out by the cortical motor areas (especially the ventral premotor cortex or vPMC) that guide one’s motor behavior and the “implicit awareness one entertains of one’s body as one’s own body and of one’s behavior as one’s own behavior” (especially in the posterior insular cortex or pIC) (Gallese and Ferri 1–2).

This interconnection is shown to be variously disturbed in their several studies comparing first-episode schizophrenics (FES) to healthy controls. One study assessing implicit and explicit knowledge about the bodily self in the two groups showed that FES patients did not display the self-advantage effect in the implicit task and also tended to misattribute other people’s body parts to themselves (Ferri et al., “Bodily Self and Schizophrenia” 1370). Another, focusing on the social perception of touch, showed that activation patterns in the posterior insular cortex, a central node in the neural representation of “the material me,” did not differ for FES patients when they experienced being touched themselves versus when they observed someone else being touched. At the same time, it found significant differences in the left hemisphere pIC, as compared to healthy controls, in their processing of observed touch with a positive valence (caress) versus a negative valence (hit) (Ebisch et al., “Out of Touch with Reality?” 295). A third study, exploring the interoceptive accuracy of schizophrenic patients by administering a heartbeat perception task, indicated marked reduction in their ability to perceive physiological stimuli originating inside the body and thus to discern a “self” to which inner sensations could be attributed. A fourth posits an interrelation between two different perspectives on self-disturbance in FES, those relating them to “dysfunction of brain lateral cortices” (i.e., vPMC and pIC) and those to “alterations of midline brain structures” (i.e., the posterior cingulate cortex or PCC) (Ebisch et al., “Altered Brain Long-Range Functional Interactions” 1075).

These studies, in other words, represent preliminary evidence of the neural mechanisms underpinning the “impossibility” for schizophrenic patients to ground the “enigmatic nature of the world, particularly of the world of others,” into their “defective” bodily presence (Gallese and Ferri 6). In so doing, they pinpoint a major limit to the desirability of the ontological plasticity currently theorized as vibrant materialism—what Aurora Leigh calls its “menacing” nature. The import of Gallese et al.’s findings is not only that the “extremely flexible sense of body ownership” as well as the alternately heightened and flattened sense of agency characteristic of schizophrenia has a neurobiological dimension, comprehension of which could benefit clinical treatment (2). (They mention grandiosity but other positive symptoms relate to defective forms of bodily presence [5-7]). The findings also attribute a neural level to the already several levels (psychic, affective, cognitive) on which persons experiencing a psychotic break are rendered defenseless. The nonrhetorical aspect of my opening “what’s to think?” in rethinking Romantic psychosis is that psychosis exposes the full terror of thought without a discernible thinker, a “self-experience” characterizable as the state in which a “no-thing thinks” (Bollas, When the Sun Bursts 143). From an immediately postbreak perspective, any attempt to examine the inner world is to “invite the catastrophe of the arrival of thoughts,” the only “protective measure” against which is further self-mechanization or “dehumanization,” since the “self cannot be damaged if it is not there to begin with” (Bollas 172, 93). Who would have thought that the outer world, in its otherness, separateness, and objecthood, would provide more options for avoiding or lessening danger than the human psyche in a delusional and/or paranoid state? Having an “out there,” however porously in place, offers at least the possibility of walking away from enemy forces seeking or seeming to destroy or to close one in. New biologists specify both porosity and the existence of a “sac” as necessary if not sufficient to life.

I do not mean to exaggerate the isolation that psychotics experience or deny altogether its “romantic,” pantheistic features. Schizophrenics are capable of extended periods of lucidity, just as “purportedly normal persons” have processing mechanisms similar to those that characterize “ordinary psychosis.” Still, the world as the language horizon of the psychotic is radically private, even if some basic qualities of delusional states can be identified and are shared. Of the many accounts written by schizophrenics, Bollas writes, “no two are even remotely alike” (When the Sun Bursts 123). What interests me is how the privacy of psychotic signifiers affects the neurocosmopolitan efficacy that Savarese grants to poetry. As relates to this version of neurodiversity, poetry is at once the closest simulation of psychotic speech and the least accurate representation or exemplification of a psychotic speech horizon. As simulator, we might identify as “candidate [poetic] regions” pronoun shifters, lack of any obvious subject or object, and use of direct quotation within a poem. Sechehaye discusses how addressing “Renee” in the third person aided the restoration of communication by acknowledging “Renee’s” self-conception as a “personage” more than a person (147; also 52–53). Bollas describes poetry’s efficacy, and its distinctiveness from prose, as its ability to be “composed without any obvious subject or object; indeed, it can be free of pronouns altogether” (When the Sun Bursts 119). Use of direct quotation within a poem is arguably the closest of these simulations because it stages the from-elsewhere-ness of speech. Such marked passages (“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”) disturb the conscious and unconscious flow of any poem by inquiring after their sources. Who is speaking? From where do these words come? What are they to me? What do they want, assume, or require from me? They thus parallel the estrangement from language and from the “I” that organizes the mental representations of speech often experienced by psychotics. The difference, of course, is that these staged disturbances are enfolded within an entity that otherwise presumes and embodies the opposite: poetic flow in its most multilayered, allusive, and transmodal dimensions; expressivity as outreach. Neither the messages nor affects evoked in poems fully settle the questions that these simulated disturbances raise about the sources and boundaries of existence. But neither do they abandon individuals to this arrest. By contrast, dialogic exchange for psychotics is severely impeded by the sense of enclosure that ensues from their lacking a basic sense of self.

Perceiving poetry as the medium closest to psychotic speech but also farthest from its constricted horizons clarifies the ethos of its neurodiversity. Poetic modes of breaking through, however unanticipated and incomprehensible, are outward-reaching and, as such, desirous of contact, of making sense. Their alterity appeals to otherness; it is part of art’s avant garde aesthetic politics as well as literature’s more debatable evocation of empathy. Capacity, yes; history, no. Whether, or how, perceiving poetry in this light helps to address our recent onto-political situation is less clear, especially given the extremity of the vacuum at the top. Certainly, it identifies refusal to communicate as the essence of Trumpian speech. We also could construe his psychotic behavior as not only enacting the Lacanian Father-of-Enjoyment but also underscoring the relevance of distinguishing him from the Father-of-the-Law. The former is psychoticizing because he uses everyone purely as objects for his own enjoyment, whereas the latter, by enacting acceptance of limitation, owns up to mortality, creaturely vulnerability, and necessity of aid—a model that all developing subjects, including citizen-subjects, sorely need.

Still, I need guidance on where Romantic psychosis takes us now that we recognize it as anticipating schizoanalysis, ordinary psychosis, and vibrant materiality. What is becoming in these borderless states, and what will become through them? Two somewhat dispiriting thoughts occur in this context. One is that, as a group, psychoanalysts currently know differently what they and “romanticists” have long known about artists and their troubling of mind. Socially conscious psychoanalysts—itself a neologism though hardly a new attribute—are increasingly choosing to practice group therapy as a method more suited to the porosity between inner and outer, self and community, psyche and culture, individual and group trauma (Nitsun 3). Likewise, approaches to phobia have widened to better handle group-targeting phobias (i.e., Islamophobia, xenophobia, homophobia). Interpretation of dreams, once deemed the royal road to the unconscious, now circuits through a social dreaming matrix, a process involving a group of participants who share dreams and associations thereto on the theory that the dreams shared “reflect a collective cultural product, a social unconscious comprised of dissociated social, political, and cultural experience,” often bespeaking collective trauma or group-isolating realities (Bermudez and Kramer). Drawing on but also departing from Wilfred Bion’s largely negative assessment of the group as repressive and destructive, Tavistock practitioners orchestrate the therapeutic group so that it enacts a democratic body that better befits living together. Whatever any member of the group says, no matter how aggressive or offensive, is acknowledged by every member as in some way representative of all members, thereby annulling the recourse to scapegoating or demonizing (Bollas, Meaning and Melancholia 82–88). Further, Morris Nitsun conceptualizes the “anti-group” in order to work with the destructive processes that threaten the functioning of the group so as to evoke and evolve creative responses. Akin to D. W. Winnicott’s “creative destruction,” Nitsun’s “anti-group” works to link the aggression within the group and toward the group-as-object to its creative roots and potential transformation. His aspiration is to bring group analysis “closer to the political sphere” by defusing the “psychology of scarcity” at the root of personal and cultural disintegration, placing greater emphasis on differentiation and otherness in relationships between people (16, 269, 276).

These encouraging developments in boundary-reconceptualization are dispiriting, however, in bringing to consciousness the largely unacknowledged phobia suffusing the contemporary scene: psychophobia, what Bollas describes as “hatred of looking into the mind for fear of what we shall find” (Meaning and Melancholia xiii). Shared by psychotics but hardly exclusive to them, this phobia is terrifying because treatment thereof is foreclosed by the problem and the problem is so widespread. Put another way, the psychotic’s “hatred of looking into the mind” is “excusable” on several scores: neural wirings, maternal deficiencies, a hole—not simply a lack—in the symbolic order; in short, never having had a remotely secure base from which to look out upon or into anything. Current psychophobic rulers and followers have fewer excuses. Plus, psychotics often seek help and, contrary to classical distinctions, prove capable of analysis and symbolization. This distinction helps to recharacterize the kinship between psychoanalysts and artists as residing in a nonpsychophobic alliance with psychotics. They too confront the deepest darkness of the mind/brain as terrifyingly electrifying and vice versa, the better to spark creativity. In this respect, they render and bring into the public what Freud glimpsed in the delusions of psychotics, fledgling attempts to mend a collapsed world as well as ego. These essays share that glimpse and its validity.

Works Cited

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Bollas, Christopher. Meaning and Melancholia: Life in the Age of Bewilderment. Routledge, 2018.
———. When the Sun Bursts: The Enigma of Schizophrenia. Yale UP, 2015.
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1. See Dean A. Haycock's Tyrannical Minds for more along this line. [back]

After Word © 2024 by Julie Carlson, Elizabeth Fay, and Romantic Circles is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0