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On Paul Lodge, on the Manic

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 06/02/2020 - 5:16am in

Sass and Pienkos seem to be confusing what it is like to think manically with something very different, namely, what it is like to perceive what one takes to be expressions of the thought processes of manic subjects. Testimony of others, as well as evidence from my own writing on occasions when I was manic or hypomanic, suggest that the factors that Shenton and Solovay identified were present during these episodes. However, my recollections are not of states of mind in which it seemed to me that my thoughts were disordered. To the extent that there was an experience of myself thinking, my thinking felt more appropriate and adequate to its task than normal. The identified factors did not seem problematic; in fact, quite the contrary.

Sass and Pienkos also observe that it is useful to think of manic thought in terms of “mattering … or rather of how things matter”. They suggest this partly involves “a form of distraction—an inability to ignore environmental stimuli that are capable of arousing lively but ephemeral interest in the patient, but that, in a normal individual, would remain on the margin of awareness, outside the focus of attention”; or, more prosaically, “there being too many things that matter, and that come to matter too quickly and fleetingly, for the individual”. Here Sass and Pienkos point to another phenomenon that is criterial in DSM-V (“distractibility”). And while they again seem to switch between attempting to describe what it is like for the subject and attempting to describe what the subject is doing (i.e., thinking in a distracted way), Sass and Pienkos do make an observation that I believe is crucial: namely, that mania involves a sense of there being many more things that demand attention than usual.

My own experience concurs with the main features of Sass and Pienkos’ account. But their suggestion that this is all somehow too much for the subject needs qualification. For a proper understanding of these phenomena, it is important to recognize that during at least some manic and hypomanic episodes, there is a sense of an exponential increase in objects of attention. And this brings with it an exhilarating sense of being exposed to an unlimited number of objects and their interconnections all at once, and a sense that one is being offered a window into the true nature of reality. This is not to say that there is never a feeling that this is all too much. Indeed, this feeling is usually a component of the way in which mania and hypomania come to an end, if allowed to run their course without external intervention. And a sense of being overwhelmed may also arise if one feels unable to communicate what one is experiencing to those around one. But for the manic subject, at the heart of the experience is the feeling of successful insight.--Paul Lodge "What Is It Like to Be Manic? " @The Oxonian Review

I have known Paul since his participation in the early modern seminar of April, 2001, that is, nearly my whole academic career. The North American circle of early modern scholars is fairly small, and my supervisor was at the center of much of the intellectual traffic among them in those days. Because we both had a rare scholarly interest in De Volder -- Paul because of De Volder's correspondence with Leibniz; I because he corresponded with Huygens --, we even exchanged some emails. But we did not become friends at first because I found him dour and aloof, which in my insecure moments (which were plenty) I interpreted as arrogance.

Years went by with minor mutual acknowledgment. That changed one morning. I was attending my supervisor's fest at Princeton (september 2014). I was very jet-lagged and trying to find espresso in Princeton early in the morning. And while I was already a coffee-snob, I ended up in the Starbucks on Nassau street which mercifully opens before dawn. (I remember the street name for obvious reasons.) There I found Paul comfortably seated. I joined him. For the next three to four hours we talked; or, I should say, he talked and I listened under the sway of his unexpected charisma and fascinated by the energy of his enthusiasm. I don't think I reveal any improper intimacy, if I say (recall this post) that most of what Paul talked about was his interest in the kind of Christianity exhibited by the great social liberal T.H. Green (see also this post).  

Since my college days I have known that I am fascinated -- with a mixture of intense attraction and repulsion -- by intellectuals who lecture with enthusiastic conviction. I'd like to think this is due to the fact that I find my own thought too conflicted and uncertain, and so I am constantly surprised by what seems to be an entirely different form of consciousness. Despite my mental protests, such enthusiasts have focused my attention, even shaped my interest into Newton, Milton, metaphysics, philosophy of biology amongst other topics. 

Reading Paul's essay in the Oxonian Review brought back the visceral intensity of our two mornings in Princeton. He was not manic, but the heightened awareness of the possible fragility of one's (ahh) orientation toward experience infused his warmth. At the time, I commented on the fact that he seemed a changed person, something he acknowledged. Meeting him almost certainly inspired me to write on my own struggle with depression (recall here).

While I am pretty sure the tendency toward both manic and depressive episodes runs in my own family, the one instance of mania of my own I vividly recall was produced as a side-effect of a heavy prednisone treatment prescribed to me to give me a kind of re-set to reverse the effect of skin allergies. (It worked, although I experienced irritable skin and psyche for another seven years or so.) For about a week, I wasn't just insomniac, but the words streamed out of me often by way of lengthy and spontaneous emails to anybody that crossed my mind. 

I have not had the nerve to reread those letters. In part because I am mortified by what I'll find I thought worth confiding to at 2am to my Dean, my ex-lovers, my accountant, and quite a few professional (ahh) elders, etc. What I do recognize now is the incredible tact of most people. 

But I recognize Paul's claim that in a manic period there being many things that demand attention at once, and that one seems capable, even skilled, at giving them such attention at once. I would describe this as a kind of immersion in the vivid connectedness of things. In these digressions I try to capture this imperfectly with my habit of cross-connections. This involves, as Paul notes, a sense of having been offered a "glimpse into a more truthful relationship to existence." My only quibble is the word 'truthful.' For me, it would be more apt to say, a "glimpse into a more intimate relationship to existence." 

Because of my aversion to the cult of genius, I am often wary of bringing philosophy and mania into association with each other (if only not to encourage the young into experimenting with mind altering drugs); but see this video. And from the perspective of the professional philosopher, there is little reason to do so. Often our ways of analysis encourage (ahh) us to see the disconnectedness of things. We pretend not to notice, perhaps become incapable of noticing, the lateral connections that make any conceptual clarification possible. While I am a critic of the excesses and side-effects* this relentless focus on a clearly defined puzzles produces, at bottom it appeals to my aesthetic sense. 

The aesthetic is not nothing, perhaps it's fundamental.

But sometimes we can experience philosophy as an immersion, an intimate immersion, in which the connectedness-of-the-infinite-cosmos calls out to us. And I can, thus, attest that even a very partial intellectual love of god generates a joy, heightened by the gratitude one is still around to experience it.


*One of  the most damaging side-effects is that one can philosophize numbly without feeling. Of course, at the worst of times such escapism may (recall) also be a life-line.