“If it is true that there exists a realm, in the relations of soul and body, where cause and effect, determinism and expression still intersect in a web so dense that they actually form only one and the same movement which cannot be dissociated except after the fact; if it is true that prior to the violence of the body and the vivacity of the soul, prior to the softening of the fibers and the relaxation of the mind, there are qualitative, as yet unshared kinds of a. Priori which subsequently impose the same values on the organic and on the spiritual, then we see that there can be diseases such as madness which are from the start diseases of the body and of the soul, maladies in which the affection of the brain is of the same quality, of the same origin, of the same nature, finally, as the affection of the soul.
The possibility of madness is therefore implicit in the very phenomenon of passion.”
– Michael Foucault, Madness and Civilisation
As posited by renowned French philosopher Michael Foucault, madness, delirium and passion are all interconnected. The overflow of compelling emotions associated with passion suffices as an instigator for complete disruption of the entire economy of the body. As medieval physiologists observed, the humours or elemental fluids of the body, namely blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile are agitated by these emotions thereby disrupting a person’s mental constitution. We come to the conclusion that indeed, madness is the consequence of intense passion.
Foucault’s view is supported by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s statement,
“There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness.”
Nietzsche confirms that acts of passion and love involve an element of madness, but also that this madness has a reason and justification. The idea of linking madness with reason stems from a critical reading of Shakespeare’s renowned play King Lear (p. 1608) wherein madness is one of the dominant themes associated with the fall of the tragic hero.
Keeping the above ideas in mind, we arrive at a reading of Robert Browning’s poem Porphyria’s Lover (p. 1842) where we see ‘reason in madness’ illustrated. The speaker in the poem, overcome and intoxicated by passion, tries to preserve and immortalise his love for Porphyria. In a moment of impulse, he strangles her with her own hair believing that by killing her, he has managed to make their love eternal since she will not be able to possess another man and will remain his forever. His act clearly demonstrates his sick mental state and perversion of desire. A psychological reading of the poem makes us observe what the influential psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan called “lack”. According to this reading, the speaker stands out as a narcissist whose life is controlled by the fear of becoming insignificant and irrelevant in the eyes of his lover. He is so afraid of loss or “lack” that he kills the woman. This violent reaction is nothing other than his death instinct (Thanatos) overpowering his life instinct (Eros).
The raging storm outside his cottage, the rain and sullen wind which tear down elm tops and vex the lake are all indicative of the speaker’s own turbulent thoughts and feelings. The obsessive control of metre and rhyme (ABABB) within the poem also mirrors the calculated and psychopathic nature of the speaker.
Browning meticulously presents to us throughout the poem, the stages of impulse that the speaker goes through. There is first a ‘repression’ of his desires. Cleary, there is a class difference between him and his lover due to which they can never truly be one. The speaker’s ego represses the disturbing thought of him never being as influential a person and hence prevents his inferiority complex from becoming conscious. Then comes ‘denial’; the lover refuses to believe that Porphyria could actually provide him love forever (while she is alive). He denies this fact because of the class factor which is repressed. He then moves into the stage of ‘projection’ in which he attributes his own unacceptable thoughts and motives to Porphyria. While he strangles her with her tresses, he says, “I am quite sure she felt no pain.” René Descarte’s philosophy of Cogito Ergo Sum is observed here. The speaker’s mind is independent of everything other than his own self-gain and sadistic fantasy so much so that even the pain and affliction of asphyxiation is overlooked. He also projects his twisted desires onto Porphyria when he says, “she guessed not how/ Her darling one wish would be heard.” ‘Displacement’ is seen next when he satisfies his aggression with a substitute object – her long yellow hair which he wounds around her throat to strangle her. This then leads to ‘regression’ – a movement back in psychological time when one is faced with stress. His statement, “her cheek once more/ Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss,” is a reminder of the happy times he spent with her. It helps the speaker mitigate the stress involved in the act of killing. Finally, he arrives at the last stage of ‘sublimation’. Since “God has not said a word,” his act is completely justified. God’s silence at the end of the poem is seen as an approval thereby enforcing the ‘reason in madness’.
In the end therefore, the speaker has risen from his dark, brooding and desolate state and managed to win over his love. There is reason and rationality in his deed according to his own conscience.
Another instance of obsession turned insanity is seen in the movie Perfume – The Story of a Murderer (released 2006), based on the postmodernist novel Das Parfum (p. 1985) by Patrick Suskind.
Set in eighteenth-century Paris, the story follows the life of an orphan, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, who at birth was tossed into a pile of fish guts by his mother who initially believed him to be a still born. After his mother is sent to the gallows for attempting to kill her own child, Grenouille grows up in the filthy streets of Paris. Being himself odourless, Grenouille is blessed with an unusually powerful sense of smell. He is able to differentiate between all the myriad scents surrounding him and is obsessed with the idea of preserving these scents.
Patrick Suskind vividly describes the odours of the city to emphasise the heightened olfactory senses of Grenouille and to highlight how odours have a persuasion power stronger than that of words, emotions, appearances and will.
“The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots. The stench of sulfur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese and sour milk and tumorous disease. The rivers stank, the marketplaces stank, the churches stank, it stank beneath the bridges and in the palaces. The peasant stank as did the priest, the apprentice as did his master’s wife, the whole of the aristocracy stank, even the king himself stank, stank like a rank lion, and the queen like an old goat, summer and winter. For in the eighteenth century there was nothing to hinder bacteria busy at decomposition, and so there was no human activity, either constructive or destructive, no manifestation of germinating or decaying life that was not accompanied by stench.”
The point of climax in the movie is when Grenouille becomes aware of the fact that he lacks a personal odour, signifying the absence of a personal identity. Grenouille’s great hope is to create an ideal perfume that will give him the magical essence of identity. He does so by extracting and blending the corporeal scents of young virginal women he murders. Here, his obsession with preserving something of great value resembles that of the speaker in Porphyria’s Lover. Grenouille is also overcome by an identity crisis, and like Porphyria’s so called lover who tries to preserve her love by killing her, Grenouille attempts to preserve scents of virgins by killing them. ‘Love’ in Porphyria’s Lover and ‘scent’ in Das Parfum can thus be equated. They are the essence of the protagonists, things without which they have no purpose in the world. Grenouille too, like Porphyria’s lover, reaches his point of success. He manages to create a scent so potent and hypnotic that anyone who smells it regresses into a state of transcendental bliss similar to that of the Prelapsarian period which is devoid of suffering.
Grenouille’s search for an identity through scent is reasonable and justified. The means which he employs for acquiring this identity however, is twisted and psychopathic. His story is a perfect example of ‘madness in reason’.
We thus see, from our observations and readings of Browning’s Porphyria’s Lover and Suskind’s Das Parfum, that madness and reason co-exist within the conscience of human beings and cannot be isolated from one another.