Private madness

On Private Madness is a collection of papers by the French psychoanalyst André Green. 1 In his introduction to the book, Green writes:

Freud already knew that the boundaries between neurosis and normality are barely discernable.  Following him, we have learned that many persons who are well adapted to social and external reality harbour what I have termed private madness.  (p. 15)

Although Green was focusing his attention on the so-called ‘borderline personality’, in many ways the term ‘private madness’ could be taken as another way of describing what Freud called the ‘psychopathology of everyday life’.  In other words, those everyday types of actions, thoughts, feelings, ways of relating to others, that betray a certain ‘irrationality’ in our lives.   Or perhaps it might be better to say that these types of actions, thoughts, feelings, etc, betray a different type of rationality; one which is neither socially acceptable nor adaptable to external reality.

One of the problems with the term ‘private madness’ is the implication that adaptation to social and external reality must therefore be ‘normal’ in some way.  In other words, the individual may be going ‘mad’ on the inside but to everyone else he or she can seem perfectly ‘normal’.  And in many ways, of course, this is how most people survive, how most people negotiate life.

For example, I have written elsewhere that a great deal of behaviour which takes place in the City, and indeed in many other corporate environments,  would be regarded on the basis of any psychiatric or clinical psychological criteria as pathological; and yet in this environment it is not only seen as ‘normal’ but positively encouraged, because it makes money for the financial institutions.2 This is not to imply that somehow the individuals concerned are not suffering – on the contrary.  However, it is to remind ourselves that ‘adaptation’ does not (necessarily)  equate with ‘mental health’.

In fact, it seems quite likely that it’s the adaptation itself that could be making people ill; making them ‘suffer on the inside’ so to speak.  This is not always the case, but certainly with many individuals, it’s their attempts to adapt, to be ‘normal’, which is producing their symptoms, their ‘private madness’.  Freud realised very early on in his work that many of his patients’ hysterical and obsessional symptoms were the result of repression; more specifically, the repression of sexual thoughts and memories.  Later on he realised another force was also at work in the unconscious: the death drive, which Lacan was later to reformulate in terms of jouissance.

As Freud wrote in Civilization and its Discontents, in many ways repression, and consequently neurosis, are the price of living in a civilised society.3   Society simply would not be possible if we were all to follow our desires and not worry about how this would impact on other people.  On the other hand, there does often seem to be a terrible psychical price to pay for this.  Furthermore, the thin veneer of civilised behaviour seems often to crack all too easily, as we read, hear and watch in the media every day.

Generally though, and for much of the time, repression seems to function reasonably well.  Does this mean, therefore, that we just have to accept that the price of (relative) civilisation is mental suffering?  In other words, do we just have to  put up with our own ‘private madness’ in order to live and function in society?

Of course, this is what many people do; they suffer in silence, or at least in the privacy of their own home and close relationships.  Many people live for years feeling deeply depressed, anxious, stressed out, miserable, and sometimes quite paranoid and seriously disturbed.  Some may turn to counselling, psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, or some other form of talking treatment, but most do not; or at least appear not to if the mental health statistics are anything to go by.

This seems a shame, because although no talking treatment is going to solve all a person’s problems, it can certainly give them the opportunity to explore the nature of their suffering and to work through how they ended up feeling as they do.  And simply by entering the therapeutic relationship they are no longer having to go mad in silence – and alone.

  1. Green, A. (1997) On Private Madness. London, Karnac Books. []
  2. []
  3. Freud, S. (1905) Civilization and its Discontents. In: J. Strachey ed. The Standard Edition. London, Vintage/The Hogarth Press, pp.59–145. []