Following on from the post Writers: Beware the Lure of Search Engines, in which getting a feel for the uniqueness and originality of one’s writing is discussed, I am now partially obsessed with self-certifying my work to see if it is original or not. And that is due to my experience with one phrase in particular.
To my eternal misery a friend recently discovered that a “famous” phrase of mine appears on some chap’s poetry website, verbatim. The phrase came to me almost 25 years ago, before I took up serious writing and during a period in my life when I questioned my sanity. It occurred to me, all those years ago, that the only thing that actually assured me that I was not insane was the fact that I was questioning whether or not I was. Thus it was that I understood a fundamental truth, that “only the sane question their sanity”.
I had stumbled upon this gem not as a writer but as person in desperate need of assurance, rather like Descartes, who wanted to find out whether he existed or not. Only unlike Descartes, no one knows about my immortal phrase, and what is more, some blasted poet – a poet! – has nicked it.
But I am willing to accept that he thought of it independently, as I cannot recall ever writing it anywhere except in my notes, and those I have not placed on the internet at any time. And who knows, perhaps he even thought of it before I did 25 years ago, and only now got round to publishing it on the web. But that is uncertain, and I do feel rather like Newton must have felt – if my megalomaniac spree might be allowed to continue a little – who, in 1666, had already invented the calculus before Leibnitz independantly did the same, yet it was Leibniz who got the credit first when he made his work known in 1677. Only then did Newton kick up a fuss and claim priority, and he did so on the basis of having thought of it first.
Newton had worked on the calculus during 1665 – 1666 and revealed and shared his work on the invention with those in his close community of colleagues at Cambridge, but had not gone widly public at the time. Leibniz then independently invented the calculus during 1673-76, but did not publish until 1684, some 9 years after his invention. It was this gap between making his work widely known through correspondence and letters in 1677 and actually publishing in 1684 that weakened Leibniz’s case. As S. Subramanya Sastry says in a paper on the infamous controversy, “Today, we consider the criterion of printed publication to confer on the author credit for the published work. However, in the 17th century, correspondence and even disclosure in front of reliable witnesses of private manuscripts or instruments had considerable weight; the work need not necessarily have been published”.
Newton had already shown his work to a closed community in 1665-1666 and eventually, because of the shear volume of surviving notes left by Newton, it has now been well establshed that Newton did indeed have priority of being first. Nonetheless, as Sastry rightly points out, this does not in any way diminish the genius with which Leibniz arrived at his own invention of the calculus.
In my case of the phrase “only the sane question their sanity” I can produce two witnesses that can testify to my priority in the matter. My good friend, Scotsman and fellow writer James Wilkinson, who actually heard me utter the phrase in around 1990 (by then no longer in dispair I am happy to report); and his father, with whom he discussed it one Christmas. Both agreed that it was a fabulous phrase and would make a worthy immortal quote to be remembered by. But they did in fact better it, as in improve its emotional force, by suggesting that it be “Shakespeare-ised” or put into a more “Congreve-esk” form to make it more memorable. Thus, instead of “only the sane question their sanity” we now have “only the sane their sanity doubt”. I have no objection, as that does not change the underlying concept, for which I alone feel I can lay claim, and it does make it more memorable.
Now that we have opened up a different can of worms, that of sanity, it’s probably a good idea to in fact ask what does the phrase tell you? Basically it says that anyone who does not doubt their sanity can be considered insane, for how do you satisfy yourself that you are indeed authentically sane if you do not question it? Does not one wish to be reliably sane? Very well, then prove it, by examining whether you in fact are. The phrase or the concept that it expresses is in fact scientific, because only those things which undergo a process of query and testing can be considered authentic and reliable.
But, you may be asking, that’s all well and good, but what are the criteria for sanity through which you can question and examine it?
That appears to present a whole new problem, for which the fields of psychology and psychiatry do not appear to have diffinitive answers. But it does seem inutuitive that one of the criteria for sanity is that you in fact doubt it. And indeed, just as doubting one’s existence (apparently) shows that one indeed exists, then perhaps the only criteria for sanity is that you show that you question it.
Not so fast you are undoubtledly thinking. Does not the fact that you are questioning your sanity indicate that something is not right? And that therefore you have good reason to doubt it? That, though you are not completely and utterly barking mad, and are still capable of asking a coherent question – am I sane? – nevertheless, you are not entirely sane either.
And that leads us into another interesting question. Is it possible to be just a little bit insane yet still be capable of questioning your sanity? In which case the mere fact that you are questioning your sanity provides neither the proof nor the comfort of knowing you are sane.
Here is where the analogy with Descartes’ cogito is put to the test. It is not possible to exist just a little bit. You either exist or you don’t. So can the same be said for sanity? Is the relation between sanity and insanity binary, as it is with existence and non existence? Is it an either/or situation, or is there a spectrum of states that can be said to go from being entirely sane to entirely insane, passing through states such as “sandwich short of a picnic”, “a tad nutty”, “somewhat potty”, “slightly bonkers”, “quite a bit loony”, “on the way to being stark staring raving mad”, and so on? Remembering that in all states other than “entirely insane” one still retains the capacity to question one’s sanity . That is, when you are “somewhat” or “slightly” or “almost” insane, but not entirely insane, you can still ask “am I sane” and conclude that no, you are not, because you are indeed “somewhat” or “slightly” or “almost” insane.
Here’s what I think. Insanity – true, unrelenting and possibly glorious insanity – is the condition of being blissfuly unaware that you could in actual fact be insane. All other states, however “disturbed” they appear and as unsettling as they may feel, provided they are accompanied by an internal dialogue that is both aware and questioning of these very conditions, do not constitute insanity, not even a little bit. So to take an extreme example: if you hear voices and it bothers you initially, consider yourself perfectly normal but possibly with something to sort out, because being bothered about it is precisely the sort of reaction you’d expect a sane person to have. If you are stark staring mad, then these things cannot bother you, because you are stark staring mad, and possibly blissfully happy.
That I believe is what the Greek cynic philosopher Aristophenes meant when he uttered his immortal phrase: “it is better to be mad than delighted” he said, no doubt with some authority. If one is delighted with life, something is wrong. Because only an idiot finds life delightful, and that is because he does not worry in the slightest about how it should be lived, and importantly, that it will end one day. What helps drive us “mad” is the realisation that life is appalling, that though it is enough (thank you very much) that we must struggle to survive in a hostile world of hunger, pain and, worst of all, other people, all that effort is pointless anyway, because one day we will pop our clogs and that’s it. Indeed, insanity – blissful unawareness of the reality of existing, of the necessity of solving problems so as to overcome and endure suffering and perhaps extract some joy out of life- could be a most desirable state. So if you are insane then either you will meet your end quickly, and it will all be over because you can’t deal with your problems yourself; or someone else is forced to deal with them for you.
And that brings us roundly to the pig, for which we have John Stuart Mill to thank. This great British Enlightnement philosopher attempted a detailed argument as to why unhappiness as a human is preferable to the happiness of the most satisfied “beast”, concluding that
It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.
Utilitarianism (1861) Ch.II.
We could beg to differ with Mill. Neither a pig nor a fool can their sanity doubt. But a sane man will at many points in his life become plagued with doubt and bedeviled with fear, and thus be forced to address the uncomfortable question of whether he is sane or not. Maybe he is sane, and on the argument above he in fact is. Yet what an inconvenience! And to what end? Trouble for nothing. Better to wallow in mud, and not ask questions.
I had thought of constructing an entire book around my little phrase “only the sane question their sanity”, as much to claim precedence for the phrase as to write a book. But this present blog article, together with the use to which I put the phrase over the years in one or two ruminations jotted down here and there, and also my friend and his father as witnesses, shall have to suffice for precedence. And though I have never published it anywhere, I did some years ago put it through the SE certification test by typing it into a search box, and I just wonder whether that poet ever worked for a search engine.