The image of a Holy Fool (read about who is Holy Fool here and here) found its new popularity following the collapse of the Soviet Union. One of the main reasons is, of course, the recognition of Russian Orthodox Christianity as the official religion, but also the collapse of the beliefs of the socialist regime, when the country as a whole found herself in a momentary chaos, becoming, one can argue, a prototype for holy foolishness as a search for meaning.
The holy fool found a renewed interest in Christian studies, but also in academia. However, it is in the popular forms of media, such as films and even music that the holy-fool found a new ‘fame’, he came back to be yet again a spiritual hero, but he also acquired a new angle, the one of controversy in terms of his ‘madness’. What does lie behind his madness? And can we call someone mad, individually speaking, when the whole society can be considered as mad, especially if we look at what was happening in Russia since the late eighties of the last century? The old regime collapsed, reversing the ideology of communism to the ideology of capitalism in a matter of a couple of years. Old government structures were sold as vouchers to the Russian population, to be immediately bought back by those running these companies for a penny, because the population was suddenly starving, making them oligarchs. Shops got empty, there was shortage of food and clothes, and a total disarray in terms of a spiritual direction of the nation. While Russian Orthodox churches were emerging from their oblivion, Tarot readers and palm readers would sit in their proximity and promise the passers-by some hope for a better life. Hypnotist Kashpirovsky got a prime spot on the TV to hypnotize an entire nation, feeding tales from the national TV in 1989.
It was absolute and total madness, and it found its way into popular art, where painters, artists, and film-makers, would resort to the character of a holy fool to make sense of something which didn’t make any sense.
Russia is often referred to by Russians themselves as a country of fools, and the changes that the country witnessed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, could be delegated firmly in the domain of total madness, where the only way to show the light at the end of the tunnel, was to resort to laughter and the grotesque, as a way to manage the deep spiritual malaise. As Heller and Volkova ask, in relation to the fascination of Russian culture with holy-foolishness: “A question arises: is there something deep inside the Russian mentality that correlates with the state of insanity?” (Heller & Volkova, 2003, p. 153) Some changes that Russia has seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union left many Russians at a loss, where they were asked to adjust to a new ideology, new beliefs and new rules, and the popular art showed us the difficulty of the transition, by resorting to holy-foolishness and the character of a holy-fool in order to negotiate the incomprehension and deep spiritual uncertainty that the country and her people experienced then.
During the years of Perestroika, the image of holy-fool became the one of a dissident, adopting the weird behaviour of holy-fool to show the plight of many individuals who struggled to adapt to the changes in Russia on an economic and political levels. We can see this theme clearly in Taxi-Blues by Pavel Lungin, a film which was released in 1990, and which portrays us the reality of Russia at that time.
The film focusses on the life of two protagonists, a taxi-driver, Shlykov, and Lyosha (played by Pyotr Mamonov), a saxophonist. They meet on a ride in a taxi, when Shlykov takes Lyosha and his friends as passengers, but Lyosha doesn’t pay for the ride, after which Shlykov manages to track him down. Both characters then develop a truly bizarre friendship, which becomes a main story on the background of the madness of the country then.
The madness of that time starts from the beginning of the movie. The hypnotist Kashpirovsky greets us on the screen, by delivering his slogan promise: ‘Everything will be calm’. It immediately shows us the absurdity of that times, when ordinary people couldn’t find work, when hard-core communists quickly established their new capitalistic businesses, and when, in the ultimate feat of total absurdity, Mikhail Gorbatchev abolished alcohol, driving many Russians to either create a black market, or resort to the home production of alcohol. Kashpirovsky was put on the national TV in order to try to calm the nation down.
The lives of the two main characters show us how ordinary people managed life at that time. Thus, Shlykov, as it appears, adapted better to the new changes, by working hard as a taxi-driver. He has a room in an apartment, a girlfriend, can afford nice food, and from exterior it looks like a good life. Only by watching the narrative do we discover that he is not really happy in himself, that he doesn’t have many friends, that he struggles to find the spiritual meaning in life. And the aim of the film is also to show that all those who just continued hard-work couldn’t dream of acquiring the same richness that nouveu riches managed to accumulate. Hard-work and integrity were all the values that became suddenly obsolete, not cool and not needed.
On the other side of the spectrum, Lyosha, the saxophonist by profession, refused to adjust. He just goes with the flow. Despite the fact that saxophonists are nor longer needed and struggle to find any employment, Lyosha refuses to change anything, and gets by, by either singing on the streets, or by pure luck, such as meeting Shlykov in a difficult moment in his life and being helped by him. And while Shlykov helps Lyosha on a material level, Lyosha gives Shlykov a new spiritual meaning, found in laughter, unpredictability, and love of grotesque. Lyosha reminds Shlykov to sometimes let go, do something unexpected, believe in the fate.
The character of Lyosha, played by Pyotr Mamonov is often compared to that of a holy fool, but transformed into a modern version of it. We can disagree, however, with that meaning, because while during the whole narrative, Lyosha does exhibit all the characteristics of a holy fool, he fails in the end of the movie to fulfil the ultimate obligation of giving. Lyosha meets a famous American saxophonist at some point, and gets an opportunity to perform in the United States, which re-launches his musical career. Shlykov watches the newly found fame of his friend from a distance, and is desperate to see Lyosha again. He misses the playfulness and cheerfulness of his friend, and he doesn’t understand why Lyosha fails to come and see him when he is back in Moscow. Eventually when Lyosha comes to see him, he brings with him a band of new friends and absurd presents, such as a big doll. We can see that he breaks the heart of Shlykov and lets his old friend down.
But while one can argue whether Lyosha can be compared to the character of a holy-fool, it is the narrative itself that is representative of holy-foolishness positioned at the fall of the Soviet Union. The film shows us how the modern world changed to the worst, where the goodness of character, kindness and empathy are replaced by greediness, strive for material goods, and desire to become famous. It is the story itself that leads us to ask the eternal spiritual questions: but what is the meaning of life if one is lost completely in the material side of it? Should we remain humble even if we get further in life, and still remember those who helped us at the most difficult part of our journey? Shouldn’t we cherish friendship and simple things in life, such as sharing warm soup with friends, laugh even when life is difficult, appreciate people rather than goods?
It is in his next movie, The Island that Lungin returns to the question of deep spiritual meaning. The Island appeared in 2006, quite a few years later after Taxi-Blues. In it we see a story of a modern fictional Russian orthodox monk, played yet again by Pyotr Mamonov.
It starts during the second world war, when sailor Anatoly and his captain, Tikhon are ambushed by the Germans, somewhere at the shore of the white sea. As a grotesque joke, the Germans present Anatoly with a choice: either to shoot Tikhon and live, or die. Anatoly shoots Tikhon after which the Germans blow up the ship.
Anatoly survives and is rescued by the monks from a local monastery, where he stays. It is many years later that the new life of Anatoly is presented to us. He works as a stoker at the monastery and acts as a local ‘wise’ man. It is to him that ordinary people come for advice, prayer and also in order to heal.
The parallels with the holy-fool are much more striking in The Island. Anatoly is a deeply spiritual man, who constantly prays to God. He has a gift of a prophet and of a healer. He sees the future and can predict it. He gives wise advice. At the same time, his behaviour is extremely weird. He rarely washes his face, makes fun of the monks, is always late for the Church services, where he shows up in a truly bizarre attire, one day marching with one foot in a boot, another dressed in a sock.
But while watching the character, we can’t help but fall in love with him and his way of thinking and doing. His faith in God is so beautiful and sincere, that the viewer hopes that he will be forgiven for his ultimate sin. And we are relieved indeed when right before his death (that Anatoly foresees himself several days in advance, by organising his own coffin), we learn that Tikhon had survived. He brings his daughter to see the remote monk due to rumours of his healing gift, and meets Anatoly. Anatoly reassures Tikhon that his daughter is not mad but is possessed by a demon, preforms exorcise, after which she is healed. After that Anatoly tells Tikhon who he is, but Tikhon tells him that he was only wounded in the arm, and that he had forgiven him.
The movie, while basing the character of Anatoly on holy-fool, presents us a different façade of holy-foolishness than the one we have seen in ‘Taxi-Blues’. It reaches a deeper spiritual meaning where we are confronted with the true meaning of holy-foolishness: one has to have faith in God and Jesus, and then and only then, one can become a holy-fool, while renouncing also worldly conventions and material aspects of things. It also shows us Russia as it changed in the years after the turmoil of the uncertainty following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It became quieter in its own spiritual search, firmly embracing Christianity, and by going back to its roots preceding the revolution. The country might still experience turmoil at a political level, but spiritually, it found a new meaning.
The Holy Fool, to remind you (please, refer to part one), was a person who became mad for the sake of Christ. It was a well-known, recognized phenomenon in the old Russia. It was a man or a woman who would often wander the streets of old Rus and remind people to live their lives based in Christian values. They would often appear as ‘mad’, as ‘insane’, but several of these Holy Fools were recognized by the Russian Orthodox Church as saints, with one of the most famous Holy Fool being Saint Vasilii the Blessed. It was after him that the most famous Russian Cathedral, the Cathedral of Saint Vasilii The Blessed (Saint Basil) was named.
From the beginning the character of the Holy Fool has fascinated Russian writers and we can find this personage in several writing and also paintings. Behind it, is the interest in the unexplainable, in the grotesque, in the spiritual domain, but where things always remain mysterious. It is the fascination with unpredictability, as long as good outweighs the evil, Russian people have been driven to explore the human soul, and the human misery, throughout the history, which can be seen in literature and art.
For example, Nikolai Leskov (1831-95), based his character in ‘Deathless Golovan’ on holy-fool, where the main protagonist is a simple man who takes care of those affected by a plague, despite danger for his own health. He also gives milk to a Jewish man, stupefying his neighbours. In his other writing, ‘Singlethought’ (1879), the main character, a police officer based in a provincial town, becomes slightly ‘mad’ after reading scriptures of the Bible. The reading has such a profound impact on him, that he starts to behave strangely, such as refusing bribes and gifts at his job, as was the custom then. The story highlighted the corruption of the power at that time, but also raised the more important spiritual questions. Who is really a fool here? A simple man who refuses to be corrupted, or the society as such, driven by corruption? And shouldn’t we rather abide by Christian, moral values in our daily life? As in holy-foolishness, the story also contains many grotesque, ‘hilarious’ moments, such as then Ryzhov, the main character, forces the mean Governor of the town to bow in front of the icons in the Church.
Other Russian writers explored the theme of ‘holy-foolishness’ either basing their character directly on holy-fool, or by building a story around the theme of holy-foolishness, where madness always takes on an additional meaning. It is never an ‘illness’, but something deeper, a battle of one’s soul, where the hero, while being ‘mad’, is more connected with God and spiritual aspects of life, than the laypeople, preoccupied with the material sides of things. Gorki explored the theme in ‘A Confession’, Chekov built his short story ‘Ward No. 6’ around holy-foolishness, where both protagonists, a long-time staying psychiatric inmate and his treating psychiatrist share remarkable traits with holy-fools, but also Bulgakov, it can be argued, based his ‘Master and Margarita’ on the motifs of holy-foolishness. The main character, the master, who ends up disillusioned by this world, is a modern ‘holy fool’, but unlike in the Moscovite Rus, he has problems to adjust and adapt to the requirements of the modern world, which in the Soviet Union, was characterised by omnipresent bureaucracy, corruption, ridiculous rules, and greediness, despite the fact that one of the slogans of the socialist regime was an equal society. The story of the Master runs in parallel with the story of Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Jesus of Nazareth), and some obvious conclusions can be drawn from the novel. There is a deep spiritual need nascent in all humanity, but it is often compromised by scepticism and inability to think outside the box, because of being under too much influence of materialistic world. Many ridiculous, hilarious scenes in the Soviet Moscow of Bulgakov draw a direct parallel with the weirdness and ‘laughter’ of holy-fools.
The image of Holy Fool can be also encountered in numerous paintings, where painters depicted the fascination and also certain reverence towards the character. He can be seen on numerous paintings of Nesterov, and also Syrikov, showing his firm place among laypeople, and not just being a character of Christian writings.
For a Russian culture, the holy fool has a deep meaning. It shows the possibilities of a spiritual domain, reinforces one’s faith, and reassures one that good will always outweigh the evil. Thus, the character of Holy Fool is deeply embedded in Russian culture and tradition.
You need to fall in love with a language in order to master it and to have the desire to speak it fluently.
I fell in love with the French language when I was thirteen, and living in Moscow. I was attending a linguistic college, but I was more interested in socializing rather than studying.
But then one day I met a new teacher. My mum sent me to her. It was a private tutor. I liked her as soon as I saw her. She opened the door to a very messy apartment, full of dogs, books, and all kinds of rubbish.
She sat me on the chair, and produced a cake, and then she started to talk to me, in French.
“I lived in Montpellier,” she told me. “I lived there for seven years. It was a town of magic, not far from the sea, with different colours, interesting people, and great food.”
I thought I couldn’t understand French before I met my new teacher, but when she was talking, I could follow her. Maybe it was the way she was describing Montpellier, or maybe it was her cake. It was delicious, and I liked being in her cosy apartment. Everywhere I looked, there was stuff. Pictures, candles, interesting books, some antique, two beautiful dogs.
I fell in love with the French language during my first lesson with her.
And this love stayed. When you fall in love with a language, you enter into a parallel universe. You enter into the field of that language, the magic of its particular music.
When I speak French, I am a different person. I am more romantic, I am shyer, I discuss random things: books, music, philosophy, Russia. I start thinking in French when I speak it, and I like the sound of it in my own head. The voices I hear are in French. They sing to me a very beautiful music.
French language is a language of music. If I would assign a piano concerto to it in its quiet mood, it would be Chopin Nocturne op.9 No.2, and something like Stromae (incredible Belgian singer) in expressing the language when one wants to dance.
I see the colour blue in French, just like in that movie (Les trois Couleurs: Bleu) with beautiful Juliette Binoche. I see the beauty of Sophie Marceau, la Tour Eiffel, Le Louvre, and the philosophy of Michel Foucault. I see my favourite writer, Amelie Nothomb, and the town which I love the most, Brussels. I see the marvel of my favourite painters, the impressionists. I hear prefect French when I listen to Zazie.
The French language is like a flower, it is delicate, it is fragile. One needs to approach it with care. When I first came to Brussels to study, at the age of nineteen, I remained silent for the first six months. I started to talk only when I judged that my French was perfect enough to start self-expressing. French is the sound of love, it is the sound of romantic adventures, of people who love discussing serious things, who love great food, good wine, and self-criticism.
La langue franҫaise est une langue d’amour. (French is the language of love)
I love the French language. J’ adore la langue franҫaise.
We all have the potential for madness, but the degree of its manifestation is what really matters, in order to be considered as mental, or just slightly eccentric. The amount of crazy people though is very likely to be on the increase, considering the society in which we are living, not helped by the Corona crisis.
Some time ago, on a visit to a local pub back in Sheffield, to get a cup of coffee I noticed a teacher working at a local school talking with herself. Well, at least it appeared so, because despite my predisposition for what is medically known as hallucinations, I couldn’t spot anyone sitting next to her, and neither could the pub’s staff judging from their whispers.
“Look, look, she is talking with herself!” The waiters were obviously having a blast, and in all honesty, it looked very funny. The teacher was vividly gesticulating into the void and taking part in an animated dialogue with someone who was either invisible or a total illusion on her part. The hilarious part of it was that she was turning slightly to her right, as if indeed there was someone sitting next to her, and the scene looked surreal, as if we were on the set of a new episode of Harry Potter.
I have to admit that I also produced a couple of chuckles, because, first, well, it was quite comical, and secondly, I locked the eyes with the waiters who knew me quite well, and it would be impolite and rude not to join into the camaraderie building, even if admittedly it isn’t nice to laugh at the expense of another human being. But we all do it, despite the teachings of our parents and teachers (ironically so) to the contrary, and we all occasionally watch the funny bits on Facebook or YouTube where eager individuals upload the videos of people in funny distress. Did someone break their leg? Ha-ha-ha. Did he fall down the stairs? Ha-ha-ha. Was she just dumped? Ha-ha-ha.
Well, you know what I am talking about.
But once back at home I was quite sad that I had joined the laughing crowd, because the situation wasn’t that straightforward. You see, I had heard about that teacher. She was diagnosed as ”schizophrenic” when it appeared that the profession of a teacher wasn’t as glamorous as the government had promised, when she found herself dealing with challenging teenagers and often, ungrateful parents, a mortgage which she had to pay even if she lost her job, and two own daughters to raise in the hope that they would become responsible individuals and do well in life. Which in our society has been reduced to getting a job, a house, a husband and some sort of retirement. We have all the reasons to get mad, with the demands that we face in terms of how to be more or less successful in life. We are all victims of what is presented to us as ‘normality’, where watching something like a Big Brother is sold to us as a nice show to watch, where we are driven to build our lives around constant consumption, and where we are reduced to find a partner via an app.
But it wasn’t the knowledge of her personal circumstances which made me uncomfortable. It was the realisation that maybe it was us, the laughing public which had missed the obvious. What if, there was someone sitting next to her? I mean, how do we know? How come that we believe only what our eyes show us, and yet, buy in masses the most recent scam in the field of self-help? Why are we ready to spend a fortune on gurus telling us how to live our lives, and then laugh when we are confronted with a proof that there might be something else out there?
We should never laugh at the expense of others, because one day we can find ourselves on the other side, and then, it won’t be funny.
I was sixteen, and still studying at school. On the day when I encountered Dima I was taking the Moscow’s underground to deliver myself for a photo session at a modelling competition. It was the time, which lasted for a year at most, when I was dreaming of becoming a model. In other words, I was completely, totally insecure in both my body and my head.
When I entered the wagon at one remote station in our beautiful underground, I immediately spotted Dima. The guy was charming, had dark hair and was laughing in a very sure way with two girls sitting next to him.
A cute guy and a student, I sighed. No way a person like him will ever notice my presence. I was wearing a terrible fur cap (to safeguard my hair for the photo session), while the only piece of style in my wardrobe was limited to the boots, which half of Moscow was wearing at that time. It was the period when limited pieces of fashion were attacking Moscow shops in masses. I might have skipped the rainbow coat (worn by the other half of the city’s population) but I had the boots. I sat next to the guy, however, as there was a vacant place. Taking out of my suitcase a book, I tried to loose myself in studying French grammar – the subject I was supposed to know perfectly, while attending a privileged linguistic college in my native town.
“You speak French?” I heard a second later, and to my greatest amazement, this comment was coming from the cute dark-haired guy. He turned away from his fellow blonde student girlfriends and was looking intensely at me.
“Yes, professionally,” I gave the most stupid answer, while removing my fur cap with my right hand and hiding a pimple on my check with my left.
“Interesting,” the guy moved closer to me to look at my book. “Where?”
“At the University,” I said in a confident way, while trying to adjust the position of my face in such a way that he wouldn’t notice my pimple.
“Which university?”Despite the fact that I was only sixteen (and still at school), and blessed with pimples I knew which were the best universities, at that time, to learn French in Moscow.
“The Institute for Foreign Languages,” I said proudly, forecasting my future at that moment, as it’s exactly where I landed for a year before moving to Brussels, let me think … two years later?
“Oh …” I could see that the guy’s interest in me was growing. Which was fine by me, as never in my life had a guy like him talked to me for such a long time, and yes, he was the cutest guy I had met so far.
“Well …” he continued, “I also study French, at the University for Foreign Relations.”
Not only was he cute, he was also smart. At that time the institution he was attending was renowned as the ‘hottest’ place to get your degree.
“Really?” I said. “I love French. It’s the love of my life,” I lied, since the biggest love of my life at that period was George Michael and Wham!
“My name is Dima”, said the guy, while trying to hold my gaze for more than two seconds. It was exactly what I was trying to avoid, as my biggest problem at that time, apart from pimples, was that I was blushing on every possible and impossible occasion.
“My name is Ekaterina,” I answered, while wondering what on earth Dima saw in me, as the look on the faces of his two fellow girlfriends was suggesting that they were asking exactly the same question, and not in a very pleasant way.
“Voudriez-vous diner avec moi ce soir?” the eyes of Dima were really too close to mine this time.
I blushed. The thing was … I didn’t understand a word of what Dima had said. In perfect French. I was so blown away by his intense stare that it didn’t occur to me that I should also use my brain and my ears.
“Fuck!!!!” was my answer in perfect Russian, when I noticed the name of the underground stop. “I missed my station!”And without giving it an additional, mature, balanced thought I literally jumped from the train.
And only on the platform seeing the departing train and Dima in the train looking (sadly?) at me did the meaning of his sentence entered my teenage brain. “Would you like to have a dinner with me tonight?” This was what he had asked me in French.
You came to my life when you were seven. We took you from the animal shelter. I was begging my ex, the farther of my son for a cat, for ages, and suddenly, one day, he just said:
‘Let’s go, now, to the animal shelter and take a cat.’
I have to admit now, that I was wishing for a young cat, for my son to grow up with. When we approached the shelter, I saw you at once, – you were standing on the window still, staring at us. You felt, of course, that we were coming to give you a new, loving home.
Once we were in the room, for some reason, I forgot that you were already waiting, and ignored you in the first instance, asking to see maximum one year olds cats. The workers at shelter showed us a couple, and they looked cute, but you didn’t ignore us, right on the contrary, and were making walking rounds around my family, especially paying attention to my son. It was my ex, Sean, who asked the obvious question:
‘But what about this cat?’’
I am forever grateful that it was Sean who chose you, as without you, I would never discover my amazing love for cats, and admiration for your nature. You are all gods and goddesses in disguise, much better than the majority of humans, and you chose us. Thank you.
The workers from the shelter explained that you were seven, good with children and other animals and cats, but slightly distressed because you had arrived to the animal shelter from the inability of the previous owner to look after you. I made my mind then, and said:
‘’We want Gina.’’ And you joined our family the next day.
It appeared that you weren’t that good with other animals and children, as you found my over-energetic, marvellous son who was two then, extremely annoying, and you showed a ferocious, absolutely warrior nature towards other cats, and especially towards cats that dared to approach me. You remember, how angry you were when another cat came to our house and I dared to cuddle him? You were really in total rage. I knew then that you looked at me as your mum, and no one could share this love, expect you, and my son, of course. You grew up to him in your affection, once he learned how to sit in one place, in peace, for at least good five minutes.
You showed me love and affection. You showed me it on the day you arrived. You cuddled yourself on my knees and then put your beautiful face on my chest, and your paw on my heart, and I knew then: it was love. Your eyes were oh, so beautiful, containing so much of the wisdom, that we, the humans, lack. If the cat nature can be assigned properly, it goes back to the Ancient Egypt, when you ruled the world, and rightly so. You were considered as gods.
You moved with us to the Netherlands, and decided to retire for good six months. My mum would totally spoil you when she was at my house, giving you biscuits and buying you all kinds of nice cat brands to try. You chose my son’s bedroom as your room, and slept on his bed, once you decided that your office would be in the attic, to stay away from the noise of children, always playing in my house.
You loved me, oh so much, following me everywhere if I was absent, as I had to go to Sheffield, during my holidays, to see my dear friends, and revisit my beloved town. You came to my knees, and you chilled in the garden, and ate the best soups. I would give you food, first thing in the morning, before even thinking of making a coffee for myself.
I hope you enjoyed your eight and a half years with us. I hope you did feel our love and affection, and I know, you did, as your amazing beautiful eyes always looked with so much love, back at us.
This morning I had to say goodbye to you, because you became to unwell to continue living. Your organs failed, and you couldn’t breathe, and I stayed with you till your last breath, and I kissed you and cuddled, but it was a goodbye.
A sad, devastating goodbye as I am missing you, and I love you, my Egyptian Goddess.
When I was eleven I fancied a boy. It was that innocent, first-time crush when the ultimate wish is to spend more time together, and a kiss on the lips. It never happened.
What did happen, however, was a love of a book thanks to that boy. His name was Andrei and he was a son of a famous painter. Andrei, as I, was a member of exclusive club of young painters at the also famous ‘House of Artist’ in Moscow. The House of Artist was renowned and still is for its amazing exhibitions and a nice restaurant and cafeteria, with grounds next to the House stretching to Moscow river, giving a beautiful view and a time spent in peace, culture and tranquility.
I got into the club thanks to my grand-dad. At some point, a Cossack who had been first sent to Ural because he had marched by foot from Germany after the war, and thus, couldn’t be traced among members of the Russian Army, was later sent to a political prison in Siberia, where he ended up sharing a cell with another famous painter. The painter taught my grand-dad how to paint, and on his return to Ural and then, ultimately, to his Cossack village in the South of Russia, together with my grand-mum and their sons, he became a teacher of art at a local school. One day, when, as usual, I was spending my summer with my grand-parents, during the long break from school in Moscow, he started to teach me how to draw, and these lessons landed me a place in the club in the House of Artist, a small group of ten children among hundreds who didn’t get a place.
It soon emerged that I wasn’t doing that well when my artistic expression had to be supervised at certain hours. I wasn’t that interested in learning further technique of painting or in spending an hour trying to figure out how to draw a still picture of some fruits at the back of the studio. I was eleven years old and was more interested in socializing. Another girl, Nastya, had the same ideas as me, and we would bring our tiny collections of barbie girls and spend all our breaks on playing.
There was also a boy, Andrei, who was very interesting. He wouldn’t play barbies but draw in that dismissive way of a rebel. If we had to do a still picture, he would draw a portrait of a teacher, and then it was time for a landscape, he would make a still picture of a tree.
Needless to say, he was a subject of admiration of all girls in our group, me including. Andrei had a liking of me, since he would always try to sit next to me and engage in some intellectual conversation. Even at that age I would catch myself thinking that here was an intellect way beyond childhood, and that Andrei was simply a genius.
One day, on the way home, when we traveled together for something like five underground stations until his stop, Andrei asked me whether I had already read ‘The Master and Margarita’. I hadn’t and for a good reason. ‘The Master and Margarita’, a masterpiece written by Mikhail Bulgakov, which was published only after his death, is a story of a Devil who visits the Soviet Union under Stalin’s regime, with a parallel story of Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate. It isn’t a book that one reads at the age of eleven. But because I admired Andrei and didn’t want to appear stupid, I answered that ‘yes, of course’, which provoked a zero reaction on Andrei’s face. I reckon he would have been much more surprised if I had answered the truth. I had never read any work by Bulgakov by that point.
“What did you think of Woland?” Andrei then asked me a question, sending me into frenzy of trying to guess who the hell Woland was. If you haven’t read the book yet, I strongly advice you to do it now (urgently so), as it is the best book ever of satire on the Soviet regime (and just the best book, in general) and has amazing insights into the character of the Devil. Professor Woland is the devil who seems to be so ‘impressed’ by the bureaucracy of the Soviet Union, that he can’t stop making practical jokes on Moscow and its establishment. It is both funny and mesmerizing, especially that Bulgakov gives us a human insight into what had happened to Christ.
Not knowing what to answer, I asked Andrei’s opinion on Woland.“He seems quite an interesting character, someone very unusual,” Andrei gave a prompt answer of someone who had read the book and had thought about its message and meaning. Thankfully, we reached Andrei’s stop and he would never discover that I had lied. He stopped going to the club of young artists (probably he was bored due his rebellious nature) and I haven’t seen him since.
Andrei has remained in my life that mysterious boy who helped me to discover my most favorite book ever. Because the first thing I asked my mum once I was back home was to give me ‘The Master and Margarita’ to read. Even if surprised by such request, she didn’t say anything and just gave me the book. In our family the rule was that one could read anything as long as one would read. And in any case, we only had good books in the house.
I started to read the book that night, starting to laugh on the second page thanks to its humour and couldn’t stop for two days. ‘The Master and Margarita’ became my most treasured book which I reread every two or three years, discovering every time something new, thanks to a boy who was way too smart for his age.
Being mad is liberating. Well, at least with practice and determination, because, let’s face it, being mental (with a confirmed diagnosis) is not a high status on the scale of popularity in our society, defined as it is by the standards of normality.
My own sense of liberation came around two years ago when I was sitting on a bench in the park. A man literally materialised himself on the same bench a minute later, smoking a cigar in a leisured manner. I didn’t see him approaching and his whole appearance was slightly bizarre: mismatched glasses, dirty trousers and an expensive red tie.
It didn’t take me long to start thinking that it might be the Devil, a character I met in all of my psychoses. After an initial deliberation about whether I was experiencing a hallucination (unlikely since the man kept on sitting where he was even after I blinked several times in a row) or a delusion (an explanation more probable than the first), I dismissed these probabilities firmly from my head. I knew that I wasn’t psychotic, helped by the fact that I was on a low dose of quetiapine, and that while I had no proof that the man might be the Devil, he also could be, even if according to the psychiatrists, seeing the character and all other bizarre occurrences belong to the domain of insanity.
I walked away from the bench as fast as I could, because to be honest, I try to avoid the Devil in all his manifestations, but this experience got me thinking. What if the things that mad people see and hear are real? What if there is this tiny possibility that the truth indeed lies in madness and not in what is projected to us by the society as being normal?
I have to admit that simultaneously writing a Ph.D. thesis on how Facebook collects its data helped me in the matter of thinking about my own madness and the madness of others. You see, Facebook and all other Internet companies as well as grocery shops (via their loyalty cards) store everything that comes on their radar. They know all about your daily habits, your friends, what you like having for your breakfast and whether you are single or not. This is in line with what the majority of mad people believe – that we are constantly being watched. Tell this to a psychiatrist? He will answer that you are mental, despite the evidence to the contrary. We are being watched, every single moment of our day and night.
The presence of the Devil is obviously harder to prove and it is not something that I am planning to discuss with psychiatrists in any point of my remaining life. But in an unlikely event that it might happen, I already know their answer. The Devil will be put into the basket of hallucinations or delusions, despite the fact that almost all religions of the world admit his existence.
Here’s a question that has been bothering me for a while: Why is it that while there are considerably more people who are mental than there are psychiatrists, it is the mad who are called being stupid (but in a politically correct way)?
Don’t get me wrong, I am not against psychiatrists as such. Most of them do try to help, and I met a couple among them who turned out to be brilliant and fun people. I do take their medication even if I learned from experience that unless I am ready to live like a zombie, I should administer my own dose and not the one they prescribe.
No, it is a lack of a dialogue with psychiatrists that annoys me the most. We know, of course, that psychiatry is an establishment, discussed in length and depth by those willing to sacrifice themselves to the cause. Michel Foucault was perhaps the most prominent scholar in the field and he pointed quite correctly to the fact that psychiatry simply fits into the trend of growing medicalization, where everything that falls outside normality should be treated immediately with some miraculous pills. And usually this is done with such an attitude of arrogance that even those who had no problem in the first place start believing that they are terminally ill.
I did have a problem when I was admitted to the hospital with an acute psychosis for the first time. I didn’t sleep for ten days brought about by the stress of life. I was working for two years as a financial analyst of banks, and as financial crises demonstrate quite clearly, working in finances can drive anyone mad.
The thought pattern after a prolonged insomnia does perhaps belong to the realm of insanity, but among the chaos I was demonstrating to the medical staff who admitted me to the hospital near the city of Amsterdam, there were glimpses of what was really happening with me (besides boring explanations which can be found in their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.)
“I am Buddha,” I told to my doctor and this is exactly how I was feeling at that time. I was feeling light, happy, full of life. Banks under my analysis could go and fuck themselves and I, Ekaterina from Russia, was ready to enter into a higher vintage point.
The doctor didn’t share my wishes towards happiness. He didn’t even smile (or laugh, which would be even more appropriate) and instead of congratulating me on the fact that I finally started to see the truth, that I was on some road of enlightenment and should abandon my job in finances once and for all, he declared with a solemnly serious face,
“I think you are mad.”
In retrospect, the only mad thing I did was share my thoughts with the doctors. Was I Buddha really? No, I wasn’t, even if it is entirely possible that I was one in my past life. No, my state of Buddhahood was pointing towards the general dilemma experienced by our society. I wanted to be out of the system based on accumulation, statuses and endless consumption. I wanted to be free.
But this is the problem with most psychiatrists, in my opinion. They don’t have a broad vision of life. Their focus is on details, on something that treats manifestations and not the underlying cause. They simply don’t understand the madness, because in order to understand it, one has to be mad himself. How can you treat something when you don’t see or hear the same thing?
As Nietzsche once said, “Why does man not see things? He is himself standing in the way. He conceals things.” Funnily enough, he described in this way the state of psychiatry today. Psychiatry conceals things.
But because of the weight that the whole establishment carries on its shoulders, we are obliged to obey and if we don’t, we are forced to. My path towards enlightenment was cut short after that doctor put me on a killing dose of risperidone and suggested that I might suffer from schizophrenia. The only thing I could think of after the treatment was how nice it would be to die.
More diagnoses followed later, more hospitalisations (it is normal that one stops a medication that can potentially kill) and more tears. It was only enormous determination on my part, as well as simple curiosity, that finally helped me to get away from those psychiatrists. I haven’t seen them now for five years, I said goodbye to their claws even if the diagnosis of bipolar hangs firmly above my head.
But I don’t mind, because this diagnosis gives me the opportunity to speak. It shows that I’ve been there, I’ve seen it. I’ve seen the sad faces of patients who are told day after day that they are mad.
But what is madness exactly? Psychiatry describes it as a loss of touch with reality, as foolish behaviour, as insanity. It is amazing that we take their definitions seriously, considering that those who do see things, outnumber the ones who don’t.
Michel Foucault describes it as a discourse. Somewhere by someone it was decided that those who are more powerful should mistreat those who are weak, and while we see the rise of fight on behalf of other groups who have been discriminated against in the past, this rise towards freedom and equality from the mad is a slow process. This, I believe, is because of stigma, because they are afraid to speak, and because society is scared of anything that points to the fact that there might be another reality.
After that walk in the park, I admitted to myself for the first time that what I see is real. I see angels and fairies, I believe in the afterlife, I talk with animals and I know all about my past lives. And yes, I did meet the Devil. His numerous appearances helped me to realise that madness can also be a battle for one’s soul. I am a firm Christian as a result.
Am I being mad? Probably. But this is what I like in my life. If, on that day I was admitted to the hospital for the first time, someone asked me whether I would like to become normal again and forget about everything that happened to me, I would say a definite no. Because I remember how I was, sitting in a boring job day after day and believing that life was about my next salary, a useless trip to the gym and which diet to follow.
No, life is not about that, I’ve realized. Life is about discovery and madness, and seeing it this way is a sure way to get it right. I am finally free.
(This article was first published on Mad in America in 2015, but I asked to remove it, due to stigma.)
Here is the link to the original article.