Frenzies, Films and Family: A Review of ‘Mental Traveler’ by W.J.T. Mitchell

Tobias Dietrich reviews W.J.T. Mitchell’s Mental Traveler (University of Chicago Press, 2020).

 

“Amateurs and lovers are those who look on beauty and liken themselves to it, thus say they ‘like it’:

but professionals, and especially critics,

are those who feel called-upon and dutybound

to profess, prove, improve, etc.,

and are therefore estranged from any simplicity of reception, acception, or open-ness at all

unless they are over-whelmed by something.

Beauty overwhelms only in the form of drama;

and love overwhelms only when it has become possessive.”

Stan Brakhage (1971)

Stan Brakhage didn’t separate working life from family life. A father and avant-garde filmmaker, he put his family into the centre of his work. In his essay “In Defense of Amateur,” he stands up for this ambivalence and also takes the liberty of failing. It shall be this freedom that makes the amateur. Brakhage’s stance in numerous ways describes my reading impression of W.J.T. Mitchell’s latest book Mental Traveler: A Father, A Son, and a Journey through Schizophrenia. This book is a memoir of the life and death of Mitchell’s son Gabriel, born 1973, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia. From a father’s perspective, it reveals all of his son’s struggles, straying, creativity and ideas, through his fights and failures.

Gabe has been a mental traveler as seen by his father—less roaming around than living “on the border of a world that most of us know only fleetingly” (88). Tracing his itinerary, the first half of the book recounts the life of a witty boy sheltered and cared for by a post-68 activist couple, an NYU undergraduate drop-out with sympathy for the homeless, a person who becomes a target of meandering psychiatric diagnoses in his early twenties, and a creative visionary whose engagement for mad pride activism was just as boundless as his adoration of the Hollywood actress Cameron Diaz. In 2012, Gabe committed suicide at the age of 38. Working through his creative legacy, Mitchell’s writing is also an attempt to see through the mental illness: Gabe learned to make use of moving images, compiled and self-produced, to portray his illness not only as informed by stereotypes and medical clichés, but also as inner experience of a person who learned to deal with the exclusionary mechanisms of society. What he left behind were mathematic drafts, astounding ideas, websites, video projects and umpteen screenplays, partly translucent, partly elusive.

Brakhage would have cherished this commitment for its intrinsic ambitions despite all stylistic conventions. Yet even more, Gabe’s drawings and videos open up aesthetic questions that have lately become subjects of scientific concern, not only in community-based care work or film production, but also in cultural and gender studies, art history, and last but not least, film studies. Private films have become both expression and object of investigation of family structures, psychological dynamics of closeness and distance, and commonplace media practice. In this context, Mitchell’s sensitive and self-questioning biography arrives as a multi-facetted testimonial of schizophrenia, of its representations, its intimacies and intimidations for family and society, and its overwhelming possession of the loved ones facing it on a daily basis.

W.J.T. Mitchell’s work, including Picture Theory (1994) and Cloning Terror (2011) among others, is known for taking the impact of visual culture into consideration in the critical thinking of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. What is less known are his observations on mental illness as historical, political and aesthetic constituents of Western society. Published in the year of his son’s parting, Mitchell’s essay “Seeing Madness: Insanity, Media, and Visual Culture” unfolds his approach to schizophrenia, mood disorders, delusion, and everything that earlier on was amalgamated as madness. The essay initiates a theory of the aesthetics of mental illness that is now pursued by Mental Traveler. Not just looking atmadness is its maxim based on Gabe’s preoccupation, but looking through madness at the world, considering madness as critical perspective on the imagery and forms that shape its understanding. Thus, Mitchell’s interest in images of madness is first of all private, and—as Mental Traveler shows quite plainly—so are the most of his central research topics.

Home movie still from Gabe’s short film, Crazy Talk. Courtesy of Author.

No wonder that this very personal book is borrowing from William Blake, the English poet, natural mystic, and artist of the Romantic Age, whom Mitchell addressed in his dissertation. Blake’s eponymous poem The Mental Traveller (written around 1803, published in 1863) deals with the “possessive” part of a relationship between two human beings that could best be described as both unconditional and emaciating. Mitchell in his book comes to recognize his son’s struggles, accusations, his queries and disavowal not as symptoms that a relative has to deal with, but as an inimitable bond in the shape of family dynamics which are both most ultimately demanding and of complete devotion—that is, which are in their nature, as Gabriel would have put it, the Michael Jordan of devotedness. “Everyone goes crazy in their own way,” reads the preface of Mitchell’s Mental Traveler, “and every family has its own way of dealing with their disturbed son or daughter, brother or sister, father or mother. Every derangement is a response to an arrangement, a de-arrangement of social and institutional circumstances” (x).

In the second half, Mitchell’s book is crossing borders itself. Moving between first-person account writing and the knowledge out of a long-time academic occupation with media aesthetics and political madness, the book portrays the unique father-son relationship as a vivid discourse on the impact of cinema: nourished by film discussions with Gabe, joint film seminars, film quotes spontaneously adopted to daily life, and Gabe’s own scripts. Thereby, the book conflates private conflicts with thoughts about cinema. The strength of the book is that it asserts that illness, family matters and aesthetics are concomitant with one another and that therein the impact of each lies.

“I read now [the screenplays] and I peer cautiously at Gabe’s delusions of grandeur and the actuality of his suffering—which, in a sense, fought each other to a draw. It is as if Gabe turned the psychoanalytic dialogue into a debate about cinema, rendered as cinema—or at least as screenplay. The talking cure becomes the screenwriter’s dilemma, providing illusions for the masses, or unwelcomed and unmarketable glimpses of the realities that lead the screenwriter into the grave” (84f.).

The reading conjuncts philosophical and aesthetic implications of mental illness with its quotidian challenges in a manner not seen since Kier-La Janisse’s 2012 autobiography House of Psychotic Women. Both books reveal what an unfathomable task their writing process must have been. For Janisse, as for Mitchell, writing each book also stands for an inconvenient, but necessary psychological excavation of the foundations of self-conception and family myths long accepted and engraved through generations. What both works have in common is that they gain knowledge from these psychological unveilings causing a sustained learning experience for both their authors and their readers.

Gabe pictured on the right, in a short film about Gabe’s mental illness by his sister Carmen Elena Mitchell, called Infinite Light. Courtesy of Author.

Accordingly, when Gabe asked him to read some of his screenplays, Mitchell admits that he gave them “a merely symptomatic reading, which in a way is not to read at all but to know beforehand what a text means, to search it for confirmation of diagnosis” (86). Brakhage comes to mind again: did the father feel dutybound to profess, prove, im–provethe son’s work (pun intended)? Did he miss his son over the zealous scribbler? “I think I was incapable of reading his scripts the way I do now, now that they are posthumous records of his struggle. Then I was reading them as a father and caregiver” (85).

Just as the first chapters are on the verge of still reading the deceased son’s drawings and self-revelations too closely, Mitchell later finds a way to detach himself from his own role, thus reflecting upon the corresponding bias as an academic and caregiver. “I can no longer bear the symptomatic readings, which confidently label these writings as expressions of this or that syndrome. Who gives a damn whether they are the results of a bipolar disorder or schizophrenia?“ (88)

Mental Traveler provides a reading as deeply personal as it is insightful into the dynamics of media and relationship convergence within a family facing mental illness. In tandem with Gabe’s compilatory film fragment Crazy Talk, accessible via Youtube, and other materials provided at the end of the book, Mental Traveler examines amateur film making as a noteworthy practice dealing with mental illness which—as Mitchell wrote in his 2012 essay—possesses the “productive capacity to create representations of itself, its experiential world” (2012: 9). Exceeding private insights to a caregiving family, the book offers a wide variety of contexts and moments of cognitive branching, originating from the cinematic language chosen by a young talented man within a family environment of avant-gardism and intellectualism (with coming and leaving visitors such as Homi K. Bhabha, Julia Kristeva, the Derridas, Antony Gormley among others). As it interlaces autobiographic writing with a thorough knowledge of images and their impact on society and identity, Mental Traveler plays a significantly important role when it comes to first-person accounts of the mentally ill. More than this, for the purposes of Gabe’s ambitions, it carries forward a discourse about madness as a cultural mirror to society and the media, processing it for further elaborations on family matters, madness and the moving image.

References

Brakhage, Stan. 2001. In Defense of Amateur [1971]. Bruce R. McPherson (ed.), Essential Brakhage: Selected Writings by Stan Brakhage. New York: McPherson & Co, pp. 142–50.

Janisse, Kier-La. 2012. House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films. Godalming, Surrey: Fab Press.

Mitchell, W.J.T. 1994. Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

——. 2011.Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

——. 2012. Seeing Madness: Insanity, Media, and Visual Culture. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz.

——. 2020. Mental Traveler: A Father, A Son, and a Journey through Schizophrenia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tobias Dietrich is Lecturer in Film Studies and Film Mediation at the Center for Media, Communication and Information Research (ZeMKI) of the University of Bremen, Germany; His on-going dissertational project centers the “Aesthetic Dimension of Mental Illness”.

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