‘A Philosophy of Madness’ Book Forum: Part Five

Wouter Kusters offers reflections in the light of four reviews A Philosophy of Madness: The Experience of Psychotic Thinking (The MIT Press, 2020) by Wouter Kusters (translated by Nancy Forest-Flier).

This is Part Five of a Book Forum on A Philosophy of Madness. The Forum consists of four reviews and a reflection from the author.

For Part One by Jeremy Spandler, click here.

For Part Two by Emma McCabe, click here.

For Part Three by Becki Smith, click here.

For Part Four by Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed, click here.

The Attractions of the Black Sun. On communities and communication.

When Tehseen Noorani asked me to work on this review project of my book I wholeheartedly agreed, and it has been a pleasure to read, and to be read by, attentive, compassionate, and critical readers and reviewers. Now, in turn, how could I review the reviews? Where will this lead us? How many views, reviews, and reviews of reviews are possible? Does such a dialogue – or discursive polyphony – lead us closer to an unveiling of a naked truth? Or would this lead us further astray from what was once seen in some kind of original view, primordial vision, or first opening of the eyes?

Writing my book was a kind of letter writing. While writing I referred back to experiences that had a sense of truth around them, which could be called religious, psychotic, or mystical. And I also reached forward to a final expression and comprehension of the truth of such experiences. As Emma McCabe writes: “Kusters’ madman [sic] becomes the mystic, both in pursuit of and pursued by some sort of experiential truth. In his quest for this truth, Kusters’ madman—or, rather, Kusters as the madman (and the maddened mystical philosopher)—pursues meaning to the very limits of language and into the apophatic realm of God.”

Moreover, while writing I did not only refer back to an earlier experience: that earlier experience or event was also itself repeated, amplified, evoked as a present event or effect. This is also described by others, e.g., by Huub Mous: “…deep within myself something had started writing, seemingly of its own accord. God himself had descended into my language. His word had become flesh and had taken up residence in my body. My writing was… an immediate experience of something divine that took shape in the writing itself, a process in which, in my experience, God revealed himself directly” (Kusters, 623). I incorporated such fragments into the body of my text to testify to that ineffable obscure centre around which we orbit. It is a centre of nothingness, a non-place, but also the place from where everything – or at least, almost everything– begins. As Emma McCabe writes: “The opening caused by the beginning is therefore bottomless, but as Hass states “it is precisely because of this deep and fathomless zeroing that something other gains its possibility. The new is made available out of the nothing that centres the O, the Other, beyond.””

While writing this extended letter, it was not given that it would ever reach addressees. Once there were no addressees but only an imagined space, filled with voices, memories, and thoughts that remain ideal, fictional, that cannot find any grounding in the real. As Emma McCabe writes: “we are left with an incomprehensible absence that can never be fully grasped. Instead, this absence haunts the language of existence like a spectre, an apparition of the chaotic infinite which remains perpetually beyond the remit of all worldly description.” Thought and being disperse, every split second, and also thought that seemingly expresses itself in writing that stands the test of time would not bring being back from the void of nothingness. The writer and reader share this absence, and can only meet each other at an ideal vanishing point of communication from where solitary ways are spun out into ink and body patterns that radiate and disperse, and cover the unattainable real with signs and symbols. On the basis of such a sharing, such a communion, we exchange positions, in the name of those who have gone, those who have left us alone, and those who have yet to come, those that will be left alone by us (see also my section 13.5 on Jacques Lacan and thought experiments).

The dead voices and dead letters that permeate my book would have been lost, had they not been read, and now they have at least been received. That is, they have become the burden of the reviewers and future readers, and so I am glad to hear Becki Smith saying: “These shared experiences of abnormalities in perception of time, space, and sensory input are a core component of the online neurodivergent movement.” I hope that my analyses and reflections on concrete material, conceptual and verbal outputs yield extra energy and inspiration to de-pathologise what is deemed so often as illnesses or disorders, and to steal back what was stolen from us: this ‘haunting, spectre-like absence’ (McCabe) that they try to turn into identifiable, manipulable data and properties of the body or mind. And I also share Becki Smith’s aims, “to build solidarity and create better communities for atypical people”, although my route to shared life and community runs in my book via other diversions and deviations than via the discourse around neurodiversity.

(c) Artist and Photographer Kees de Graaff.

Such a route today could start from an experience or an observation on a blog by Elijah MacGabbanh (2021):

“Throughout my stay in Highgate I began to better articulate myself and my thoughts. I entered Julian’s world which felt mostly like my own. Between the two of us, Julian and Myself, we instilled certain values amongst the other patients and we created our vision of a small-scale Utopia on the ward. You would think that all of this was just a temporary-psychotic-delusion that would eventually disintegrate when we all went our separate ways. But we never went our separate ways because in each other we found something we’d all been missing up until that point. In the depths of my grandiose delusions at the time it felt like a movement. We were going to show the world this amazing thing we had discovered. We called it “it”. And once you experienced “it”, it was hard to ever go back. You knew it was there, you knew it existed but you weren’t alone in thinking so. That was the really important factor that kept us all together in my opinion. We understood each other on this level and we realised this kind of understanding was rare to find.”

The particular beginning and paving of the route in my book starts from what I called ‘scratch language’, and I suggested such a first sense of Utopia (MacGabbanh) or ‘better community’ (Smith) as follows:

“There are always those moments when you come in contact with others from the extrapyramidal or transmarginal zone via secret channels. As Thomas Pynchon put it, “You had thought of solipsism, and imagined the structure to be populated—on your level—by only, terribly, one. No count on any other levels. But it proves to be not quite that lonely. Sparse, yes, but a good deal better than solitary.” We hold onto each other by means of silent knocks. Egyptian Esperanto is a monistic language: there is no difference between vowels and consonants, nouns and verbs, first and second person. Actually, it’s a language that contains just one word, which can only be pronounced noiselessly—or screamed out miles and miles above the rooftops” (Kusters, 652).

But how do we further get out of this paradigmatic state where each is locked up in an isolation cell, an imaginary space, a monk cell, an abyss or temporal hiatus disconnected from past and future? How do we escape from solitary confinement and attain and construct ‘better communities’? How can we open up micro-bubbles to outsiders, researchers, and all kinds of peers? How do we unfold our implicit esoteric experiences and turn our secrets into explicit exoteric communication and gifts? On the one hand we are quite eager to open up, to spread the word, and the messages. But if we are not, still we are forced to, because when we would remain catatonically stuck in inner crystal castles, the technological and pharmaceutical apparatus of capture will do everything they can to rob us of the diamonds of the soul, as Teresa of Avila called it. There is no other way than communication.

A possible way of opening and sharing is what Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed calls the “experiential approach to madness”. Occassionally I suggest that an hallucinogen like LSD, what used to be called psychoso-mimetic, could indeed be taken for mimetic, experiential or hermeneutic reasons to come closer to what psychosis is. However, I add a readers’ warning: “Anyone who wants to know what it’s like to be psychotic but has no interest in reading my book might try experimenting with large amounts of marijuana and hashish—or even better, LSD, mescaline, or XTC. The risk, of course, is that drugs cost far more in terms of time, energy, and money than a book—not to mention all the grim consequences” (Kusters, xxi). A more fruitful way of opening, of exploring other minds, worlds, and realities, is philosophy, and Rashed remarks rightly: “Kusters believes we can go about this in a number of ways, key among which is philosophy.” Rashed doubts however, whether philosophy can also account for seemingly ununderstandable utterances he heard when working with people with prodromal psychosis like “why are there doorknobs”. Mohammed Rashed estimates that in some cases of madness and mysticism understanding must fail and he concludes: “beyond a certain point of scepticism and detachment, what is being interrogated is not a shared truth or dogma, but the interrogator’s own embeddedness in the world, which he can no longer take for granted.” I think, however, and hope to have shown in my book that what Rashed also calls an “unanalysable bodily intentionality”, does not have to be taken as endpoint of analysis, as a kind of bedrock reality, let alone as a pretext for a one-sided decision to end communication, but can also be approached by engaging with the wider linguistic, cultural and social backgrounds and power structures of what is going on in such speech events. And although I agree that this does not have direct implications for the emancipation of mental health patients or for reducing stigma, I think it may help to navigate and explore worlds that may seem incommensurable, but that are still surprisingly closer than expected – and often wished for.

I would like to discuss two examples, that were only partly in my book, to challenge the difference between reading and writing, between giving and receiving, between observation and experience. Let’s take a look at Nicholas van Cusa’s seemingly unanalyzable ‘visions’, and his evocations and argumentations around infinity and a ‘coincidence of opposites’. In Chapter 11, The Infinity Trap, I discuss these notions as indicative of both madness and mysticism, and I elaborate on “infinity” as one of the four concepts, in which the flash of “seeing ‘it’”, may find its shelter and receive a bearable duration. Michel de Certeau, the Jesuit historian and scholar of early modern mysticism, analyses Cusa’s work On the Vision of God (1453) as a kind of ‘thought experiment’, a verbal performance that represents while also constructing and evoking a visionary experience. De Certeau closely follows Cusa’s life, his writings, and his adventures in and around Europe, and demonstrates how in Cusa’s text something is argued, narrated and comes to light that, in the re-narration of De Certeau himself, lies on the border between madness and mysticism. De Certeau writes: “Nicholas of Cusa poses the questions: what does it mean to “see”? how can a “vision” bring a new world into being?” (1987: 3), and lucidly writes in the conclusion of his article:

“The Cusan theosophy may be in the last analysis the discourse of a derangement [French: folie, W.K.]… we see the entire work bringing to light the strange consciousness on the author’s part of a madness with which he punctuates his texts, as if he were anticipating an end of non-acceptance… The text recounts its own relation to an obscure center circumscribed by an incapacity, a deficit, a derangement… That black sun haunts the discourse, the solitary experience of a traveler’s gaze. Nicholas of Cusa recognizes in that gaze the lightning flash (“at once all and each”) which never ceases to be his own surprise; what he “sees” is his own madness, is himself… His mind is only the mirror where it appears. For that self-imposing experience, which is thus “easy” yet impossible, unthinkable… Cusa gives himself credit for just one thing… to “hear” what other witnesses have to say and to attempt in that way to open up to that folly a path in history” (ibid.: 34; 35).

These quotes bring various lines together through the words of a witness, Michel de Certeau. First of all, de Certeau shows how Cusa has succeeded to bring forward a kind of community and mutual understanding around a vision, notions of infinity, and the coincidence of opposites. Cusa did not attain this by repeating and amplifying expressions of his own unanalysable experiences and bodily intentions. Instead he used shared language, references within the tradition, and understandable reasoning to show, articulate and demonstrate what could be seen. Secondly, de Certeau stresses in Cusa’s method, that ‘it’ only works via the detour of the other, via the recognition in a ‘shared Utopia’, and a belief in a communication of perspectives from witnesses in other positions. Thirdly, de Certeau’s text corroborates and expresses intuitions that notions of mysticism and madness, in spite of their typically distinct domains of use today, have ‘something’ in common.

A quite different kind of witness is Gershom Scholem when he writes on nihilistic mysticism. Scholem’s nihilistic mystic denies frantically the possibility of determining what ‘it’ is, and negates any possibility of positively stating what (it) is, including all discourse and tradition that claim any knowledge or access to the substance of being. His prime example of nihilist mysticism is the 17th century Jewish mystical movement of Sabbatianism, of which its Messiah/leader, Sabbatai Zevi, has been described, in hindsight, as bipolar. Nihilist mystics oppose all traditions – whether Cusean, Teresean, Christian, Islamic or Jewish – that have developed means and methods, rituals and language, to represent ‘it’, to contain ‘it’, or to inscribe ‘it’ into an order or community. Scholem writes:

“In the extreme case, he [the nihilist mystic] will even claim to be above all authority, to be his own law. The shapelessness of the original experience can even lead to the dissolution of all shapes in the interpretation. It’s that perspective; destructive, but not unrelated to the original drive of the mystic, which allows us to understand the borderline case of the nihilistic mystic as that of an all too legitimate heir to mystical shocks, albeit one rejected with shudder by everyone” (1960: 20, translation by WK).

This characteristic of nihilistic mysticism corresponds quite well to the great temptation of madness, referred to by Edward Podvoll (1990: 144):

“As he [the mad(wo)man] has transgressed the limits and the rules that usually limit the mind, so feels he that he has also risen above all other conventions, restrictions and laws… these include conventional decency, all human ritual systems, linguistic rules, and every form of secular or cosmic authority. He feels that all laws are ragged constructs and that he can create them and make them disappear with the flick of a hand. He can enter or exit any universe or “game” at his discretion.”

In this nihilist mystic way of thinking, the usual order is denied, negated, and subverted, and it is precisely through total negation and destruction that the true fullness of life is discovered. Scholem continues:

“It is the destructive fullness of anarchy that has all of the Luciferian glitz and positive tones and overtones that resonate in that word “life”. The nihilistic mystic not only descends into the abyss in which the freedom of the living is born. He not only goes through all the outer shapes and forms as they arise to him without being tied to them, he not only denies wagering and laws and abrogates them in the experience of “life”, but he tramples them, he desecrates them, in order to get to the elixir of life … It is only natural that, as noted above, this undialectical relationship of the mystic to his experience presents itself from the horizon of human community as a decline into the demonic.” (1960: 17, translation by WK).

For broader questions around madness today these quotes are enigmatic. We may recognise here the singular mad(wo)man in his/her raving in an agony of ‘seeing it’, and claiming an evergrowing mental, dialogical, and actual space to develop and express his/her creative vitalism, fueled by a thriving antithetical, undialectical attitude. Also on a super-individual, social level, we may identify currents of mystical nihilism in a wide range of movements and activities. These may take the form of liberations and secessions from suffocating human communities, in search of absolute freedom and an ‘elixir of life’. Some may describe these as a ‘decline into the demonic’, but depending on one’s assessment of the human community in question, also as a kind of liberating soul-searching. With this mysticism of vital denialism or creative nothingness, Scholem refers first of all to a particular history of Jewish mysticism. But just as in the case of de Certeau’s Cusa, there are similar motives to the questions and ideas of today. Since the atheist turn in the 19th century, nihilism in a wealth of forms belongs to the central concerns of philosophy. This is quite apparent from Jean-Paul Sartre’s fiction work Nausea, and is explicitly philosophically theorised in his Being and Nothingness. In this founding work of existentialism, Sartre considers the concept, or experience, of nothingness as the key to human freedom (see my section 12.2.2 on Sartre and madness as an extreme form of existentialism). An even more gloomy, noncompassionate, and ahuman style of such nihilist madness is vehemently and disquietingly brought further in Nick Land’s Thirst for Annihilation, and more soberly, detachedly, in the rationalist philosophical nihilism of Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound.

These correspondences through times and between traditions and communities bring me to the question of the relation between belief and non-belief today. One reviewer, Jeremy Spandler, wonders whether my book is committed to some kind of belief or religion – Christianity, even. This is an important issue, since the involvement with spirits, mystical experiences, religious apparitions, and thoughts, imaginations, and fantasies of a transcendent yonder form the contents and themes of numerous mad processes. Not seldom is the outcome of a psychotic journey either a turn away from established religious doctrine, a conversion towards a newly-found creed, or a change or deepening of an earlier, either religious or non-religious, worldview. Now, my book could be considered as an abstract description, in concrete terms, of what such a movement of ‘turning’, ‘conversion’, ‘change’, or ‘deepening’ implies, without being committed to a particular worldview itself, neither in madness, nor in philosophy. In fact, I agree with McCabe’s statement, quoting my book: “Kusters situates madness outside the dichotomies of faith/disbelief and presence/absence, citing, “perhaps the real “crazy people” are far beyond Nietzsche’s lamentations. Perhaps they have pushed their way through that point in the mirror where “above” and “below” come together, and they have erected a new world on the other side—cold, nocturnally dark.”

To conclude, I hope to have made clear for those who have not read my book how complex questions about communication and community proliferate from the domains of madness and mysticism. In this proliferation we could polyphonically continue the interchange forever, like in Michael Ende’s Neverending Story, but to end at the beginning, I want to thank the four reviewers very much for their reviews. And I hope that the omissions and neglect in my book, especially with respect to gender, will be counterbalanced and further explored by them, in order to throw further light on what can be seen, witnessed, viewed and reviewed.


Michel de Certeau (1987). The Gaze. Nicholas of Cusa. Diacritics, 17: 3, 2-38.

Elijah MacGabbanh (2021). Different Fish, Little Tank. Available at: https://elijahmacgabhann.wordpress.com/2021/08/19/different-fish-little-tank/ )

Edward Podvoll (1990). The Seduction of Madness: Revolutionary Insights into the World of Psychosis and a Compassionate Approach to Recovery at Home. New York: HarperCollins.

Gershom Scholem (1965). On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism. Translated by Ralph Manheim. New York: Schocken Books. Originally published as Zur Kabbala und ihrer Symbolik. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1960.

Wouter Kusters is a writer, philosopher and an expert by madness. He wrote Filosofie van de waanzin, in 2014, which won the Dutch Socrates Award for the best and most inspiring Dutch book in philosophy of the year. In 2020 it was published in English as A Philosophy of Madness, and translations into Chinese and Arabic will be published over the next two years. Wouter Kusters lives and writes in the Netherlands. Follow Wouter on Twitter @kstrw.

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