I was recently reminded of the Joseph Campbell quote “The psychotic drowns in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight.” Many people who have psychotic episodes seem to have a heightened sense of prophecy or insight. Sometimes it is a vision that eventually manifests, and sometimes it is merely a delusion. Sometimes it borders on both.
I also recently picked up the Philip K. Dick VALIS trilogy for my train reading. I haven’t re-visited this science fiction series since my twenties, and this time I was much more tuned in to the fact that the mystical visions of the book, among which are that the Roman Empire never ended and we are still living in a Black Iron Prison from that age, are inspired by severe mental illness. I like how Dick, who wrote the series based on his own visions, hints that there may be some divine secret truth behind the visions even though they are fueled by madness.
I’ve never experienced prophecies or psychic visions. My closest experience is the rapid-fire revelations and insights that come with mania. These would range from silly to substantial. What is probably my favorite fictional book about manic depression, Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, captures them so well. The main character is a brilliant scientist who, smart enough to realize mania gives him unique insights, decides to taper off his lithium just enough to hit the “sweet spot” where he can experience some of that divine inspiration without “tipping over” into full-blown mania. You can guess how that goes—much like judging the “sweet spot” for any drug, the problem is, once your judgment is inhibited you can no longer—well—judge. He experiences insights both silly and substantial. In one scene he holds a package of Land O’Lakes Butter and muses how the cover girl is holding a stick of butter with the same logo on it, and that logo has the same girl holding the same butter with the same logo, into infinity. On the other hand, he has an insightful revelation about time I still remember and think is very true–the reason time seems to move faster when we’re older is because we’ve experienced more of it, and we know how long it takes and are more accustomed to it.
My own mania came with similar mile-a-minute insights and revelations. Many of them were probably nonsensical and I remember some people telling me such. I seem to remember at one point I said I had a secret language where I could read vending machines, and I was also convinced I could make objects in my apartment move around by practicing feng shui. But there’s no denying there are some things I wrote down and I thought were pretty insightful that I expanded on later, and there are still some things I did that to this day puzzle me how I even figured out to do—one notable one stowing a taxidermied bobcat in the undercarriage of a plane on a trip home from Austin, Texas. I wouldn’t say I was thinking “smarter,” because clearly a lot of these things were irrational, but I was definitely thinking “differently.” And like anything else, if you’re having that many revelations in rapid succession, a few of them will probably hold a nugget of truth.
That’s one thing that’s attractive about mania in my experience—at least to yourself you *feel* brilliant, and sometimes, at least at first, people react to that enthusiasm and those insights well and seem to confirm it. Some point becomes the “tipping point” where it spirals out of control and hits a crash. I think this is the hard lesson the main character in The Marriage Plot learns—there is no “sweet spot.” The psychotic drowns in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight.
2 thoughts on “The Mystic Swims With Delight”
I always took that quote to mean we get to choose to swim. With pleasure. Of course in my own battle with mental illness I went east over west. I think maybe it’s more a matter of who we have to teach us if anyone. Or how deep we get tossed in, or allow ourselves to go. Some folks get tossed in and drown right away. Others cling to the rocks. Others still manage to find a buddy to learn alongside. I don’t have answers, but I am floating out here just fine, for now.
Regardless, I like your style. Take good care. ❤
Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I realize I may have sounded a little unintentionally dark there. I think we can certainly learn to swim, and even to use what I think are the gifts, perhaps even mystical in nature, of mental illness. I suppose I was thinking of the drowning more as full-on psychosis, and it was also depicted that way in the documentary where I recently saw it used.
That is a nice use of metaphor, and I’m glad that you’re floating–goodness knows that’s doing well right now! I think you for taking the time to read and to share your insight and your kind comment.