On Ajax’s becoming mad

Overcome by rage, Ajax would have his revenge. He would steal upon the Greek camp, would bleed Odysseus alongside the other men who had had a hand in the scheme. Achilles had died and his armor was rightfully his–for who greater than he, what warrior more mighty and more deserving, what man nobler? Odysseus was ever a cunning one, ever a man of fine words and misdeeds. But no more. So disgraced, Ajax would be so no more.

Except that Athena intervenes before,

restrain[ing] him, casting on his eyes 
O’ermastering notions of that baneful ecstasy
That turned his rage on flocks and mingled droves
Of booty yet unshared, guarded by herdsmen.

*

So a “god contrives,” making men seem beasts, and Ajax is carried into “heaven-sent madness.” It is a madness so utter and complete that he spends his wrath on cattle and sheep. He butchers. A few he brings back to his tent and tortures with irresistible, unspeakable force. He is found in the morning lying amid the blood, ram’s guts all around him.

And how does Sophocles describe the onset of Ajax’s madness? As a “turbid wildering fury.”As a “maddening plague.” As “madness [that] has seized” him. As if “his spirit” had become “diseased.” In his plot for revenge, he was “foiled,” “thwarted” by a god such that, under Athena’s power, “even the base may escape the nobler.”

Sophocles’ account of madness as a mood that comes over one could be regarded as fancy or myth in favor of a more modern psychiatric evaluation of insanity or, as I think, it could be taken as being about as phenomenologically perspicacious as we can hope for. For when we are overcome by madness, we do not ‘lose our heads’, as if the ‘problem’ could be pointed to as residing only and just and entirely inside our heads. Surely, this can’t be right. Surely, in madness we lose our way of being, our entire standing in the world. We lose our world and we thrown into a world of madness.

Here, we may be tempted to draw on a metaphysic according to which the objects Ajax sees are not objects in reality. This temptation would suppose that there is a true world that the rest of us who are not in madness can see clearly behind the one that Ajax sees. The true world alerts us to the fact that Ajax is only seeing illusions which his ‘mind’ has ‘draped over’ reality. What is apparent, on this picture, is not what is real but the two can be said to exist within the same basic order of reality.

This temptation should be resisted out of honesty, accuracy, and humility. To begin with, madness is not a state of the mind or an extrinsic property that I privately experience but rather is a way of being that comes over me, totally coloring my world, coloring it so utterly, the bluing and reddening and yellowing so full as to make this the only world, this world I experience, the world a world only of bluings and reddenings and yellowings. Second, the mood is not ‘mine’ as if I could ‘claim’ it but is the world into which I am thrown, the world in which I now dwell. The world, so to speak, has me. Third, madness, so long as I am truly in it, does not admit of the memory of a ‘before’ or ‘after.’ Afterward, I may say that I was mad and may point to certain ‘actions,’ yet this retrospective pointing at singular actions misses this way of being, the way of maddening: there was no single action, only a seamless cloth, no more or other than an ongoing experience of maddening.

Overmastered, enthralled, the madman perceives this his only world as enraging and the rage-of-this-world finds its attention turned upon the beings that are the source of enraging. The madman does not act; he perceives and spends his time out of a time in the way a madman does.

We can thus go back to the opening paragraphs and remove all subjects and objects, all actions performed by subjects, and in the very same breath put long hyphenated verbs in their places. Thus: He spends his wrath wrath spending itself; He butchers discharging; he tortures spending, then resting.

We who are not in the throes of madness must imagine Ajax mad. Truly, we cannot grasp the qualia of madness–its everywhereness, its every feel and sense and view, its all-envelopingness. Nonetheless, we must imagine him mad for only by doing so can we immunize ourselves from false moralism and dangerous idiocy. The burden falls on our shoulders. Are we strong enough to hold the burden up before our eyes?

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