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Entertaining Madness Print E-mail
Written by Raven   

The small town I live in doesn't have an indy movie house. We're lucky to have a decent video store that has an extensive library of foreign and independent films. Sometimes it might be many months before I get to see a film. So it is that I finally saw "Pi", nearly nine months after its release.

I watched Pi with my fourteen year old son. Shot in black & white, Pi is fast-paced, hard-edged and disturbing; Eraserhead meets MTV. The protagonist is Max, a brilliant mathematician who is trying to discern the underlying patterns in the stock market. Max lives in a tiny Manhattan apartment that is cobwebbed with wires, layered with oscilloscopes and monitors, with the constant benediction of the stock ticker streaming overhead like some relentless techno-prayer wheel. He doesn't care about money, in being able to predict the next day's or the next month's stock prices. The girl next door flirts with him, but he's not interested, he only wants to find the pattern so he can express it in pure numbers. The neighbor children pester him to perform incredible calculations in his head, something he does with increasing reluctance and agitation.

Max is a little obsessed. His obsession is driving him crazy. Max has attacks of madness that he tries to control with drugs. Max is having no luck at this at all. Max hallucinates a lot. He encounters a naked brain on the subway steps and pokes at it with a pen, as if it were some dangerous insect. He finds the brain again in his sink, and bashes it to a pulp with his power drill.

Tantalizing fragments of a pattern emerge from his studies, and Max isn't the only one interested. There are some Wall Street suits who want the knowledge to help them make more money. There's a gang of Kabalists who think he has discovered the long lost secret Name of God. And all the while, Max is going crazy. I could go in to more detail, but it not my intent to review Pi, or deconstruct it. Pi is worth seeing, I think, but it is certainly not for everyone. What surprised me was my response.

Max's madness was attractive.

Why should that be? His attacks are torturous affairs that overwhelm and exhaust him. In between, he seeks to know an unknowable that is just out of his reach. He cannot stop figuring, computing, trying to find the pattern. (Some brilliant mathematician. He appears never to have heard of Kurt Godel, chaos theory, or complex systems. But hey, he's nuts.) Max is miserable and out of control. What is it about Max's insanity that I find attractive? Why would I want to go there?

We think madness is only a step away. All we have to do is let go, follow all those urges, scratch where it itches, let those nagging little voices in the back of the head take over and voila! - into an institution if you have some money or insurance, or wandering homeless, muttering, if you don't. The obvious attraction here is that of being able to walk away from the daily grind, let go of the thousand concerns and pretenses and demands. But that isn't it. The daily grind isn't that bad for me. It sucks coming home tired from the day job, not having the energy to write or create. Sometimes it's hard having all the responsibilities of a 45 year old husband and father, and that burden grows tiresome at times, but the rewards far outstrip the downside. My life is mostly good, I live in a great place, have a decent job, enough food, enough stuff. So what's the problem?

There is a sequence wherein Max is saved from the Wall Street heavies by the Hasidic Kabalists, who spirit him back to their lair, where the elder rabbi attempts to get him to divulge a 216 digit fragment of pi that keeps turning up in Maxi's work. They are convinced that this Kabalistic number will reveal the hidden Name of God, lost when the Temple was destroyed; that this will restore them as the Chosen Ones, restore their power by allowing them to invoke God again. Max defies them, telling them that it was given to him and not to them. This is a telling moment, for it reveals the true nature of his craziness.

There is the madness of giving in to one's urges and losing control, going postal. There is the madness of brain chemistry gone bad, imposing depression or schizophrenia on the unsuspecting mind. (And perhaps there is an element of this in Max.) There are all the other little neuroses and obsessions and delusions and phobias that we suffer from. Then there is that special madness, the divine madness.

The earth roils beneath our feet, shimmering in and out of existence so quickly we cannot see it. The universe spins above us, filled with fires so bright they are beyond seeing, holes so deep they are beyond blackness, distances so vast they are beyond comprehension. Creation boils forth around us, endless and fecund. Our minds filter this down to a manageable size, reducing the eternal to the everyday, for otherwise we would go insane. (Or so we tell ourselves)

Max is one of the holy madmen.

Other kinds of madness are descents, giving up the rational for the irrational. Max ascends into madness, trying to move from the rational to the trans-rational. His failure lies in trying to understand it, rather than experiencing it and knowing it. He tries to wrap his mind around it, but the container is too small and fails under the stress. In the end, Max takes the power drill to his own skull. He sits on his park bench, damaged, smiling his perplexed smile at the children, unable to do even the simplest of sums, unable even to grasp that he once had this towering talent. Icarus fallen.

Sometimes I go out into the quiet mornings and walk, feeling the earth beneath my feet, the power of creation humming there, like some enormous hidden transformer, a bazillion volts of reality. The bark of the trees shimmers as I pass, alive in some other way. I once spent a whole weekend where everything I saw simply glowed with light, superimposed on the normal everyday appearance. (And it wasn't an acid flashback, either.) At night, the ancient light descends from the heavens to embrace the earth. The power hums there too, sometimes, and sometimes is silent.

Tempting me. To step outside the bounds of what is known and make the leap. To stop walking with a foot in both worlds and walk with them both in that world. To surrender to the divine madness. And yet, I hesitate. There is a son to finish raising, and …what? Maybe I'm scared or unsure. Maybe a foot in both worlds is the way to go. Maybe when I'm older and done with working and raising, I can wander the streets with the dirt sparking at my heels and the heavens spinning in my eyes, speaking in holy tongues and laughing. Maybe.

And that is the attraction. To take that step.

I wanted to hold Max and soothe his brow and tell him that it was ok, that the universe really was this strange enormous place filled with this shimmering power. I wanted to tell him to stop trying to grasp it, that understanding came from accepting and experiencing it. I wanted to weep because no one ever told me this.

We can feel this living universe, vibrating around us and within us. We can feel this power. It wants to explode from our breasts, it fills our every breath, it sings in the earth and the sky around us, it fills us up. This is not insanity, it is the reality that we lose sight of as we live our lives. (The mind goes where our attention goes.) If we are aware, we struggle to understand, to fit the reality into whatever religious, philosophical, or scientific framework we choose or are taught. No mother or father or teacher took us aside and said: "This world is a mystery and it is filled with power. When you feel this, it's real. You're not crazy. Not crazy at all."

We teach our children many things: our fears, our beliefs, our delusions and illusions. Four days after watching Max go crazy, I came to the realization that it was time to teach my son something. To take him out, far from the noise of civilization, and teach him to listen to the power humming in the earth and sky, and in his own heart. That this is a mystery that cannot be contained in any belief or system. That when all the distractions and burdens and terrors of ordinary life seem to be the only reality, this power will sustain him and comfort him. That no matter where he is, he can quiet his mind and feel it, and let a little bit of that divine madness, that divine power, into his life.

That it's ok to be a little crazy, son. Just like your old man.*

- March 1999

*We had an awesome snowstorm in the mountains here in April, and my son and I went hiking in the forests. Somewhere along the way I talked with my son about that power humming in the earth and sky. Know what he said? "If I pay attention, I can feel it just behind my jawbone, Dad."

Just like his old man. What a relief!


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