The Way of the Wacko

Is madness an integral part of wisdom?


| May/June 2002



Sri Ramakrishna was the greatest saint of 19th-century India―a sage who influenced luminaries like Mahatma Gandhi, Aldous Huxley, and India’s Nobel Prize-winning author Rabin-dranath Tagore. He was also a very strange man who sometimes installed himself on the altar of the temple he supervised, and once spent a considerable period of time worshiping his own genitals.

We Westerners expect Eastern masters to act a little outlandish. But what about Socrates? He was—let’s be honest—an odd little man who spent most of his time in the streets, avoiding his always-angry wife, Xanthippe, and collaring anybody who would talk to him—driven to do so, he confessed, by a daemon (spirit) who would not let him alone.

Then there’s John Nash, the schizophrenic, Nobel-winning mathematician depicted in the film A Beautiful Mind, who told his biographer, “The ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously.”

No doubt about it: Some of the heroes and heroines of human civilization have smudged, or erased, the line between great truth and craziness. As the eminently sane 17th-century poet John Dryden put it, “Great wits are sure to madness near allied.” But what if madness were not just an occasional propensity of wise people, but an integral part of wisdom itself?

That’s a conclusion you’re tempted to reach when you look at the long tradition of what could be called crazy wisdom—a rich strain of illogic, paradox, and play that erupts throughout history, in many cultures, to interrupt, mess with, and renew the ideas and faith of an era. Crazy wisdom is intuitive, boundary-busting, ever-youthful, turbulent, scandalous. Fools, clowns, jesters, tricksters, whacked-out religious reformers, God-drunk poets—they’ve shaped our world as significantly as their saner brothers and sisters, and unlike a lot of the sober-minded ones, still have the power to fascinate, delight, and dismay us.

Crazy wisdom goes deeper than humor, satire, or simple bad behavior. It puts something at risk—possibly our sanity, certainly our stake in the stabilizing effect of conventional wisdom. Often it goes after the very social and spiritual structures that allow us to make sense of the world: our trust in language, for instance, or our certainty that the boundaries we see are real. In the name of something more important than our comfort, this mad wisdom makes us uncomfortable; but it accompanies the discomfort with a laugh and an 'ah-ha!' that fill us with energy, joy, a little fear, and a renewed sense of life.