THE SANITY OF INDIVIDUALS, THE MADNESS OF CROWDS: EMILY DICKINSON

In spite of her cleverness and uniqueness, I have never been very fond of the poetry of Emily Dickinson, though I respect it for what it is.  I know she has earned her own place in the history of poetry, but I find her in general too abstract — too much living in her mind — which is no doubt due in part to her rather reclusive and withdrawn lifestyle.  One cannot help but be impressed, however, by her insistence on the right to her own individuality.

English: Daguerreotype of the poet Emily Dicki...
Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today I would like to discuss one of her “didactic” poems.  A didactic poem is one that has teaching as its purpose rather than aesthetic pleasure alone.  And what this poem teaches is very important.  It is called Much Madness is Divinest Sense.

Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense the starkest madness.
’T is the majority
In this, as all, prevails. 
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur,—you ’re straightway dangerous,
And handled with a chain.

To me, the chief application of this poem is to the distinction between the thoughts and beliefs and actions of the masses in contrast to those of the individual.

It is all too common in human history, that when the majority of a society were set on a given course of belief or action, any individual who spoke out against it did so at his or her own risk.

We can trace this lesson back far in human history.  The Greek philosopher Socrates was sentenced to death in Athens for “corrupting the youth” and “impiety.”  His method of reasoned questioning and its results ran contrary, so the authorities held, to the best interests of the people of Athens.

There are countless examples of the persecution of individuals who have held opinions contrary to those of the dominant religion, particularly when that religion had (or has) strong state or political support.

However, many of the great advances of humankind have come about precisely because of individuals who held opinions contrary to those held by the masses in general.  We need only recall Galileo, who found by observation that the traditional view of the earth being the center of the Solar System was quite mistaken; and Charles Darwin, whose investigations revealed unquestionably that all creatures were not created in a few days time a few thousand years previously, but instead had evolved from lower forms of life over eons of time.

Then too, there were those like the Quaker John Woolman, who spoke out very early against the abomination of slavery.  And there were the women who first began speaking for the right of women to vote, and often suffered terribly for it.

One can think of innumerable causes in which individuals stood against the majority, much to the eventual benefit of society.  But for those few who speak out, life can be very difficult.  They are often stigmatized as radical or as mad.  In the Soviet Union and Communist China, one way of treating dissidents has been to remove them from society and shut them away in psychiatric wards, as though they were mental patients.

Dickinson points out in her poem, however, that the madness of such people is often actually the most heavenly of common sense, to the “discerning eye,” that is, to those who can see clearly and rationally, distinguishing what is real from what is merely illusion  and mass opinion.

She tells us further that “much sense” can be “the starkest madness,” that is, what the majority finds sensible and “true” can be the plainest, strongest insanity.

We do not have to look far for examples of that.  Look at the people of Nazi Germany caught up in the idolization of Hitler and his lunacy.  It was very risky to take an individual position then against the position of the masses.  Look at the American South at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, and how those who spoke in favor of equal rights did so at peril of their lives.

It still goes on today.  Those holding a view different from that of the masses, particularly in any matter relating to politics or religion, are often stigmatized, stereotyped as “crazy” in order to discredit their ideas and push them out of the public mind and view.  But it is often precisely these individuals, who think for themselves and not by what everyone else is saying and doing, who lead humankind forward in sudden, bold steps.

Individualism in thought has always been, and still is, in some societies, dangerous.  Whether someone is perceived as sane or mad can depend on whether his or her views fit those of the majority or not:

’T is the majority
In this, as all, prevails.

It is the majority — that is, the beliefs and will of the majority — that prevail, that have the stronger position.  If the majority decides that supposed witches are to be burned and homosexuals put in prison, or women kept isolated and at home, then that is considered “sane” and all opposition madness or impiety.

’T is the majority
In this, as all, prevails.
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur,—you ’re straightway dangerous,
And handled with a chain.

So, those who want to be accepted, those who don’t want trouble, know which way the wind blows, as did Dickinson:

Assent, and you are sane;
Demur,—you ’re straightway dangerous,
And handled with a chain.

Agree with the masses, with those in social, political or religious power, and you are considered “sane.”  But if you “demur,” if you show reluctance or refusal in going along with the accepted belief or behavior, you suddenly become perceived as dangerous, like someone with severe mental illness, and you are “handled with a chain,” treated accordingly.

“Handled with a chain” takes us back to the evil days when the mentally ill could be placed in asylums and chained.

Take the case of Plympton House Lunatic Asylum, in England:

In July 1843 a woman who had given birth to a child but five or six weeks before was found to be confined in ‘a straight waistcoat and chained by the arm and leg to a bench’.  Ten curable patients and two idiots were being looked after by a lunatic who was himself kept in chains to prevent him from escaping.  As if that was not bad enough, later that year the lady mentioned above was found to be chained not only by her leg but by another passing around her waist and an iron ring with two hand locks restraining her hands.  In total, two private patients and nineteen paupers were found to be chained to their beds each night at that time.”

Of course Dickinson’s poem applies also to the person in ordinary society who is “different” in opinions and actions, like Dickinson herself, with her seclusion and her “innovative and unorthodox” beliefs and opinions.  It is likely this smaller scale she had in mind, given that no doubt many in her time and place considered her odd, but it applies as well to the greater scale, in which a person who stands against the prevailing beliefs often pays for it dearly.  And yet it is often these same people who have led humans to transcend pettiness and ignorance and irrationality.

That is why freedom of belief (including freedom from belief) and freedom of speech and expression are so critically important to a free and progressive society.  And we should include in that universal freedom of education — the right of anyone, male or female, to learn to read and write, and to be exposed to all kinds of contrary views and opinions in the open marketplace of ideas.  And of course the right to come to one’s own conclusions and personal beliefs, and to express them freely and openly.

David