Untangling two words

[ cross-posted from Zenpundit ]

I’d like to take one small data-point and bring it into sharp focus with what lit critics would call a close reading of a two-word phrase from one of Loughner’s videos.

Maybe it’s because in French conscience means both what we’d call conscience and consciousness in English, when I read the weirdly stilted prose of Jared Loughner with its curious insistence on syllogism, the phrase “conscience dreaming” suggested “conscious dreaming” to me — and I wondered whether Loughner wasn’t perhaps thinking of the activity called “lucid dreaming” in which one knows while dreaming that one is dreaming, and begins to “direct” the dream in much the same way in which a film-maker directs a film.

The first quote in this DoubleQuote is from one of Loughner’s videos — the second, which confirms my hypothesis, quotes a friend of his.

I am not suggesting that “lucid dreaming” is responsible for Loughner’s actions — I’m not sure that anything or anyone is, including Loughner himself.

My point is that here as elsewhere, figuring out what the allusions in an unfamiliar rhetoric mean is an important step in understanding the mental processes that produce it.

Lucid dreaming is one clue in the tangled mess that was Loughner’s state of mind that day…

10 thoughts on “Untangling two words”

  1. Fifty years ago, when I was a medical student, I spent a summer working in a VA psychiatric hospital. My job was to do annual (Some of them were ten yearly) physicals on the patients as the psych residents did not want to do them. I spent hundreds of hours talking to these men. The chief of service was a professor of psychiatry at UCLA who was a terrific psychiatrist. What he taught me and what I learned from experience was that you can learn quite a lot about what is going on in these people’s minds but you must avoid their delusions. His advice was to avoid the “crazy talk” and answer the actual sense in what they are saying. By doing so, you can talk to the remaining sanity within the crazy person.

    On the day I was leaving to go back to school, one of the patients came to say goodbye. He had been shell shocked at Anzio and had been hospitalized ever since (This was 1962). He was the patient (Of 200 on the ward) who made the least sense in his usual conversation. Most of his speech was “word salad” as the term went. This was the early days of Thorazine and Stelazine so the patients were pretty much calm and some could discuss their delusions and hallucinations. They knew they were crazy without the medication.

    This fellow made the least sense but by concentrating very hard, I had been able to figure out what he was saying much of the time. He came to say goodbye and, in his elliptical speech, he conveyed that talking to me, in contrast to talking to other inmates, allowed him to emerge a bit from his psychosis. The image he used was an iceberg that would rise out of the water partly. Talking to the sane remnant in there made more of it appear.

    I expect Loughner might have been talking about something like that. At times, he was immersed in his psychosis and at times he could still deal with reality. He seemed to prefer the psychosis and delusions but that may not be accurate. It may suggest that part of him was still in there seeing reality. It is a shame that, because of the failure to get him help, his future is bleak no matter what the state of his psychosis.

  2. eventually virtual reality technology will advance to the point where people like loudner can inhabit their own little universes and play god there. the rest of us will then be able to enjoy the real world with only the minimal burden of keeping the wire heads hydrated. leftists in particular will flock to such a technology.

  3. Michael:

    Almost fifty years ago, I did a stint as an orderly in a “mental hospital” myself — it was one of two jobs I had immediately before going up to Oxford. Quite the eye-opener.

    Do you know Doris Lessing’s novel, Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971), by any chance? It shows the workings of a mind that cannot avoid speaking “elliptically” as you nicely put it, in such a way that we can easily read the literal meaning behind the figurative expression, the way we can with good poetry — but it also explains why the symbolic intent of the patient comes across as “word salad’ to his nurses and physicians. It’s a little masterpiece.

  4. What amazes me about this affair is how many people can ignore clear signs of mental illness in a friend or family member.

    I think it’s partly due to the fact that there are now millions of people who have similar signs of mental illness and it’s considered more or less “normal”. I’m talking about conspiracy theorists, “truthers”, people who believe in alien abductions, etc.

    I’m not saying all such people are crazy but it requires a certain succeptability of the mind to buy into these beliefs and I wouldn’t be surprised if a good percentage of conspiracy theorists have mental defects that could manifest in other, more dangerous ways.

    How many crazy theories does one need to believe in before others start to wonder about their sanity?

  5. Charles, I’ll have to find that book.

    The chief of our service was George Harrington, a memorable character and a great therapist. He was a great big guy, not fat, and walked with a limp from a car accident. His image was really a sort of talisman to many patients. Every Wednesday, we would have a staff conference. Everybody came including the men running the floor buffers. They were part of the team.

    He would have the staff bring a patient in and he would interview the patient and then go from that to teaching everyone. One day (I didn’t see it), they brought in a little guy who had been there for years, gave no one any trouble and whenever anybody talked to him, he would mumble word salad. Harrington asked how things were going and got the usual rambling nonsense. Finally, when he had finished, Harrington said to him (He was telling me the story and was a wonderful mimic), you think you’ve got trouble! Here’s what I have to deal with. He then proceeded to repeat almost word for the word the patient’s rambling delusional story. Before he was finished, the patient was laughing. He had been sane nobody knew how long. He was getting a free bed and three squares a day. Now, normal people don’t want to live in a nut house but this little guy was perfectly content there and all he had to do was recite his little speech whenever anybody on the staff talked to him.

    Harrington said he was out in a board and care home in a couple of months.

    I had a similar experience in the closed ward where they kept dangerous patients. I forget if I told this story here but this was a big black guy who had played football at USC and got the Order of the Palm, which is given to a few outstanding graduates. He had married Dean Acheson’s daughter. Then he became psychotic and was considered dangerous. I was there because I was learning about psychological testing. The psychologist told me that his test results were very odd, He did not seem to be psychotic and seemed to be joking and teasing the test series. One thing that schizophrenics do not have is a sense of humor. Who knows ? Remember this was 1962 when race relations were somewhat different, especially for a high achiever as he had been.

  6. People believe all kinds of things. What matters is what they do. Most people who believe in crazy conspiracies and whatnot don’t commit murders or for that matter have difficulty balancing their checkbooks. Some of us might say that leftists are delusional. Atheists might say the same thing about religious people. Maybe both groups are correct. Belief can be a form of recreation (I know a scientist who enjoys visiting psychics). What distinguishes someone like Loughner from most people, even most crazy people, is that he acts in ways that have large external costs. He should have been treated but it’s part of the tragic nature of things that some such people slip through the cracks.

  7. Jonathan, I think you are right in everything you have said here.

    I’m just saying that the prevalence of conspiracy theories and paranoia, especially on the Internet, means that a lot of people don’t recognize how delusional some of the really fervent believers are.

    When someone needs psychiatric help, they exhibit sufficiently abnormal thinking processes that they can’t function properly. In some cases that makes them violent. In order to recognize the extreme cases, so that they can get the help they need, we as a society should be able to see those signs. But if some of those signs are so prevalent that they seem almost normal, we may miss them.

    As a libertarian, I’m the last person to suggest that someone should be committed because they go to psychics or have strange religious beliefs or whatever. But at some point surely there is a line where people can cross into crazy territory and I’d hate to see that so blurred by the sometimes toxic social climate that we collectively can no longer tell on which side of it people lie.

  8. I very much appreciate the stories, Michael.

    During my job interview at the hospital I mentioned, I was sitting talking with the personnel manager when one of the patients came into the room. She saw I was smoking a cigarette, and asked me if I could give her one — but before I could respond, the personnel guy hastily interjected, “I’m sorry, Rosie, but the gentleman don’t smoke.”

    Rosie only left the hospital on the rare occasions when she decided to “escape”, the personnel manager likely had paid vacations — and I took the job without a murmur.

    Sometimes I wonder…

  9. The surest sign of true mental illness is material dysfunction i.e. the inability to function in day-to-day life. The truly mentally ill cannot hold a job, cannot maintain a household on their own and often cannot maintain fundamental human relationships like family and friends.

    One of the biggest mistakes we made both culturally and legally was the back in the late 60s when the intellectuals and the courts arbitrarily decided that living on the streets was a Constitutionally protected “choice” instead of an indication of complete dysfunction. Prior to that time, if an individual couldn’t at least function within a flophouse or a shelter, they became wards of the state. If they were mentally ill, they were sent to hospital and if they were addicts, they went to jail to dry out. The mentally ill were required to take their medicine.

    Now days of course, the state cannot do anything until immediately before violence breaks out. In the real-world, that means that the intervention often comes to late.

    The real difference between Loughner and other nutjobs, like the ones who made the movie he was obsessed with, is that the nutjob movie makers had it together enough to make and distribute a movie.

Comments are closed.