Preface: Einstein and Me

‘Did you feel like you were destined to become someone important? Did you feel you were a very special or extraordinary person?’ These are two questions from a list on the Psychosenet website. This list allows you to test to what extent you have been suffering from psychotic symptoms in the past week. You can choose between four answers: never, sometimes, often and almost always. ‘Don’t think too long about an answer, the first response is usually the best’ – tops the list. In the context of such a questionnaire, questions about being important or extraordinary have a signaling function in the first place and play the same role as questions about hearing voices, about conspiracies or telepathy. But actually, they are also – you only have to rephrase them a little bit in order to see it – central questions in any sense of self-awareness. Yes, they are among the questions that people constantly ask themselves in countless situations, or whose secret guiding power can be constantly felt. What do I have in common with other people and what is special about me? How am I doing? Or just – am I in? Do I count? Am I really someone?

Let me, in a slightly different atmosphere, ask a question related to the ones of this psychosis test. ‘Did you ever think that you were a genius while you were an adolescent?’ Again, there are four possible answers: 1) no, it never occurred to me, 2) yes, occasionally I thought I was, 3) I have often thought it, but now I think I have outgrown this stage and 4) I have believed it quite often and there still are moments I think I am. Don’t answer this question too hastily, just sit back and relax. Try to be as honest as possible. If you have diaries from your adolescence at reach, take the time to consult them and to put yourself back into that phase of life. If you happen to be an adolescent while reading this, don’t be ashamed of anything and just throw it out… Which of these answers makes you think of psychopathological problems? Which answer is ‘normal’ and which answer has something strange?

The answer I would choose now, I think, is number 3. Yes indeed, at times I thought I was a genius. I got high grades at school, and yes, I dreamt of doing something great in science or literature someday. Maybe one day I would make a big discovery… Maybe one day a would become a Nobel Laureate, who knows? Only, I just wasn’t sure about the discipline. Because I got grade B for languages and grade A for math and the exact sciences, I thought it would probably be the Nobel Prize in physics. In my boy’s room I worked ahead in the math and physics textbooks, and Albert Einstein became my main role model. Sometimes a teacher already explained a few things about the theory of relativity, about a wonderful world with time and space not being absolute anymore, a world with four instead of the three dimensions we usually think in. It really did something to me. But was I already a psycho in the making? Was there something pathological in the way I thought about Einstein? Did I seriously compare myself to Einstein, and did I think I was as intelligent as he was? Was it an early half-sick presumption in my mind, something that would develop into a genuine psychosis at a later stage?

What do I have in common with Einstein and in what sense do I differ from him? And actually, how intelligent is Einstein himself really? How do you rate the intelligence of other people? You don’t often hear people talking about others whom they deem smarter than themselves. When I was employed in ICT later on, I several times met people I figured to be more intelligent than me. Occasionally, while reading books, I had the impression I was dealing with mind really greater than mine, as with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe or with Jean-Paul Sartre. But while reading Einstein’s biography later on, after my psychosis, I never got the idea that Einstein was a man with an excessively high IQ. In fact, he reminded me of other cultural celebrities who rely not so much on their intelligence but on a high creative imagination, such as Vincent van Gogh, Fyodor Dostoevsky or Gustav Mahler.

Yes, what did I have in common with Albert Einstein? Reading about his life, one of the impressions I regularly got, was that he was ‘too good for this world’ – something people also would say about me. He had a certain naivety. And a silly sense of humor. He also was a bit slow. These are all nice things to boast as a recognized genius, but in the ordinary toiling as an IT professional in business, these are certainly no good qualities and even things you’ll have ‘to work on’ in your ‘personal development plan’. If there’s one quality I can measure up to Einstein, it’s his absent-mindedness. Always mulling over some philosophical riddle, and then suddenly losing your keys…

There is a speech by Einstein in which he carries out a thought experiment about university life. Now suppose all the people in the academic world who were initially motivated by status or by the thought of a successful career, were to be chased away. Would there still be people left? And what kind of people would they be? A bit eccentric lot, Einstein then says, a bit solitary, not very communicative. Today I don’t really recognize myself in the portrait that Einstein paints in that speech, but during my adolescence it could have been a portrait of someone like me. Einzelgänger – I really loved that word…

Always pondering, letting drop something out of your hands occasionally, things frequently getting lost – my glasses, a sock – and then, at times, getting the feeling you have an insight. Yes, to a certain extent I truly resemble Einstein… And like him, one day, I really had a Great Insight. If one could have made a brain scan of Einstein at the day he stepped out of the world view of an absolute time and space, it would probably bear a great resemblance to the images scans of psychotics show. Getting inspired, making a discovery and then entering into a state euphoria. It would be strange if your dopamine household or economy would not be touched at moments like that. Yes, there is nothing more ‘normal’ than becoming euphoric the moment you think you are making a big discovery! The most famous story being that of Archimedes, who was in the bathtub while he made his discovery and jumped up from the tub and ran naked through the streets, shouting out, “Eureka! Eureka!’ Einstein himself, as his biographer Walter Isaacson attests, was also highly excited when he made his great discovery. For a moment he may have thought he was a genius, yet he didn’t get carried away and went to work, pouring his insight into the mall of a scientific paper. I myself was led away by my discovery and I got so many new ideas after, that I have not even got around to elaborating my initial idea. That is probably the main difference between Einstein and me.

Report of a Journey

In this book I will make an attempt to describe what happened to me after the discovery I made. I am able to remember a lot of the initial period of my psychosis and I am able to write about it in detail. This book is a report of a journey. With my discovery, I set out for a sea voyage, or left the base camp for a mountain trip. It is not a motorized journey, as Robert Pirsig’s in his famous book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig managed to trace the lines of thought that led to his psychosis, showing that there was ‘quite something in it’. He tries to convince the reader that his mad philosophy had value. In his book, Pirsig artfully intertwines his story of his psychosis with a motorcycle trip in the north of the United States, a trip that was later to be repeated on motorcycle by countless admirers.

The structure of this book is different. My story and my reflections are much more about psychosis itself, or the type of mental adventure I have gone through. The metaphors I will be continuously using – the sea voyage and the mountain trip – aren’t particularly beautiful or original. Yet they are very powerful at saying things in a catchy and simple manner, and they appear in all sorts of books about madness. Storms, vortices, eddies, chasms, avalanches – it is difficult to write about psychosis without these images. How can an anchor get loose? When does the ground give away beneath your feet, making you wonder whether you are falling into an abyss? How do you manage to reach the heights of supposedly genius insights, to think you are the first human being in the history of the world to have reached this valuable new idea?—something that indeed holds for Einstein. How do you descend from those great heights to more populated areas, or how do you reach a safe harbor after having travelled among many vortices?

The story of my psychoses is a story of crossing over. Psychoses, in plural, yes… In the course of my book, I will go into detail about how many psochoses there actually were. For the time being I will keep it at three. These are the three most important ones, the ones to which I have given names: the initial psychosis, the penal psychosis and the psychosis of liberation. The first two took place in quick succession in the late 1970s. This was followed by an admission to a psychiatric hospital for about five months. The psychosis of liberation took place five years later and made it possible for me to resume the Christian faith with which I had grown up in the south of Holland. One of the lines of thought I will develop in this book is that psychoses and religious conversions are related phenomena.

My personal story is in the middle of this book, beginning in Chapter 4 and ending in Chapter 9. In the early chapters, I will perform some preliminary philosophical exercises making the reader, I hope, sufficiently equipped for beginning his or her reading journey. In the fourth part, entitled ‘Descents’, I will give two case studies with stories of great heights and deep valleys by two well-known authors. The first is the sad story of Friedrich Hölderlin, around whom a romantic myth of madness has grown, a myth that is still the dominant interpretation of his work and life. Hölderlin has surely made a descent, but into what exactly is very difficult to describe. Nevertheless, I will make an attempt. The other one is Robert Pirsig himself, who threatens to succumb to a second psychosis during the motorcycle trip he describes. He again rises very high, but this time he also manages to find the way back down.

Philosophers

What is special about the travel metaphors that I use is that they also recur in countless places in philosophical and scientific literature. As in the work of the system theorist Douglas Hofstadter, for example, who became world famous overnight with his book Gödel Escher Bach, which is teeming with eddies, vortices and feedback loops. Using his more recent and more personal book, I Am a Strange Loop, I will explain precisely what those feedback loops are, and I will develop a terminology to make it easier to write on such-like phenomena.

Hofstadter’s thinking is largely rooted in the cybernetics from the 1940s. Although not immediately apparent, this cybernetics is also an important resource for the anthropologist and thinker René Girard. The feedback loop that fascinates Girard most is the spiral of violence, which, as I will show, carries similarities with the spirals of thought within a psychosis. It is also in the work of Girard (the usual name for his set of ideas is ‘mimetic theory’), that serious questions are raised about people’s sense of self. Do I count? Am I really somebody? The term Girard has developed for the drive behind such questions is ‘metaphysical desire.’ Do I have Being? Am I someone? Or am I nothing at all? – as in one of the most famous lines of the late Hölderlin – ‘Ich bin nichts mehr, ich lebe nicht mehr gerne!

When you capitalize the word ‘Being’ or the word ‘Nothing’, to many philosophers the name of Martin Heidegger will come to mind. However, in this book Girard is keeping these words more or less occupied. When we bring up Heidegger we will focus on other important words in his thinking, such as the word ‘Lichtung‘, the most literal translation of which is ‘clearing in a forest’. Another key word in Heidegger’s oeuvre to which we will pay attention is ‘Ereignis‘, for which the most literal translation is ‘event’.

Finally, there is Jacques Derrida, Girard’s contemporary and greatest rival. He figures in this book as the specialist of hazardous sea voyages. He dares to lift the anchor before he has decided where to travel to. There is something swirling about his reflections on the dissemination of meanings and in some way these circles are related to Douglas Hofstadter’s feedback loops.

Route Map

In the end I graduated neither in physics nor in philosophy, but in literature. When a philosopher reads a philosophical text, he will often wonder whether he understands what the text is supposed to mean and whether the things expressed are true. My approach is much more focused on the words themselves, words I find in philosophical texts, or in texts at all. Why does a thinker use this or that word, and what possibilities does that specific use of words offer? What are the words around which a thinker keeps revolving?

The philosophers I discuss in this book are not only there to illustrate certain aspects of the psychotic journey, but I also would like to say something more about their interrelationships. There are crucial points on which Girard, Derrida and Heidegger differ, and you can approach these differences by considering how they play off their key words, or as I will call them: ‘master signifiers.’

I’ll not assume that my reader has specific prior philosophical knowledge. Yet a basic cultural knowledge will make this book easier to read. Although it is constructed in a fairly polyphonical way, it is not a labyrinth. The main themes have a head and a tail, and I have tried to clarify them as much as possible. The book can simply be read from front to back, but it also could be that a reader is mainly interested in one of the themes or one of the key words. For those readers a route map is provided.