In his 1992 book Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature, and Thought, Louis A. Sass, a clinical psychologist at Rutgers, uses modernism as a way of illuminating the puzzling symptoms of schizophrenia. He’s less interested in the opposite—that is, he imagines schizophrenics as modernists, though not necessarily modernists as schizophrenics—but he finds a rich and fascinating correspondence nonetheless. For one, they share a roughly parallel history: schizophrenia was vaguely discerned at the very earliest around the late 18th or early 19th century, and was only specifically diagnosed at about the time of the industrialization of the western world. Thus, as Virginia Woolf has it, referring to the Bloomsbury group and postimpressionism, “On or about December 1910 human nature changed.”
This historicization of modernism and the human brain would seem to substantiate that old film theory chestnut, the modernity thesis, espoused by Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer, which suggested that late-19th century industrialization (not to mention the First World War) fundamentally altered the human sensorium. Sass himself judiciously sidesteps any endorsement of this notion, but he still manages to have his theoretical cake and eat it, too. Noting, for example, that the heavily influential protosurrealist Giorgio de Chirico was “severely schizoid,” Sass enumerates some fascinating correlations between modernist art practice and schizophrenia. There is the adversarial stance of the avant garde; extreme perspectivism, relative to one specific point of view or multiple interchangeable perspectives (cf. Woolf and others); hyperreflexivity; tendencies toward primitivism. Ultimately, what Sass identifies is an underlying commonality of “intensified forms of self-consciousness” which either (or alternately) alienate the individual from the social world or from aspects of his own fragmented consciousness.
Though the spectator may be occasionally alarmed or confused by his behavior, the South Philadelphia muralist, mosaicist, and street artist Isaiah Zagar is more of a modernist than a schizophrenic. Throughout his son Jeremiah’s documentary In a Dream, of which he is the subject, Zagar speaks candidly about his unsuccessful suicide attempt in his twenties (as well as his attempt, also unsuccessful, to tear off his own genitals) and his battles with depression, and persistently exhibits a stark bipolarity, raving about the multivarious beauties of the world, then sinking into inertia. Click here to read the rest of Leo Goldsmith’s review of In a Dream.