Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Enigma of Madness

By Bruce Hartman (Guest Blogger)

The Rules of Dreaming takes place in and around a private mental hospital and many of the characters are either mental patients or psychiatrists. Though I have read widely about psychology and various mental phenomena usually dubbed “mental illness,” I don’t pretend to any expertise in the field and have not attempted a realistic portrayal of what it’s like to suffer from mental illness or be a patient in a mental hospital. Two of the main characters are described as “schizophrenic,” but I suspect that experts will differ with my use of that term. In fact the narrator, the young psychiatrist Ned Hoffmann, is uncomfortable with this diagnosis which has been placed on Hunter Morgan and his twin sister Antonia:

Everyone at the Institute referred to them as “schizophrenic” because that was the official diagnosis, carried forward on their charts over a seven-year period. But in fact their illnesses bore almost no resemblance to classic schizophrenia or any other recognized form of mental disturbance. Whatever they had, it was unrecognizable, unique, defying classification. This troubled me because it went against all my training and experience up to that time. Patients, I’d been taught, can always be diagnosed—that is, categorized—because they’re not like you and me. They are not normal, healthy individuals with unique personalities that can express themselves in an infinite number of ways. They have illnesses with certain symptoms; there are only a limited number of possibilities. In other words, even if the rest of us are unique, mental patients are not. But here were Hunter and Antonia, who defied medical classification. The lexicon of modern medicine was useless in the face of their individuality. The only thing you could say about them was that they were crazy. Mad. That’s what they were, I told myself privately: Mad.

The young psychiatrist wants to believe in the uniqueness and unclassifiability of each individual’s personality, regardless of whether they’re classified as mentally ill. For this reason he prefers to think of the twins as “mad” rather than to label them with some limiting scientific classification. He is fascinated with them because they seem to inhabit a parallel universe which is meaningful only to themselves. As the story plays out, we learn the reason for the uniqueness of the twins’ illness.

This concept of “madness” fits in nicely with pre-scientific conceptions of mental illness as embodied in Romanticism and other literary conceptions. The madman was seen as a kind of prophet rather than merely a person whose chemistry needed to be adjusted. Much of the story of The Rules of Dreaming revolves around The Tales of Hoffmann, the opera by Jacques Offenbach based on stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann. This is a beautiful, fantastic work which is all about the shifting boundary between fantasy and reality.

E.T.A. Hoffmann popularized the Romantic notion of madness as a spiritual state, akin to love and artistic inspiration. Somewhat like the LSD-inspired hippies of the 1960s and their followers, Hoffmann believed (or claimed to believe) in the existence of a “spirit world” accessible through dreams, drugs and music. If all else failed, madness (though not recommended) was another possible means of accessing the spirit world. Hoffmann was enormously influential in France and Germany for a few decades after his death in 1822. Offenbach’s opera portrays him as an alcoholic artist tottering on the edge of madness, tormented by his Muse and haunted by his three “mad loves.” More recent productions of the opera have depicted Hoffmann as an inmate in an old-fashioned lunatic asylum.

If you haven’t seen The Tales of Hoffmann, I would strongly recommend that you watch the surrealistic film version that was made by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in the 1950s. Powell and Pressburger were British directors who also made The Red Shoes and The Thief of Baghdad. The DVD of The Tales of Hoffmann contains a fascinating commentary by Martin Scorsese, who was strongly influenced by the cinematography. 

My interest in the film and the opera led to a study of E.T.A. Hoffmann, who is known in the English-speaking world almost entirely through derivative works (The Tales of Hoffmann, Tchaikowsky’s The Nutcracker, Robert Schumann’s “Kreisleriana,” Delibes’s CoppĂ©lia, Freud’s essay on “The Uncanny”) and the stream of influence that traces back to him (Schumann, Poe, Baudelaire, Dumas, Offenbach, Doestoevsky).  Unconsciously standing knee-deep in that stream of influence, I recalled an idea for a story I’d had years before (Hoffmannesque, without my knowing it) about a patient in a mental hospital flawlessly playing a difficult piece of piano music without the benefit of any musical training or experience. The Rules of Dreaming took off from there.

The Rules of Dreaming by Bruce Hartman
A novel of madness, music — and murder.

A beautiful opera singer hangs herself on the eve of her debut at the Met.  Seven years later the opera she was rehearsing—Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann—begins to take over the lives of her two schizophrenic children, the doctors who treat them and everyone else who crosses their paths, until all are enmeshed in a world of deception and delusion, of madness and ultimately of evil and death.  Onto this shadowy stage steps Nicole P., a graduate student who discovers that she too has been assigned a role in the drama. What strange destiny is being worked out in their lives?

Nicole was nimble and petite and very pretty. No, I take that back—“pretty” doesn’t come close to doing her justice. She was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen, with cascading red hair and a bold, astonished look in her eyes that made her seem at once wild and angelic. But since my profession has liberated society from all of its taboos save one—that a psychiatrist shall not fall in love with his patient—all I could do was listen sympathetically as she pulled herself back together and prepared to return to her studies. I put her on appropriate medications and she began to make progress immediately.

As it happened, Nicole had been in the lounge when Hunter sat down to play the piano...

Nicole,” I said, “did you hear Hunter playing the piano this afternoon?”

Yes I did.” She stopped in the doorway, framed in the shadows that darkened the adjoining hall. “It was impressive, wasn’t it?”

Impressive isn’t the word, when you realize that he’s never had a lesson or even touched a piano before.”

Her smile faded. “That’s uncanny.”

Do you know what piece of music he was playing?”

I think I’ve heard it before. One of the German Romantics, I think, maybe Schumann.”

She started through the door, but just before she disappeared into the shadows she turned back around and her eyes caught a sparkle of the afternoon light. “He went mad, you know.”

Who went mad?”

Robert Schumann. The composer. Died in an insane asylum.”

The Rules of Dreaming is available now at Amazon:

About the Author

Bruce Hartman has been a bookseller, pianist, songwriter and attorney. He lives with his wife in Philadelphia. His previous novel, Perfectly Healthy Man Drops Dead, was published by Salvo Press in 2008.

Bruce will award a $50 Amazon or gift card (winner's choice) to one randomly drawn commenter on one of the tour posts.
6/10/2013 The Life (and lies) of an inanimate flying object
6/11/2013 Christy McKee Writes for Women in the Sweet Spot of Life
6/12/2013 Loose the Hounds
6/13/2013 Linda Nightingale-Wordsmith
6/13/2013 SECOND STOP LizaOConnor
6/14/2013 The Write to Read
6/14/2013 SECOND STOP The Cerebral Writer
6/17/2013 Sandra's Blog
6/18/2013 Chris Redding Author PROMO POST
6/19/2013 This Writer's Life
6/20/2013 Lisa Haselton's Reviews and Interviews
6/21/2013 Janna Shay's Fair Play
6/24/2013 Writers and Authors
6/24/2013 SECOND STOP Book Reviews by Dee
6/25/2013 The Dan O'Brien Project
6/26/2013 Hope Dreams. Life... Love
6/27/2013 fundinmental
7/8/2013 J.C. Martin, Fighter Writer
7/9/2013 Dawn's Reading Nook Blog
7/9/2013 SECOND STOP 4 the LUV of SANITY
7/10/2013 Beyond Romance
7/11/2013 Andi's Book Reviews
7/12/2013 Out of the Lockbox


7/8/2013 Deal Sharing Aunt
7/10/2013 Straight from the Library
7/11/2013 Andi's Book Reviews
7/11/2013 SECOND STOP Cabin Goddess
7/12/2013 Just Trying to Let it Be



Lisabet Sarai said...

Greetings, Bruce, and welcome to Beyond Romance. THE RULES OF DREAMING sounds intriguing. Having spent some time during my teenaged years in a psychiatric hospital, I've always been fascinated by madness.

Your cover is absolutely exquisite, by the way.

Good luck with the tour!

Goddess Fish Promotions said...

Thank you for hosting

Annabeth Leong said...

Agreed on the cover -- that's gorgeous. I've always been interested in stories about music/art that connects with people's madness. Sounds like an intriguing book! annabeth dot leong at gmail dot com

Debby said...

The cover is gorgeous but the concept is quite intriguing. Captivated me.
debby236 at gmail dot com

Andra Lyn said...

Wow, it's very clear that you've done your research on the subject! I bet that will be evident in your story as well. Thanks for the excellent guest post!

andralynn7 AT gmail DOT com

Kate said...

Thanks for the guest post!

hense1kk AT cmich DOT edu

Ingeborg said...

What a great informative post, thank you.


Julianna said...

The story [and cover] are both chilling, but I keep wanting to read more! tsukito34[at]yahoo[dot]com

MomJane said...

What a fascinating concept for a story. I think it sounds awesome.

Mary Preston said...

Thank you for another fabulous post Bruce.


Karen H in NC said...

Very interesting post today. Thanks.

kareninnc at gmail dot com

hotcha12 said...


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