Printer-friendly version
Emily Grossman

Laughing in the Face of Sanity

April 4, 2007 at 10:20 AM

At the stop light, I watched as he lurched in front of me. Our eyes met for an instant, and he shook his index finger at me with a vacant smile, eyes dodging this way and that, limbs flailing whimsically. The old man flirted with the traffic, then bounced along the top of the snowbank next to the sidewalk, pausing between emphatic sprints to glance at his feet. “He’s lost it, George, hasn’t he?” I asked, wide-eyed. At last, the long winter had taken its toll; the man had gone mad.

When do we qualify as mad? Can’t we allow for certain eccentricities, quirks, or harmless abhorrent behaviors in our society? If so, then when has a human being crossed the line that determines sanity? I’d say, for example, when it involves playing indiscretely in traffic. At that point, someone should check “mental disorder” in the little box on the evaluation sheet and begin some kind of intervention that would prevent the poor soul from wreaking havoc on traffic patterns (not to mention endangering others and himself). For someone who has lost the ability to recognize the realities and consequences of their actions to this extreme, a safer place must be constructed. Something enclosed. Something that wards off the elements. Something without dangerous objects, with no hard surfaces, no corners. With padded walls...

But tell me, is obsession a form of crazy?

In an episode of Northern Exposure, one of the wealthy locals, Maurice Minifield, seeks to purchase a Guarneri del Gesu solely for investment purposes. To ensure the quality of the financial transaction, he hires a virtuoso from Europe to try out the fiddle. With all expenses covered, the violinist can’t refuse. He arrives, plays a few phrases, and quickly realises its unearthly beauty. Not only that, he is entranced. He cannot stop thinking about the magical sound, the perfect tone, the complete work of art that is this del Gesu. When he discovers that the violin will be placed in a vault for several years while it appreciates, he cries out in objection. The violin must be played! It was created to be played! It must sing, or it will suffocate and its voice will die!

Lacking any understanding whatsoever, Maurice refuses to oblige the urgent pleas of the violinist and sends him away. Even so, the violinist won’t leave, obsessed by the sound of the Guarneri del Gesu. He sleeps in his car and waits in the street. He follows Maurice at a distance, watching for some sign of relent. He even offers to purchase the violin himself by selling all his possessions, giving up his future inheritance, and rounding up donations from area symphonies. Finally, in the name of all that is art, he conspires to murder Maurice by planting a pipe bomb in his truck. The bomb fails its mission (of course), and the authorities then take the violinist away. The court decides in favor of insanity, and off goes the violinist to the loony bin.

Maurice, in a change of heart, brings the Guarneri to the asylum once a week and lets the violinist play it. In the final scene, he’s seen there, happily playing a Bach fugue while surrounded by straight jackets and white coated wardens, his somber phrases floating around in the cell. A doctor gazes through a window at him, as Maurice listens. “He really looks forward to these Sundays. If we ever have a discipline problem, we just tell him that we’re not gonna let you bring the violin anymore. ...Comes around pronto. Takes his medicine, participates in group therapy...”

Was the violinist inappropriately institutionalized because of an unpremeditated crime of passion? By some viewpoints, his actions may appear perfectly justifiable and logical; therefore, an innocent victim lost his freedom. Someone please put and end to the government oppression, the unsolicited tyranny, the jaws of the crunching machine of conformity! A wrongly labeled human being now suffers unnecessarily in the hands of a narrow-minded society!

But does he suffer? After all, he got what he really wanted. Today when I locked eyes with the madman as he crossed the street, I saw a peculiar sort of happiness there. Peculiar, perhaps because it was ungrounded on logic or current circumstances. A small part of me felt jealous. He skipped in the snow while I cursed it. He completely ignored the traffic while I attempted in vain to move it in my favor. Despite his feeble constitution, he ran like a child. I would have cautiously stretched my muscles first.

With sanity comes great responsibility. Lunacy, in response, thumbs its nose at consequence.

Tell me, how may of you would trade your current existence to live in a mental ward if it meant playing on a Guarneri del Gesu once a week? You might be crazy, but then again, you might not even notice that. You might even meet up with a kindred spirit or two. Talk a bit with people who are there to listen to you. Paint with watercolors. Take up knitting (once they grant you your highly supervised needles). Swallow a couple of pills. And the soft padded walls are safe, warm, and comforting, not unlike a mother’s womb...

Tempting, isn’t it?

From Sheila Ganapathy
Posted on April 4, 2007 at 12:52 PM
"Being crazy doesn't mean your torn up inside, it is just you and me amplified. If you have ever told a lie and enjoyed it, or wanted to remain a child forever...."

From Girl Interrupted, but I think she's doesn't mean your torn, it is just an extreme...

From Tom Holzman
Posted on April 4, 2007 at 12:54 PM
I am not tempted, thanks.
From Linda Lerskier
Posted on April 4, 2007 at 1:29 PM
Been there, done that.
From Søren Basbøll
Posted on April 4, 2007 at 3:47 PM

from my memory you wrote in another blog:

"... yes, but can you take the insanity?" about living in the arctic for an extended period of time. It is not so bad if you are insane yourself which I think most of us are over here. I am only playing on east Greenland amateur level on my Kloz 1741 but in the other hand the straight jackets do not seem to be necessary. You feel quite normal being insane here.
In the dark time you can use light therapy, and when the spring arrives with its enormous amount of light you can take about 1mg melatonin in the afternoon, it stabilizes the biological clock.
About the womb: There is a japaneese obstetrician who has made a record of the sounds heard inside the uterus "Sleep gently in the Womb". I have learnt to imitate these sounds, and it is very effective to obtain close contact with small children, the younger the better. Some times it is nearly too effective in the sense that the contact with me is more intimate than with the parents, but as it calms them down (both the baby and as a consequence also the parents) it is very appreciated.

From Armand Allégre
Posted on April 4, 2007 at 5:35 PM
Sounds in the womb?
Mind elaborating on what they are? I am curious.
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on April 5, 2007 at 1:09 AM
It sounded like a party on the beach with Mexican food.
From Pauline Lerner
Posted on April 5, 2007 at 2:55 AM
This is such an interesting and thought-provoking blog that I started writing a comment which grew to be very long, so I'm publishing it as a separate blog. In this comment, I will say that I have worked in psychiatric wards, and they are generally not pleasant places to live. In one of them, I sometimes heard a patient playing a piano. He or she was technically good, but his/her playing was lacking in affect. "Affect" is a technical psychiatric term whose meaning is very similar to the word as used by musicians.
From Emily Grossman
Posted on April 5, 2007 at 5:13 AM
Jim, Cinco de Mayo, baby! :)

Pauline, my closest coffee shop friend works daily with psychiatric patients. She has many stories, which is part of what got me spinning on this topic (that, and my own family nut tree, which I hold dear to my heart). It was meant to be taken tongue-in-cheek. Perhaps I should have inserted a disclaimer. Best wishes to you in your fight to stay free!

From parmeeta bhogal
Posted on April 5, 2007 at 3:58 PM
I remember that episode of "Northern Exposure" Emily, and I remember thinking too about how we define sanity. In fact, a large number of the characters could have been defined as mad, led by Maurice. It depends what obsessions are considered OK or normal at any time or place.

BTW, it was a really good series, wasn't it?

From Emily Grossman
Posted on April 5, 2007 at 7:06 PM
Northern Exposure is pretty brilliant. I actually never watched it until after I moved up here. There are inaccuracies that cause most people who are from Alaska to scoff the show, but they fail to see what an accurate portrait it paints of Alaskans, various cultures, and human nature in general.
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on April 6, 2007 at 5:55 AM
Heading to my destination tonight, I saw pretty much the same thing. A guy crouched down on the corner. He breaks across the street, bent over double like somebody trying to stay out of a video. On the far corner he crouches down again, eyes darting around, searching for the Viet Cong. And the car in front of me had Alaska license plates. Black on orange with a flag in the middle, right? It got better though.
From Emily Grossman
Posted on April 6, 2007 at 8:00 AM
--Navy on gold. Go on...
From Emily Grossman
Posted on April 7, 2007 at 2:15 AM
PS In a later episode, the violinist escapes form the mental ward with the aid of none other than Maurice himself.

( case anyone was concerned.)

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on April 7, 2007 at 3:51 AM
Yesterday I also saw a poster advertising a concert by a violinist named Maurice something. In a photo, taken around 1900 I'd guess.
From Emily Grossman
Posted on April 7, 2007 at 4:50 AM
Was he from Cicely?
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on April 7, 2007 at 5:13 AM
You mean Sicily don't you, you poor thing.
From Emily Grossman
Posted on April 7, 2007 at 7:28 AM
No, I mean Cicely, dear.
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on April 7, 2007 at 9:25 AM
I never really saw the show but I heard it was pretty good. I bet it was more than just bears and mooses chasing people around in the snow, huh?

This entry has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop


Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine