Night of the Madness
I have been a fortnight in the village of my upbringing, the University at London being on leave for the Holy Days, and I regret my decision to revisit these unlearned people who drove me forth to London those many years ago.
As I had temporarily given up my lodging in London there was no returning there until the next session of my studies and I am forced to remain domiciled under the sign of the Two Boars, the most passable inn and public house in this god forsaken peasant town, but a far cry from the venues in London.
Happily, I remade the acquaintance of a boyhood chum, Jim Smalley, the only learned man in the village, whose occupation was that of chemist and apothecary. We spent all this afternoon drinking draughts of ale and discussing the latest news in politiks and philosophie.
Jim laughed cynically at the news of Thomas Hobbes' return from France to make peace with Cromwell's Commonwealth; that philosopher's book having been an unabashed polemic in favour of monarchism.
"But I read The Leviathan," I reminded him, "and Hobbes allowed that his ‘Sovereign Authority' could be either a king or a parliament. Hobbes can both have his cake, and eat it, too."
"Verily," said Smalley, raising his pint in salute, "and if a Stuart is ever restored to the throne, our goode Hobbes will still have a place at court, teaching geometry and algebra to Charles II, the rightful King of England and Scotland."
I was in agreement with my friend, but I wished he had not spoken so loudly, and I looked fearfully around, hoping no Roundheads or other agents of The Lord Protector were eves-dropping.
At some point in the day our conversation was interrupted by a clownish apparition in the person of Jack the Baker. Jack was a dirty, uncouth lout, but his bread was said to be the best in the shire. He came stumbling into the Two Boars Inn loudly proclaiming that his best batch of bread was to be given freely to all villagers this day, and indeed his stumbling seemed to be on account of the many loaves of bread he was bringing into the inn from his cart outside. By his demeanor we all assumed him to be drunk, but we welcomed the free bread. He soon took his leave to continue his deliverys, and Jim Smalley and myself broke a loaf of this bread to partake with our ale.
The bread had a tart, musty smell that I rather fancied, thinking that it would go better with a wine than with an ale, but my apothecary friend refused it, frowning, and said he preferred a sweeter bread.
* * *
I have been feeling poorly of late but not as poorly as some other villagers, including Jack the Baker, who are suffering from some malady of the brain. They roll around on the ground and shake uncontrollably, cursing God and the saints and calling to devils and demons for respite from unaccountable thoughts and desires. I keep to myself in my rooms, watching the village square from my windows, as those mentally ill villagers spin and dance around, some tearing off their clothes, others clawing and scratching at themselves as if to rid themselves of an invisible pestilence. Many ignorant villagers are amused at the sight of these unfortunate souls, others are angry and hateful towards them, accusing them of blasphemy and other sinful acts which they think to cause illness of their brains.
* * *
I cannot not tell if the mentally ill have grown in number or not, because, while many more are acting in such a wild fashion, a part of them be from the church and they also scream and curse, but against the devils and demons and beseeching God to punish the wicked. The Vicar himself and the other churchmen join the fray, yelling and screaming at the stricken parishioners, trying to hold them down or secure them with strong ropes to keep them from molesting and corrupting the pious.
* * *
Since midnight I have no longer need of my windows to experience the riot outside, as I have acquired the ability to see through wood and stone walls as if they are made of church glass, fashioned by some clever glazier, of many new and dazzling colors never before seen on this earth. My windows and doors are bolted shut but I can read the terror etched into the diseased brains of the stricken souls outside, and I can hear what the Vicar and other religious men are thinking, as if I am a tiny demon lurking inside their heads, although I am too learned myself to admit to such superstitious nonsense. The ignorant and superstitious folk, both pious and profane, thinking themselves mad, have driven themselves truly mad in confusion. I can hear the crackling of burning wooden stakes, mingled with the screams of both madmen and Christian men, and the smell of burning flesh permeates the air.
The fanciful devils and demons are trying to entice me outside to join them in an unholy alliance of the mad and the evil, but I am not superstitious, I am a learned man, and I do not believe that this calumny is caused by magik or witchery. It could be truly said that I am as mad as the others, but I know my malady must have some bodily cause, some imbalance in my humors; and therefore, a cure.
But I am a philosopher, not a medical doctor, and I sorely need some help in psychologie before I can get to a doctor. I pull from my shelf two most recent volumes; one by Hobbes and one by Descartes. Both learned men insist that the Schoolmen, and also Aristotle, were mistaken in their attribution of qualities, other than shape and extension, to material objects. Color, sound, smell, and taste are only perceptions that exist in our minds. Echoes can deceive our hearing, tinted glass and reflections are false visual perceptions misrepresenting reality. We cannot trust our senses, so we must trust only in our reasoning ability. Everything we know could be false, but one thing is still true: "Cogito ergo sum."
I know that Hobbes had exchanged letters with Descartes on this matter, so I turn to The Leviathan to see how he agrees with the French philosopher. In chapter II, Of Imagination, I find a quote that I hope will sustain me in this crisis of my psychologie.
"Waking," writes Hobbes, "I often observe the absurdity of my dreams, but never dream of the absurdity of my waking thoughts; I am satisfied that, being awake, I know I dream not; though when I dream, I think myself awake..."
A sudden panic overtakes me, as Hobbes' words make me feel less secure in my knowledge of reality, rather than more confident. If when I dream I think myself awake and my dreams be not absurd, how do I know when I am not dreaming? Nothing now is absurd, all is explained by powerful natural forces beyond the realm of my knowledge...unless by reason I can overcome my ignorance. Cautiously, lest I attract undue attention to myself, I creep out of my room and make my way down the street to the home of my friend, the apothecary.
It is hard to keep my thoughts clear, as the multicolored vibrations invade my brain, singing notes of music that no earthly instrument can produce, and I fear invisible foreigners who are reading my thoughts and who also have the science to control my thoughts by some fantastik machines hidden nearby, as indeed they must. How else to explain my sudden revelation that ancient Democritus was wrong when he said that the atoms, of which all reality is constructed, can not be broken down into smaller parts? The invisible foreigners know this to be false, as they have the science to break atoms down further, thus releasing more power than a million of Guy Fawkes' gunpowder kegs. They are as alchemists, creating two new elements where before there was but one. From uranium comes barium and krypton, words of which I have no a posteriori experience, but now my mind can readily apprehend them, a priori. Unlike Plato's denizens of the cave, I can now see past mere appearances to the Ultimate Reality. The realization is both liberating and horrific.
I now know that Hobbes and Descartes are wrong, and Aristotle was right: all objects do emanate rays of matter in all directions that do cause in us sensations of brilliant color and ethereal music; and now some mysterious substance from the heavens, or eyrie foreign persons, have invaded our village with an advanced mechanical science causing in us perceptions of heretofore unexperienced images that defy the axioms of geometry, and thoughts which cannot be translated into any language, yet are so clear and understandable that we can know all knowledge without thinking, and these sensations cause us to seem mad.
I overcome my panic by reciting Descartes out loud, over and over again, not caring if anyone can hear me.
I manage to make myself invisible as I pass through the crazed crowd, using my newly discovered mental powers to send out rays of light and sound to mask my madness lest I be discovered and burnt at the stake with the others.
Men with fleshless skulls pass me by, riding in shiny metal carriages that move without the aid of horse or oxen and which make ungodly noises and belch a fetid smelling smoke. They jeer at me in a dialect of English that I cannot understand but I know their meaning to be violent and hateful. In the sky above fly machines that drop exploding devices on the village, killing indiscriminately, and causing blood, intestines, and severed body parts to be flung through the air and splatter on walls and on other people. I run, sweating, trying to outdistance the escalating carnage.
I enter the narrow, cobblestone street that leads to Jim Smalley's residence, running between the stone walls of adjacent buildings that tower higher above me than any I have ever observed before; their upper stories so distant that their perspective indicates miles rather than feet. I stumble against these walls as they move closer together, moving to crush me between them. My mind penetrates the walls of these towers and I perceive an army of white-coated chemists inside, concocting evil potions using marvelous equipment made of shiny metals and other smooth, artificial substances which cannot be wood or stone as their colors and textures do not originate on this earth. These experiments create foul aromas, fire and smoke, and portend of nothing but death and destruction. I am overwhelmed by the magnitude of my new vision of reality and I am only slightly relieved when I finally arrive at my friend's door, banging on it rapidly and in panic with both my fists.
The apothecary, when he sees that I am in a troubled state, pulls me quickly into his room and bolts the door behind me. He sits me down and looks keenly into my eyes. He takes my temperature and feels my pulse. Then he boils some water to make me some herbal tea to calm me down.
Eventually I feel sufficiently calm and have enough control of my thoughts to prevent the invisible foreigners from invading my body with their fabulous musical vibrations and color rays. Then my learned friend goes to a shelf and removes a book that looks to be of recent printing. He opens it to a certain page and shows me some drawings.
"This is William Harvey's new book." He tells me. "These drawings show the circulation of the blood pumped by the heart throughout the body. You are suffering from a poisoning caused by ergot, a mold on the baker's new batch of bread. It is usually fatal but I will try to bleed the poison out of you. You must relax and hope for the best because I can do no more than this."
I can tell by his countenance that he does not expect me to live, but I no longer care. The tea has relaxed me, the blood letting has made me weak, and I fall asleep reciting Cartesius, and believing that if my physical body dies, the "I" that contemplates the death of my mortal body will still exist without it.
"I think, therefore I am"
"I think, therefore I am"
"I think, therefore ..............
Published by permission of the author.