Professor Donna Nixon-Walker
All A Little Mad
Erasmus, in his book In Praise of Folly, conjectures that there are “two types of madness”. One is destructive and creates war, lust, and thirst for riches, while the other is good and desirable and creates satisfaction and happiness without anxiety and worry (Hamilton, Adams & Co, London, 1887). These two types of madness are depicted through the actions of protagonists such as J. Alfred Prufrock, King Lear, and Stevens. All three characters seem to have a skewed sense of reality in some way that leads to Erasmus’ definitions of folly and madness. For example, J. Alfred Prufrock’s reality lies only in his sphere of thinking which leads to his inability to communicate to others. He is fixated on his appearance and his awkwardness, which results in his lack of communication skills and interest in others. Prufrock struggles with the reality that is in front of him, which is the fact that he is aging and he is living with regret. Throughout the poem, he consistently thinks about holding conversations with women to the point that it drives him into a state of madness. Erasmus might define this as a sort of self-inflicted, destructive madness “which to be so awakened in their conscience as to be lashed and stung with the whips and snakes of grief and remorse” (Hamilton, Adams & Co, London, 1887). Another example of this destructive madness is exposed in King Lear’s actions as he falls from the throne, which initially stems from pride and lust for power. This was a result of his inability to recognize the reality of Cordelia’s love and his hunger for more power and flattery. Even the Fool in the story constantly mocks King Lear’s sanity and rebukes his behavior. However, King Lear finds some clarity in his madness and humility unlike the protagonist, Prufrock. Erasmus defines the good kind of madness as men who hunt, build, gamble, and keep themselves busy in these states to avoid destructive behavior. The protagonist in Remains of the Day, Stevens, fits into this category of a nondestructive madman. Stevens’ reality may be skewed in that he constantly strives to be a dignified and great butler, yet he chooses not focus his energy elsewhere in spheres of his life such the pursuit of love. His madness is nondestructive, but he realizes that his obsession with his work proves unfulfilling at times. After his epiphany, he embarks on a journey for answers and happiness. This is what Erasmus defines as a good madness in order for the protagonist to learn to achieve greatness and productivity like the hunter or gambler, yet the key is to learn to not be consumed with pure madness but also to achieve full happiness and satisfaction.
Prufrock’s statement that he has “measured out his life with coffee spoons”(51) shows his perception of reality in life is uneventful and dull and he thinks himself the “Fool” at times. He realizes he should change, which drives him into a constant state of madness and questioning his own abilities. He even paints his world as if he was “a patient etherized upon a table” (3) He madness is created by himself in that the self-destructive behavior is due to lack of courage and constant anxiety. He feels as if he is surrounded by routine and feels the need to just hold one conversation, yet he thinks he will “disturb the universe” (46) if he does. This kind of madness drives grief and patterns of lust. Prufrock is ultimately lustful for a different life with women, love, and happiness. Yet, he never achieves this and never departs from his mental state. This poem exemplifies the character’s tragedy in that he knows what he should do, but lacks the power and grasp of reality to do so. Prufrock searches for a way of escape from his feelings of self-pity and self-destructive behavior, but he sadly stays a poor madman throughout his life.
Another example of a destructive madman is the character of King Lear....