Deleuze and the Temporalities of Mental Illness

The psychiatrist begins to talk about causality. Many therapies, like the Laingian psychodynamic approach undertaken recently, focus so much on the past, unpacking it to explore the present. But the past need not define the present in any way. If anything, this exacerbates depression, which can so often lead us to catastrophise events we cannot change.

I’m reminded of Deleuze in Logic of Sense, who affirms the strange acausality of emotional experience in his Stoicism. The two kinds of Stoic time, which I can barely profess to understand and articulate with any proficiency, nonetheless lead me to wonder how they might be laid over the disjointed temporalities of mental illness — the time of trauma, free-floating and pervasive; the time of the present, of action, of acausality. Deleuze writes:

The fragility of sense can easily be explained. The attribute has an entirely different nature than corporeal qualities. The event has a different nature than the actions and passions of the body. But it results from them, since sense is the effect of corporeal causes and their mixtures. It is always therefore in danger of being snapped up by its cause. It escapes and affirms its irreducibility only to the extent that the causal relation comprises the heterogeneity of cause and effect — the connection of causes between themselves and the link of effects between themselves. This is to say that incorporeal sense, as the result of the actions and the passions of the body, may preserve its difference from the corporeal cause only to the degree that it is linked, at the surface, to a quasi-cause which is itself incorporeal. The Stoics saw clearly that the event is subject to a double causality, referring on one hand to mixtures of bodies which are its cause and, on the other, to other events which are its quasi-cause.

It is easy to unpack this passage through a consideration of trauma, which is an event made incorporeal, returning to the surface of the body through a quasi-causality detached from present experience. What are “triggers”, in this sense, if not incorporeal events of quasi-causality. They make no sense, and are often ridiculed as such when trigger warnings are offered to those derided for a certain sensitivity. But each denouncement betrays an anemic conception of time.

Deleuze names these two times, following the Stoics, as aiôn and chronos, the two Greek gods of temporality. Aiôn represents cyclical time, “an infinite past and present”; chronos represents linear time, “the extended present”.

In typically Deleuzian fashion, these concepts are put to work for his own ends, making notable if elusive breaks with the Stoic philosophy he supposedly takes as his foundation. For Deleuze, “time must be grasped twice, in two complementary though mutually exclusive fashions.” The present, as a sort of duration, of course includes past and future in our understanding of its movement; a kind of corporeal sense of movement. But past and future can also be considered as distinct incorporeal entities. It is a kind of further wrestling with Xeno’s paradox. The flight of an arrow can be understood as an event in itself, as a causal event with a duration. But as Xeno adds, when considering this event in isolation, we can divide it infinitely into segments; not a movement but a series of moments. We are left with two quite distinct ways of understanding the nature of a present moment, one that endures and one that can be infinitely divided. But this is far from a clear-cut distinction. As John Sellars writes:

The tension that remains is this: while on the one hand time infinitely extends into the past and future and the past and future are separated by a durationless instant, on the other hand the present moment is said to be extended and to ‘belong’, which accords it a greater ontological status than the past or future.

This kind of complicated unpacking of Deleuze’s quasi-Stoic theory of time is, as Sellars acknowledges, a “relatively minor scholarly point”, but it nonetheless remains important to Deleuze’s ethics, which argues for “‘…willing the event as such’ and that the ultimate task of ethics is ‘not to be unworthy of what happens to us’.” And this point is of course made in reference to the trauma and wounding of Joë Bousquet, who broke with his carnal birth, affirming the new birth of his wound, welcoming it as a fissure in time that could give rise to a new sense of the universe.

But not all wounds are alike, and not all persons are able to enter into them like Bousquet did. What then?

“There is the crack which extends its straight, incorporeal, and silent line at the surface; and there are external blows or noisy internal pressures which make it deviate, deepen it, and inscribe or actualize it in the thickness of the body.” As always, death looms, as that most fundamental of internal cracks: organ failure. But also the petite mort of orgasm, in which organ function becomes indeterminate, blurred, sensual, given over to pure sensation.

I skirt the line, flirt with death in moments of abject disregard, abusing my prescribed medication and drinking too much. Deleuze writes that “the use of drugs or alcohol … are the most perfect” example of how we often weather the storm that deviates the line, like a wind that buffers a ship’s course, maintained with difficulty on rocky seas, “because rather than bringing the two lines together in a fatal point,” though fatality may be destructively made an acquaintance, the effects of these substances “take time”. To become drunk is to pass the time; to become as drunk as a sailor is to pass time on land.

When Blanchot thinks of suicide as the wish to bring about the coincidence of the two faces of death — of prolonging impersonal death by means of the most personal act — he clearly shows the inevitability of this coupling or of this attempt at coupling. But he tries also to define the illusion.

In a footnote, Deleuze quotes Blanchot directly: “Suicide, in this respect, is not a welcoming of death. It is rather a wishing to abolish it as the future, to deprive it of that part of the future which is its essence…” Deleuze continues: “an entire difference of nature subsists between what is joined together or what is narrowly extended.” The difference is promiscuous: What is to be joined? What is to be extended? The personal and the impersonal are surely, on the one hand, joined fatally in the final act. But whether personal or impersonal are extended depends on the success of the act itself, the actualization of the event. Of course, in the moment, the choice is false.

Each attempt on my own life has felt so prolonged, prevaricated over. Impulsive, yes, in each instance, but an impulse that lasts for hours at a time, is built up to, swells and wanes. After every decision, every incremental step towards, another throw of the dice.

If to will is to will the event, how could we not also will its full actualization in a corporeal mixture, subject to this tragic will which prescribes over all ingestions? If the order of the surface is itself cracked, how could it not itself break up, how is it to be prevented from precipitating destruction, even if this meant losing all accompanying benefits — the organisation of language and even life itself? […] More precisely, is it possible to limit ourselves to the counter-actualization of an event — to actor’s or dancer’s simple, flat representation — while taking care to present the full actualization which characterizes the victim or the true patient?

This is “the ridiculousness of the thinker”, the eternal battle waged where the victory of either side feels like a kind of loss regardless. Philosophy is a cold war within the self. The only thing left to do is to tentatively walk the Gothic line.

Each of the thinkers Deleuze considers in his study walk the line in their own way, but still find themselves leaning this way and that:

Bousquet speaks of the wound’s eternal truth which he bears on within his body. When Fitzgerald and Lowry speak of this incorporeal metaphysical crack and find in it the locus as well as the obstacle of their thought, its source as well as its drying up, sense and nonsense, they speak with all the gallons of alcohol they have drunk which have actualised the crack in the body.

I wonder where I lie, enthused by Bousquet at first — and still — but now wrestling with these alcoholic and promiscuous men, enveloped completely by that primal wound and discovering the weak will of drowning in it on my own terms, with my own choice of liquid.

The man who saw me in A&E on the night of my most recent overdose challenged my new reliance on alcohol. Alcohol makes you reckless, impulsive; it is a depressant. I know all of this, of course, but I reject his assumed chronology that I am doing these things because I am drunk. I am reckless and impulsive and depressed first, and turn to alcohol to numb those feelings. He thinks this as a kind of chicken-and-egg argument. He knows alcoholics, he says — and there are plenty with them, known well to staff, populating the waiting room outside. I don’t challenge him on this. I defer to his expertise. “I know they says grief gets easier”, he says, but he knows so many alcoholics who grieve their ruptures like they were yesterday, as if alcohol pickles aiôn into a traumatic stasis, making it impossible to move on.

Deleuze himself echoes this comment on an alcoholic stasis in Logic of Sense: “Alcoholism does not seem to be such a search for pleasure, but a search for an effect which consists mainly in an extraordinary hardening of the present.”

I don’t want to harden my present; I want to move on.

I feel newly empowered by a sudden disinterest in drink. The day after this last visit to A&E, I am given a new script for 5mg diazepam, which I can take up to three times a day. I am going to miss it when it is gone. I fear I will turn back to alcohol too readily, to the perverse desire for multiple temporalities experienced at once, the dissatisfaction that drives and arrests desire in equal measure. “The alcoholic does not like this rigidity which overtakes him”, Deleuze continues, “any less than the softness that it surrounds and conceals.” Valium melts all that is solid, hard or soft, into air.

I am due to go back to work soon. This is my last official week on the sick. The doctors are forgiving, offering me a further six weeks, carefully monitoring the new cocktail of drugs I am taking daily. But in six weeks’ time I should be starting my PhD. So much of this note-taking feels like preparation for it, but it makes the job I currently have feel like a pity employment.

Somewhat shamefully, I long to hang onto this limbo, if only so I can continue this writer’s convalescence. Going out every day with a bag of books, a notebook and a pen, is the one thing I can rely on, the one thing I enjoy effortlessly, the only thing I feel effortlessly absorbed within. This is the joy of illness. Like so many pleasures, it enchants because it is so fleeting. Writing has become like a drug to me now. But I reject the narrative of the suffering artist, even though it is ill-health that provides the time to create and feel uninhibited by the world of wellness. Health means a return to the capitalist enclosure. How much do I really want to be well? Or at least well enough for that?

Deleuze: “If one asks why health does not suffice, why the crack is desirable, it is perhaps because only by means of the crack and at its edges that thought occurs, that anything that is good and great in humanity enters and and exits through it, in people ready to destroy themselves — better death than the health which we are given.”

The psychiatrist in A&E asks me about what I do for work. Do I enjoy it? I umm and ahh. I am indifferent. I do not find it torturous, but at the end of the day — always at the end of the day — it is only a job to me. It allows me to afford the cost of existence. It does not allow me especially to live. “What would you rather do instead?” Whatever I want, I reply. Not a life of drugs and of hedonism but nonetheless to make a home in the freedom they supply. What I mean to say is I want to live and write about it.

Deleuze once more:

We cannot give up the hope that the effects of drugs and alcohol (their “revelations”) will be able to be relived and recovered for their own sake at the surface of the world, independently of the use of those substances, provided that the techniques of social alienation which determine this use are reversed into revolutionary means of exploration. Burroughs wrote some strange passages on this point which attest to this quest for the great Health — our own manner of being pious: “Imagine that everything that can be attained by chemical means is accessible by other paths…” A strafing of the surface in order to transmute the stabbing of bodies, oh psychedelia.

Oh acid communism.

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