In praise of craziness of a certain kind—a winter meditation on love

The Memorial (Unitarian) Church, Cambridge
We start with some words by Martin Heidegger from a 1964 TV interview which alert us to something which he thinks is very important about what it is to be a human being (I am grateful to Iain Thomson for bringing my attention to this interview). Heidegger said:

“I would say: no human being is without religion. And: Every human being, in a certain sense, opens beyond himself [über sich hinaus]; that means [we are each] deranged [ver-rückt].”


Heidegger spent a great deal of time trying to help us see that the content of what we call our ‘selves’ is, for the most part, wholly unchosen, gifted to us as it is at the moment we are born (or “thrown”) into an pre-existing world. To be a human being is always-already to be born into a particular culture, geography, place, time and epoch. For a great deal of the time, of course, we do not notice this because, as Heidegger noted elsewhere, “[t]radition takes what has come down to us and delivers it over to self-evidence” (Being and Time p.43 [21]). Because of this it is important to see, as Iain Thomson notes, that

“Thrown into a world we did not make (and whose influence we can never render wholly transparent to ourselves), we all understand ourselves in terms of belief systems which we can never fully reconstitute and re-appropriate. All of us thus remain inextricably bound to these larger belief systems whose truth each of us always takes partly on faith; and in this literal sense, Heidegger suggests, we are each ‘religious’ (from the Latin religare, ‘to bind’)” (Thomson, Iain 2011 'Transcendence and the problem of other worldly nihilism: Taylor, Heidegger, Nietzsche', Inquiry 54:2, 140-15

So, whether we feel we are conventionally religious or not (and choose instead to call ourselves atheists or humanists) who we are is always-already religious in this sense, i.e. bound (religare) inextricably to innumerable ideas and beliefs not all of which have, or even can be, validated by personal experience and which we simply hold on the basis of faith.

When Heidegger goes on to say that every human being, in a certain sense, opens beyond him- or herself he is pointing to this complex of larger belief systems we take for granted. The point he wants us to see is that, in consequence, what it is to be a human being is not to be some discrete, closed in, wholly independent and rationally constructed creature, but a much more open kind of being-in-the-world that is always-already indissolubly commingling with a pluralistic world.

This kind of being, in a certain sense, always opens beyond themselves and this means we are each deranged [ver-rückt].” To be de-ranged in this sense is simply to say that we are always-already unbounded or “opened up” to (and commingled in) a very complex world.

In short, Heidegger is saying that in a certain kind way we’re all always-already religious and crazy.

For me, thinking through this idea of religion and craziness at this cold and wintry time of year (the two photos in this post were taken during a snowfall here in Cambridge this week) inevitably brings to my mind Mary Oliver's touching poem In Praise of Craziness, of a Certain Kind:

On cold evenings
my grandmother,
with ownership of half her mind—
the other half having flown back to Bohemia—

spread newspapers over the porch floor
so, she said, the garden ants could crawl beneath,
as under a blanket, and keep warm,

and what shall I wish for, for myself,
but, being so struck by the lightning of years,
to be like her with what is left, that loving.

The bowling green on Christ's Pieces opposite the church
When I first read this poem I understood it principally as one centring on the loss of self; in this case the loss of Oliver’s grandmother’s self. But, in the light of Heidegger's words, I’ve come to think this might not necessarily be the poem’s central focus, not least of all because it obscures something about very powerful about the nature of love and how it sometimes shows up in our world.

In her first two stanzas Oliver simply places before us, in a calm, descriptive and almost detached way, two things. The first is that her mother seems no longer to be in full control of herself (she is in this sense de-ranged) — at least half the time she appears “elsewhere”, in Bohemia, the place of her birth and the second is that during the other half of her time, this de-rangement is revealed in some unusual deeds such as spreading newspapers over the porch floor on cold evenings so that the garden ants can crawl beneath, as under a blanket, and keep warm — a deed which looks decidedly 'verrückt', deranged or, in as Oliver's title suggests, crazy. But, remember, Oliver tells us in the title that she thinks it’s a craziness of a certain kind and one to be praised. The question we must ask is what is the kind of craziness which she wishes to praise and what might make it meaning-ful, sustaining and hopeful for us rather than simply a cause for sadness, regret and hopelessness?

I think the craziness that Oliver praises in her grandmother is something like that to which Heidegger was pointing, something that is primordially true about humankind as a whole, namely, that all of us are always crazy in a certain way, are deranged, 'verrückt'. All our actions come out of such derangement.

Oliver concludes the poem with a grateful recognition that out of this derangement, this craziness, there has come both the loving that her grandmother displays to the ants and also her own wish that she, too, when struck by the lightning of years will, with what is left, be equally loving.

That Oliver makes this love’s appearance in us a wish (i.e. a hope) — rather than suggesting or claiming it will inevitably happen — reveals that she knows that this loving can never be guaranteed to turn up every time in any of us. Oliver is too wise a poet to fall into such a sentimental notion — she (and we) know only too well that hatred and enmity can also show up.

But let us look at what kind of love Oliver seems to be speaking about in this poem — something I'm tempted to call "true love". The key thing to observe is that, by its nature, it is always verrückt, deranged, and a little crazy, as Freddie Mercury so wonderfully expressed it in his 1979 hit with Queen, a “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”. We also, of course, commonly talk about being “madly in love.” Truly to fall in love is to fall into the world and for us to be able to fall into the world the door of our being has to be open — our being has to be itself verrückt, deranged, crazy.

Now, is not the world itself — in its constant openness — somewhat like love in this regard? Its being, too, is open and “verrückt”, deranged or crazy. You may baulk at this and say ah, but we know there are laws of nature which are not at all like love, not at all crazy, even us they remain very puzzling. At a certain level I'll concede this point, but our presence in the world reveals that these same regular laws are always-already open enough to have allowed to emerge — to bring into being — de-ranged poets, grandmothers, ants, you, me, lovers and friends and, for all we know, countless other life forms in the universe, and that all of them will in some way (and in their own fashion) at some point fall crazily in love with some one or some thing and irresistibly be called to act lovingly towards it.

The miracle (or so it seems to me) is that this open derangement is precisely what allows love to show up for us, again and again, now here, now there. As I have just mentioned, we know that hatred and enmity also show up, but it is important to see that, when they do show up, hatred and enmity are characterized by a closing down, by a refusal to remain open to the complexity and contingency of the world, by a refusal to fall fully into the world and true love. (Of course, certain kinds of love can be like this too but we would then call this kind of love obsessive or controlling — we would not call it true love.

Consequently, I want to suggest that true, open love seems more attuned to the way the world appears actually to work and is ultimately, therefore, more powerful and creative than are hatred and enmity and this is, perhaps, why love continues to press itself upon us throughout human history — even in the darkest of moments — as being the best way (or mood) that we should cultivate and adopt as the basis for our living and acting together (with each other, ants and all other entities in our world/universe). This why, at times, theists have been encouraged to claim that "God is love" (1 John 4:7-8).

Might it be possible to say that when we are truly in love (or in that mood) we understand better how to work with the grain of the world and are, therefore, better able to create (build) out of the unique, deranged, crazy weave that is both our individual lives and our collective life the greatest possible flourishing and meaning-ful society?

Hate and enmity are, of course, in their own way deranged and crazy but please be aware that they do not express the kind of open, creative de-ranged craziness Heidegger saw, that Oliver's grandmother displayed and which Oliver, and also we here, wish to embody.

The craziness of a certain kind that Oliver praises is, I suggest, a faith that the human world and the physical universe seem to be constituted in a way that keeps showing up love as being something like a divine command from beyond our world — a command from what our culture has traditionally called God.

Today we may doubt (rightly in my opinion) that there exists an actual transcendent being called God but this need not mean we neither have to lose the sense that the call to love one another acts as-if it were a command from God, nor fail to give profound thanks and praise whenever, where-ever, and in whomsoever, we see that love burst forth into our world and made beautifully visible — whether in acts of love shown unto one another or even unto cold garden ants needing shelter and warmth.

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