German Lessons Anyone?

Goya: insanity

Goya: insanity

Even ignoring for a moment all those German-speaking Austrians, including the Trump-successor on the TV show “Apprentice” (where ignorance rules), Schwarzenegger – it is still somewhat embarrassing to see how many people in power have (had) German roots. Remember that other Donald, Donald Rumsfeld, who created much mischief as Secretary of Defense and as a Neo-Con? And now we have a really big Donald, who makes us reexamine some of our roots. And then there was of course Eisenhower, Einstein…

If “Politico” is to be believed,

Donald T’s grandfather had the experience of being expelled, from Germany, similar to what current “illegals” face, when they want to stay in the country of their choice. The main difference being, that D. T.’s grandfather left Germany illegally and then tried to circumvent the law by trying to stay there again illegally… enough stuff here to make anyone mad.

Hysteria - women

Hysteria = women


Real Hair: Ludwig_II;_Bavaria_Rex

Not far from where D.T.’s grandfather was born is another result of a leader whom some declared insane while others, including his personal physician, vouched for his health: Ludwig the Mad (Ludwig II, of Bavaria). One of his weird monuments is the crazy, Disney-like imitation of a medieval castle, Schloss Neuschwanstein, ramparts and all, a favorite destination of many American tourists. Ludwig was declared incapable of functioning, being impeached, so to speak, but many still love his towers of insanity.

To the point: “mad,” in English and in German, is what I’d really like to play with here. Some American clinical psychologists have advised that we would do a disservice to psychology and psychiatry if we start diagnosing politicians, per Twitter, as “mentally ill.” The problem is not Twitter or those speaking for houses (e.g. “White Houses,” even with an African-American President), but that we really don’t know what words to use, when we speak of those who exceed our expectations.

Trump Towers, then

Trump Towers, then

We used to speak of asylums for the possessed (for example by money), but now people may seek asylum and get rejected for being alien to us. Then we spoke of madhouses, but now to be mad is just a sign of being a “populist.” One of the latest twists in the search for political correctness toward the deviant (for example those who are abusive toward women?) is that we may speak of people who have mental illness (like a smartphone), but we may not refer to these people as “the mentally ill.” I guess this is analogous to forbidding talk about “the rich” and only allowing “people with richness,” for example by responding to some counter-factual statements with “this is really rich!”

former mental hospital

former mental hospital

Now of course, we may like to refer to the places for such different people as “Mental Health Clinics,” which would be like calling refugee camps and slums for illegal aliens “Patriotism Clinics,” where we learn, among other things, to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, like President George Washington, because doing otherwise would make us twitter insanities.

Ludwig II after years in office

Ludwig II, after years in office

The Germans, Austrians, and Swiss (to name a few) of course also have struggled with what is an acceptable way of speaking of the those visited by some other gods. There was the old term “Irrenhaus,” a house of those who have lost their way. Then there was “Verrücktenanstalt” an institution for those who somehow got misplaced from their original normal life (I guess we call them “migrants” these days). When I grew up, Germans still spoke of “Geisteskranke,” those who have illness of the spirit. Contrary to materialistic modern psychologists, this went along with the sense that our emotions and our minds are ultimately based on the health of our “Geist,” spirit. In this sense Johann Sebastian Bach could still compose beautiful music to the line “You, however, are not of the flesh but of the spirit.”

military solution

military solution

If we speak in English of the “demented” and “dementia,” we on the contrary seem to refer to some brain dysfunction, not even, as one could guess from the word (demented, -mens, mind), of someone who’s mind is gone.

Is it perhaps time to revisit the concept of “Geisteskranke,” indicating that the spirit is afflicted by some destructive illness, and therefore mind and body suffers, as do the rest of us who have to deal with their spiritual sickness?

Granted that this may sound like bring mental healthcare back to the Middle Ages. But consider for a moment: do we not sometimes feel that perhaps the very spirit of those who wreak havoc on our society is sick at the root? Obviously some of these wreckers are quite smart, socially and financially highly successful, quick to act and speak, rolling in the mud of the unquestioning adoration of nearly half of our society. Are they mentally sick? Not in the practical sense, at least not in the short run.  Are they emotionally troubled and therefore in need, possibly, of some behavior therapy? Perhaps. But none of this would get to the root of their tendency to wreak havoc. There could be something deeper going on, something that has more to do with what the spiritual leader Reinhold Niebuhr used as the title of his book, published in 1944, “The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness.”

If the spirit of a person, whatever that may mean, is the root of destructive and self-destructive humanity, what do we do, when university education, religious service attendance, political checks and balances, a highly capitalistic press, even democratic forces and market forces obviously are not a corrective?

Hogarth: Bedlam (now a global disease)

Hogarth: Bedlam
(now again a global disease)

I am going to visit an old German mental health clinic, again, this month, a place where I worked for a little while as a medical student. It was run by an ex-army officer, like a bootcamp, since training soldiers to run into their death requires similar tactics. (There often has been, in history, an affiliation between rising political insanity and increasing militarism). This clinic is now called the “Karl Jaspers Klinik,” after the famous German philosopher, who left psychiatry in order to study philosophy, instead, his most famous book being “On Truth.”

Perhaps that is what is really missing in our society, more than psychiatric diagnoses or legal investigations: cherishing the truth, above all else. We have lost the sense of what it is to seek wisdom, to become fully human by loving the pursuit truthfulness and open dialogue in mutual respect. As Immanuel Kant put it, one can be an ever more effective crook, if one is smart, donates to charities, is smooth and financially successful, even good looking (hair and all), etc. What makes us fully human are not any of these external attributes, but the dignity of the love of wisdom and the unwavering respect for each human being as an equal member of our society.

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One Response to German Lessons Anyone?

  1. sg says:

    Could it be that some folks don’t have a Geist at all? Or is it a neutral concept that can lean toward either positive or negative being? If negative, then maybe you are offering a definition of evil.

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