Wittgenstein and Faulkner’s Benjy: Reflections on and of derangement [1]


            Ben sat in the chair, his big soft hands dangling between his knees, moaning faintly. Suddenly he wept, a slow bellowing sound, meaningless and sustained. ... Then Ben wailed again, hopeless and prolonged. It was nothing. Just sound. It might have been all time and injustice and sorrow become vocal for an instant by a conjunction of planets.   [The Sound and the Fury]


            I want in this paper to conjoin Wittgenstein’s (and Wittgensteinian) thinking to a very particular piece of prose by one of the very greatest writers of the twentieth century: William Faulkner. I am interested in Wittgenstein’s possible utility as a virtual literary critic. And especially, in using properly Wittgensteinian thinking in order to understand the philosophical lessons that I think great literature can yield for us.

            This might beg the following question: How ought we to think of the impact of Wittgenstein’s philosophizing upon literature? I suggest that one responds with considerable indirection to such a question, a question probably close to the mind of anyone reading the essays in this volume; for, as Wittgenstein so often maintained and practiced, one ought not to be too quick to assume that a question which ‘intuitively’ suggests itself is in fact the right question to ask. In this case: we should not be too quick to assume that one could in the first place comfortably divide questions concerning aesthetics and concerning the meaning of literature from questions concerning philosophy of mind, or (more specifically) philosophy of mental health/illness. Wittgenstein very frequently moved seamlessly from philosophy of mind to philosophy of maths,[2] or from aesthetics to ‘meta-philosophy’ to philosophy of psychology.[3] Fundamentally, he rejected the division of philosophy into separate ‘subject areas’. If we are to follow him in thinking about literature, we should consider doing the same.

            I aim in the below to explore a direct connection between literature and what is nowadays often called ‘the philosophy of psychopathology’. I expound a literary critic — James Guetti — putting Wittgenstein to work in thinking about the work of Faulkner. I then extrapolate from this treatment some morals concerning the philosophy of mental health/illness. If my extrapolation is effective, I will have presented to the reader a way of seeing Faulkner as Wittgensteinian, a way which yields a distinctive and novel set of doubts concerning whether severe mental illnesses (e.g. ‘hard cases’ of schizophrenia) can be unproblematically said to be understood/understandable (at all).[4]


            There have been various efforts in recent years to apply ‘Wittgensteinian’ methods to the understanding of various severe mental illnesses, especially schizophrenia. The most notable is that of the clinical psychologist, Louis Sass.

Sass has written two major books [5] and a wealth of papers since the late 1980s, which to an unprecedented extent [6]  develop a serious Wittgensteinian philosophy of psychopathology. The greatest single novelty of that philosophy of psychopathology is that it proceeds by means of a detailed and quasi-literary examination of ‘deranged language’: especially, autobiographies of schizophrenics and others, and great (and obscure) works of literary Modernism. Sass’s argument, in a nutshell, is that the nature of the most intriguing and impenetrable psychopathologies can be understood by means of analogy to the character of Modernist writing (and of Modernist ‘characters’, with their (often) excessive or self-destructive introspectiveness). In producing his philosophical readings in turn of Modernist texts (e.g. those of Dostoevsky, Kafka, Artaud, Musil) in which the characters or narrators are ‘symptomatic’ of serious cultural and (perhaps relatedly) mental maladies, Sass draws explicitly on Heidegger, Foucault and (above all) Wittgenstein. He thinks that these philosophers enable us to diagnostically understand what is going on in such texts — and in the texts of those philosophers (e.g. Kant, Fichte, Derrida) who Sass believes embody, preview and reflect, in a ‘purified’ form, the absurd hyper-reflexive and alienated logic — in short, the derangement — of both schizophrenia and (more ‘lucidly’) of literary Modernism.

            To take a specific example: Sass finds a common structure to the quasi-solipsistic thinking of both Daniel Schreber (a famous ‘paranoid schizophrenic’ who has been written about by everyone from Freud to Bateson and Lacan) and the protagonist in Kafka’s extraordinary story, “Description of a struggle”. The ‘structure’ of ‘schizophrenic language’, Sass believes, is clarified by putting Kafka’s story behind or beside Schreber’s autobiography, and can be fully interpreted when one understands solipsism through Wittgenstein’s diagnosis of the latter.

            Whereas ‘schizophrenia’ is almost invariably seen these days as a disease or disorder or phenomenon of functional or cognitive deficit, Sass reads it instead as centrally involving alienation, cognitive excess, hyper-reflexivity, even 'hyper-rationality'.[7]  Sass severely questions whether anyone has as yet developed an adequate account of the character of schizophrenic delusions. He proposes his own account, on which such delusions are like the delusions suffered by a philosopher (e.g. ‘the solipsist’, or ‘the private linguist’) who finds themselves drawn into conceptual absurdities. In sum, Sass argues that we can understand the key features of schizophrenia by analogy to the character of highly-inward-looking Modernism — and then by analogy to how Wittgenstein diagnostically offers an account of solipsism.

            I do not intend to discuss Sass’s work in detail here.[8] I follow him in very largely rejecting scientific or quasi-scientific explanations of schizophrenia, primarily because — even if effective within their own terms (e.g. predictively) — such explanations fail to deliver any improved understanding of schizophrenia. They fail, for example, to give us a handle on its phenomenology. Understanding some of the causes behind schizophrenia, as we increasingly do, is not then, in my sense, understanding schizophrenia, understanding the people who suffer from it.

            I find Sass’s critique of existing accounts of schizophrenia to be very stimulating and very effective; but I do not believe that his efforts to offer a positive alternative ‘Wittgensteinian’ understanding of schizophrenia, even via literature, are likely to be altogether successful.

            Why? Well, probably the most serious strictly philosophical difficulties for Sass’s project are those raised (indirectly) by Cora Diamond’s work:[9] if Wittgenstein has a resolute conception of nonsense and of philosophical writing, and it follows that would-be philosophical ‘positions’ such as solipsism are in fact completely unstable, are in fact nothing, are just invitations to nonsense, then it appears also to follow that any attempt to extract a nugget of something understandable from — to expand our conceptual knowledge via [10] — the relevant Modernist texts, let alone from schizophrenic narratives themselves, is in one important respect doomed to failure. It doesn’t help us to understand Schreber, if what Kafka is doing in “Description of a struggle” is luring us into ‘experiencing’ something which we cannot understand — i.e. if the concept via which we could apparently be led to understand Kafka’s text (i.e. ‘solipsism’) merely appears to have any solidity or stability, but is actually … nothing at all.

            Rather, after Diamond, a properly Wittgensteinian approach would show that, except in a rather remote sense of the word ‘understanding’, there probably cannot be any such thing as understanding the totality of the words, actions, and experiences of the very severely ‘mentally ill’, persons who are perhaps truly worth calling deeply different from ourselves in the way they now think.[11] I aim to argue below that sophisticated appreciation of Wittgenstein and of Modern Literature tends toward a somewhat more ‘pessimistic’, or ‘negative’ conclusion than Sass’s. To the deflationary conclusion, that is, that we are ill-advised to claim that serious cases of schizophrenia can in the end be successfully understood or interpreted, via Wittgenstein, or via literature (or by any other means).

            In a way, I am ‘extending’ Sass’s line of argument: I want to say that the logical conclusion of Sass’s line of thought, paradoxically enough, is that consistently ‘hyper-rational’ thought may ultimately become, in an interesting sense, unrecognisable as thought at all. I want to suggest that we have not been given good reason to think that there can be any such thing as understanding an actual person who is thoroughly in the grip of such absurdities as Sass describes. To do so, to be able truly to understand a lived solipsism, would in the end be somewhat like understanding ‘logically alien thought’ — but the point, as Wittgenstein was the first to argue, is that it is of no use (or more crudely, no meaning) to us to think that there is any such thing as ‘logically alien thought’. (A fortiori, there can’t be any such thing as understanding ‘it’.)[12]


            I intend to begin arguing this in detail by discussing briefly how one ought perhaps to understand Wittgenstein's important remarks on dreams and altered states of consciousness in On Certainty (and of certain arguably connected remarks in PI, and drawing a partial analogy to hard cases of schizophrenia.[13] I will then use Guetti’s reading of Faulkner (specifically, of Faulkner’s Benjy, the ‘speaker’ of the first quarter of The Sound and the Fury) to rebut an obvious objection to my conclusion drawn from On Certainty.[14]


            For Wittgenstein, it is very important to note that veridical accounts [15] of dreams can only be given from outside the dream context. (This is a conceptual point, not an empirical one.) This is what renders the whole procedure of Cartesian doubt so pointless and logically-awry.

            This is how Wittgenstein put the point, in the closing sections of OC, in his great last words:


            " If someone believes that he has flown from America to England in the last few days, then, I believe, he cannot be making a mistake. [For that would be 'too big' to be a mistake.] // And just the same if someone says that he is at this moment sitting at a table and writing.

               "But even if in such cases I can't be mistaken, isn't it possible that I am drugged?" If I am and if the drug has taken away my consciousness, then I am not now really talking and thinking. I cannot seriously suppose that I am at this moment dreaming. Someone who, dreaming, says "I am dreaming", even if he speaks audibly in doing so, is no more right than if he said in his dream "It is raining" while it was in fact raining. Even if his dream were actually connected with the noise of the rain. "   (OC 675-6)


One might try putting Wittgenstein’s point here thus: Cartesian scepticism is pragmatically self-refuting. If one allegedly supposes that one is dreaming, then it follows from the supposition that one is not engaged in normal potentially-public talk or thought. One’s ‘quasi-thought’ in such circumstances — in this case, the mental occurence of “I am dreaming” — is not a serious candidate for truth-evaluation, etc. . One is not correctly placed to make a claim. So any quasi-claim one makes need not be taken seriously.   For here is nothing that it is to take such a pseudo-claim seriously.

            Put in this way, we see that Wittgenstein is traduced (hereabouts) if one takes ‘pragmatic self-refutation’ to be somehow inferior to ‘real’ or ‘semantic self-refutation’.[16] Wittgenstein’s point is that Cartesian scepticism cannot even get off the ground — it makes no truth-claims or truth-denials to evaluate. We have here, then, a whole epistemological tradition condensed into a drop of grammar.     Now, this does not imply that we have here, already, an effective response to or diagnosis of scepticism. That takes a lot longer, and must I believe have the kind of character indicated in Stanley Cavell’s work. Most ‘Wittgensteinians’ are under an illusion, if they think that Wittgenstein provides a handy, correct way of silencing or refuting ‘the sceptic.’ Nor does the above imply that there cannot be any such thing as someone enjoying or enduring the mental occurence, “I am dreaming”, or that such occurent quasi-thoughts do not, by means of an apparently quite logical process, eventuate perhaps in a real mental confusion or paralysis, which can take on a Cartesian mode of presentation. If we think of schizoid intellectuals in certain moods, or indeed of sufferers from schizophrenia — for example, of the famous cases of Daniel P. Schreber or Adolf Wölfli — in the light of Wittgenstein’s remarks, then ought we to say simply that they are confused? That they made clear mistakes, errors? Are they, as the influential ‘cognitive deficit’ accounts of schizophrenia would suggest, simply the victims of frequent or more or less permanent mistakenness?

            I suggest not. But, and this is the important point, nor does that imply that we can actually succeed in genuinely understanding, in having as any kind of live or even intelligible option for ourselves, the ‘hypothesis’ of the sceptic (or of the schizoid individual).[17] A genuinely Wittgensteinian view, if we are to work with the vital passage from OC just quoted, would rather involve not just a questioning (as in Sass’s work) of the crude mainstream picture of schizophrenics as poor ‘reality-testers’, and a remarking (as in Sass’s work) of the analogies between their 'testimonies' concerning themselves and (say) solipsistical philosophic moments (which involve not error by a ‘mythology’ of language), but also a clear noticing of the limited degree to which we can take seriously — or even comprehend — what they (sufferers from severe schizophrenic delusion) say, at all.  Someone who says “I am dreaming” while they are asleep is making no claim. Is someone who says the same while they are awake – and that is, so far as we can make out, what Schreber said, when he said that he thought he was dreaming up all around him continually, from the insects that buzzed before his eyes to the ‘fleeting-improvised men’ (the people, in reality) that he met on his travels — any better off??

            I am suggesting that the peculiar, autistic, hyper-thinking — the hyper-rational thinking, as Sass would have it — of a Schreber might be best ‘understood’ as yielding nothing that we can succeed in recognising as (a) thought, as such. We might call what Schreber comes up with under such circumstances, ‘quasi-thought’. ‘Quasi-thought’, ‘thought’ or ‘talk’ in the nowhere ‘beyond’ the limits of thought, consisting of quasi-thoughts which are, roughly, ‘logically alien’, which can only be mentally compassed through an overly hopeful and presumptuous process of analogy, or through imaginative mental projection of quite dubious status, is, strictly speaking, not to be regarded as comprehensible. As Wittgenstein once remarked, in discussing the related problem of 'private language': "I cannot accept his testimony because it is not testimony. It only tells me what he is inclined to say." (PI 386)  We must be wary of taking seriously — of thinking that we can interpret or otherwise understand — what there is/are no clear criteria for, no clear criteria for evaluation of. One cannot evaluate mere inclinations for their epistemic reliability. One can only evaluate (e.g.) testimony.

            An account of a dream can be given only from outside a dream, and ‘inside’ the ordinary. But with severe schizophrenia, one might say, there is no outside. There is no such thing experientially (for the sufferer) as an outside to psychosis, or at least to the kind of continual oscillation between systemic quasi-solipsistic delusion and everyday reality which we find in much of the case-history of, for example, Schreber.[18] While outside (ordinary) thought there is arguably nothing but this the nothing that is (for example) psychosis. An experience, naturally, but probably not one that can be rendered in terms making sense. After a certain point, ‘moments of lucidity’ cannot count for much — where all would-be ‘testimony’ is only mere inclination to speak,[19] where the patient themselves is no more confident of their so-called ‘testimony’ than of their so-called ‘delusions’. If Sass is roughly right about the analogy between schizophrenia and solipsism, and if Wittgenstein is (philosophically) right, on my reading of him, then it follows that badly-off schizophrenics are not (even) in the reality-testing game.[20] But this negative remark is about as close as we can get to an accurate or apposite positive characterisation of what game it is that they are playing.

            For to be outside delusions (outside the ‘fly-bottle’, ‘inside’ ordinary life) is ipso facto no longer to be a first-personal 'authority' on this condition. A retrospective account, one prescinding from the form of the condition, of the delusions, is not authoritative. But an 'internal' [21] account is an account without authority either: arguably, it’s at best what someone is inclined to say, rather than a testimony as to what their experience is. The ‘accounts’ given by the very severely mentally ill of their experiences are in this respect precisely like the 'account' Wittgenstein's dreamer gives of what is happening to him while he is dreaming. To say it again, bluntly: they do not constitute testimony. To rely upon such ‘accounts’ is I think to be victim to a deep philosophical illusion.

            Ergo, there can be no authoritative first-personal account of what severe schizophrenic experience is like. (We can, I think, comprehend a great deal of what those afflicted with schizoid conditions say and do, and some of what goes on in the more rarefied ‘worlds’ of schizophrenic delusions (of, e.g., thought-insertion, or of continual framing and re-framing and the overlap of frames) — but not, I strongly suspect, all.)  And so, strictly speaking, any such accounts as wholes, if they try to hang together, cannot themselves be anything more than nonsense, at least in significant part. For, even if you succeed in stabilizing one part of the account, another part will inevitably be(-come) unstable. The situation is not so much like that of trying to make sense of a sentence such as,

[A] “Chairman Mao is rare”, which with ingenuity can be done, but

more like that of trying to make sense of a long string of words such as,

[B] “I hope that your to go to work is my day at the office unfortunately dry person that he is is well.” [22]  One can only make sense of some of the particles or phrases here at the expense of others, and I suggest that one is best-advised to say that there is no such thing as succeeding in making sense of this ‘sentence’ as a whole. Thus, strictly speaking, there is no satisfactory logico-semantical separation of the sentence into meaningful parts, either.[23]  

            Thus purely empathetic understanding of sufferers from chronic schizophrenia, which might be thought to be an alternative possibility to the kind of understanding of another’s motives and reasons etc. which (roughly) I have mostly been focussing on here,is (also) ruled out. We had better say: There is no such thing as my understanding what it is like to be you, if there is no such thing as you understanding what it is like to be you. ‘What it is like to be you’ is just undefined, we might most usefully say, in such cases.[24]

            Now, where we cannot genuinely learn from asking the person themselves, or from an autobiography, I submit that ultimately we have no adequate means of evaluating or testing the reliability of any account that we should like to give. There is not enough of a check on the account we might choose to give. We have recourse then only to purely external, scientistic accounts — and, as already remarked, I do not believe that those accounts can ever enable us genuinely to understand a human being.



            That is the guts of my suggestion, paradoxical and uncomfortable though it might seem. I claim that the kinds of resources we humans have for understanding one another — for understanding one another’s actions, and being — resources drawn upon in literature and elaborated and stylized in the human/social sciences, are largely not sufficiently present in hard cases of schizophrenia, including in those who (like Schreber) seem shot through with thinking and introspection.

            But if one accepts Wittgenstein’s line of thought in On Certainty OC and Philosophical Investigations PI, then — without immediately retreating to a scientistic and simplistic ‘cognitive deficit’ account of schizophrenia — it may yet appear that a plausible and natural route of objection to my claim remains open. That objection would run roughly as follows:

            ‘Perhaps you still have in mind too narrow a model of what "understanding" must be; perhaps the language of schizophrenics might safely be said to give us a way of speaking about the nature of schizophrenic experience in something like the way that the language of the stream-of-consciousness novel gave us a way of understanding / representing / speaking about the nature of thinking. (A way which has since become popular in for instance English and Composition classes (e.g. 'intensive writing', perhaps some ‘brainstorming’), as well as, of course, in certain forms of psychoanalysis and therapy; and so on.)  Why shouldn’t this give us a way / be a way of understanding schizophrenic experience?’

            Well, this ‘way’ may well be of considerable use; and, of course, we can call it “understanding” if we want to. I am going to try to make it rather unattractive to do so. I am going to suggest that we oughtn’t to assimilate what it is that the objection recommends to “understanding”. Because I think that it would constitute a serious philosophical mistake (or myth) to say that stream-of-consciousness writing (or for that matter psychoanalytic free association), even when efficaciously popularized beyond the avant-garde, gave us a way of capturing the form of thinking, or of saying what thinking is truly like (including what it was like before the 'stream of consciousness' stuff came onto the scene). We should be careful to avoid making similar ‘mistakes’ in difficult cases of 'schizophrenic language'. (And, not incidentally, I am concerned that Louis Sass doesn't guard sufficiently against that danger.)

            I wish then to question the idea that one can validly get an interpretation of a pre-existing psychological phenomenon by means of finding a new 'apposite' way of 'describing' — of verbally 'depicting' — it. Let me illustrate my contentions here: by reference to William Faulkner's superb use of a so-called 'stream of consciousness' method, in the opening part of ‘The Sound and the Fury’. It is an example peculiarly appropriate for our present purposes, as will shortly become plain, in virtue of the strictly limited (and not to be over-estimated) but nevertheless intriguing affinities between Faulkner's protagonist, Benjy, and (say) Daniel Paul Schreber. At this point let me begin, by quoting extensively from the Wittgensteinian literary critic [since he is contributing an article to the volume...], James Guetti:


            "I want to take a case... of recognizing a text as "another language" ...in which it may seem self-evident that a way of speaking is..."psychologically identifiable, and therefore apparently controlled by its connections with a reader's own intelligible vocabularies from beyond the text, when in fact as a language it takes much more dominion than that. The best single example I can give of this...is from Faulkner's  The Sound and the Fury, Benjy's narrative:


            ...I went out the door and I couldn't hear them, and I went down to the gate, where the girls passed with their booksatchels. They looked at me, walking fast, with their heads turned. I tried to say, but they went on, and I went along the fence, trying to say, and they went faster. Then they were running and I came to the corner of the fence...and I held to the fence, looking after them and trying to say.


            What Benjy is "trying to say"... is that he thinks he sees, or expects to see, or, more certainly, that he wants to see his sister Caddy, whom he used to meet on her way home from school; and he is trying as well to do something that he can never do, to talk to another human being. But what his "trying to say" amounts to, we also know, is a continuous loud and horrible bellowing. And...we know as well that Benjy now, at the age of thirty-three, is large, shambling, fat, drooling, and an "idiot"." [25]


One is inclined to assume that we have a way of ‘psychologically’ (or ‘psychiatrically’) identifying Benjy, and that that controls our understanding of Faulkner’s text, but Guetti wishes to contest (and, roughly, reverse) that assumption. For, as Guetti goes on to observe of this "idiot", Benjy, who "bellows", and who yet seems somehow in Faulkner’s hands to be the centre of a somewhat solipsistic (and odd, allegedly 'under-developed', yet occasionally sensitive and acute), intelligence:


            "[W]hat seems most interesting is the way that Benjy's comparative incapacity...becomes his individual capacity and power. ... [H]is inability to conceive of causal sequences enables him to notice a very great deal as it happens. ...And his failures at "trying to say"...become his "saying" to a reader.

               This effect depends...on Benjy's continuousness to a reader over a time...  [W]hat I am suggesting is that, sooner or later, a reader ceases to [regard] Benjy's words as the language of an "idiot":   "Father...looked at us again. Then the dark came back, and he stood black in the door, and then the door turned black again. Caddy held me and I could hear us all, and the darkness, and something I could smell...  Then the dark began to go in smooth, bright shapes, like it always does, even when Caddy says that I have been asleep."

               ...[T]o understand the emotional force of Benjy's language, is to say that it somehow generalizes his case, and that his appeal is the appeal, and his language the words, of a "child". His vulnerability, which is equivalent to the fact that his wonderful imagining must remain frustrated and potential, his perpetual innocence that will be hurt again and again... all underwrite his image as a child. And so one might say that Benjy's text...moves us...by connecting with what we already know about children.

               Or by connecting with what we think we know. For what in fact do we know about such childhood? How do we know that experiences for children are so beautifully discrete and yet so synchronizable..., or that — when a child slept — "the dark began to go in smooth, bright shapes"?... I would suggest, then, that we do not recognize that Benjy is a "child" by extension from what we know about other children. If there is such a "recognition" here, it probably goes in the other direction: we know about other children by Benjy; he sets a standard; he is the child. Indeed, he so moves us because probably he is somehow more a "child" than any particular child could

be." [26]


The last two sentences are crucial. Benjy is perhaps a 'paradigm', a prototype.[27] In his language something is exemplified more perhaps than it is ever found in the real world; and it is described in such a way that we now have a way for describing 'better' that real world (or so, at any rate, we feel).


"What happens as Benjy's narrative develops, I think, is rather like what Wittgenstein describes...when he says that "the same proposition may get treated at one time as something to test by experience, at another as a rule of testing" (OC, 15). Benjy's language ceases to be dominated by the rules of the grammars we bring to it; it becomes, for its duration, itself the dominating language. And the reason why this seems so remarkable is that it amounts, again, to a reversal of what we think we are doing with such narratives. For we at least begin by feeling that we "understand" them by placing them in some sort of comparitive relation with rules and vocabularies of which we are assured; and yet, sooner or later, these narratives come to exceed such presumptions and to achieve a different kind of status. The character...becomes "right" to say what he says not because we can explain his speech "psychologically"...but because through the appeal of its sustained presence his language is transformed from a sort of "dialect" or merely local grammar into the only way of talking, into a ['language'] a reader must speak as he reads." [28]


As with Benjy, so with Schreber (and also perhaps Wolfli, or Artaud): Do we really understand them, by analogy or extension from things we do understand? Or is it that eventually we hear what they are saying as 'sufficient unto itself'? Like with much strong 'Modernist' literature (e.g. later Gertrude Stein, some 'L.A.N.G.U.A.G.E.' poetry [29])…  More obviously even than in Benjy's case, we surely don't, I would want to claim, really understand extreme Modernist poetry — however good it is.

            We must come to 'speak’ Benjy's 'language', rather than to continue to 'translate' it from 'idiot-talk' into our own talk, if we are to be able to get anywhere with this text, to be able to appreciate it. Maybe this can in some sense be done, at least ‘in the imagination’, with schizophrenia (and maybe with other severe mental conditions, such as autism, too — as for instance the high-functioning autist Donna Williams's wonderful books [30] may bring us to think). But it is not clear that such ‘imaginability’ actually gets us very far (see PI para. § 395). If we think of Benjy's ‘talk’ as like 'another language' we must not think of it as a fully decodable, interpretable language, even in principle.[31] And that makes all the difference. We may hear or even 'speak' Benjy's 'language' — but we still, I want to suggest, don't understand it, in the sense in which we do normally (virtually always, in fact) fairly fully understand each other’s words, each other’s utterances.[32] I am not saying that we must actually translate (or interpret) someone’s words in order to understand them (as I think Quine and Davidson unwisely hold). The problem for us with Benjy’s language is not even that we are unable to translate or interpret it without fatally violating it. The problem is that when we try to ‘go on’ with it sensitively in the imagination, we encounter deep difficulties and disquietudes, because we are required to go on with something we cannot actually succeed in imagining, something it is not at all obvious has a sense to imagine.

            As Guetti holds, it is imaginations of sense, and experiences of language, that are at issue here, experiences of 'grammatical' effects; not communications, not just meaning or signifying. Our everyday language, and certain linguistic items (e.g. ordinary utterances in foreign languages) that we can translate into it without any worrisome violence or loss, involve sensical significations.

            Whereas discourse which must remain 'another language' — discourse that, like poetry, is language which exposes to our view its own form, rather than allowing itself to be translated into everyday prose, into (e.g.) its alleged 'meaning' or 'moral' — discourse such as Benjy's, does not for us involve any ordinary signification (at least, not centrally, in terms of the features of it which are distinctive). Contrary to appearances, it does not make sense. And nor, ultimately, does some of Schreber's discourse (nor that of other well-known sufferers from schizophrenia, such as Artaud, or ‘Renée'), even in context.

            We are led by Faulkner's 'empathy' and erudition — and perhaps by the decoding 'game' he sometimes encourages the reader to engage in, the game of trying to identify 'what Benjy is actually talking about' — to believe that we understand now the psychology of someone with a serious mental disturbance, or of "the [young] child". But, as Guetti asks:  What do we really know of these things? Or, better:  What does it mean to know of these things?[33] I am not making the point that this is fiction — in fact, I have no doubt that in its way Faulkner's writing is more illuminating about real human beings’ minds than many an average shelf's load of psychology or psychiatry textbooks. But all we (in fact) have here is a 'language' which we can now use to 'represent' abnormal — or [young] child — psychology; or, better, to give instances of it. We have a language, for it, then (now); but we do not, I think, have knowledge of it.

            It might be objected that it is dangerous to assimilate the case of ‘the child’ to that of ‘the schizophrenic’. This is surely true — finding schizophrenic thinking to be directly analogous to the alleged-mode-of-thinking of children (and of ‘primitive’ peoples) is a highly-dubious legacy of psychoanalytical thinking on schizophrenia, and has rightly been thoroughgoingly critiqued by Sass, among others. If pressed, I should for the sake of my argument here give up any claims I might seem to be making to the non-comprehensibility of the ‘world’ of the child, and simply suggest that the morals of Guetti’s discussion do apply to the ‘remote’ ‘world’ — the non-world — of the chronically schizophrenic person. Strictly, much of that language is sound and fury, signifying nothing.[34] One must do violence to that language in order to render its sentences into our own, into sentences that successfully signify, sentences that mean, sentences that have a use (as opposed to having various grammatical and psychological and associative effects upon one). Insofar as one translates (say) Benjy's tale — his sentences — into our language, one strips away their 'literariness', their particularity, transforming them into our own pale reflections (of them), finding ways of making sense of them such that they are no longer nonsensical, alien. We may want to have it both ways, but really we can have it neither:

            If Benjy's ‘language’ is in quite specific ways 'responsible' to an ‘inner’ and experienced reality, if that is how coming to grips with it supposedly enables us to understand his psychology, then any translation of it into our language will eliminate that 'responsibility' to reality, and ensure that the project of understanding the reality of this abnormal psychology fails.

            But if we can straightforwardly translate Benjy's ‘language’ and understand it and him thereby, then we didn't need to understand his language 'on its own terms', in order to 'capture' what it 'depicts', in the first place. In this latter case, “understanding” ‘stream of consciousness’ writing would simply be an irrelevant distraction, or at best a dispensable practical aid.

            Of course, the objection can be made that surely Benjy’s ‘talk’ is already a translation. Benjy does not actually speak; and we are only ‘hearing’ such of his stream of thoughts as language can in some sense give expression to. What could possibly constitute a rendition into language of the private thoughts of a mute idiot that didn’t in some sense amount to a translation? But it is the necessary words “in some sense” to which I think we should attend here. The question is: what sense we can properly make of Faulkner’s ‘transcription’ of Benjy’s thought; or in what sense this writing gives us access to an ‘alien’ mode of thought. And my suggestion has been: that the sense in which Faulkner gives expression to Benjy’s mind in The Sound and the Fury yields much, yields many fine things, but does not yield anything that we will be wise and happy to call sense, in the end. In a way, then, the objection under consideration here only strengthens or redoubles the case I am making in this paper. One might say that Faulkner has already ‘translated’ Benjy’s thought for us; my suggestion is that it is unwise of us to claim to understand even the ‘translation’. We do so, ironically, at the cost of giving up on Benjy’salterity’, and thus obscuring from sight (or sound) his nature.[35] To turn Benjy’s talk into sense violates it, and loses him and his experience. Having tried to understand Benjy’s words, we must eventually throw the quest to make a consistent sense out of them away, at the price of otherwise simply turning Benjy back into one of us. Paradoxically, the best understanding of Benjy we can come to have lies in our eventually jettisoning our efforts to understand him, or at least in coming to recognise that we cannot come to understand him in any of the ways in which we are most reasonably tempted to think we can. We must try to overcome our desperate wish to try to understand his ‘tryings to say’.

            To switch for a moment to Heideggerian terminology: we don't get any genuine understanding of something 'ontological' — a 'different world', such as, someone might hold, Benjy has — through treating it as 'translatable', as 'ontic', as optimistic psychologists and psychiatrists tend to. The interpreting into terms that we understand (or translating) of ontologically different language, language which is other than sensical communicative discourse, is just not ultimately a good idea.Thus my ‘reading’ of schizophrenic etc. madness is not romantic. I am with Sass in thinking that the ‘mad’ person does not change into something rich and strange, but into something so poor that it is more deeply strange even than Sass has tended to allow. I am not saying that madness is another world(s), or ‘another country’. I am saying that, when sufficiently severe, and indeed if and when and as a consequence of bearing a terribly strong patina of rationality (‘hyper-rationality’ and ‘hyper-reflexivity’, again, are the terms which Sass uses), it is not a ‘world’ or ‘country’ or ‘land’ at all, but only the mirage of one. The best understanding we can come to have of such a mirage is the full recognition of the continued and repeated and perhaps-inevitable failures of all efforts to understand. For there is perhaps no world there, but only a mirage.

            One might in fact then with most profit say, that — when most successful — 'the stream of consciousness novel' actually succeeded in generating a new paradigm for what we would come to regard as / count as expressing thoughts.[36] I.e. When most successful, it generated the powerful illusion that it was accurately expressing a previously-existing-but-as-yet-ineffable phenomenon.[37] That there could in an important sense be no such thing as doing that in this case or in others like it (for grammar/language is not responsible to reality; only (some) statements are), we do not see. 'Capturing' and turning the forms of our thought [38] into a content — even one 'to be gestured at'— is not a possible project.

            No more for schizophrenia than for literature, or philosophy.[39]


            In conclusion, then, the would-be objection to the lesson I drew

from On Certainty OC fails. The least misleading thing to say about certain cases of severe ‘mental illness’ is probably that there can be no such thing as understanding them. (And then, of course, no such thing as misunderstanding them either. They just aren’t candidates for understanding).We have no criteria via which cognitively to evaluate them, and so whatever we attempt to say of them by way of affirmative characterization will be arbitrary, and in a way quite misleading.[40] 

            My charge against Sass is that he veers too close to making schizophrenic delusions make sense, or have content. He makes it sound like they do after all have a sense, only it is an ineffable or senseless or confused sense (cf. PI 500). This latter is philosophically incoherent.[41]

            My critique of Sass, and those who, like him, would probably reject my conclusion, remains however a deeply sympathetic one. How so? Well, perhaps it is worth slightly expanding on some of my remarks in the paragraph above, to explain:

            I say that what I say in this paper is probably “the least misleading thing” there is to say, hereabouts, as opposed to any attempt positively to characterize the nature of severe ‘mental illness’, which will be in a way quite misleading. This leaves open that it will in a way not be that misleading. And, as importantly, this leaves quite open, further, (1) that my remarks too are not necessarily unmisleading, and also (2) that things that others have said about these matters may be at their best more or less as unmisleading as what I have said. I would put most of Sass’s work in category (2); and I am aware (á la (1)) that my own remarks run several risks: for instance, that it will appear that I am saying something (uttering a controversial thesis), in this paper;[42] and that I may, faultily, lead readers to think that I have undermined Sass’s ‘hyper-rationalist’ reading of schizophrenia, etc. . I have not. I have not challenged Sass’s hyper-rationalist construal of schizophrenia and the ‘Apollonian disorders’. I believe, negatively, as he does, that ‘cognitivist’ and ‘psychoanalytical’ readings of schizophrenia etc., different as they are, fail in a roughly shared — and in both cases, drastic — fashion to understand the humanity, the rationality, of the patient. And I would go so far as to say that I believe, affirmatively, as he does (I think), that virtually all of psychopathology consists in the suffering human being trying to find safety,[43] trying to understand their condition, trying to understand the world, trying to make sense of what seems to them nonsensical.

            I only suggest that the end product of all this, in severe cases, still leaves the sufferer terribly far from us: that, for instance, the degree of withdrawal from the world involved in the desperate attempt to find safety, to find certainty, of genuinely psychotic persons is in general too great for us to comprehend. We can ‘understand’ it only in the kind of way we can ‘imaginatively enter into’ solipsism, or into Benjy’s ‘world’. In other words, we cannot understand it, in any ordinary sense of those words, without doing serious violence to it, without translating it into something it is not.

            My remarks here do not undermine Sass’s account, then. They only press the point that (we should at least seriously consider the possibility that) no account can be given which stabilises (e.g.) severe cases of schizophrenia into something that we can unmisleadingly be said to understand, without falsifying them. If we were to broaden the sense of what it is to give an ‘account’ of serious mental disorder to include thoroughgoingly processual ‘accounts’, ‘accounts’ which are aware that the forms of words they use cannot be successfully stabilized by us without the point of employing them being lost, ‘accounts’ where the words that feature in them can in a very important sense only be mentioned (not used) by us, then we could still allow that Sass gives such an ‘account’ (and we might want to say the same of Faulkner [44] ). If giving an ‘account’ is allowed to be only ‘taking part in’ such a process, without any kind of propositional or sensical claim-making stopping point, then so be it.

            Sass would presumably say that this is enough. That the fundamental phenomenon hereabouts must surely be that we are doing what we must: trying any which way we can to speak (trying to say… our own position, in doing the philosophy of psychopathology, is not so different from Benjy’s…) of people, who are having experiences. Yes, of course. And yet... no. Because what appears to happen under extremis is that any more or less Kantian conditions of experience are left behind. Not, I have suggested, for ‘another’ conceptual scheme — but for a nothing, for a chaos of crossed language-games, or of schemata apparently continually collapsing under their own weight. It may even be necessary for the purposes of understanding ourselves and not projecting our experiences onto others to consider the possibility of saying that (hyper-)rational human beings can cease to have what are untendentiously called experiences.

             I only differ from Sass, then, in the following regard: in taking his thoughts about severe psychopathology to their logical conclusion, I draw the conclusion that the states of mind of sufferers from such pathologies are only arbitrarily identified in ways that we can be untendentiously said to understand.


            Is this not an anti-Wittgensteinian conclusion?

            Am I, for example, being overly narrow still, failing to treat “understanding” sufficiently as a ‘family-resemblance concept’ with a variety of different cases?

            Mustn’t there be a sense in which a ‘respectful’, hermeneutic-ish, Wittgensteinian approach to this matter would involve us finding a way, perhaps some kind of ‘indirect’ way, of describing correctly the experience of the sufferer from schizophrenia?

            Well: Not really, or not necessarily. At least, not for Wittgenstein himself. I would invite those who feel inclined still to disagree with me and to answer the above questions in the affirmative, to offer their rival interpretation of the following remark of Wittgenstein’s, a remark precisely and clearly consonant, it seems to me, with the line of argument which I have pursued in this paper: “Suppose you say of the schizophrenic: he does not love, he cannot love, he refuses to love — what is the difference?!” [45]

            The difference between saying these things of the ordinary person is weighty. That a person refuses to love potentially implies a criticism not present in their being unable to love, for example. But Wittgenstein specifically rejects such discrimination, in the case of ‘the schizophrenic’.[46] It does not matter which of these we say: there can be no such thing as getting (hard cases of) schizophrenia right. You can call being able to say everything and nothing — being able to say whatever you like — “understanding”, if you wish! I would prefer to restrict the use of that term to contexts in which there is a tolerably clear distinction between understanding and not understanding someone. What we can be intelligibly said to understand in another — in the sense of understanding what their actions are, or understanding their motives for action, or empathetically understanding them, etc. — is (most of) the hurly-burly and variety of ordinary life. But most serious schizophrenia does not fall under that heading. It is better seen as the persistent semblance of another language — very much like the semblance of another language that we find in Wittgenstein’s ‘private linguist’, a philosopher subject to an illusion of sense, an illusion that his words, in the way he finds himself wishing to employ them, mean anything at all.

            Getting Faulkner right involves seeing that his novel displays to us language which, ironically, cannot be translated or interpreted into sense … without irreducible ‘loss’ or ‘garbling’. An odd kind of ‘garbling’, admittedly: a garbling which inadvisedly turns nonsense into sense…  We need to see Faulkner’s language ‘clearly’, as a language of paradox, of indeed nonsense masquerading beautifully as sense. We should try to see Faulkner’s work as exemplifying these WittgensteinianGuettian — points; and then we can see his art — his artifice — clearly, as the brilliant creation of an illusion of meaning, an illusion of sense. The illusion perhaps that we can make sense of the ‘life-world’ of a young child, certainly of an ‘idiot’ — or, I have argued, by (I hope) a justified extension, of some sufferers from ‘chronic schizophrenia’. If I am right, we can see Faulkner then — now — as an artist whose art bears among other things a very particular aspect: an exemplification of deflationary Wittgensteinian ‘philosophy of psychopathology’.

            In sum, I urge upon the reader that s/he at least considers an option — that the most impenetrable cases of ‘schizophrenia’ are best described not as cases of a different form of life, but, despite appearances, of no form of life at all — …an option which has not to date been even considered in ‘the literature’ of/on psychopathology. What this option frees us from is the tyrannies hereabouts of Scientistic or Humanistic Rationalisms and from the mirror-image tyranny of Post-Modernism, and its love-affair with alterity. The tyranny, that is, of the neo-romantic insistence that not to be indefinitely open to others is necessaraily unethical.

            When our everyday criteria really do run out, I want to insist that the following option be available: that in some instances there be a possibility that we will pragmatically (we are finite creatures; we cannot always try to understand forever, if we want to do anything else with our lives) and even justly conclude that probably we are not missing anything, by giving up (on understanding someone). There can of course be real encounters with otherness: one thinks of successful and celebrated philosophical cases such as Wittgenstein and Frazer’s ‘savages’, Winch and the Azande, Kuhn and Aristotle, McIntyre and Homer, and latterly Sass and some of those whose writings etc. he writes of. But not necessarily all. 

A sufferer from severe schizophrenia remains a human being, of course, and indeed a thinker; and we can get somewhere with them, moreover, by taking them as a ‘hyper-thinker’. But their thinking takes them to ‘somewhere’ deeply strange, strange such that we cannot find our feet with them without losing pretty much all sense of their having lost pretty much all their footing. They live something that we can at best enter imaginatively into entertaining [47] (i.e. the thoughts of metaphysical philosophers; i.e. in the end, nothing). That is my suggestion.

            I do not of course remotely claim to have exhaustively established the truth of this suggestion. I claim only that it is an option for ‘reading-as’ the brilliant ‘deranged’ writings of Faulkner and (by extension) of Schreber, ‘Renée’, etc.; and that it deserves fairly serious consideration. Not for scientistic reasons, but for (roughly) literary reasons.[48]



[1] Thanks to David Rudrum for help with the title of this paper.

[2] See e.g. Philosophical Investigations (3rd ed; London: MacMillan, 1958), p.232; henceforth PI.

[3] See e.g. pp.14-18 of Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religion (Oxford: Blackwell, 1966).

[4] In the following paragraphs, I draw heavily on my "Recent work: The Philosophy of Literature" (jointly written with Jon Cook), in Philosophical Books XLIII: 2, April 2001.

[5] Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the light of Modern Art, Literature and Thought (New York: BasicBooks, 1992); The Paradoxes of Delusion: Wittgenstein, Schreber, and the Schizophrenic Mind (Ithaca: Cornell, 1994; henceforth ‘Paradoxes’).

[6] Stanley Cavell is an important predecssor of Sass: in that Cavell (especially perhaps in his The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality and Tragedy (Oxford: OUP, 1979)) not only details the philosophical inter-involvement of scepticism and madness, but does so in significant part by means of readings of great literary works (especially in his readings of Shakespeare’s tragedies (see Disowning Knowledge: In Six Plays of Shakespeare (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1987), and also “The avoidance of Love: A  reading of King Lear” (in Must we mean what we Say? (New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1969), and “Macbeth Appalled” (Part I in Raritan 12:2 (Fall 1992) pp.1-15; Part Ii in and Raritan 12:3 (Winter 1993), pp.1-15))).

[7] Consult Sass, "The Consciousness Machine: Self and subjectivity in schizophrenia and modern culture", in Neisser and Jopling (eds.), The conceptual self in context (Cambridge: C. U. Press, 1997); and the books referenced above.

[8] I have done so in my "On approaching schizophrenia through Wittgenstein", in Philosophical Psychology, 14:4, 2001. That paper takes the line of thought indicated in the present paper more robustly and single-mindedly than I now would. That is: I am now less unsympathetic to Sass than I was two years ago. The interested reader might wish to compare the two papers with that in mind.

[9] These serious difficulties that Diamond raises for Sass are the central topic of my (ibid.), and are discussed also in my “The philosophy of literature” (op.cit.).

[10] H. Olsen and P. Lamarque published their influential (humanist and anti-Literary-Theoretic) book, Truth, Fiction and Literature (Oxford: OUP), in the same year as Sass published his Paradoxes of Delusion -- 1994. Olsen and Lamarque argue a general case that literature qua literature is not a source of conceptual knowledge, and that literature’s literary/aesthetic qualities are falsified by claims and readings to the contrary -- a claim that, if true, would buttress the more specific Diamondian (and Guettian) suspicions of Sass’s project given above. The Olsen/Lamarque view is powerful and attractive, but one ought to note that it has been fairly widely criticised within Analytic Philosophy of Literature --  for example, by Eileen John (in her “Reading Fiction and Conceptual Knowledge: Philosophical Thought in Literary Context” (J. of Aesthetics and Art Crit. 56:4 (1998), 331-348)) and M.W. Rowe (in “Lamarque and Olsen on Literature and Truth” (Phil. Quarterly 47 (1997), 322-341)).

[11] When I speak of ‘the very severely ‘mentally ill’’, I may be using that term in a more restrictive way than is at first apparent to the ear. I mean to speak of those on whom, I suggest, all our efforts to understand founder. Not a case of (say) auditory hallucination where we can reach agreement with the voice hearer on what they take themselves to be hearing, but a case where our every effort fails either by our own lights or by theirs. A case, perhaps, such as those of Schreber or of ‘Renée’   (Both of whom consistently reject the understandings offered by others -- and even by themselves -- of their experiences. For detail, and consideration of some further ‘clinical material’, see again my “On approaching schizophrenia through Wittgenstein” (Philosophical Psychology 14; 4 (2001), 449-474)). In short, I am concerned here with cases which seems to require for their possible comprehension a whole ‘new mode of representation’ (as in Faulkner -- see below).

[12] For argument to these conclusions, see Jim Conant’s “The search for logically alien thought” (Philosophical Topics 20 (1991), pp.115-180; and the papers by Conant, Crary and Cerbone in The New Wittgenstein (Crary and Read (eds.), London: Routledge, 2000). Extending the line of thinking in these authors, I am suggesting (at least, for the sake of argument) that we consider that seriously-felt solipsism may take to such a pathological extreme our rational modes of thinking that, inadvertently falling thereby into being a fantasy of a wholly other way of thinking, ‘it’ fails to be any kind of (way of) thinking at all. We can enter into ‘it’ only in the specific and peculiar ‘imaginative’ sense set out in Diamond’s paper in Crary and Read (op.cit.), and in Guetti’s work on imagination.

[13] There are of course very serious limits to the analogy. Firstly, because ‘schizophrenics’ speak, unlike Faulkner’s Benjy, and unlike two-year olds. Secondly, because (after Sass), I do not want to gainsay how (pathologically) constant, quasi-scientific and rational much of the thinking and speaking of most ‘schizophrenics’ is (whereas Benjy’s thinking is (for instance) deeply marked by non-rational breaks). Nevertheless, I urge the reader not to be overawed by these fairly massive dis-analogies, for I think that the analogy will still prove of philosophical use, if the reader risks following it through.

[14] Oxford: Blackwell, 1969. Henceforth OC. (For a fuller picture of the way I read OC, with special reference to the important question (in the present context) of ‘the ineffable’ in Wittgenstein etc., see my essay in Daniele Moyal-Sharrock and William Brenner (eds.), Investigating On Certainty (London: Routledge, 2003).)

15Towards the end of this paper, I will consider a challenge to my argument here which I think there is something to be said for: that there is a danger that we beg the question against Sass (and in a way, against ‘the schizophrenic’) if we demand a stable account.

[16] I.e. For Wittgenstein, ‘pragmatic self-refutation’, is never ‘mere’. For Wittgensteinians do not believe that there is a separate and superior realm of ‘semantics’. One might risk putting it this way: for Wittgenstein, language is pragmatics ‘all the way down.’

[17] For further detail on what is and could be meant by ‘understanding’ here, see my Kuhn (Oxford: Polity, 2002; joint with Wes Sharrock), or my “On understanding Kuhnian incommensurability: some unexpected analogies from Wittgenstein”, forthcoming in Wittgenstein Studies. See also note 27, below.

[18] See Sass’s Paradoxes, passim; and Schreber’s Memoirs of my Nervous Illness, transl. Ida Macalpine and Richard Hunter (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988 (1903)).

[19] Like the inclinations to speak in certain ways of metaphysically-inclined philosophers, which is exactly what Wittgenstein is referring to in PI para. 386. (Cf. Cora Diamond’s “Ethics, Imagination and the Method of the Tractatus”, in The New Wittgenstein (op.cit.), for a vital discussion on the process and limits of attempting to grasp (or effectively imagine) those inclinations (and those speakings). Diamond’s paper is a key background text for my paper here.)

[20] I differ slightly here from Ivan Leudar, who in his wonderful book, Voices of Reason, Voices of Insanity: Studies of verbal hallucinations (with Phil Thomas; London: Routledge, 2000), argues that voice hearers such as Schreber are continually engaged in mundane processes of ‘reality-testing’, and are pragmatically dealing with their (bizarre) world. But the difference can be partly accounted for by pointing out that I aim to be dealing with some of the most extreme cases, moments and aspects of schizophreniform delusions (by analogy to dream-worlds and the world of the child/’idiot’), cases where I believe that Leudar’s and Thomas’s otherwise powerful account reaches a limit, and gives out.

[21] It is important to note that the scare-quotes around words such as ‘internal’, ‘inside’ and ‘limits’ here are essential. They indicate that there is no proper contrast-class to these terms as used in these philosophic contexts. E.g. There is no such thing as an ‘outside’ to the ordinary, only the fantasy of metaphysics and the reality of delusion or interminable confusion.

[22]  A great (and more extended) fictional example of what I am talking about here, I would suggest, is Lucky’s speech in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

[23] I am not here falling into a scientistic ‘word salad’ account of ‘schizophrenic language’. See below for why not; a preliminary indication as to why not can be found in the reminder that my indicative account in the parenthesis above is an analogy, not a literal claim. I am making an analogy to the difficulties one inevitably has in making sense of [B], above.

[24] It might be objected here that, while there can be no testimony in such cases, nevertheless a cry or a flinch (or a nonsense-sentence) can be expressive of how things are with the subject. A two or three year old child -- or a cat -- cannot report on their experience but can still give a degree of expression to it, and thus give us some access to the character of it. So, it might be reasoned, the character, the form, of first-person accounts -- or rather, expressions -- at least expresses the subject’s experience (the experience of a‘schIzophrenic’, or of an idiot, or of a child). My response to this objection is the meat of my account of Faulkner’s Benjy, below. To anticipate: I accept the objection only so long as one does not try to retain a sense of their being an effable (or, for that matter, ‘ineffable’) content to the ‘expression’.

[25] Wittgenstein and the grammar of literary experience (Athens: U. Georgia Press, 1993), p.86. Cf. The Sound and the Fury (corrected text; New York: Vintage, 1984 (1929)), particularly the segments early on in the novel wherein some of the black characters explicitly recognize the patternedness and in a way deep ‘intelligence’ of Benjy's particular sensitivities (to names, etc.), as well as of his confusions. Somewhat like some ‘people with schizophrenia’, Benjy at times manifests deep and even otherwise-unavailable insights. In a fuller presentation, we should explore these matters; but in this paper, I am focusing upon the respects in which Benjy lacks what we should ordinarily and properly call ‘comprehensibility’, and in which accounts of him, as of people with serious schizophrenia, are therefore arbitrary.

[26] Ibid., pp. 87ff. The turning of the direction of understanding "in the other direction" here is somewhat reminiscent of Kripke's (somewhat more extreme) strategy vis-a-vis rule-following, which he attributes to Hume, under the name of "inversion" or "reversal". See e.g. p.93ff. of Kripke's Wittgenstein on rules and private language (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1993).

[27] And one might with profit here compare the function of ‘paradigms’ in science according to Thomas Kuhn. A thoroughgoing scientific revolution, such as the Chemical Revolution, yields radically new paradigms of thinking, and thus produces a deep difficulty for scientists in understanding even their own past views. I am suggesting that a more extreme version of the same process is at work in cases of radical literary innovation and artifice, of ‘literary revolution’ -- and afflicts the severely psychopathological, similarly. (For detailed discussion, including of the connection between incommensurability in science and in literature, see my Kuhn (Oxford: Polity, 2002), joint with Wes Sharrock.)

[28] Guetti, pp.88-89 (italics mine).

[29] A fine example is the opening of J.H.Prynne’s Word Order (Kenilworth: Prest Roots Press, 1989).

[30] Her extraordinary first person ‘account’ of autism, in Nobody  Nowhere ( London, Doubleday, 1992) and in Somebody  Somewhere (London: Doubleday, 1994). But I am suggesting that actually we should nevertheless be extremely wary of the thought that any of this can wisely be thought of as 'getting us inside the head' of another, if the ‘mental life’ of that other is sufficiently drastically different from our own.

[31] Cf. the very opening of The Sound and the Fury (just as marvelous and strange as the closing of Benjy’s narrative, where Guetti focuses his attention, as above): “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting... They took the flag out, and they were hitting. Then they put the flag back and they went to the table, and he hit and the other hit... // They were hitting little, across the pasture. I went back along the fence to where the flag was. It flapped on the bright grass and the trees.” If one insists on 'translating' Faulkner’s / Benjy’s extraordinary turns of phrase such as "curling flower spaces" (not to mention the intransitive use of “hitting”, the ungrammatical expression, “hitting little”, the impossible ‘action’ of the flag, etc.) into ordinary English, the power of this 'language' is lost. We should think of its metaphoricity as strong, as live, as untranslatable -- unparaphrasable -- except at the cost of losing its 'grammatical' or 'representational' effect(s). The same is true of many of the 'metaphors' of schizophrenic language. And yet it is in those ‘metaphors’ that all that is most important to an understanding of schizophreniform experiences etc. seems to reside.

[32] In a fuller presentation, we should consider more closely hereabouts different senses of the word “understanding”. Some helpful discussion of this can be found on pp.161-6 of my Kuhn (op.cit.).)  

[33] Now, one should not overdo the otherness of the very young. We are not very often consciously baffled by young children (though it is important that we are perhaps much more often baffled by them than by our contemporaries). Our being more baffled perhaps more still by the mentally disabled or ‘ill’ may be in part a function of their lesser numbers and greater variety.        And I think we should note, along with that, that a lack of conscious bafflement at some beings does not in any case imply an understanding of their world. I think that Guetti is right to at least ask what it even means to claim to understand the world of a two or three year old.

[34] Or, more accurately still: meaning nothing, in the sense in which the word ‘meaning’ is intimately tied to use. For detail on why the word  ‘signify’ may tend to lead one astray hereabouts, see my “What does ‘signify’ signify?”, in Philosophical Psychology 14: 4 (2001), 499-514.

[35] This reminds one of Winch on the Azande, stressing that to understand them it is necessary first to take seriously their difference, and place them further from us than has been usual. But Benjy, unlike the Azande according to Winch, does not return, on my view, from the placement at a distance. He remains deeply strange. (However, I think that, just as Winch believes we can crucially learn something about ourselves by learning about the Azande, so one can learn a good deal about oneself by ‘learning’ -- or consistently failing to learn -- ‘about’ (or ‘from’?) Benjy (or Schreber). As David Rudrum (in conversation) puts it: it’s not just that I’ll teach you differences. It’s also that differences teach you ‘I’.)

[36] My thought here is akin to that of Hacking (both his important writings on regimes of truth-and-falsity and his work on the emergence of new possibilities for human being -- e.g. being a 'multiple', a person with M.P.D., on which see his Rewriting the soul: Multiple Personality and the sciences of memory (Princeton: Princeton U. P., 1995)), and of Kuhn (on there being no criteria beyond the paradigm). "But doesn't something become a new paradigm because we feel that it gets things right?" Maybe, but so what? Because a brave new metaphor 'gets it right' somehow, does it follow that metaphors are always translatable, or that they are in any interesting way discovered to be correspondent to reality?  In suggesting "No" for an answer, I follow Guetti (and, on this issue, D. Davidson).

[37] Very approximately, á la Roland Barthes's 'reality effect', which concerns the generation of an effective appearance of 'realism', of expressing a pre-existent reality, by means of subtle textual techniques. See p.141ff. of his The Rustle of Language (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986). See also Joseph Reed’s Faulkner’s Narrative (London: Yale, 1973), which partially anticipates Guetti in arguing for a non-realist rendering of Faulkner’s language. (One might ask whether my argument has the result that there can be no such thing as understanding literature. This will I think follow only for literature with ‘a strong grammar’, with a serious ‘difference’. I am not committed to implausible claims such as that there can be no such thing as understanding Pride and Prejudice, or War and Peace.)

[38] And likewise, it follows from the above, the forms of reality too. The reason why capturing the form of language or of thought is likely to strike us as a more exciting project is I think just that it is a newer one.

[39] It might be objected here that, in allowing that one can come successfully to represent schizophreniform etc. thought, I have conceded to Sass all that he needs. In answer to this objection, I would say: Firstly, that it is true that what I am saying is in a way distinct from what Sass wants hereabouts only by a hair’s-breadth; but yet, seeing that there is a hair here and getting the breadth of this hair right is important. And secondly, that a lot hangs on what one understands by ‘successfully’ -- I have allowed that one can do something(s) that is (are) worth calling perspicuously representing schizophreniform etc. thought, but not that in doing so one becomes able to state the form or nature of such thought truly. The whole point of this paper is ((a)) that coming to see a kind of writing as adequate to a form of thought (or for that matter to a dimension of reality) is only little like coming to an understanding of that form of thought, and ((b)) that there is a further wrinkle in this case: the ‘form of thought’ in question here may in the end be so very remote that we should pause before continuing to regard what we have done as coming up with a mode of representation of a form of thought.

[40] These conclusions buttress those of my “On approaching schizophrenia through Wittgenstein” (op.cit.), a companion paper to the present paper in this regard. (See also n.8, above.)

[41] Care is needed, as intimated below, not to use this point to rule out of order the very project of comprehending confusions or failures-to-make-sense. A resolute ruling out of the very idea of a senseless sense must not bring with it a ruling out of the reality of people finding themselves in the position of striving to utter something like a proposition with a senseless sense -- as perhaps Sass and Schreber alike (and Benjy too, unconsciously?) find themselves striving ...

[42] When all I mean to be doing, after Wittgenstein, is perspicuously presenting ‘something’, and trying to avoid misunderstandings that we (including I) are prone to, hereabouts.

[43] A point I hope to pursue more fully in future work is this: that I think Sass under-estimates the crucial motivating role of fear (fear of letting one’s guard down, of things becoming unbearable, of death, of torture, of insanity, of the power over one of other people, of ‘God’, etc.) throughout ‘the Apollonian disorders’.

[44] Again, the part of Faulkner’s ‘account’ manifested in Benjy’s narrative is of course particularly paradoxical in being an account given by one … who doesn’t talk. But again, Benjy still acts and ‘expresses himself’; and, as Wittgenstein always urged, what is most important about language is language in action or as action, not language as something radically separate from or ‘above’ action. What we are about in this paper is understanding or accounting for (linguistic and non-linguistic action) -- and understanding where that project of understanding gives out…

[45] Culture and Value (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1980), p.77.

[46] Benjy does seem to love, deeply. He hangs out at a golf course just to hear random strangers utter a word that echoes his sister’s name. He can’t express his ‘love’ in any (other) way. But it still very much seems to be love. ...But perhaps that in turn is a temptation which we need to overcome, in the course of our reading Faulkner’s masterly novel. I would suggest that we are likely to overcome it, by the very end of the novel, if we take seriously the other views of Benjy (other than ‘his own’) which Faulkner offers us.          We must not give up prematurely on our wish to find love in Benjy, or in ‘the schizophrenic’; but we may eventually decide, albeit reluctantly, to withdraw the word from our account of them, much as we may decide to withdraw the word “language” from our account of what Wittgenstein’s ‘builders’ are uttering, or to withdraw the word “proposition” from our account of what most of the strings of words encountered in the Tractatus are.

[47] Again, we are here in the territory of the extremely difficult issues explored by Diamond in her “Ethics, imagination...” paper (op.cit.); and again, we run the risk of intimating a greater gulf than there is between such ‘imagination’ on the one hand and ‘understanding’ another subject’s ‘world’ on the other. All I can do is reiterate that I think the refusal to entertain such a conception of imagination as, following Diamond, I have tentatively urged in this paper, results in either a kind of scientistic begging of the question against ‘the schizophrenic’ or a pre-judgement in favour of something like the metaphysics of post-modern ‘alteritistic’ humanism.

[48] Many thanks to James Guetti, Louis Sass, David Rudrum, Angus Ross, James Conant, Cora Diamond, Lyndsey Stonebridge, Richard Allen, Ivan Leudar, Emma Willmer, Nadine Cipa, Portions of this paper draw on (and expand, adapt and update) my “Literature as Philosophy of Psychpathology”, forthcoming in Philosophy, Psychology, Psychiatry.