Author(s): Rainald Goetz
Translated for the first time into English, cult German author Rainald Goetz's debut novel Insane draws upon his clinical psychiatric experience to paint a portrait of the asylum as a total institution. We follow a young psychiatrist, Dr Raspe, who enters the profession dreaming of revolutionising its practices. Confronted by day-to-day practices and the reality of life in the psychiatric hospital, Raspe begins to fray at the edges. The very concept of madness is called into question in a brutal portrayal of patients and psychiatrists and the various treatments administered, from psychotherapy to electroshock therapy. What is madness? And who is truly mad? Diving headlong into a terrifying and oppressive world, INSANE is a veritable journey into the madhouse by one of Germany's most prominent and contentious authors.
"What do I have to think to really understand what I feel when I see what happens?" asks Rainald Goetz. Insane, first published in German in 1983 and only now appearing in English, in a translation by Adrian Nathan West published by the remarkable Fitzcarraldo Editions, interrogates the validity of the distinctions society makes between sanity and insanity, between the acceptable and the unacceptable, between what we call order and the rest of what we call chaos. If it is not the case that there is no such thing as insanity, as had been proposed by the antipsychiatry movement, it would be more reasonable to assert that there is no such thing as sanity, that in reality there is nothing but insanity, that distinctions between sanity and insanity are non-actual, an artifice wrought by the powerful privileging and ring-fencing a portion of the territory and calling it sanity, despite the irony. The border between one thing and its opposite, when laid across a continuous field, falls in the greyest area between the two, the zone of least distinction, and therefore these borders are constantly and often brutally defended. The more brutally and the more desperately they are defended the more they seem to exist, and the border is dotted with institutions which, by helping those who are held over the border, even though such distinctions are matters of scale rather than of kind, give validity to and guard that border. An institution dictates the currency of exchange within it and between it and its hinterland (or, rather, the currency of exchange dictates the institution and its relations with its hinterland), but the criteria of preference within that institution, however, are marked equally and completely upon all members of that institution, who are to some extent, because of this, interchangeable. Distinctions of scale are the most mutable distinctions. The first of the three sections that comprise Goetz’s novel contains a multitude of unattributed voices expressing metal states that would generally be classified as insane (or in any case dysfuntional) if classification were to be made, and notably in this section it is not, interspersed with others seemingly from doctors attached to a psychiatric hospital, one of the last in Germany in which electroconvulsive therapy is still practised, lecturers and theorists addressing madness and psychiatry. The classification regimes of psychiatry (“countless diagnoses but only five drugs”) are destabalised, the writing clinically precise but without presumptive diagnoses, Goetz dealing only particulars without generalities or labels, providing a sort of anti-DSM guide to psychological dysfunction. The second section follows the path to disillusionment of a young doctor, Raspe, who learns, with increasing despair, that he is in fact incapable of helping the patients. “You must constantly stifle the burning sorrow of your helplessness. Habit grows alongside weakness in the doctor and becomes his crutch. A man erased did the work of a doctor.” The third part applies the nondiagnostic approach beyond the institution to the narrator himself (though to call him Raspe or even the narrator by this stage is problematic). “After years of differentiation I had only just learned non-differentiation,” he says. Without the institution, without diagnoses, without the prescription of medication, without the divided roles of doctor and patient, the illusion of the sane society is dissolved. And without these in this novel there can be no first person, only a mutable third person, each individual observing themselves from without in the same way they observe other persons, like persons observed in a film, unable to make adequate distinction between themselves and other persons. The pace now becomes (even more) manic, the tone pugnacious and mocking, that of a frustrated joke approaching a punchline it will never attain. The introduction in this section of the ‘Rainald’ character, appearing either as the author himself or as a character narrated by Raspe, undercuts all we had previously presumed about Raspe and destabilises the momentum, so to call it, call it vibratory energy rather, of the later part of the novel. Raspe/Goetz left psychiatric medicine when he realised that his interests were inquisitive rather than therapeutic (that he was more a writer than a doctor). “Rainald no longer believed he was capable of helping the patients. They were interesting, though. Through them, he was trying to understand how we must learn to talk about ourselves again, without psychiatry.”
Rainald Goetz, born in 1954 in Munich, studied History and Medicine in Munich and obtained a doctoral degree in both subjects. He briefly worked as a physician, but quit this profession for the sake of literature in his early thirties. His first novel, INSANE, was published in 1983. In 1998, Goetz wrote the internet diary 'Rubbish for Everyone', probably the first literary blog in Germany, with entries on the world of media and consumerism. It was published in book form in 1999 and together with RAVE, JEFF KOONS, CELEBRATION and DECONSPIRACY belongs to Today Tomorrow, his great history of the present. Goetz has been awarded numerous prizes, most notably the Georg Buchner Prize in 2015. He lives in Berlin.