Beauty & Madness

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


March 2, 2010

Beauty & Madness

This is, admittedly, a strange theory: that the psychological structure of beauty and mental illness are mirror images of each other. So how can this be true? I’ll go through the table above line-by-line.

The Fundamental Illusion

Obviously in reality, a supermodel is an ordinary person who happens to be uncommonly beautiful. She will eventually get wrinkles, get sick, her body will breakdown and her beauty will eventually be lost to age and death. But our everyday experience is quite different, we react to such a person as if this wasn’t true. Instead, we experience beauty in a kind of eternal, otherworldy way, as if the object of beauty stands outside of our world. The ancient Greek ideal of beauty runs along these lines, and we’re familiar with the fascination humans have for beauty, how eyes turn to look when a beautiful person enters a room, etc. We know they are a normal human being, but somehow we still fantasize that they are the perfect human.

We react to mental illness in basically the same way, but in the opposite, negative sense. If we’re honest, people often react with horror or disgust, even though we know it’s a medical problem, and maybe this is because we resist the idea that our very personality and subjectivity can be so strongly affected by the material world. Whatever the reason, mental illness sometimes appears an an intrusion from outside of our world, which is why premodern cultures often thought it was caused by demons or evil spirits and why we continue to stigmatize it in modern cultures today.

Beauty and mental illness are associated with perfection/imperfection and angel/demon.

In reality, the illusion is…

No human is perfect, and even those who are close don’t stay that way for very long. As mentioned above, wrinkles, sickness, time, etc. take their toll. So beauty is a false illusion, the eternal quality we experience is simply false, a deception.

Madness is the opposite, our reaction to it is a true illusion. Not in the sense that mentally ill people are truly demons, but that with mental illness, we come face to face with an abyss, a repressed, monstrous void that is constitutive of all human subjectivity (particularly our own subjectivity) that threatens us. To avoid confronting this, we react with horror and try to push it out of our universe.

In this sense, the experience is just a fantasy, mentally ill people are no different from you, but the illusion points out something true that has been repressed.

The subject believes the illusion is…

This is straightforward: the supermodel believes she is not really beautiful, she’s aware of all the activities necessary to keep up the appearance; the mentally-ill person believes they really are the monster, it takes effort to hide that, to maintain the illusion of being normal.

In reality, this belief is…

The illusion of beauty is false, and the supermodel believes it is false, so she has the correct understanding. What about the mentally-ill person? The illusion of mental illness is a true illusion, the mentally ill person believes it is true, but nonetheless, they are wrong. Paradoxically, the mentally-ill person mistakenly experiences the traumatic truth of human subjectivity (the madness at its core) as a feature that’s unique to them, that they attempt to overcome . The untreatable madness of human subjectivity is collapsed into the neurochemical problem and treated as the same thing, when actually there are two conditions that are comorbid with each other. The experience of mental illness triggers a secondary effect, the traumatic exposure of the Real of subjectivity that most people repress, but many people experience this secondary trauma with different triggers. The main difference between being mentally-ill and being “neurotypical” is that the mentally-ill person “knows” what’s wrong with them (although they are wrong), and the neurotypical person often doesn’t know–they can’t put their finger on it and try to seek it out.

Subject struggles to be…

Also straightforward: the supermodel works to keep up the appearance of being beautiful, while the mentally-ill person works to conceal their illness. Both fear the consequences of failure.