Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Insane in the Brain

Octavia Butler's "Crossover" is a hard look at mental disorder, perhaps schizophrenia or some other serious form of delusional hallucination, which as Conor wrote could be an association between black artistry and insanity. (I sort of assume that it's schizophrenia, but I use the term loosely…) What I find curious is Jane's flickering sense of self-awareness throughout her relapse, her rejection of identity, and the possibility she affords herself to liminally pass between acceptance and denial of her constructing and deconstructing of identity via substances: alchohol and sleeping pills.

What is a neurological problem is instead framed in terms of identity: "There were few things she hated more than her own name" (118), "I'd rather be dead than here picking up where we [I] left off three months ago" (117). Like Lynn in "The Evening and the Morning and the Night" (whose name is also mentioned rarely), Jane experiences her problems with herself, which are left vague but visceral, through an external aspect of biology. Given the glancing mention of advanced technology in her factory, there are still alcoholic bums and schizophrenic Janes—they live within the confines of an identifying world but they are thrown aside. Yet Jane refuses to see the street people: "He did not matter any more than the others" (114), "She almost ran from him, barely controlling her disgust" (114). Here, Jane pushes herself from them despite her similarity; she female and schizophrenic, but physiologically dependent on the same alcohol and physically located in the same booze store. This splitting is parallel to the first appearance of Scarface.

Unlike Brad Pitt, Scarface had never been handsome.

Jane's dark descent happens in part because she goes for the alcohol—she takes the blue pill. Scarface taunts her for throwing away her (dependency forming) sleeping pills, which led to his 3 month disappearance. These substances are parts of Jane's constructed identity highlighted by their artificiality, and the end result is not pretty. In the same way, technological advances have not really done Jane any good; her thankless manufacturing job in a high-tech factory and her easy access to alcohol and sleeping pills have sped up her degeneration, while she lacks medical attention. On the other hand, because her sickness occurs by the hand of her world, it is also labeled by the same; here, the association with Lynn is greatest.

But Jane's dependency signifies that she has adopted substances into her life, whatever the external influences which she ignores as best she can. In this identity there is hope: "[T]hey had eaten and made love" (116), "What would a decent-looking guy want to do with me?" (116). She oscillates wildly between ambivalence and depths of rage. Her uncertainty gives the created identity equal footing with the unadulterated one she lives gloomily in at work. Her substance abuse has both obstructed and facilitated her search for calm, but it is not at all clear whether her equilibrium is exactly at one identity or two. The fact that she can drink and still wait for her hallucination to vanish (119) shows that she has a degree of control on her insanity—that the splitting of herself into drinking Jane and scarface is itself a creative act of identity.

Are these substances stand-ins sui generis? This very short story was written in 1970, so the impetus is there. But more broadly, can we interpret them as agents of the process of cognitive estrangement? Similarly, one may read the story as Jane's painful explication of her own neurological estrangement to construct an identity compatible with her head splitting schizophrenia. Or, estrangement from blackness to achieve an introspective creative identity. Or, estrangement from technology to understand one's fundamental wants and desires. (Although when it comes to estrangement, mpreg can make everything else look like child's play, at least to one readership.)

Edit: After a moment of further thought, I'm putting more chips on writing about drugs and substances: altering cognition, sleep, conscious perception. For example, why sleeping pills, except for the comparison with liminality? Why not anesthetics? Why does Jane have to perceive her world as solid and exact at all, with only its complex characters (real and imaginary) causing so much pain in their fluidness, and her alcohol relieving it? This goes back to "The Evening and the Morning and the Night," where drugs are ineffective but natural pheromones work. For this to work assumes the existence of a "natural state" where drugs are bad and DARE officers are good, a presumption which must presumably be turned on its head.


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