‘Shut the bug up!’ I screamed up a lemon tree in the south of Italy last summer. The cicadas were driving me mad. Brief silence followed. I turned my back. They resumed. Rickrickrickrick. ‘Why?!’ Socrates knows why. In Plato’s Phaedrus (c.370 BCE), he says that, when the muses were born, people who heard their music became so enthused that they never quit singing, stopped eating and died. Their souls returned as cicadas. On hot days, they fill the air with the sound of their unending love of muses. Stop the spirited? Trust me, you can’t.
Set ablaze by a divine spark, enthusiasts spread the fire across ages, cultures and religions. Shamanism and ecstatic dances are practised around the globe. ‘God-sent madness is a finer thing than man-made sanity,’ Socrates confirms. Mad love makes the soul grow wings and fly to unknown plains. So the ancients, Socrates adds, called ‘the finest of the sciences’ the ‘manic art’. This science was kept alive and enriched by Islamic scholars such as Al-Kindi (c.801–873 CE), Sufi rites and poetry. In 15th-century Italy, their ideas were passed on to thinkers such as Marsilio Ficino, who laid the groundwork for modern philosophies of artistic creation. In Music in Renaissance Magic (1993), Gary Tomlinson charts its concepts. In Latin, the Greek mania translates as furor; enthousiasmos as inspiratio. In moments of poetic fury, Ficino holds, divine spirits enter the soul, tear it out of its confines with a violent jolt called raptus or abstractio, and hurl it upon unknown plains where the soul disperses and melts in with life at large.
Do you have to believe this? No, what matters is to experience it. The people from whom I learn most are enthusiasts who blow my mind and take my soul to places I never knew existed. I owe them everything.
Still, I wonder, must we only picture enthusiasm in terms of volatile states and ecstatic performances? Words like fire and fury come easy to the raging buffoon in the White House. Whim parades as mania as the POTUS apes the patriarch God of old, inspiring awe by randomly abusing his people. Daily, he delivers apocalypse without revelation via Twitter and cable television: a lurid show act from Christianity’s box of horrors. Why are we watching?
There is so much more to look for in mania. But to grasp it we may need to abstract ecstasy from acts, inspiration from spectacle. Divine sparks never just prompt solos in the spotlight. Rapture is when, in the dark, the entire club moves. Who’s the actor, what’s the act when rhythm is a dancer? It’s opaque. So is our present encounter: I don’t see you when you read this. Neither did you watch me write it. Yet, we trust that a current will flow. Reading, listening and looking are silent arts. But they alter atmospheres. Where these arts are practised, with love, over time, spaces get a certain feel to them. It likens some libraries, studios, studies, galleries, classrooms, cinemas, clubs or concert halls to sacred sites. Enthusiasm hangs in the air like an evocative perfume.
Today, universities are caving under the pressure to commercially streamline education. Fighting this insanity requires an excessive labour of love. So, passion must yet be performed for the spirit of learning to stay alive. Still, if teaching has taught me anything it’s that overperforming my mania in class can also suck the air out of a room. It’s key to know when to melt into ether and just be a cloud, conducive to the collective electricity of the students’ minds to accumulate freely. It leads to the real spikes of voltage.
Main Image: Hilary Lloyd, Painting Assistant, 2018, specially commissioned for frieze’s 200th issue. Courtesy: the artist
First published in Issue 200