There is in literature a slipstream of works that impresses upon the reader the character more than the plot or the story. The reader rides on the horseback of him the character as he (usually a ‘he’) gallops into the adventure. Somewhere along, that character subtly morphs to become the story. Don Quixote comes to mind. Later incarnations of this quixotic fellow exploit roughly the same formula and gain literary fame, if not cult status. Holden Caulfield and his angst-ridden jaunt through Central Park, Leopold Bloom’s clock-ticking day in Dublin, Mrs Dalloway’s wispy amble in and out of Hyde Park, the inexplicable trials and tribulations of K. These works pay their tributes to Dostoevsky, and Knut Hamsun especially, who in turn were inspired by Cervantes. Of course, all of them had received their tutelage from the epic grandmaster of the Odyssey, Homer.
What gradually shifted away from Homer and through the millennia, was that the odyssey of Odysseus became Odysseus the Odyssey. Why would one be interested in Mrs Dalloway’s quest for a perfect party this evening, or in Holden’s midnight gallivant of nothing? Because the primal seduction of language aside, if you believe Freud, we’re ids and egos interested in ourselves. These works, in presenting their characters, lead us into the slipstreams-of-consciousness. They plot out the timeless topography of the human condition. I am the I in the I in this and that fictional guise. More importantly, the interior geography of the I becomes a representation of, a comment about, the external territory of the state one is living in. That is, the state of one’s mind and the state of one’s country, both as a condition of the self.
Amongst these novels that delve into psychology, Dostoevsky is probably the one most consistently interested psychiatry, and that informed a separate tributary of existentialism. To Dostoevsky, the chronic psychosis of Russia of that time was starkly personified in his fictional characters, from the Underground Man to Raskolnikov.
The subject of psychiatry is seeing resurgence, with the unfortunate incident of MP Seng Han Thong being set in flames. Not long ago, psychosis helped to politically destroy one of our former presidents, Devan Nair. Should such similar strategies be employed, then whatever the 'psychiatric condition' of the perpetrator Ong Kah Chua and his ‘real’ motivations that shall emerge in due course will be a red herring, if not irrelevant. It will be fascinating to observe how the Singapore state might, in the coming weeks, exploit psychosis for political ends, much in the Foucauldian vein. The state’s objective in this instance would be to eliminate any hint that two of the ruling party’s pillars of governmentality – anti-welfarism and politician-people grassroots meetings – are failing. That even if Ong had been clear-headed during the time leading to his committed crime, he would still be labelled irrational. His psychiatric assessment (taken at face value) and the court's sentencing would provide some answers however vague.
I do not condone what Ong had done. But the the patterns of the state kicking into gear are already emerging. There is the media scramble to spin Seng as an honest to goodness MP. We are fed frequent updates of Seng, and thus know more about his condition than we do about Ong. Other than that Ong has a psychiatric history, and that he has swiftly been charged, no words have come from Ong, or from people who know him well, for example his family members. Each day passes with the plight of Seng appearing increasingly unfortunate, as the media milks maximum public sympathy and stokes moral outrage from its trusty backrock of middle Singapore.
The dimension of Ong has been deliberately silenced. Remember the psychosis but not the man, and hidden will be the link between the two. The signifier de-signified, a sign of state machination at work.
Wong Kan Seng’s statements have been the most significant so far, and his words imply two sets of laws, one for the common man and one for PAP politicians. You are also expected to act rationally even when you are mental. As Molly has characteristically pointed out, this is nonsense. What is most revealing is in Wong’s emphatic iteration that Ong shall be severely dealt with, that Ong’s vicious act will meet with a foregone conclusion. This is before Ong’s mental state has been ascertained, that could potentially be an intervening, if vindicating, factor in the court’s deliberations. This is before the courts have spoken. Is our Home Affairs minister a psychiatrist and a district judge now?
Sliding along the edges of this episode is the obvious fact that the state’s exhortation to self-reliance through gainful employment can only succeed to the extent that one is physically and mentally able. How is someone with a condition like Ong to find work or to remain in employment? How is someone like Ong to ask for help?
Governmentality in Singapore has been engineered so that the only access the people have to political expediency is through parliament, with the MP as conduit. But there are the residents’ complaints of absent and unavailable MPs, and the occasions where MPs cannot bring about desired outcomes. There is the possibility that meeting the MP is in fact not an efficient, if effective process of political interaction and bargaining, that in reality it merely gives the semblance of a helping hand. MPs as politics as administration, and somewhere along this impersonal process of ministration, politics disappears. Why ask, if help is a mirage?
Violence, always a political act, always a raw demonstration of power. And for the powerless, people like Ong, how else can they reclaim the political, if not with violence? Violence to yourself when you hurl yourself in front of the oncoming train, or violence to he who violated you. You hurl a flame into the state's paragon of politics. You hope to set alight the pyre of your fate. You hope to be heard. In that regard, irrationality becomes subjective. What may be irrational to you might not be to the other. What may be irrational in deed may not be in its intent. What may be then, may not be now. And the political does not end with death – it is ignited and re-ignited from amongst the demos. These are the sparks that the state will do its utmost to souse, as it is doing now.
Virginia Woolf wrote a most sober Mrs Dalloway while weaving in and out of her bouts of insanity. Dostoevsky sketched out the most psychotic of characters that had method in their madness. The mental, the insane, the mad, they nonetheless reside in a simultaneous reality - life, still as lived - although a step apart from ours.
But whose? Is it even about insanity in the first place? (Perhaps to be mad in a crazy world is not necessarily insanity, especially if we can/should get to know the character, follow his odyssey, and assess his condition.)
One might never know if Ong is truly schizophrenic, or to what extent that he is. Modern states have been all too happy to ascribe the charge of irrationality and insanity to those who do not conduct themselves in accordance to decree. Unwittingly, Ong entered this temple on his own. What remains to be seen is to what extent the state will sacrifice Ong on the altar of PAP deities as a warning to the rest of the non-believers, insane or otherwise. Remember? This is rational Singapore. Island of practicalities, realism and pragmatism. The thin red line between reason and treason.
Ironically, the evacuated p s y c h o s i s of Ong personifies/symbolises the Singapore state’s condition. The state, of mind - opaque, inexplicable, inversely irrational, utterly dehumanised. Except that we have no Dostoevsky of our own to hold up an authorial light. Only psychiatrists in the employ of an authoritarian state.
This is the state of mind that, like madness anywhere, it will deny. The state of mind that precisely triggers irrational acts, and bouts of insanity. The state of mind that could potentially return the lost picture of politics burning at its brightest flame: the quixotic assassination of power to revive the political, the politicians’ forgotten fear of the demos, the political fire not seen since the heady days of decolonization and Independence, the fire of desperation, the politics of delirium.
When they occur, do we isolate the character - or worse, the character's psychosis - from the story, forgetting that the character holds the story. Forgetting that the story is the key to the character's psychosis. Forgetting that we are not Dostoevsky.
Forgetting that Dostoevsky was not and cannot be the State.