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Durham University

Department of English Studies


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Publication details for Dr Angela Woods

Woods, A. (2012). Mathematics <> Masculinity <>Madness. In Madness in Context: Historical, Poetic and Artistic Narratives. Araoz, G. Oxford.: Interdisciplinary Press.

Author(s) from Durham


According to phenomenological psychologist Louis Sass, conventional psychiatric, psychoanalytic and avant-garde accounts of schizophrenia “share the assumption that schizophrenic pathology must involve a loss of what, in the West, has long been assumed to be the most essential characteristics of mind or subjectivity: the capacities for logic and abstract thinking, for self-reflection, and for the exercise of free will.” Against these models, Sass advances an original account of schizophrenia as exigent introspection, a compulsive hyper-reflexivity that is “an alienation not from reason but from the emotions, instincts and the body.” On this view, rationality itself becomes the site of madness.
This paper uses Sass’s account of schizophrenia to critically interrogate one of cinema’s enduring tropes – the figure of the mad mathematician. Looking beyond clichéd images of the endearing eccentric, I offer a close reading of two films where mathematical genius is associated with a psychic disturbance that is anything but benign.
Despite significant aesthetic and political differences, the portraits of schizophrenia presented in Darren Aronofsky’s Pi and Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind at first glance appear to be the apotheosis of Sass’s model. In both films, a crisis in knowing precipitates a crisis of being; schizophrenia is coextensive with a breakdown in the coherence of mathematical language. It is, however, the affective male body that registers and responds to this breakdown. To what extent, then, do Pi and A Beautiful Mind consolidate or unsettle Western culture’s association of rationality, masculinity, logic and the mind, as distinct from a madness located in the body, passion and the feminine? Analysing the way in which gender figures in these films’ portrayals of schizophrenia and mathematical genius, we can see the limitations, but also the future possibilities, of Sass’s account of a quintessentially modern madness.

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