Most of us have probably never had the chance to participate in a good Greek tragedy, but I suspect we’ve all done the next-best thing: gotten drunk at a college party or two. Sure, at the 5Cs, the booze flows from kegs instead of decanters, but the essentials are still the same—the occasion to whisk and whirl, to slide into the dithyramb, to get lost inside the jubilee.
Harvey Mudd College’s North Dorm hosted a special kind of party a few weeks ago—special because it manifestly adopted this brand of Ancient Greek festivity, instead of just hinting at it around the edges. That party was, of course, Mudd Goes Madd—an event that we ought to welcome as a timely rebirth of this sort of Greek culture, not condemn as a trivialization of mental health issues, as the Associated Students of Pomona College and related student groups have recently done.
These groups contended in an email sent to Pomona College students last week that by way of its name, “Mudd Goes Madd erases the history of violence and institutionalization of mentally ill people and constructs madness as being silly and drunk.” For them, madness simply has no place in the province of the party—and to put it there is to belittle its existence in the real world.
That would be a fair critique if it were indeed true that madness has never been tied to party culture, but that’s not quite the case. In fact, it was precisely through the medium of mass partying—the shared revelry in a tragic performance—that the Ancient Greeks interfaced with the condition of madness. We must do the same: We must recognize that parties like Mudd Goes Madd aren’t trivializing mental health issues, but rather helping us grasp their origins.
Those origins lie in the fact that there exist parts of this world from which rationality and logic are exiled, a truth that the early Greeks weren’t afraid to embrace. They knew that what lay beyond the limits of rationality was incomprehensible to the sane mind. What was beyond was madness: horrific, irrational, but simultaneously glorious—not something to be ignored, shunned, or relegated to the hospital.
That’s part of the way we conceive of madness today: an enviable quality, insofar as it enables one to peer beyond the looking glass, as it were, into an aether of rawness that most of us can never approach. This is probably the meaning that Mudd Goes Madd was aiming for, judging from the mad scientist-esque picture adorning its Facebook event page.
But there can be no denying that living with mental illness comes with very real hardships that are far from enviable, both personal and institutional. This is surely the understanding upon which ASPC et al were operating when they took issue with how Mudd Goes Mudd seemed to be romanticizing the issue.
How can we reconcile these two apparently contradictory understandings of madness—both its awesome quality and its terrible one? The Greeks had an answer: perform a tragic play.
The ancient tragedy was very different from the kind of tragic play that we usually think of today, one performed on a stage for an audience. In Greek times, a tragedy was essentially a communal orgy, complete with music, alcohol, and unbridled merrymaking. Indeed, if you were to replace the onlooking Glaucon with Dean Feldblum, it could really almost be a college party.
Such a process is effective because when we participate in a tragedy or a party in this way, we don’t interact rationally with it. Instead, we sublimate to another dimension, and we let free our irrational faculties to engage with the parts of our existence that we usually try to cover up.
We don’t do this often enough in the modern world. We’ve become afraid of irrationality, afraid of madness and mental illness in general. We’ve made a Faustian pact with science to explain away the world as we see it, but there’s a lot hiding out there that we can’t see yet. Parties like Mudd Goes Madd can help us remember what’s lurking beneath our modern veneer, and can help us understand that madness is an essential part of this world with which everyone needs to engage, not just those of us who visit Monsour.
To be sure, I don’t claim that North Dorm had anything like this goal in mind when they were originally planning this party. Nor should my argument be construed as a defense for however the organizers conducted themselves when interacting with student groups.
But even if their motives were impure, their ends weren’t. We needn’t shy away from planning events similar to this in the future: taken as a reincarnation of the Greek tragedy, the college party is actually the perfect place to approach the issue of mental health on campus. I say, let’s go mad.
Matt Dahl PO '17 is majoring in politics. He is currently studying abroad in China.