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Review by Elizabeth J. Donaldson, New York Institute of Technology, edonalds@nyit.edu

La Marr Jurelle Bruce’s How to Go Mad without Losing Your Mind: Madness and Black Radical Creativity is a lyrical and provocative book of “mad methodology” that seeks, among other things, to bridge Mad studies and Black studies. As Bruce writes, “mad methodology recognizes madpersons as critical theorists and decisive protagonists in struggles for liberation” (9). With a Walt Whitman-style expansiveness, Bruce wraps his arms around a multitude of creative genres and Black artists and then pulls us into his project of “radical compassion” with mad subjects. Bruce’s writing is both critical and compelling, analytical and yet intimate. Bruce’s radical compassion involves “a will to care for, a commitment to feel with, a striving to learn from, and an openness to be vulnerable before a precarious other” (10).

This radical compassion is perhaps pushed furthest in his chapter on Gayl Jones’s Eva’s Man. The novel opens in a psychiatric prison after Eva Canada has murdered and then sexually mutilated her male lover. Despite the litany of abuses that Eva endures and her ultimate imprisonment, Bruce argues that “Eva’s madness is not merely a site of abjection but also a locus of beleaguered agency” (81). As both the characters in the book and the book’s readers attempt to make sense of Eva’s outrageously violent act, Bruce’s work of radical compassion serves “to contextualize the sporadic violence of madness amid the structural violence of Reason” (81). Furthermore, in contrast to critics like Marta Caminero-Santangelo, who argues that madwomen can’t speak, and therefore have limited or no political agency, Bruce mounts a convincing defense of Eva’s tactical silence that is grounded in the African American experience: “A counterhegemonic repertoire must strategically deploy both speech and silence, both clamor and hush, both brazen declaration of political demands and soundproof pursuit of clandestine goals” (93). Bruce’s close reading of Eva’s Man and his attention to Gayl Jones’s own complex biography are prime examples of his project as a mad methodologist “to cull critical theory from purported pathology”(65). This chapter is also timely: Beacon Press has just released Palmares (2021), Jones’s first published novel in over 20 years, and four other works are scheduled to be released soon. Bruce offers us a new way to read Jones, seemingly just when we may need it most. (And just in time for the ongoing battle against antiblack Reason.)

The chapter on Eva’s Man is followed by a sister chapter on Ntozake Shange’s novel Liliane, which includes an evocative passage about the metaphor of the straitjacket and language as a “carceral garment” (135-36). These two chapters would be particularly useful in literature classes. Other chapters focus on music: the book begins with a fantastic chapter on Buddy Bolden and his legacy, with a special emphasis on Sun Ra and Charles Mingus. Bruce’s reading of Mingus’s autobiography as a mad black alternative to Hegel’s dialectic is inspired. A chapter on Ms. Lauren Hill juxtaposes the mega-success of her early career with unkind criticisms of her later work and performances. An ambitious chapter on metaphysical syncopation discusses the work of Nina Simone (manic time), Hill (depressive time), Kendrick Lamar (schizophrenic time), and Frank Ocean (melancholic time). In this chapter, the conflation of medicalized language and theoretical descriptions of “schizophrenic time,” especially with reference to Foucault and Deleuze and Guattari, did not ring true to me; it would be nice to begin with a description of schizophrenia grounded more in lived experience rather than theory. A lone chapter on comedy and Dave Chappelle (together with Richard Pryor and Martine Lawrence) explores the concept of black paranoia, is rich in historical context, would be very accessible to undergraduates, and fits in seamlessly with the rest of the book. The book ends with Bruce’s poignant revelation of his obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and how it has helped to shape the book.

Scholars and students of disability studies (both graduate and undergraduate) will find Bruce’s book essential reading. It will surely be anthologized and mined for its cutting-edge ideas and insightful prose. For example, Bruce memorably describes the relationship between blackness, madness, and modernity: “the slave ship (icon of abject blackness) commandeers the ship of fools (icon of abject madness), tows the ship of fools, help orient Western notions of madness and Reason, and helps propel this turbulent movement we call modernity” (5). In his enquiry, Bruce also sketches out four modes of madness that others may in turn find useful: phenomenological madness, medicalized madness, rage (which explores the entanglement, and often conflation, of anger and madness in the context of the black experience), and psychosocial madness. Of these four modes, rage against the systemic degradation of black people stands out as an abiding source of black radical creativity (and here I follow the author’s preference for the small “b” black; see Bruce 6). Rage becomes an explosive madness as Freudian “sublimation” gives way to liberatory “exclamation” (74). 

How to Go Mad without Losing Your Mind invites readers to sit with madness for a while, to explore its radical liberatory potential, and to become mad methodologists with radical compassion. Hold tight. Let go. And let this book take you there.

This review was published as part of Disability Studies Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2022.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated.

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

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