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The Age of Adz and Dexter: Or, Madness as the New Hermeneutic

“You’re entirely bonkers,” Alice says to the Hatter, “But I’ll tell you a secret. All of the best people are.”The Mad Hatter's split personality

This exchange takes place near the end of Tim Burton’s re-imagination of Alice in Wonderland. Throughout the bulk of the film, Alice is reluctant to act because she believes that she is stuck in her recurring nightmare. However, as the film reaches its climax Alice begins to accept that what she had considered to be impossible, even mad, could be just as ‘real’ as her real.

Ironically enough, it is by accepting her own madness that Alice is finally able to do what is supposed to be impossible: kill the Jabberwocky. “I imagine 6 impossible things each morning before breakfast,” she tells herself. Then she counts them off, one by one. And as she does, something happens to the audience. Through Alice, we begin to re-imagine what we have thought of as impossible.

As Burton tells it, this is a coming-of-age story for Alice. And we should not be surprised to find that it is predicated upon madness and the acceptance of the impossible.

But what of our coming of age? And what part does madness play in it?

Enter Sufjan’s The Age of Adz and Dexter. Like Alice in Wonderland, madness takes center stage in each. The protagonist in Dexter is a psychopath and a serial killer. Interestingly enough, Dexter is the character we identify with the most.

Why? Or, perhaps how is a better question. How can a psychopath appear as a sympathetic character? How is it that we can identify with him? Not unlike Baudrillard’s unique reversal of Disneyland, where the fantastic facade of it makes us forget how our own reality, the one beyond its walls, has already lost connection to its symbolic antecedent, Dexter becomes a foil through which we can explore our inability to understand our world gone mad.

We understand Dexter’s failure to connect with his surroundings, his difficulty playing the arbitrary, rule based game of relationships; we empathize with his interpretation of events whereby he considers himself broken, mad, and alone. How is this possible? Certainly, it is not that deep down we’re all serial killers–though Sufjan may challenge this interpretation. Beneath the veneer of a dark, well-written version of CSI Miami, we discover that the show really isn’t about a mad superhero/serial killer who examines blood spatter for a living. Rather, Dexter is about a world gone mad–a world broken, leaving its inhabitants alone.

Madness becomes a meaningful hermeneutic, not because we’ve lost the ability to relate symbolically to our world, but because the world (our ontological locus) has been lost to us. As we come to an awareness of the ramifications of life in the desert of the real, the motif of madness provides a means of preparing an interpretive apparatus. But is this helpful? Can a tour de folie refashion our symbolic connection to the world?

I hesitate to use the word concert to refer to Sufjan’s Age of Adz tour. It felt more like an installation, or a meditation, than a show. Sufjan referred to it as therapy for him and his band, and thanked the audience for paying admission in order to provide it. He was joking, and the audience laughed. But he wasn’t really joking, and the audience didn’t stop laughing.

This became running theme. While trying to explain the creative impetus behind the album and the tour, Sufjan explained that he had tried to capture the quotidien aspects of life, and portray them through the lens of madness and apocalypse. A broken heart is not just a broken heart. Instead, heart break appears as a grand struggle between supernatural forces. Depression is not just depression, it is the result of alien abduction, and is the harbinger of the kind of invasion that puts all of planet earth at risk. The audience laughed some more.

How does this compare to Dexter? To Alice? What age are we coming into as we follow Sufjan into The Age of Adz?

(The rest of this blog can be seen here: The Age of Adz and Dexter: Or, Madness as the New Hermeneutic pt. 2)