Fiction Extras: Madness and Civilisation by Lee Foust

Read the full version of Lee’s work that featured as an excerpt in the Summer 2017 Issue 13 Journal.


by Lee Foust

It took me a while to come to consider everyday madness as an acute form of desperation, and yet I now believe it to be an inevitable conclusion. The concept sounds simpler than it is. Desperation, we know from experience, sets in when we lose our moorings, when we no longer know where we belong, when we have to re-learn how to behave, how to speak, when everyone looks at us—our foreign clothes, alien manners, and the odd color of our skin—funny. Yet immigration has made us dependent on these suspicious strangers for our next meal.

I first saw this particular form of madness in the eyes of the street vendors and beggars of Bologna, an Italian city where I sometimes work. One just now gave me an interminable speech about how much he loves me and the unimportance of our different skin colors. He must have guessed (from my second-hand clothes?) that I would be sympathetic to such a spiel. Indeed, a lifetime of the working-class struggle in my own white, first world bubble predisposes me to empathy for others worse off than myself. He talked and talked until I bought a lighter from his portable cardboard showcase.

Biological needs, the encounter reminds me, turn on repetition. We’ve hardly finished eating before we have to move on toward procuring the next meal. We recite our pitch, earn a couple of coins, and move on to the next mark. We call the hours between shifts “free time” because they earn us no money. Survival is an endlessly revolving merry-go-round. We can’t get off while the ride’s in motion; it’s a constant struggle to hold on to enough sanity to play along with the game.

A moment later another refugee passes. He stops, hatred in his eyes, and asks for a handout. I decline and he marches on, re-convinced of the world’s hostility to his survival. For him it’s personal. Even if love—as the previous street vendor proclaimed so insistently—is the answer, it might be the question unformed that prompts us toward madness. In this world we all live a quiet desperation, scheming how we’re gonna get down from the merry-go-round’s spinning: a handout, a stock option, the lottery.

Wisdom is a fickle mistress. For the intellectual’s dialectic defies foundation—there’s always another question to raise, another uncertainty to pose, never a firm fact upon which to construct an edifice of meaning. In all of our waffling we find a pink horse, a bench, a blue horse, and, occasionally, an animal of a different breed upon which to do our spinning. Who is there to help us in our desperation? The loneliness of our needs sets us apart or draws us momentarily together by turns. Sometimes we share a bench—but two on a horse is uncomfortable. Some exalt in the highest seat, the one that raises itself above the other horses’ alert ears. Their riders, pumping up and down, smile upon us condescendingly as we sit on the stationary benches below them.

I, too, am happy when things go well for me, when the world offers me a little more than I feel I need to survive. After all, so many others have so much more than I. Yet I, too, often suffer the contained madness of desperation—the fear of illness, of eviction, of unemployment. Maybe it’s the human condition to be mad, to live the enormous gap between my needs and your needs plagued by the insidious and relative nature of the word “need,” always on the brink of abandoning a ship that may or may not be sinking.

My ancestors were also refugees, exactly like these itinerant street vendors. (Whose forefathers weren’t outside of Ethiopia?) There’s no way to know how small or great is our proximity to losing the support of our nation in the hourly march toward the next meal. Sanity, perhaps—being content to play the endless game of survival—is the exception rather than the rule of the human condition. There’s always another mark to be fleeced, meal to be obtained, war to be fought. When we’re challenged by scarcity, or a lack of means, we come to see competition rather than exploitation as the excuse for our letting go—and this explains our hostility toward our fellow refugees: we know how close they are to exposing our hypocrisy. Love is only possible, I surmise, when there’s enough heroin for two to share.


I had hoped, beginning this reflection, to arrive at a narrative, at some kind of a story to tell. But the voice I’ve found persists in self-reflection—probably that’s the limit of his or her empathy. (S)He didn’t give a coin, after all, to the second, more desperate, perhaps more needy beggar. (S)He doesn’t usually give any coins at all—so many others have so much more to give. Sooner or later we come up against the wall of our own particular cultural experience. To this European voice, an African or Middle Eastern refugee remains an object, and refuses to transform itself into a subject. I can’t hear their voices clearly enough to depict their wor(l)ds. Only the diatribe, the pitch, the mixed English and Italian of the symptoms of their madness sneaks into the story.

This voice has also proven itself incapable of telling the story of his/her own family’s flight from some war or other in the Upper Rhineland, their forefathers’ slow passage across the farmlands of the United States. From Pennsylvania to Ohio to Iowa to Montana to California—the fictional locale of this narrator’s birth. There are too few details here to make a satisfying narrative.

A single photographic image comes to mind: the family farm outside of Missoula, Montana. The plank-wood house my grandfather built with his own hands. In order of height, husband, wife, four children, and the family pig pose in front of the cabin. The only exception to the order is my own father, a babe in his mother’s arms. This baby would inadvertently kill his mother less than a decade later by passing his yellow fever to her while she nursed him through the illness. He fell into a coma, waking a few days later to find his mother dead and buried, exterminated by the disease he had managed, in his youthful vigor, to survive.

Dust Bowl refugees, my father’s family abandoned their home on the great North American plain and drove a Model A to Hayward, California, in 1930. By then their German refugee status in the Land of the Free was long forgotten. In fact I find it perverse that having fled one war, the family’s first patriarch and American citizen walked straight into another: he fought in the Battle of Princeton in the American Revolution, for which he was awarded a farm in Pennsylvania. From that moment on, war became a source of good fortune for our family—just as the early Christian slaves, having conquered the Roman deities, began equating Jesus’s popular triumph with Sol Invictus’s militaristic ascendancy over the sky. Hero worship makes a fascist out of all of the survivors of war, even the refugees.

Soon after Pearl Harbor my father enlisted and survived both World War II and the Korean conflict, having the time of his life traveling the Far East, collecting exotic trinkets, and learning how to mix fancy cocktails while piloting Corsairs for the U.S. Marine Corps. How many new refugees did my father produce with the bombs he dropped on islands and atolls in the South Pacific, or on the North Korean mainland? Maybe the merry-go-round metaphor has greater implications than I first imagined.

Although soldiering is commonly considered brave by virtue of its risk, I have come to believe, because it conforms to the law, is rewarded by the culture at large, and has such a comforting infrastructure, that it’s more conformist than brave. How much more courageous are those who protect life, care for others, flee from war, and abandon their native land? They crash into another culture with its awkward and exclusive language, confusing manners, and strange religion. That alone is enough to drive one mad, to convince us to abandon the merry-go-round once we’ve seen the mechanism that makes the wooden mounts go up and down in imitation of real horses. Killing one’s fellow human beings with official encouragement and soldiery camaraderie, on the other hand, is every child’s first fantasy.

Survival itself is a kind of institutionalized madness in a world of nations, soldiers, and endless state conflict. Culture’s illusion of sanity lies in its collective expression of pride, envy, and ire—its disregard for other nationalities during periods of self-important expansion. The madness of individual desperation takes on an odor of respectability when collectivized and politicized. Civilization is also mad, also desperate. The voice of the people, nowadays, is merciless.


Where else is there to go with such reflections when they fail to form themselves into a story? When they can’t express the experience of which they speak in a traditional narrative? We’re left with a few images—desperate refugees walking the porticos of Bologna, a European refugee family working the badlands of the northern United States. There’s also this intrusive narrator who wanted, somehow, to draw these experiences together. In the end, doesn’t failure mean as much as success? We ought to pay it more mind. Despite their two shared languages, English and Italian, all that this new and this old refugee are able to exchange are a couple of coins and a passing gesture of sympathy.