Madness and the Man in the Mirror: Mapping Freedom

Sarun Balanrajan

ARTSSCI 3A06: Literature

“What do we want?!’


“When do we want it?!”


This chant easily comes to mind when I reminisce on the fleeting memories of my childhood. I remember, at age 9, being dragged along to Parliament Hill in a series of 2009 demonstrations to bring attention to the injustices committed by the Sri Lankan government. I had no concept of what was being protested against at the time. One of the only vivid features of this memory is the repetitive chorus of the aforementioned chant. I still experience bewilderment from those memories. My parents live in Canada--far from the linguistic and cultural censorship of their homeland, and so I believe that they exist in an internal, mental freedom to think and express their thoughts. They are free to speak, think and practice the culture that they hold so closely to their hearts. My parents also live free of the physical persecution and police state curfews of their homeland. So, it was safe to believe that they exist in an external, physical freedom. They are externally free in that their physical bodies are no longer explicitly confined by the state. I remain perplexed, then, as to why my parents felt such a strong compulsion to march with thousands of other Tamil people in the name of freedom. Did they not feel free already?

Cassandra, by Christa Wolf, is a 1983 novel that retells the Trojan war from the perspective of the priestess Cassandra. Don Quixote, by Miguel De Cervantes, is often considered the first modern European novel, and follows the adventures of a nobleman who decides to become a knight-errant named Don Quixote after reading too many chivalric romances. Recently, these texts have forced me to confront my firmly held assumptions surrounding freedom and have enabled me to see past the static conceptions of freedom that I had applied to my parents. Freedom, as I have always understood it, exists in binaries. An individual is either free or they are not free. An individual is either physically restrained or they are not physically restrained. An individual is either being mentally subjugated or they are capable of thinking freely. Christa Wolf’s Cassandra critiques the limitations of the opposing Greeks’ binarist worldview of killing versus dying when Cassandra notes that “it is the other alternative that they crush between their clear-cut distinctions, the third alternative, which in their view does not exist, the smiling vital force that is able to generate itself from itself over and over: the undivided, spirit in life, life in spirit” (107). The “spirit in life” can be understood as a “third alternative” of freedom from the “clear-cut distinctions” that are imposed by the Greeks’ worldview. Killa, a slave woman from the Greek camp, expands on this concept in Cassandra by stating that “between killing and dying there is a third alternative: living” (118). Cassandra presents the reader with a dynamic, imaginative freedom that is born of “living” with “spirit in life,” rather than a well-defined freedom that results from being able to consciously choose actions being physically unrestrained. Cassandra affirms this “third alternative” as a continuous living with “spirit” when Cassandra notes on her deathbed, in the midst of her captivity, that “never was I more alive than now, in the hour of my death” (21). The Greeks’ binaristic worldview would assert that Cassandra, as their prisoner, is not free, and that her choice not to kill means that she is in the process of dying. Instead, Cassandra urges the reader to consider what it means to live freely, with “spirit in life” as the “third alternative” to preconceived notions of freedom.

This essay argues that both Cassandra and Don Quixote subvert normative static conceptions of freedom. The texts act as roadmaps towards the dynamic “third alternative” of freedom by embracing madness and reorienting self-perception to deconstruct the notion of the “hero.” First, using Margaret Atwood’s victim positions as a framework, this essay outlines the value of embracing madness as a critical foundation towards acting in dynamic freedom. Dynamic freedom is understood to be an ongoing, continuous conception of freedom that is distinct from the internal freedom of the mind and the external freedom of the physical body. Next, the essay argues that the re-orienting of vision to achieve a new self-perception is also imperative towards practicing the “third alternative” of dynamic freedom. Finally, the essay posits that the dynamic freedom, which is achieved through a deeper understanding of self, is exemplified in the rejection and deconstruction of the “hero.”

Atwood’s ‘victim positions’ provide a generative framework in defining what it means to “embrace madness.” The four positions are used to describe different ways that a victim can construct their victimhood, and they are as follows: denial, fatalistic acceptance, repudiation and creative non-victim. Atwood’s description of the fourth victim position, the creative non-victim, specifies that “you are able to accept your experience for what it is, rather than having to distort it to make it correspond with others’ versions of it” (Atwood 38). This lack of distortion can be perceived as a form of madness by others as the individual refuses to accommodate their experience to the social conditions or obligations of society. Madness, then, must be understood as an external perception of the individual as abnormal for having experiences that “do not correspond with others’ versions of it” (Atwood 38). Don Quixote’s protagonist Don Quixote embodies this form of madness through his knight-errantry, as he is described early in the text as someone whose “imagination was filled with those battles, enchantments, adventures, extravagances… everything he said, thought or did was channeled into such affairs” (de Cervantes 139). Don Quixote places Don Quixote neatly into the creative non-victim archetype: someone who chooses every thought or action using his own imaginative capabilities, instead of distorting his understanding of events so that it coincides with others’ experiences. Don Quixote conveys the importance of the creative non-victim’s embrace of madness as a fundamental step towards freedom. For example, the narrator asserts that “the most intelligent character in a play is the fool, because the actor playing the part of a simpleton must not be one” (de Cervantes 507). According to the narrator, the actor playing the fool is able to construct a reality in which they are perceived as a “simpleton” by the audience despite knowing themselves that they are intelligent. Therefore, the fool is a character whose reality is mismatched with the reality of the audience due to a perceived difference in intellect, and thus, falls into the definition of “madness” that is exhibited by the creative non-victim. The actor playing the fool “embraces madness” by refusing to distort their character to appear more intelligent to accommodate the normative expectations of the audience. The actor playing the fool, then, is able to experience a dynamic, “third alternative” of freedom by harnessing madness to experience the world as they see fit, free from this binary of intelligence and stupidity.

Don Quixote is often characterized as a fool, exuding humour and comedy. Comedy is also exhibited in Cassandra and is directly linked to madness when it is stated that “there is a comic element in all madness. Those who learn to recognize and to use it have won” (Wolf 60). The “embrace” of madness in Cassandra occurs when one is able to recognize the intrinsic comedy or irony within madness. Later in the text, when Cassandra attempts to warn the Trojans about the Greek’s gift horse, an onlooker says that “she’s crazy, that one” (Wolf 136), which distinctly characterizes her as mad while Troy falls. In this moment, Cassandra is reminded of Apollo’s prophecy: , “You will speak the truth, but no one will believe you” (Wolf 136). The dramatic irony embedded in the prophecies urges others to call Cassandra crazy and mirrors the “comic element in all madness” that is described earlier in Cassandra. Atwood’s creative non-victim position is helpful in outlining how Cassandra’s ironic madness must be embraced to achieve dynamic freedom. Atwood’s recommendation to “accept your experience for what it is” (Atwood 38) directly parallels Cassandra’s recommendation to “learn to recognize and use” (Wolf 60) the ironic elements of Cassandra’s prophesying. Both texts emphasize the importance of understanding the validity in perceiving events differently from societal connotations that are externally prescribed to experiences. In Cassandra, the process of attributing value to experiences despite knowing that “no one will believe you” (Wolf 136) means to embrace madness and is the foundation for exercising the “third alternative” of freedom that is free from the constraints of letting others dictate personal truth. However, it is important to address the potential drawbacks to the intentional incorporation of madness – as it is clear in Don Quixote that it can lead to heartbreak and suffering (de Cervantes 142).

The instrumentalization of madness is crucial towards the “third alternative” of freedom as it allows the individual to experience the external world according to their own beliefs. Once this creative non-victimhood is achieved, and the individual is no longer fettered by the conceptions of others, the journey towards re-orienting the internal self can begin. Don Quixote offers an important statement on self-perception when Don Quxiote’s host Don Antonio, in conversation with his friend Carrasco, says that “the benefits of Don Quixote’s recovery can’t be compared with the pleasure that his antics provide” (de Cervantes 930). Don Quixote’s “antics,” which had once been cause for despair, are now associated with pleasure and entertainment for the general population. It is important to note that the term “antics'' is used instead of the term “madness” or “insane” that pervades public descriptions of Quixote in earlier parts of the text (de Cervantes 50, 27). Don Quixote makes it clear to the reader through Don Antonio that Quixote’s madness and experiences have been appropriated by the general populace, and so Quixote’s embrace of this madness no longer fosters the freedom of the creative non-victim. The protagonists’ confrontation with their false representations, born of appropriated madness, features the sentiment that “all other Don Quixotes and all other Sancho Panzas besides us two are...figures from dreamland” (de Cervantes 968). The text illustrates that Don Quixote is able to see himself more clearly when he is confronted with the personification of his appropriated madness. His experiences that were once undistorted to align with the views of others have been distorted in the mainstream adoption of these identities and narratives. Thus, Don Quixote is able to perceive these characters as “figures from dreamland” in an act of genuine self-awareness. The process of embracing madness grants Don Quixote the vision to understand when his experiences are being distorted, and thus, an even greater grasp on who he is. This concept is substantiated by the line that there is “no more realistic interpretation of who we are and what we are going to be than plays and players” (de Cervantes 558). Don Quixote reminds the reader that the act of embracing madness permits the individual to re-orient their self-perceptions to understand “who we are” and, thus, live truthfully towards “what we are going to be” in the realm of the “third alternative.”

Cassandra carries a similar sentiment on the role of self-perception in attaining a state of the “third alternative” of freedom. This is exemplified by the following line: “What I mean by alive - not to shrink from what is most difficult: to change one’s image of oneself” (21). Again, the text equates the “third alternative” with “living” (Wolf 118), which is directly connected to self-perception through the idea of changing “one’s image of oneself” (Wolf 21). Cassandra, it is important to note, is not referring to the idea of changing oneself; the operative term in this phrase is “image.” One’s image of themselves can be changed by re-orienting the self-perception and vision that is directed at themselves to reach a state of dynamic freedom by being “alive.” The text emphasizes the role of embracing madness in facilitating this shift of self-perception: “Like ants we walk into every fire. Every water. Every river of blood. Simply in order not to have to see. To see what, then? Ourselves” (Wolf 42). Cassandra likens the inability to see the image of “ourselves” to the dangerous hivemind exhibited by the behaviour of ants. The hivemind exhibited by ants, wherein they all share the same wants and experiences, can be understood as failing to embrace the madness that can facilitate creative non-victimhood. In this manner, Cassandra conveys to the reader that a refusal to embrace madness and accept our external experiences for what they are is the decision “not to have to see” ourselves. Cassandra relates the lack of self-perception to the “third alternative” of freedom when Cassandra notes that “to this day I do not know how I managed not to notice that I was a captive” (Wolf 99). To understand when one is “captive” and to overcome this imprisonment, one must “notice” or see the ways in which they are being held captive. The “third alternative” of dynamic freedom, then, can only be ascertained through a shift in self-perception.

Both Cassandra and Don Quixote deconstruct and reject the notion of “hero” to exemplify the manner in which embracing madness and self-perception can facilitate the “third alternative” of dynamic freedom. Cassandra ties heroism to the absence of madness: “Aeneas was the reality; and faithful to reality, craving reality, I wanted to cling to it” (Wolf 75). Madness, as framed through Atwood’s creative non-victimhood, stems from a refusal to allow others’ perceptions of your experiences dictate how you understand them. Aeneas, the hero, “[is] the reality” and thus, is rooted in the world of others’ perceptions. Cassandra, on the other hand, feels the need to “cling” to this reality, the sanity of others, and, in doing so, she is unable to experience the madness required to divorce one’s self from the expectations and perceptions of others. This is further evidenced when Cassandra reflects: “What it was that I had to reject at the cost of my life: submission to a role contrary to my nature” (Wolf 95). Cassandra rejects a life with the hero Aeneas, opting instead for Greek captivity; Cassandra’s choice to be imprisoned subverts normative understandings of freedom. This sentiment is further substantiated when Cassandra reflects on the final hour of her life: “never was I more alive than now, in the hour of my death” (Wolf 21). Cassandra is able to be “alive”, and, thus free, by rejecting the hero Aeneas. Cassandra deconstructs Aeneas, claiming that she “cannot love a hero” and that she did not “want to see [him] being transformed into a statue” (Wolf 138). This line draws a direct link between the archetype of the hero and the static, binaristic freedom that the hero is limited to exercising. The text denies the mobility of the hero by literally characterizing the hero as a static statue; they are defined by the grounded, unchanging perceptions of the society around them. While it is important to note that this comparison to a statue can also be interpreted as a testament to unwavering fortitude, it does not preclude the view that the hero is unable to embrace madness and is locked into place in such a way that it is impossible to reorient their self-perceptions. Cassandra rejects a life with Aeneas as a heroine, and, in doing so, exercises the “third alternative” of a dynamic freedom by deconstructing the rigid concept of “hero.”

Similarly, the ending of Don Quixote encapsulates this rejection and deconstruction of the “hero” by also exhibiting a form of dynamic freedom. Earlier in the text, Quixote remarks to Sanson Carrasco that “there is no need to narrate actions that do not affect the truth of the history, if they are going to result in the discrediting of the hero” (de Cervantes 504). Already, Don Quixote acknowledges that the hero exists in a static history that is defined by their external perception as someone who must never be “discredited.” The hero, Don Quixote tells the reader, lives on a pedestal built from the constructed history of others. Therefore, they are incapable of practicing madness as creative non-victims; they are denied the freedom to discern their own experiences as separate from others’ versions. Don Quixote, after being defeated by the Knight of the White Moon, recounts the promise that he’d made not to leave the village for a year as being “bound by all the discipline and order of knight-errantry” (de Cervantes 973). The term “bound” is significant in regard to Don Quixote’s sentiments on heroism and genuine freedom; Don Quixote is compelled to give up his heroic knight errantry by the very rules of chivalry that define him as a hero. Don Quixote contrasts this with the action that Don Quixote actually takes to reject his heroic identity: “my mind has been restored to me, and it is now clear and I can recognize their absurdity and their deceitfulness” (de Cervantes 976). Don Quixote practices a dynamic freedom in having a mind “clear and free” from the static existence of heroism instead of revoking his heroic status due to the confining rules of chivalry. Don Quixote portrays a character who chooses not to be a knight errant of his own volition rather than because of the whim of the Knight of the White Moon. Don Quixote is able to escape the binary that he must either fail to uphold the strict rules of chivalry or forfeit his knight errantry as dictated by the tenets of chivalry. In this manner, Don Quixote deconstructs the heroic archetype to illustrate the importance of embracing madness and self-perception in exercising the “third alternative” of dynamic freedom.

In summation, Don Quixote and Cassandra act as roadmaps for the process of harnessing madness and self-perception to practice the “third alternative” of freedom, as characterized by the deconstructed archetype of “hero” in these texts. These texts have enabled me to reinterpret the assumptions that I have about my parents’ conception of freedom. In theory, their existence in a democratic state should allow them to experience some semblance of liberty. Unfortunately, it is all too likely that the injustices faced by their community continue to impair the sense of freedom granted by democracy. A particularly generative phrase that struck me when reading In Exile with Don Quixote was that “no one has the power to make us sleep” (Dorfman). The relationship between sleeping and freedom reminds me of the simple phrase that resounds throughout Cassandra: to “dream with both feet on the ground” (Wolf 135). I think, now, that my parents still yearn for a freedom that the safety of Canada is incapable of granting them. The “freedom” of Canada does not have the power to make them sleep, and they may be too far removed from the conflict of their youth to participate in an active, grounded dreaming about their experiences. My parents, like the countless other Canadians that have found refuge and solace in this country, exist somewhere in-between trying to stay awake and dreaming with intention.

Works Cited

Wolf, Christa. Cassandra. Translated by Jan van Heurck, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984.

Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de. Don Quixote. Translated by John Rutherford, Penguin Classics, 2000.

Atwood, Margaret. Basic Victim Positions. McMaster University Custom Courseware, 2020.

Wilson, Jean. “Dante’s Inferno.”ARTSSCI 3A06 Literature Lecture, 11 Nov. 2020, Zoom.

Dorfman, Ariel. “In Exile With 'Don Quixote'.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 7 Oct. 2016,

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