Sources returnpage

Custance, John

Category: Ill or disabled

John Custance had extreme bouts of manic depression and wrote two superb very honest books that described his illness and its effects.

John Custance – Adventure into the Unconscious

I am – let me make the confession at once – a lunatic... If inner and outer were in harmony, if I were properly adjusted to reality, it would not be necessary for me to retire periodically to mental hospitals, still less to be confined in padded rooms and refractory wards.  And yet it was as a lunatic that I saw something, a vision as it were of the whole universe from a completely different angle, which was so overwhelming, that even in my sanest moments I cannot help attributing to it a measure of validity...

The particular mental trouble from which I have suffered for nearly 20 years is known as manic depressive psychosis; it consists of alternating phases of elation and equally deep depression with 'stable' phases in-between.  Although at present I am in a stable phase, the strange visions and fantastic flights of ideas which occupy my mind during the phases of mental disturbance, apprehensions of another world behind, or better, interpenetrating our ordinary world of time and space, remain vivid and real to me.  As a result of my experience the whole universe has changed about me, and it will never be the same again.

One of the first things Custance does in his book is to dismiss the idea that these hallucinations and visions are just his 'imagination' working overtime.

John Custance – Adventure into the Unconscious

Imagination is a peculiarly inadequate word for some of the phenomena which it is supposed to describe.  It is normally opposed to what is popularly regarded as reality; it means to image things in the mind which by implication are not really there

He then explains that the world he 'sees' is as real as the world he perceives with his 5 senses.  It has reality.  To him every sound, every image he sees is as real as what we might term real – and this is true of both the 'hellish' images he sees as well as the 'heavenly' visions he gets.  He uses a quote by Wordsworth to illustrate his point.

William Wordsworth - Prelude

Imagination  - here the Power so-called
Through sad incompetence of human speech
That awful Power rose from the mind's abyss
Like an unfathomed vapour that enwraps,
At once, some lonely traveller.  I was lost;
Halted without an effort to break through;
But to my conscious soul I now can say -
'I recognise thy glory'; in such strength
Of usurpation when the light of senses
Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed
The invisible world.

Most of John Custance's visions and hallucinations were hardly ever seen with his eyes closed.  Most images and other sensory effects were superimposed on the sensory data he was getting from his 5 senses, but their impact was greatly reduced, the spiritual input had more impact than the so called reality coming in from his senses. 

John Custance – Adventure into the Unconscious

Satan and Beelzebub do not support gods and goddesses, but merely toilet articles in the bathroom; they are from the 'positive' angle of physical fact, plain enamelled iron wall brackets.  In my 'negative' actuality, however, they can be figures of appalling horror.  When I first saw then many years ago, I nearly collapsed with fear.  Their burning eyes, with slanted slits across the middle of each, seemed to wither my very soul, which their wide open mouths were obviously ready to swallow....  Of course I knew the eyes were, physically, merely screw heads and that the slits were the slots in the heads, while the wide open mouths were two screw holes where for some reason screws had not been inserted.  But I was only just recovering from my worst period of depressive insanity; and part of the nature of the very actual Hell I had been through was to find fiendish terrors lurking in supposedly inanimate objects.

This implies that the composer is so strong, that none of the mechanisms needed to obtain spiritual experience are actually needed if you are a manic depressive.  The stimulation to your composer function is so effective that it overrides other functions.

John Custance – Adventure into the Unconscious

Animate and inanimate seemed to merge one into the other; I could speak to all things, animal, vegetable and mineral and all things could speak to me.  Subsequently I have come to realise that this experience was almost precisely the same as that of mystics; Plotinus put it in classic words 'For everyone hath all things in himself, and again sees all things in another, so that all things are everywhere and all is all and each is all, the glory is infinite'

No doubt it may seem to many shocking, or even sacrilegious, to compare the hallucinations, illusions and flights of ideas of a lunatic with the apprehensions of the great spiritual heroes of humanity, men and women like Jacob Boehme, St Theresa and St John of the Cross.  Yet the similarity was so striking that, although I am very far from being a saint, it would be impossible for me to reject this other world as delusionary without at the same time writing off all mystical, or even religious experience as nonsense.  I certainly went through what St John of the Cross and others have described as the 'Dark Night of the Soul', periods when my very commonplace sins seemed mountainous and overwhelming, when God seemed to have turned His back on me for ever, while at other times something very like the Vision Beautiful descended upon me.  Since then I have never been able to doubt for an instant that the so-called 'spiritual world', with its contrasted aspects which we call Heaven and Hell, has a real, or as I prefer to call it an 'actual' existence, which it is perfectly possible to experience directly.

Manic depressives do not lose their  memory as a schizophrenic can do, so they can call on their memories to help them rationalise, but it is clear that their ability to rationalise this input is reduced.  The 'right hand brain' becomes far more dominant – the intuitive, childlike, impulsive almost rash side.  The devil may care side.

John Custance called this aspect of perception the 'negative' aspect, but not in the sense of being 'bad'.  He said that he perceived the negative side as being 'female', whereas he regarded the reasoning logical and rational side as 'male' and positive.  It is also the aspect of the ego.

John Custance – Adventure into the Unconscious

The negative aspect cannot be rationalised; it is instinctive and intuitive, outside and opposed to the causal relations of the positive side of things.  That is why I call it magical, in the sense that the world of the child and the primitive, the lunatic, the poet and the saint is magical.  Nowadays we disregard magic in all its forms and in so doing, I maintain, see only half the universe, besides doing a violence to our nature which produces the intolerable tension we sense all around us.

The overall impression created for a manic depressive – more particularly in the manic phase – the 'up' phase is that they are being 'guided', which in a sense they are……...

John Custance – Adventure into the Unconscious

In my manic or elated phases, Powers – I call them Powers, though often I can put names to them too – take complete charge of me and I act almost entirely on impulse.  I have generally retained sufficient insight to get myself in time to a mental hospital, where I can be put under restraint if necessary, but in the occasion in question, my guardian angel, whom.... I have christened Tyche after the Greek Goddess of Fortune, intervened to save me at the last moment.  Thus at a later date when Tyche seemed to tell me to have a manic attack in conditions of freedom and led me to Berlin, the city between the worlds, I let her have her way and took the risk.

John Custance – Adventure into the Unconscious

I once listened to a very interesting lecture at Oxford by the late Dr William Brown, in which he declared that the sense of guidance was a most dangerous thing.  It came direct from the Unconscious, from the vast instinctive forces which civilisation has dammed up.  Its insidious power was derived from the release of those forces, but we must always remember that the Unconscious is beyond good and evil.  Both kinds of impulses come from it with equal insistence, so that we can be guided by evil spirits as well as by good.

John Custance’s experiences led him to believe that there  are a myriad of disembodied spirits  in the spiritual world, with the overall task of 'guiding' or ‘admonishing’ and depending on your mood, your motives and your spiritual state you could get a bright one, a stupid one, an evil one or a kindly one. 

John Custance – Adventure into the Unconscious

Now you know, or should know, perfectly well that the secret of magical operations lies in getting the right contacts.  Magic is just like electricity; if you forget to switch on your contacts ….it won't work, and if you get your contacts wrong the chances are that you will get a short and go up in smoke.

Call a devil, get a devil.

During one manic phase John Custance went to Berlin, inspired by a need to learn.  He was honest with everyone who was likely to be affected by his decision as to what he would be doing and why.  He hurt no one, his wife his children or those he met and actually did quite a lot of good whilst he was there, acts of great kindness.  Some of his motives were a little over ambitious 'to try to get reconciliation between all Germans and English people', but there is no harm in having good intentions however unlikely they may be achieved – aim high and you may even hit a few marks.  The result was that indeed he did appear to be 'helped'.

John Custance – Adventure into the Unconscious

When I made a sortie without a permit to Potsdam in the Russian zone, I was visiting my friend Frederick the Great at Sans Souci; [he got away with it]; when I spat upon the bust of Joseph Stalin in the Alexanderplatz, I did it at the request of Marx and Engels, who seemed to be looking at me [he got away with it]; My finances got into a distressing state owing to currency regulations, but my Micawber like confidence in the grace of Tyche proved fully justified; something always turned up.  Finally I reached Paris, where my kind friend Rosica, took charge of me and returned me in due course to the bosom of my family.

It would be absurd to suggest that this little adventure, which I dignify by the name of an experiment, provides 'objective' proof of anything.  Chance is a perfectly adequate explanation.  I was lucky and happened to get away with it.  But that was not how things appeared to me.  After all, Tyche is the goddess of chance, and the whole experience has confirmed in my mind the irresistible conviction that she is not wholly an illusion, that there is some helping factor in the scheme of things, some correspondence between the intimations of the Unconscious, however, fantastic and everyday reality in which reliance can be placed, and above all that we are not quite alone and shut away in the little shells of our egos.

Did John have any ideas about how the composer decided to put together the hallucination? With the schizophrenic, the hallucination almost seemed to depend on the prevailing mood of the person, their emotions at the time – the objective was always to reflect back to the person what they were – a lesson in humility – know thyself.

But a manic depressive may not obtain this sort of input.

John Custance – Adventure into the Unconscious

Looking back, it is evident that whatever tutelary spirits had charge of my destinies were acting on strictly rational principles.  In a state of manic elation it is essential to be able to let oneself go in a way that cannot be done at home … but among strangers, and more particularly abroad, it is possible to behave in an excitable and eccentric manner to one's heart's content, always provided the cash holds out and the bounds of decency are not exceeded.  After all, the Continent is the traditional place for the inhabitants of these islands to release their inhibitions; Englishmen abroad are well recognised to be mad.

References

Both books are excellent

  • Adventure into the Unconcious
  • Wisdom Madness and Folly

Observations

For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.