31 Days of Stories 2009, Day 5: “The Quantity Theory of Insanity” by Will Self

August 5, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Quantity Theory of Insanity.

0140234012.02.LZZZZZZZWill Self’s fiction is often dependent upon a central conceit or high concept. The title story in his debut collection is no exception. The mathematical formula to express the Quantity Theory of Insanity reads as follows:

Q(Q><[Q]) = Q(Q><[Q])

What this means in layman’s terms is that insanity is constant across a society. In other words, insanity is like energy: it can’t be created or destroyed, but only changed. If a pocket of insanity within a society is stamped out, it will merely crop up somewhere else.

In addition to being a clever conceit, the satire behind the Quantity Theory of Insanity is, quite obviously, hilarious. Or, perhaps not so obviously, for Self’s brand of humour is something of an acquired taste. Borrowing equally from Swift and Ballard, Self’s representation of modern society is a metaphysical reductio ad absurdam, a dystopian reflection of modern life that remains, nonetheless, almost painfully recognizable.

His specific targets in “The Quantity Theory of Insanity” are the therapeutic industry and the attendant modern vogue for quick-fix psychology. The story also takes aim at academic pretension by mimicking a scientific treatise and sending up the self-conscious poise of scholarly rationalism. When Harold, the story’s narrator, first stumbles upon the general makeup of the scientific trial that will ultimately lead to his grand theory, he expressly wishes to avoid the “crude” and “methodological” errors made in the past by his colleagues in similar trials:

For instance, Olsen’s 1978 paper in the BJE in which he presented the results of his own trials. Olsen took three groups of recently diagnosed and sectioned mental patients. One group was given in equal thirds, lithium, chlorapromasine and a tricyclic anti-depressant. The second group was given a placebo and the third group was given nothing; instead Olsen had the patients in this group mercilessly beaten to a bloody pulp.

It was not the beatings that caused the problem; rather, it was “the revelation that Olsen had himself participated in administering beatings to the control group in his experiment. Such a violation of the blind status of the trial naturally discredited him entirely.”

Elsewhere, Harold references Gruton, a scientist who “maintained … that the visible nose represented only 1/8 of the ‘real’ nose” and “that masturbation could not only cause moral degeneration in terms of the individual psyche … it could also influence people politically.” All of this contributes to the high satire of the mock-academic narrative, as does the “Select Bibliography” at the story’s end, which includes titles such as “Some Aspects of Sanity Quotient Mechanisms in a Witless Shetland Commune” and “Shamanism and Soya Futures.”

But, like all good satire, Self has a deadly serious point to make: our modern culture’s promise of an easy answer to its psychic afflictions – be it through prescription narcotics, pop therapy, or academic folderol – is illusory. The underlying consumerist impulse behind the scientific attempt to control the minds of a society is illustrated in Self’s narrative by the the offer of a job with PiggiBank, extended once Harold’s reputation begins to grow as a result of his theory’s popular acceptance, and by the members of one study group, a number of whom approach the study’s administrators “and [ask] them if they [know] anyone who could help them get into advertising.”

The broadness of Self’s comedy, and the ornate nature of his prose, which verges occasionally on the magenta, cannot dilute the potency of his message: that modern society has capitulated to complacency and superficial answers to its problems, the surface logic of which mask a blatant – and dangerous – absurdity.

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