There is a very nice episode in one of the chapters in this novel. Veronika is in a psychiatric clinic, and another “patient,” Zedka, tells her a fable about madness. The fable goes as follows:
“A powerful wizard, who wanted to destroy an entire kingdom, placed a magic potion in the well from which all the inhabitants drank. Whoever drank that water would go mad.
The following morning, the whole population drank from the well and they all went mad, apart from the king and his family, who had a well set aside for them alone, which the magician had not managed to poison. The king was worried and tried to control the population by issuing a series of edicts governing security and public health. The policemen and inspectors, however, had also drunk the poisoned water, and they thought the king’s decisions were absurd and resolved to take no notice of them.
“When the inhabitants of the kingdom heard these decrees, they became convinced that the king had gone mad and was now giving nonsensical orders. They marched on the castle and called for his abdication.
“In despair the king prepared to step down from the throne, but the queen stopped him, saying: ‘Let us go and drink from the communal well. Then we will be the same as them.’
The king and the queen drank the water of madness and immediately began talking nonsense. Their subjects repented at once; now that the king was displaying such wisdom, why not allow him to continue ruling the country?”
It is very nice of Coelho to have this fable narrated by a “patient” who is being treated in a psychiatric clinic. As soon as I read it I remembered the cult film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in which Jack Nicholson appeared as Randle McMurphy. If you have watched that film, you must surely remember the cruel nurse Ratched. Who was more ill? The patients or the loveless, cruel robot-like nurse?
Both Coelho’s fable and Cuckoo’s Nest question our well-known clichés about psychological health. They both attack to our confusion between emotional well-being and being normal. I do not remember in which book he was talking about this, but I clearly remember Eric Fromm’s objection to modern societies’ obsession with the “normal” man. He said that we force people to do jobs that are in contradiction to their nature, and then if any of them develop some symptoms we label them as a “patient” rather than being concerned with the majority who just obey the rules and do work that kills their soul. We do not think of workers who screw the same parts on a machine all day everyday without developing any psychological symptoms, as being unhealthy, but rather if someone is unable to adapt to this environment we label them as neurotic or psychologically ill.
Capitalism leads us to consume like crazy, convinces us to seek happiness from material riches and makes us believe that we should turn a blind eye to environmental destruction for the sake of greater profits. Because being normal means to be in conformity with all the madness. We destroy our world with every passing day; we have enough nuclear weapons to kill all humanity a hundred times over; and while people are dying of hunger we continue to spend so much money buying more weapons. Have we all drunk water from the well of madness?
Like in the fable, we may be treating our most healthy people as “eccentric,” “marginal” and “neurotic.” Some devote their lives to protecting the environment, some call themselves conscientious objectors, some refuse all material riches and some just try to be themselves. We all have something to say about them and to them. Instead of being inspired by all these so-called marginals, we call on them to be just like us, to be “normal.”
I wholeheartedly believe that we need to create a brand-new culture in which true happiness, love and compassion will take precedence over everything. In that culture, today’s marginals may turn into the pioneers who show us how a healthy human being could be. After all they are the ones who have not drunk from our well of madness!