A Review of LiShan Chan’s Philosopher’s Madness.

Book cover

I have read the “Philosopher’s Madness” by LiShan Chan. It is a book about mental illness, British Education, academic careers, their successes and failures, Overseas Chinese, Singapore and Dubai, writing and reading.

This review is not a member of the technological book reviews series.

If you are still interested, welcome under the cut.

1. Intro

For an adult it is a little hard to find time to do reading. This is especially true for over-obsessed with work Asian peoples, such as the Russians and the Singaporeans. Maybe that’s why the books that I found for sale in Singaporean bookstores are predominantly on the short side?

I have been wanting to try out some Eastern Asian literature for quite a while, and the slight problem I have had with Shanghainese literature is that it is predominantly in Chinese. I believe I will get to it eventually, but too impatient to wait long enough, I decided to try out Singaporean literature first. Even though Singapore is, perhaps, more famous for its poetic culture, rather than for prosaic, I ended up buying two non-fiction “Experience Reports”, one of which happened to be Ms. Chan’s.

Buying a book turned out to be surprisingly easy, the bookshop mailed it to me the same day, and I received it two days later. I can’t over-praise myself, as I started reading almost the same week. A big achievement for a person who had been spending almost all of his life at a computer screen for the past ten years. (I still use a lot of paper literature though, for technical reading. I haven’t read much paper-based leisure material for quite a while.)

2. Getting back to the book.

Review Illustration

The book is short, an avid reader can probably devour it in a few hours. I managed to spread it over a few evening, partialy trying to use it as an eye relaxant to make it easier to fall asleep. (A lifehack of surprising utility in the age of LED screens.)

The book tries to be a faithful representation of the author’s experience of a schizophrenic psychotic episode, starting from describing the sequence of events that immediately precided it, and completing the book with a few reflections on the matter of being mentally ill itself The book features a list of references, which is not a common thing for a personal report, but I guess this is due to Ms. Chan’s previous academic experience.

In short, I can’t say that this is a great book that everyone should read. The language style is nothing out of ordinary. It is a nicely readable English that does feel a little bit Chinese, which is, I guess, expected from an author who grew up in a quadrilingual society. The narrative is smooth, it doesn’t wander in loops, follows a rather sequential and straightforward plot.

The story of a mental illness is probably worth showing to someone suffering from (or suspecting in himself) a mental illness, as it is a very down to Earth in this particular parts. The narrative literally speaks of “what I felt” and “what I did”. To me at least, it felt very natural and uncontrived. What the author is saying, that is that today there is a misconception in the society. It seems that people already understand the fact that a mental illness is not a death sentence. People also seem to know that mentally ill people are harmless, and certainly know that their is not caused by some mystical phenomenon.

However, people seem to still not know what to do with the situations when people they know seem to suffer from an illness that looks possible to control, but it is unclear how to approach them. Many people respond well to treatments and get better eventually. Moreover, in most cases mentally ill people are harmless and if they do make harm, most often they harm themselves. This is all not new, but having yet another presentation of the same ideas, done through the eyes of someone who felt it herself and supported by cases from a personal experience, may be more persuasive.

3. Philosophy

Philosophy Illustration

What really bought me though, was not the part regarding the mental illness, but rather the sideline, speaking of an aspiring young scholar following the philosophical path. To be honest, I didn’t see any philosophical originality in what Ms. Chan was writing. Moreover, I could clearly see this not so uncommon vision of a person following a clearly outlined path. In Ms. Chan’s case this was a path that partly coincided with mine: going to Eastern Asia after completing a British Higher Education degree. This whole “Academic Path” makes you feel that life in general consists of jumping from an institution to an institution, prepared for you by some other people whose expertise is in making life meaningful for other people. This problem, I believe, is by no means specific to Britain or Sinosphere, but the story of an aspiring philosopher makes it seem more pronounced.

That is, to me at least, philosophers are the most prominent of those people who are to the least extent expected to follow a well-written path. Well, some of the recent philosophers did have a degree in philosophy, for example Jacques Derrida, however I always found the greatest value in the works of philosophers by doom rather than philosophers by profession. Within the lines of the book I do see quite a lot of this contradiction of the explicit and the implicit, the connotation and the denotation, and the desire to be good and the desire to be successful.

4. The author

To check what she is doing at the moment (the book was released in 2012), you can check her website, http://lishanchan.com. Maybe this is how Asia is going to get its true voice? It almost seems that she is enjoying what she is doing now more than she would be enjoying being an institutionalised academic.

Anyway, unless you are interested in biographies, philosophers, or Asian literature, I can’t really recommend this book. For the people who enjoy those, however, this may be a nice addition to the collection of niche books.

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