Volume Five, December 2004

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While searching the terms paranoia and paranoiac in specialized dictionaries and medical treatises, I suddenly found myself at a loss, as the variety of syndromes and manifestations is so wide, that the reader may well wonder, at the end, whether his own behaviour can be described as normal or abnormal. We may as well wonder whether all these umbrella terms have been invented by the medical science in order to find an excuse for whatever we believe to be deviant in our own social behaviour, or the human behaviour itself can be characterized by so many slippery or hidden meanders that few individuals can actually escape being labelled as paranoiacs.
However, the common point of all definitions is that paranoia can be regarded as a “functional disorder in which the symptoms of delusions of jealousy, and delusions of either grandeur and/or persecution, cannot be explained by other disorders such as schizophrenia, organic mental disorder or organic brain syndrome.… The delusions develop insidiously and become knit together into a rational and coherent set of beliefs that is internally consistent and… compelling and vigorously defensible. In paranoia, intellectual functioning is unimpaired and the paranoiac is quite capable of coherent behaviour within the delusional system.”1
Writers, either great or minor, have built, along the time, a whole gallery of paranoic characters, and I would quote great masters of literary portrayal, from Dostoyevsky to Joyce, and from Virginia Woolf to Kafka or Marin Preda, whose characters fight against uncommon individual, social or political problems.
Although never individualized as such and however great the tribute these characters have to pay to a particular literary epoch or context, their minds bear the imprint of a deviant destiny and a distorted way of perceiving the outer world.
Among the modern Scottish writers who have brought a remarkable contribution to the setting up of the most fascinating literary paranoic universe, James Kelman holds a prominent place. A Glaswegian by birth, spirit and education, Kelman is himself a product of a typically hyperindustrialized society. He confesses belonging physically and spiritually to a community of simple–minded working class people.2
His characters are hardly ever particularised by name. Most of them are HE or SHE, shifting to I, at times, when the rambling of their thoughts requires. The writer rarely states the social status of his heroes, however we feel they belong to the masses. None of them displays higher education, nevertheless they can be differentiated according to the type of activities they perform, the temperament and the degree of tenseness that draw up the dimensions of their drama. A character called Fr. Fitzmichael, for example, has got minute scientific knowledge of Botany and Zoology, but has the obsession of his own Spirit too. His own drama lies in a frustration that lurks behind the impossibility of having higher intellectual communication from his position. We could well think of him as being severely mentally affected by what might be called dual personality. We assume he might be a gardener or a guardian, but he thinks of his Superiors in terms that would easily induce us into suspicions of Masonic organizations. Had it not been for the linguistic register used, varying from esoteric to sublime poetic rhythmicity, we could have easily imagined the character as one of vulgar insanity.3

… a trio of ants had appeared on the tips of his toes. With a smile he leaned to cuff at them with a flick of his overgarment. Such things are we brought to. The condition being a Triumvirate of Hymenopterous Insects on the tips of one’s toes. Hello. His call to a passing Brother was greeted with an astonishing raising of the eyebrows. He waved. November. A month of the Spirit. Spirit and Dismality are equidistant.4

The Street Sweeper is a short story able to shock in a different way. Peter, the title hero, believes he is being spied on by a store of detectives. The linguistic register of his thoughts varies from vulgar four-letter terms, meant to relieve him of his stress, to law terminology, as if he were already subject of a trial.

Ah but he was sick of getting watched. He was. He was fucking sick of it. The council have a store of detectives. They get sent out spying on the employees, the workers lad the workers, they get sent out spying on them.5

The language abounds in taboo words, undoubtedly hard to stand for traditional readers of traditional texts – an element of realism which gives vividness and strength to this most true-to-life character. Sometimes the use of the vernacular in an interesting blending of sophisticated and common words – often demanding being read aloud, so that we can make full sense of what is being meant – results in a hilarious effect. Blasphemous words associated to sacred notions are frequent, especially to the end of the story, when Peter needs to release his anger and frustration. Although Peter, in this short story, has little education if none, he is an intelligent guy – or maybe cunning? – the danger he has been grasping is there: the gaffer dismisses him, as Peter is caught “wasting” his time in an attempt to save someone’s life. Here is the moment when the reader is confronted with the revelation of an unexpectedly complex character. The harsh streetsweeper goes through moments of deep humanity, as if someone else were thinking or speaking. A whirl of feelings is given way to and the reader suddenly finds himself in front of a mother-like character, hallucinating between his own sorrow and that of the other. The character seems to be comforting himself in a sort of magic incantation, able to bring back hope for both rescued and rescuer: “You’ll be alright son, he whispered and for some reason felt like kissing him on the forehead, a gesture of universal love for the suffering. We can endure, we can endure. Maybe it was a returning prophet to earth, and this was the way he had landed, on the crown of his skull…”6
James Kelman frequently mentions paranoia and paranoiacs himself, in the text, not without a trace of smile: “Getting paranoiac is the simplest thing in the world.”7
The characters of A Situation are probably typically paranoic: Edward, the invalid, and the latter’s wife are all deviant characters. Edward, on the one hand, is obsessed by his own sexuality and by the incestuous relationship with his fiancee’s sister. He is caught up by his neighbours, the invalid and his wife, while carefully studying his own penis. A conspiracy seems to haunt his neighbour’s mind, as he suspects Edward of being a student and the “walls” of “having ears”. He goes on, expressing his fears that “most parents hate their children, just like Romeo and Juliet.”8 His wife, in her turn – if we leave apart the fun of the situation created – has her own paranoic behaviour. In her zeal, she finds out everything, about everybody, by watching them through the letter-box slit. Francis Spufford appreciates that “obsession interests Kelman greatly”, the main difference between him and Kafka being that he “is more concerned with when and how an obsessive eye can become the natural way to see.”9
The question why a refined writer like Kelman should write about such people, such events and in such a way can only find its answer in the disarming words of the writer himself: “As long as art exists there are no areas of experience that have to remain inaccessible.”10
The short story universe of this writer is populated by a strange world of men and women, having everyday worries, like a place to live, a job, a loving family, frustrations of various kinds, as well as shades of unexpected sensitiveness that all show them the pettiness of their existence as contrasted to the perfectness of the place where they live. The rest of the world all appears to be as unfriendly, inflexible and alienating as the city itself: an intricate labyrinth of paranoic dimensions, unable to remain open or to leave escape for those overwhelmed by its proportions.

1. Reber, Arthur. The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology (1985), 515.
2. online information, April,12, 2002.
3. Kelman, James. “Fr. Fitzmichael,” in The Burn (1992), Minerva, 73
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., 76.
6. Ibid., 79.
7. Kelman, James. “Lassies Are Trained That Way,” in op. cit., 155.
8. Ibid., 43.
9. apud Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol.58, 298.
10. Ibid.

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