As the son of one of the great academic thinkers of our time, you might sometimes feel like you’re living in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall,” in the scene at the movies where, annoyed by pretentious prattling about Fellini, Beckett and Marshall McLuhan by a person in line behind him, Allen’s character finds the celebrated media theorist hiding behind a sign and says, “Well, that’s funny, because I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here.” Gabe Mitchell, son of the University of Chicago professor and longtime Critical Theory editor W.J.T. Mitchell, had the kind of life where dad takes you to break bread with renowned philosopher Jacques Derrida, who you ask to explain his groundbreaking theories of deconstruction. Or, you develop an obsession with the iconoclastic humor of Mad magazine, like so many teenage boys do. But unlike all those other boys, on a trip to New York, your dad arranges a visit to the magazine’s offices, where you get to meet, in the flesh, some of “The Usual Gang of Idiots.”
These are happy moments in the very sad saga of Gabe Mitchell, who grappled with schizophrenia that surfaced in his late teens and shaped his life, as well as that of his parents, until he jumped off a balcony at Marina City at the age of thirty-eight. Almost a decade later, his father, a prolific writer known for works like “Picture Theory,” “Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology” and “What Do Pictures Want?” has tried to make sense of Gabe’s life and death in the memoir, “Mental Traveler: a father, a son, and a journey through schizophrenia.” It’s a compact yet complex and compelling work, covering the history of culture and science in the arena of mental illness, but also documenting the very intense, personal moments that only the family of someone like Gabe experiences. But above all, it’s a celebration of Gabe’s life, his persona and his aspirations as an artist and a filmmaker. (A postscript includes moving poems about Gabe by his mother, Janice Misurell-Mitchell.)
I corresponded with W.J.T. Mitchell via email.
In the book you mention that Gabe’s struggles coincided with a peak in your professional life. How did he change your trajectory?
The onset of Gabe’s illness in the early 1990s coincided with a very intense period in my life. I was chairing University of Chicago’s English Department, writing essays for the London Review of Books, travelling to China, Australia and Europe to give lectures. At that point, I kept Gabe’s condition mostly to myself. And more generally, after my term as department chair ended, I retreated into my own family, and concentrated most of my energy on editing Critical Inquiry.
I got the sense from the book that you grappled with Gabe’s artistic talents. Was Gabe a great artist, either in reality or simply in unrealized potential? I would think that many in your shoes would want their child to be a van Gogh…
I would have been happy to see him become a van Gogh in terms of recognition, not in terms of happiness or emotional life. I did not want him to be a suicidal genius! But his work in the first decade of his illness was relatively scattered, not really focused on a project. We all encouraged him, but at the same time we didn’t want to feed his grandiosity, which was invariably accompanied by depression and disappointment. We tried to balance encouragement with a sense of realism. This turns out to be extraordinarily difficult with someone who is suffering from schizophrenia. As we see from everyday life in the era of Trumpism, there is no arguing with someone who is suffering from a psychotic break from reality.
You write of Gabe’s sense of grandiosity but isn’t that intrinsic to so much great art?
Yes, I do think a certain grandiosity is essential to creating art, or doing anything that involves ambition. Whether it turns out to be “great,” by whose standards and in what context, is another question altogether. We tried to be supportive of anything he wanted to do, and not to worry very much about whether it was “great.” We had to be careful about being critical, however. He made it clear to me that he was not interested in my criticism of his work, and I learned to walk a tightrope between praise and silence when he wanted to show me something.
Talk about the “Infinite Cube” and how it came to be and what you understand the work to represent.
Gabe was fascinated with the idea of the infinite, and with mathematics, geometry, and a form he called the “grid,” which is basically like the Cartesian coordinates dividing space into equal sectors where forms can be mapped with algebraic equations such as 1/x=y. That particular equation tracks a line that approaches the x axis at infinity, as x gets larger, and y approaches zero. He made a film entitled “Grid Theory” that looks at the history of mathematical figures and diagrams with symbolic meanings, and he invented a new form of the Cartesian grid in which the numbers did not emanate out from a central point (0,0) but circulated around the perimeter without any negative spaces. He thought this grid or matrix was better suited to thinking about spiral forms such as the double helix, the fundamental DNA molecule.
The “Infinite Cube” was a three-dimensional sculptural rendering of the Grid. Gabe made drawings of this object, and fabricated models out of plastic and pipe cleaners. He gave one of the models to [the sculptor] Antony Gormley, with whom he had developed a strong friendship, meeting him in London, and then in Chicago. After Gabe’s passing, Antony asked our permission to fabricate the Cube as Gabe had planned, in a three-foot-by-three-foot-by-three-foot mirrored glass cube containing a ten-by-ten-by-ten matrix of one-thousand LED lights suspended from almost invisible wires. The effect is quite magical, transforming a glass cube of roughly human scale into an ever-shifting window into infinite perspectives. I think he saw it as a finite object that opens into endless depths and distances, and regarded it as a metaphor for the human mind. The Cube is now in the permanent collection of University of Chicago’s Smart Museum, where it has been displayed a number of times. When it goes on display, I am told by the docents, groups of school children gather around it and make up stories about it. At the end of every day, the docents have to clean off the nose prints left by all the young visitors who have pressed their faces against it.
You’re known as a prolific writer but not so much a memoirist. I imagine, based on your life’s journey as described in the book, you have plenty of other personal subjects you might visit in writing. Will that come later or was this a one-time thing for you?
Who knows? I have always dreamed of a memoir of my father, who died when I was five. He left us a photo album of his adventures as a miner in the Yukon territory.
And of course I want to write the definitive book on sandcastling, which I regard as my own special talent in the visual arts.
You write about your father’s death and your sense of abandonment as a child. Then you went through a parallel loss of a kind, when your son died so young. Do you feel like Gabe abandoned you in the same way your father had?
I think I would need a decade with a psychoanalyst to know the answer to this question. Certainly both losses had a decisive impact on me. I was so young when my father died that it took me a long time to accept that it had really happened. I kept thinking he would walk in the door, and my mother kept him alive in albums full of photos and endless stories about their courtship, and their adventures as a young married couple roaming the west while my father prospected for gold and silver from Mexico to the Yukon. So he was very much a presence even after his passing, and my mother, who lived to the age of ninety-four, never stopped talking about him. I suppose I have taken over something like my mother’s role as storyteller and keeper of memory, and transferred it to Gabriel. He became so central to my life, and I was so deeply affected by his art and his struggle with schizophrenia that I knew from the moment of his death that I would be trying to keep him alive, tell his story, and continue his work.
You seemed to have an extraordinary rapport with Gabe, even writing at one point he’d become your best friend. Was that rapport natural—do you share the same with your daughter? Or was it something you worked on, specifically as a sort of therapy for his condition?
We did have extraordinary rapport. And this only deepened when it became clear that he was unlikely to leave us and grow up to be independent. I was very close to our daughter, too, but she went off to college, traveled with friends in Europe, and moved to Seattle, then to L.A. Once, when our kids were little, we asked them where they were going to live when they grew up. Six-year-old Carmen told us very firmly that she would probably live a long way off, probably on the West Coast, and she would see us once or twice a year. Three-year-old Gabriel looked very anxious at this answer, and asked us if it would be all right for him to live with us when he grew up. Of course we said yes. This turned out to be prophetic, and the farthest away he ever lived from us (aside from a short-lived time in college at NYU) was Humboldt Park in Chicago, a few miles away. After the onset of his illness it became clear that it wasn’t good for him (or for us) to live together, so we found housing for him away from home, at first in supervised housing where the staff could monitor his medications. Later he found a nice apartment in Marina City overlooking the Chicago River where he lived until his passing. We would see him at least once a week and talk more often. For years, we met for dinner and a movie almost every weekend. So he was very much a part of our social life, coming to the University of Chicago to attend lectures, and mixing with our friends and neighbors in Hyde Park. As editor of Critical Inquiry I often hosted well-known academics like Derrida, Henry Louis Gates, Julia Kristeva and Slavoj Žižek. Gabe was very well read and he had an extraordinary openness about him. He would frequently engage in intense conversations about the meaning of life after meeting with someone for only a few minutes. I often felt like the shy one in comparison to him. He left quite a strong impression on people, even after a single meeting. And most people were not aware that he was suffering from schizophrenia. As the lingo has it, he “presented well” and concealed his condition from everyone but us.
I don’t know that this was consciously a therapeutic strategy, but it certainly felt like it was good for him to be with “straight people,” as we called them. I was proud of his special way with people of all sorts. In his film “Crazy Talk” he made a point of interviewing homeless people on the street, and as a roaming skateboarder on the streets of Chicago he knew the city much better than I did. He was very involved in the musical work of his mother, composer Janice Misurell-Mitchell, often serving as usher and stagehand at her concerts, and rewarding her vocal and flute performances with ear-splitting whistles.
I think a crucial moment in our relationship occurred when we joined an informal weekly session of my film colleagues, Miriam Hansen, Tom Gunning and Yuri Tsivian, among others. We met for nine consecutive Tuesday evenings to analyze Jean-Luc Godard’s eight-part epic, “Histoire(s) du cinema.” We would watch for one hour, then break to share a pizza, then re-watch the same hour, stopping the film to analyze specific moments and images. This made a profound impression on him, and he resolved to make his own nine-hour epic on the subject of madness, a project he called the “Histoire de la folie.” He proposed that I should be the image-researcher for the film, compiling a preproduction “atlas” of scenes and images documenting the way madness is seen in all parts of the world, and in every historical period, from ancient times to the present. “Crazy Talk” was his nine-minute pilot for this film. In it he assembled striking scenes of mental disorder from a variety of Hollywood films, cross-cutting them with voiceovers of therapists and mental patients, and creating a montage of scenes of collective madness in crowds and political movements such as the Tea Party. The film concludes with an abstract “structuralist” sequence exploring the figures of the Grid and the Vortex, accompanied by Janice’s choral setting of William Blake’s poem, “Mad Song.”
As he moved into filmmaking, I felt that he had finally found his true love. “Crazy Talk” is a highly promising short film, and he began to make other films that showed increasing mastery of the medium, all of them available on his website, Philmworx.com. So I agreed to serve as his image researcher, and set about organizing a seminar called “Seeing Madness” with a couple of my colleagues, Françoise Meltzer in Comparative Literature and her husband, psychiatrist Bernard Rubin. The seminar was a wild ride through the history of cinema, opera, visual art and literature, ranging over documentaries about mental hospitals, expressionist and surrealist films, to the craziness of Jesuit spiritual practices designed to make one a “holy fool” for Christ. Gabriel participated fully in the seminar, gave a presentation like all the other students, and began to make rapid progress on his nine-hour epic. Most impressive to me was his clarity of purpose. He said that he wanted to transform madness from an affliction to a learning experience, and change it from a deviation from “normal” human behavior into a critical framework for understanding human nature.
How do you resolve the cultural/historical/scientific explorations of madness that became Gabe’s focus with the personal experiences he was living? Was Gabe attempting to deconstruct madness as an idea?
Yes, precisely. Or you could put it another way and say he wanted to deconstruct the notion of homo sapiens, of man as the “rational animal,” and construct an alternate vision of man as the mad animal, with rationality as the rare exception in human behavior. The more we pursued this idea together, the more I became convinced that he was really on to something. I thought he had found a way to “put schizophrenia to work” (his phrase) and I began to feel that he had found a way to work through his disability and accomplish something extraordinary. Alas, he took his life before he could make much progress on this project. It was a complete shock to me. I thought he had defeated schizophrenia and was completely unprepared for his passing. I had, in my mind, mapped out a heroic future for him in which he would make his mark as a filmmaker and look after me in my old age.
Have you, through time and the writing of this book, achieved a sense of closure about Gabe? Where is he now in your life?
I don’t believe in “closure,” unless it is like closing a book that you will remember, reopen, and reread for the rest of your life. He is now everywhere in my life. I think of him every day. And his film project has taken over my life as a scholar. After his passing in 2012, I immediately set out to turn the “Seeing Madness” seminar into a book project which now has the slightly modified title of “Seeing through Madness,” to emphasize the role of mental disorder, not as the “object” of study, but the framework within which human nature can be understood. I nearly finished that book several years ago, but then realized that I wanted to write a memoir of his life first. Now that “Mental Traveler” is finished, I am ready to finish the book Gabe inspired.