To respect madness is not to interpret it as the involuntary
and inevitable accident of disease, but to recognize this
lower limit of human truth, a limit not accidental but essential.
As death is the limit of human life in the realm of time,
madness is its limit in the realm of animality, and just as
death had been sanctified by the death of Christ, madness,
in its most bestial nature, had also been sanctified. […] Madness is the lowest
point of humanity to which God submitted in His incarnation,
thereby showing that there was nothing inhuman in
man that could not be redeemed and saved; the ultimate
point of the Fall was glorified by the divine presence: and
it is this lesson which, for the seventeenth century, all madness
– Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization (1964)
Kevin Garvey Sr. was the Chief of Police in Mapleton, NY when the Departure occurred. Then, he started to hear voices; that is, it would seem it was exactly then that he started to hear them. Thus, more than any other – besides maybe Kevin Jr. — his character plays with the line between supernatural revelation and madness.
We first meet him in a mental institution. As he talks to his son, he breaks off sporadically to yell at the voices that perturb him, refusing to deliver information they purportedly want him to convey. From a mundane point of view, he is clearly mentally ill. But this is The Leftovers, so things ultimately become less clear than that.
He tells Kevin Jr. that the voices stopped bothering him once he decided to just do what they told him to do. This leads him to Australia, but once he got there, the voices apparently stopped. He followed signs, and had one hell of a hallucinogenic trip — one which it would seem allowed him to communicate with his son across the veil — before deciding that he needed to learn all of the aboriginal songs in order to stop a flood that would end the world on the seventh anniversary of the Departure.
A clairvoyant chicken named Tony told him that, you see. Well, by “told him that” I mean pecked at a cassette tape wherein Kevin as a child asks his dad to sing “Itsy-Bitsy Spider” whereupon the rain stopped. It’s pretty straightforward.
Unfortunately, just as he is close to completing his quest to gather songs, Kevin Sr. falls off a roof onto Christopher Sunday: the man who could provide him with the last song. He goes along in the ambulance, until he gets so agitated that the EMTs kick him out and leave him limping on the road. Thus he wanders the desert, fights a snake, and comes across a man who sets himself on fire. Finally, Kevin Sr. stumbles upon a cross and sits down to rest beneath it, with a page from “The Book of Kevin” that he’d torn out in his hand.
We previously saw him railing against Matt Jamison about that book, which centers on Kevin Jr., for the extent to which it excluded him. Kevin Sr. threw it in the trash, except for the one page that we see him take out here. It seems as though he wants to write something down on it, but it is not clear if he succeeds in doing so, or what it is he might have written.
It is also less than clear why he kept this page in the first place, besides to use it as a makeshift envelope for the money Matt had sent him. Yet when Grace finds him — at the spot where she had previously discovered her dead children — it is with this page of text in his hand, which tells of a police chief named Kevin dying, communicating with the dead, and returning. This leads Grace, along with a couple of friends, to abduct a local cop named Kevin (played by Damien Garvey) and drown him in attempt to communicate with her kids.
Grace’s story is a poignant one. When the Departure happened, she immediately believed it was the Rapture. She didn’t even look for her children. But, it turns out that they had not been taken; they took off in search of help across the desert, and died.
Kevin Sr. assures her that she is not crazy, but just had the wrong Kevin. They proceed to the hotel Kevin Jr. was staying at just in time to pick him up, after his father had seen him on TV earlier in the day.
All of which takes us to the climax of The Leftovers: a gathering of souls at Grace’s house who want Kevin Jr. to cross over again, for various reasons. Matt Jamison is conspicuously absent, but John Murphy is there, asking for a message to be delivered to his daughter Evie. Kevin Sr., of course, wants to learn Christopher Sunday’s song. Grace wants to know what happened to her children’s shoes. Michael Murphy has apparently become unsure about the whole thing. He’s there, but he also called Laurie Garvey and asked her to come.
For her part, Laurie doesn’t try to dissuade Kevin. She lets it happen. And when it does, as we reach the seventh anniversary of the Departure, torrential rains fall on Australia. Is this the flood Kevin Sr. predicted — God once again cleansing the earth as he did in the time of Noah?
Apparently not, since when Kevin Jr. returns without Sunday’s song the world is still standing, and the rain has stopped. Kevin Jr. joins Kevin Sr. on the roof, and the latter asks, “Now what?” Now what indeed, if you have believed that you were on a mission to save the world, and the world doesn’t end even though you failed? Or did he perhaps just misunderstand the mission?
Either Kevin Sr. started hearing voices of some undetermined supernatural origin when the Departure occurred, or he suffered from a psychotic break. It is really a question of interpretation, and one we in fact face in the real world. A friend who has been diagnosed as schizophrenic tells you that demons are asking him to lead them. He believes it’s real; do you?
To place that same ambiguity in a world where two percent of the population disappeared for no identifiable reason is to ramp up the stakes on how we respond to such psychological phenomena. The truth is that we do not really understand things like schizophrenia. We may have some medications that help, but those who take them commonly complain of feeling deadened to the world.
Jacques Lacan compared the delusional systems of psychotics to the metaphysical systems of classical philosophy. It is a matter of making sense of everything, and fitting it together. Everything in its right place.
From this point of view, the delusion of the psychotic is not the illness so much as a response to it — the attempt of the one who has had their world fractured to restore unity to it. Judge Schreber could only make sense of the world by believing that God was turning him into a woman in order to have sex with him to save it. Kevin Sr. stopped being plagued by the voices once he decided to do what they told him to do.
There is never really any indication as to the source of these voices, or even as to what Kevin Sr. believes their source to be. From a reductive point of view, we might think that they are stemming from his own unconscious mind, representative of drives or desires his ego cannot handle. From a metaphysically thick one — which can’t be ruled out in the world of The Leftovers — we might wonder if they are the voices of the departed, or the dead; angels cannot be fully ruled out.
The metaphysical question, though, is less important than the existential one. This is about how Kevin Sr. responds to the Departure. One way or another, it was at this moment that he started hearing voices. Whether it was a psychotic break, or something else, this defined his experience. Either way, this fractured his world.
There are two senses of this word “world” that we tend to conflate. On the one hand, it may mean something like objective reality: that which doesn’t go away when you stop believing in it, as Philip K. Dick might say. On the other hand, “world” implies something coherent. This would be a more phenomenological definition, pertaining to the experience of reality, and not necessarily to reality as it is in itself.
To conflate the two senses of the word is to beg a certain philosophical question that has come under pressure for at least a couple of centuries: does our experience align with the true nature of being? That is, to what extent can we trust that things are as they appear to be?
Now that we are all (post)moderns, there is something of philosophical consensus that we, at very least, cannot presuppose such a thing. Instead, thinkers of various stripes, who would certainly disagree about any number of things, have come to fundamentally agree that “world” in the latter sense is some way constructed within experience, and not given to it. It is in this latter sense that Kevin Garvey Sr.’s world can be said to have fallen apart.
One might hazard the thought that it is such a shattering of world that defines the psychotic break in general. As much as we might like to pretend it is, the world is not objective, insofar as “world” implies that everything hangs together. There may be an objective reality, but it is chaos. It doesn’t make sense in itself; we have to make sense of it. So does my cat.
We structure territories for ourselves. We deploy habit to give a semblance of sameness to the ocean of difference that might threaten to overwhelm us. We make sense of it, building narratives for ourselves that hopefully match up with the narratives of others. It is when that breaks down that we risk insanity. One no longer lives in a world.
From this point of view, the fact that Kevin Sr.’s delusion is about keeping the world from ending may seem to be a bit on the nose, but it works precisely because his character is fleshed out enough to make it work. One can’t be sure whether he is crazy or not, particularly in this universe where two percent of the population disappeared and his son seems to have come back from the dead.
Kevin Sr. believes he had a revelation and was chosen. He does not act out of faith in the face of uncertainty, but with a certainty that should not be characterized as faith. Abraham did not know that God would spare Isaac. Kevin Sr., on the other hand, thinks he knows that his son will not die when he drowns him. And he thinks he knows that he can stop the flood if only he can sing the right songs.
So when he thinks Kevin Jr. isn’t coming back, and that he won’t be able to sing Christopher Sunday’s song, he climbs up to the roof like the Millerites we saw at the beginning of the third season, to await the end of the world.
And it doesn’t come. The rain stops. His son returns, and joins him. He isn’t ready to come down from the roof, yet, though. He doesn’t know what to do now that this story he has been living in has ended in a way that he did not expect. But he doesn’t fall into madness. Perhaps he has traversed the fantasy.