The Jewish mystic Rebbe Nachman of Breslov once told the story of a king and his prime minister, who was also his good friend. The king told the prime minister, “I see by the stars that everyone who eats from this year’s grain harvest is going to go mad. What do you think I should do?” 

The prime minister suggested they set aside a portion of good grain so that they would not have to eat from the tainted wheat. But the king objected: “If we do that, everyone will be insane but us. They will look at us and say that we are the mad ones. No. What we must do is this. We, too, shall eat from the tainted grain, but we will each place a sign on our head. I will look at your forehead, and you will look at mine, and when we see the sign, at least we will remember that we are mad.”

When I told this story last May at the funeral of the former New York patent attorney Harvey Mark Rogosin, everybody laughed. Doubtless, some caught the allusion to wheat ergot, the hallucinogenic fungi said to have resulted in the occasional “Woodstock” at various points throughout European history. But my guess is, most people just thought it described what it felt like to be with Mark.

Mark was crazy. You knew that. At the same time, he was a good bit saner than you were. You knew that, too. It was like that figure-ground image of the vase and the two faces. If you looked at Mark standing there on the street in his baggy pants and sweater, with hair looking like it hadn’t been brushed in years, and beard maybe never, then sure enough, he stood out as just the kind of person you never wanted to become. But if you looked at the background image instead—at the culture at large, with its madness for money and its catastrophic disregard for the evils of consumption— then you saw a very different picture when you looked back at Mark. Still, it was impossible not to go back and forth.

Those who knew Mark well often despaired over him, only to find themselves confronting in the very next moment a spiritual beauty that took their breath away. This wasn’t the didactic one-part-crazy/three-parts-wisdom you read about in books on Tibetan Buddhism. Mark was genuinely crazy, and he was genuinely wise. One moment you’d think, “OK, I get this!” The next you’d realize you didn’t have a clue.

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