culture, history, Personal story

Madness & History

I am reading Andrew Scull’s Madness in Civilization: a cultural history of insanity from the Bible to Freud, from the Madhouse to Modern Medicine (Thames & Hudson, 2015). The title is a wink to the English translation of Foucault’s Folie et Déraison, that is Madness & Civilization: a History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. And the wink is not kind. The book in some ways is the culmination of a lifetime’s work by Scull to rectify the errors of Foucault, and, at its core, disputes Foucault’s poetic argument that madness is the shadow of reason, the suppressed transgression that must be put outside the bounds of civilization. Yet this argument is put in a graceless way, characterized by offhand snipes at the philosopher’s scholarly errors, rather than a respectful response to the strange beauty of Foucault’s poetry enclosed in history.


Source: Wikimedia Commons, Hieronymus Bosch (c1450-1516), Das Narrenschiff

Take, for example, Scull’s brief discussion of the theme of the ship of fools. Scull notes the image of the Ship of Fools was created as a literary trope, as in the 1494 text by Sebastien Brant, which was illustrated by Durer (and can be viewed here These artists created, Scull writes, “allegorical images which captured the sense of the mad as liminal figures, haunting the imagination, lurking half-seen on the very margins of civilized existence.” (p 114) So striking were these compositions and images, Scull acidly writes, “that, six centuries later, they would tempt the famous French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault (1926-84) into embracing the wholly mistaken notion that these powerful paintings were representations of something real, instead of merely an artistic conceit.” (p 115)

That closing sneer – an artistic conceit – betrays the weakness of Scull’s book. It struggles to convey the experience of madness, the imaginative world of insanity, from both sides of the borderlands of reason, and is heavy with real context, reprising the history of the civilization in which the mad dwelt, and light on deep appreciation of its claimed topic – the culture of insanity. Its early chapters, and I am just part way through, tell us much background about empires and historical developments, following a tediously Eurocentric course, but are surprisingly thin on elaborating the images, stories and voices of insanity. If Scull had been prepared to question why a mere conceit exercised such a hold on the imagination, as seen in the selection of topic by artists and the popularity of the images and books, then he might have written a book with more of the poetic power of Foucault’s Madness & Civilization. Instead he seeks to tame the images of madness, to school the wild fertility of its symbolism with the dull discipline of pedantry, and domesticate madness securely within civilization, no longer a threat, but a “fundamental puzzle, a reproach to reason, inescapably part and parcel of civilization itself.” (p 411)

In contrast to Scull’s desultory dismissal of the imaginative resonance of the Ship of Fools, Foucault teases out the image and the social practice of the expulsion of the mad, balancing, if sometimes in too grandiose prose, the mundane realities and the flight of the symbols. He notes at the outset, despite Scull’s uncharitable sneer,  that it is a literary composition, possibly derived from the Argonaut cycle, and part of great mythic themes, revived and rejuvenated in the Renaissance. He does claim that these images, however, had a real existence, but the text is blurry about whether this reality is in the form of a boat (he gives one or two examples) or in the form of symbolic and practical expulsion. “Madmen then led an easy wandering existence. The towns drove them outside their limits; they were allowed to wander in the open countryside, when not entrusted to a group of merchants and pilgrims.”  (p. 8) What matters is less the form of transportation than that “the expulsion of madmen had become one of a number of ritual exiles.” (p 10)

But for a cultural history of insanity, the symbolism of an image is as important as the realities of its more humdrum real world enactment. And it is on the meaning of this crossover – the place of the Ship of Fools in registering how people imagined madness in history – that Foucault dwells on. And so this passage, which even now 35 years after reading its strange poetry, I recognise its importance for my own exiles to the borderlands of reason:

Navigation delivers man to the uncertainty of fate; on water, each of us in the hands of his own destiny; every embarkation is, potentially, the last. It is for the other world that the madman sets sail in his fools’ boat; it is from the other world that he comes when he disembarks. The madman’s voyage is at once rigorous division and an absolute Passage. In one sense, it simply develops, across a half-real, half-imaginary geography, the madman’s liminal position on the horizon of medieval concern –  a position symbolized and made real at the same time by the madman’s privilege if being confined within the city’s gates: his exclusion must enclose him; if he cannot and must not have another prison than the threshold itself, he is kept at the point of passage. He is put in the interior of the exterior, and inversely. A highly symbolic position, which will doubtless remain his until our own day, if we are willing to admit that what was formerly a visible fortress of order has now become the castle of our conscience. (p 11)

This passage is history as poetry, with its marked words denoting a private symbolism of special importance to the writer, and its evocation of a modern dilemma of being trapped within the prisons of our rational minds. It reminds me of Weber’s reference to the iron cage of rationality and vocation that holds us. It evokes the manifestation of madness in history in a way that is beyond the powers of Scull’s more pedestrian imagination. To write of madness in history is a special responsibility: to prowl these borderlands and to come back and speak truthfully of the fears and the beauty, and also the simple mundane practicalities of what you find and how you experience it. It is not a challenge that can be readily undertaken within narrow academic conventions, and it is not a challenge that Scull rises to. Scull domesticates madness with scholarly precision to a trite chronology of (Western European) civilization; Foucault reanimates the history of madness poetically, with all the necessary errors of imaginative speech.

Source: Badius, Josse, 1462-1535.Stultiferae naves



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