The Great Confinement

Image Source: photograph, Sarah Lee, Bethlem Museum of the Mind exhibition, The Guardian

From Keats, Hyperion:

Just at the self-same beat of Time’s wide wings
Hyperion slid into the rustled air,
And Saturn gain’d with Thea that sad place
Where Cybele and the bruised Titans mourn’d.
It was a den where no insulting light
Could glimmer on their tears; where their own groans
They felt, but heard not, for the solid roar
Of thunderous waterfalls and torrents hoarse,
Pouring a constant bulk, uncertain where.
Crag jutting forth to crag, and rocks that seem’d
Ever as if just rising from a sleep,
Forehead to forehead held their monstrous horns;
And thus in thousand hugest phantasies
Made a fit roofing to this nest of woe

I have taken up again, after a break of two months, Andrew Scull’s Madness in Civilization: a cultural history of insanity. Here I learn that the archetypal lunatic asylum of the English speaking world, Bedlam or Bethlem Hospital , featured two large statues on plinths at its gates. These statues (pictured above) were of the figures of melancholy and raving madness. Melancholy madness lay imprisoned and disabled by his sadness. Raving madness, full of impotent torrents hoarse, lay shackled. These two statues, according to Scull, were alluded to by Keats in his poem of the fall of the titans, Hyperion, which I confess I have not read until prompted to by Scull’s account. They appear as the bruis’d Titans, who make a fit roofing for this nest of woe.

Whether we know them as asylums or mental hospitals or rehabilitation clinics, these places, which I have known as a visitor, but not a patient, have long been nests of woe. But Scull does a fine job of showing that they can at times be more than that, and that beneath the lurid and dark imaginings, the grotesque exploitation of the insane and the infirm for profit or for poetry, there are other motives and other experiences of caring and protection in these places. Of course, he does not minimise the cruelty and the suffering known in these places, but he also sees the compassion of those who cared and sought to find a place of refuge for their ill family members, and, with a modern perspective, sees the struggle of families in a world with few supports to take care of their mad members and to protect all who knew them from their worst excesses.

So, where the French radical literary tradition celebrated de Sade as the great libertine whose texts speak of excess and transgression that defy the law that sought to confine him with lettres de cachet, Scull gives attention to his despairing mother-in-law who saw her daughter lost in de Sade’s fantasy world and betrayed by de Sade’s affairs with her sister and many prostitutes. So Madame de Montreuil lured de Sade with a ruse to Paris, where she confined him in the Chateau de Vincennes and then the Bastille. Every loving family member of a person who is experiencing the extremes of psychotic behaviour can understand what she did, without recourse to Foucault’s grand myth of resistance to reason, the Great Confinement. Indeed this radical literary tradition celebrating de Sade culminated in Foucault’s celebration of the remorseless libertine in both his texts and his life.

This myth, Scull shows, was mistaken about the true historical circumstances. The idea that Foucault put forward, that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, through a strange shifting of symbols and discourse in the minds of Western man (since Foucault did indeed think in such terms), there was a Great Confinement of the insane “vastly overstates the true state of affairs.” (p 127) The insane were a small and secondary population in the great congregations of the broken in the new French general hospitals, such as the Saltpetriere. Even more so in the rural Europe, most of the mad who were confined were a danger to themselves or others, and most the mad were dealt with, often inadequately, within families, poor houses or religious institutions.

Still the image created by Foucault, in that strangely mesmerizing yet unsatisfying book,  Folie et Deraison (translated as Madness and Civilization in English), has an enduring magic. “By a strange act of force, the classical age was to reduce to silence the madness whose voices the Renaissance had liberated, but whose voices it had already tamed,” Foucault wrote (Madness and Civilization, p 38). For me this grand gesture of retrieving from confined silence the voices of madness has always had a strange power. It has made me overlook all the errors and inconsistencies of Foucault’s argument. It has made me pass over the crude recycled Marxism of Foucault’s interpretation of the great confinement as an act of power asserting order.

But I cannot overlook this any more. There it is, in his text, the absurd statement that the Hopital General (apologies for no accents or diacritical marks since I do not yet know how to produce them from my keyboard) and all the professions of medical care for the insane “had nothing to do with any medical concept. It was an instance of order, of the monarchical and bourgeois order being organized in France during this period.” (p. 40) And later, “Confinement … is a ‘police’ matter. Police, in the precise sense that the classical epoch gave to it – that is, the totality of measures which make work possible and necessary for all those who could not live without it…. What made it necessary was an imperative of labor. Our philanthopy prefers to recognize the signs of a benevolence toward sickness where there is only condemnation of idleness” (Madness and Civilization p 46).

So Foucault turns all the complex storm of emotions, thought and practice provoked by the still deeply mysterious presence of madness in our lives to an old-fashioned Marxist conspiracy theory that condemns the bourgeois in a stance of radical defiance. As Roger Scruton says in his essay on Foucault in Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, Foucault “devoted his work to unmasking the bourgeoisie, and showing that all the given ways of shaping civil society are reducible in the last analysis to forms of domination.” In the end, this rhetoric is helpless before the real experience of falling into madness or caring for a loved one who is mentally ill.

Scruton also identifies the enduring power of Foucault’s writings. His essay is a sensitive and remarkable tribute, yet a scathing critique. He writes of Foucault with a generosity and admiration not dispensed on other fools, frauds and firebrands, such as Sartre, Habermas or the entirely despicable Jacques Lacan. “His imagination and intellectual fluency,” Scruton writes,”have generated theories, concepts and insights by the score, and the synthesising poetry of his style rises above the murky sludge of left-wing writing like an eagle over mud-flats.” He identifies that Foucault’s great book on madness retells the Hegelian master-slave story as a conflict between reason and madness, and it is perhaps my own experience of struggling to find my way between these two experiences that had led to my long enchantment with Foucault’s metaphors and my long search through his radical pantheon of mad anti-gods. As Scruton writes from the revolt of the Romantics and the early modernists through to the twentieth century:

Madness is out of the cage, and confronting us with our truth. At the end of Foucault’s drama the gods of the French post-war Olympus enter stage left, to stick out their tongues at the bourgeoisie in the stalls. Goya, de Sade, Holderlin, Nerval, Van Gogh, Artaud, Nietzsche, all are proof, for Foucault, that the voice of unreason (deraison) can no longer be silenced, and that the reign of bourgeois normality is over.” (Scruton, Fools, Frauds and Firebrands)

This great dreamt titanic struggle between shackled raving madness and its captor, ordinary life has both sustained me and led me many times astray. Still, I feel Foucault could only have written this great book by knowing the borderlands of madness and reason from the inside, and this experience speaks in the poetry of his style in a way that his drier and more pedantic critics cannot attain, despite all their evidence and good sense.

Yet today, I let it go in the knowledge that the voices of madness have never wholly be silenced nor confined. So instead of Keats’ epic vision of madness, as much a vision from the outside as the confining, caring doctors in Foucault’s own poetic epic, let us recall that even in an asylum, with medical confinement, the voice of John Keats’ near contemporary, John Clare, could still speak and break the silence, with a tone quite different to Artaud’s obscene laden rants, and in a way that reaches to every one who writes, and so asserts their being, however diminished by the vast shipwreck of any life. Here, in closing, is John Clare’s poem “I am”.

I am (John Clare)

I am: yet what I am none cares or knows

My friends forsake me like a memory lost,

I am the self-consumer of my woes –

They rise and vanish in oblivious host,

Like shadows in love’s frenzied, stifled throes –

And yet I am, and live – like vapors tossed

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,

Into the living sea of waking dreams,

Where there is neither sense of life or joys,

But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;

Even the dearest, that I love the best,

Are strange – nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes, where mam hath never trod,

A place where woman never smiled or wept –

There to abide with My Creator, God,

And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,

Untroubling, and untroubled where I lie,

The grass below – above the vaulted sky.

John Clare (composed some time between 1842-64 in Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, now St Andrew’s Hospital).)


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