|This essay first appeared in T. Curtis -
R. Dellar - E. Leslie - B. Watson (ed.), Mad Pride. A Celebration
of Mad Culture , Spare Change Books, London 2000
Mad Pride And Prejudice
Splitting of Madness
People talk about madness as if it is a known quantity, fixed for all time. But
this is not so. The shape of madness changes over time. One time of changing
understanding in Europe happens as feudalism jolted into early capitalism. In
Europe, two hundred years ago, as a rising bourgeois class struggles to establish
new economic and political forms, madness is re-conceived in terms of the newly
important concept of 'reason'. Madness is the loss of reason. Curing means the
re-introduction of this missing reason – and contemporary doctors and philosophers
believe it might be re-introduced through useful occupation and the internalisation
of order. This marks a break with what had gone before in still feudal times.
The mad had had a place in feudal society, sheltered by and incorporated into
the family, the village, or the community. New economic arrangements through
the 17th and 18th century shifted them into workhouses, prisons and poorhouses.
They formed part of a growing class of lumpen types, and were not sufficiently
distinguished from other categories of transgression – the poor, beggars, criminals
- to warrant special institutions. But by the end of the eighteenth century,
attempts at reform were undertaken. The mad were removed from everyday life.
They were split off from other deviants and placed in special homes, with the
aim of healing and then reintegration. Doctors were introduced to mad houses,
and these places were often built to afford greater social isolation and a concealment
of those diagnosed insane. Where in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance,
madness was an experience capable of expressing essential truths about the world,
in the period of the Enlightenment it was silenced, for there could be no truth
in those realms were reason did not rule. The interment of the insane in therapeutic
institutions was a result of the re-evaluation of the causes of madness and the
possibility of its cure.
Reason and the Sorrows of the Young Bourgeois
Before 1600, official discussion of melancholia and mania remained fixed within
the perception of the four humours and the qualities that dominate when the humours
are not in balance. This causality of substances is then increasingly substituted
by a movement of qualities. No longer is the body the focus (with its production
of bile and juices sending people out of control), but rather the soul is to
be scrutinised. No longer is it a question of the physical substance of the humours,
but a question of ideas. Physiology is swapped for pathology. The myth of the
humours disappeared and in this new understanding only the schema of coherent
qualities remained, interpreted as psychological notions, for example, that which
had previously been interpreted as heat-fibrous tensions metamorphosed into the
exaggerated veracity of internal impressions, rapidity in the association of
ideas and distraction from the external world. Most important in this new spectacle
of madness is the idea of reason – for the Enlightenment's pivotal idea is that
each man possesses reason, or else he is not fully a man.
There were few medical-scientific theories of nervous illness. The dominant idea
was to conceive 'the passions' as the cause of disturbances. Madness is brought
on by an excess of passion, unbridled by reason, probably triggered by unhappy
love. Madness and melancholia fascinated the German literati in the eighteenth
century. Hospital, prison and mental asylum visits belonged to the itinerary
of most educated people staying in a strange town. A literature on madness began
to be produced, and it reflected the governing ideas of the time. Suicide is
judged mostly to be a consequence of an 'illness of the soul', and as such is
result of a disturbed relationship to psychic forces which reason can no longer
steer. That reason is displaced supposes, in a sense, the incurability of such
'illness', for how could missing reason, insert itself once more, through nothing,
to trammel the passions. Indeed, such manifestations of an excess of feeling
must result necessarily in a 'sickness unto death'. Johann Wolfgang Goethe expressed
it most notoriously in his epistolary novel about unrequited love, derangement
and suicide, The Sorrows of Young Werther, published in 1774,
with a second edition in 1787:
...we call it a sickness unto death when nature is so severely attacked and her
strength so far exhausted, placed so out of action that she is unable to recover,
and no matter what happy change take place is unable to reassert the usual course
of life. (...) Observe a man in his natural confined condition; consider how
ideas work upon him, and how impressions affect him, till at length a violent
passion seizes him, destroys all his powers of calm reflection, and utterly ruins
Human nature can "...endure a certain degree of joy, sorrow and pain, but collapses
as soon as this is exceeded". Suicide is an
illness and it is fatal: "Nature can find no way out of the labyrinth of confusion
and contradiction and so the person must die." Goethe's
book told the story of a young man who suffers the extremes of unrequited love
and takes his own life. The book was a bestseller and became famous as an opportunity
for fashionable ladies to read, empathise and weep. "Werther fever" swept Germany
and scores of young men dressed up in Werther's garb of yellow waistcoat and
blue coat and, like him, shot their brains out.
Moses Mendelssohn's 'On Sensitivity' (1755) states that there is no excuse for
a rational person to commit suicide. The person who allows the soul to be darkened
by passion is to blame. A person is the author of the pain and sadness experienced.
Spiess, in his tales of deranged, jilted lovers, writes of each unhappy wretch
as "...the author of his unhappiness". In this
sense, Goethe's heartbroken hero Werther also insists that it is not the world
that is responsible for his pain but himself.
I feel only too well that all blame lies with me ... in me is concealed the root
of all misery.
Werther locates his drive towards suicide within his own self, however, in contrast
to the predominant attitude of the time, Goethe's book does not condemn suicide
moralistically. Suicide is aligned with heroic deeds – with the assertion of
autonomy. Suicide – brought about by depression
- is a contradiction of the Enlightenment belief in human perfectibility and
rational social organisation. It is a battle over the very form of rationality
and reason. Werther opposes a subjective life-principle to bourgeois order. Life
rhythm is the rhythm of the seasons. Rationality as such, lies within nature,
not within the inhumane wheeling and dealing of bourgeois society. Through Werther,
Goethe calls into question the bourgeois ideal of 'reason' or 'rationality'.
He investigates the antinomies of individual freedom and conformation to the
social order. He illustrates the sensual nature of persons, which must antagonise
the categories erected by the social order. Werther's suicide is inevitable and
compulsive and yet, in taking his life, he also asserts his 'self-control' and
autonomy (both Enlightenment ideals). He insists upon his rights as he dies with
an autarchical self-consciousness and an understanding of his situation. The
knowledge of self-determination is a consolation. "...however confined he may
be he still preserves in his heart the sweet feeling of liberty, and knows that
he can leave this prison whenever he likes". The
harp player, in another, later, work by Goethe, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1796),
carries poison on his person to ensure the same autonomy of choice.
Goethe's study of melancholy was a product of the anthropologically oriented
philosophy of the late eighteenth century, in which the progressive intellectuals
undertook an intimate engagement with their own humanity. For some sections of
the intelligentsia, the Enlightenment was understood as a revolution inside of
the person. In Germany, the particular cast of this soul-searching was by-product
of the intellectuals' actual distance from any real political power. Goethe had
been part of the Storm and Stress movement, a grouping of 'angry young
men' who became involved in questions of individual psychology. Moritz's journal
of experiential psychology (1783-93, Berlin) contained a collection of reports
on journeys into the human "inside", to observe psychic curiosities. Doctors,
teachers, preachers and other 'friends of truth' presented countless pathological
or psychiatric cases of neurosis, depression and so on. These mental disturbances
were then often related back to psychological causes and the suggested cures
lay in the realm of psychic treatment and "moral management". Again then the
shift is perceptible from bodily treatment to psychic, mental approaches. Goethe
is a part of this in his search for the inner causes of Werther's melancholy.
The German bourgeois intellectual of the eighteenth century, denied hegemony
by an oppressive aristocratic regime, falls into a melancholia that turns away
from a world that is still in possession of the nobility. The refuges of bourgeois
melancholy are outside of society in an appreciation of 'loneliness'. The causes
of melancholy are correspondingly positioned within the individual. The tragedy
of this melancholia is the ever-narrowing tube inwards, where the only destination
is absolute removal from that order which oppresses. The journey inwards into
the self works on the self – the ego crumbles, the self disperses in the discovery
of fragments, impulses, dreams, fantasies, and in the end there results the absenting
of the self from the everyday world of bustle. This loss of rationality might
have its compensations – ensuring the removal from the burden of actuality. Heinrich,
the village madman whom Werther encounters is happiest when completely beyond
reason, "beside himself":
God in heaven! Is this the destiny of man? To be happy only before he has acquired
his reason and again after he has lost it!
If the only possible strategy of resistance to alienation is self-isolation and
a journey into the soul, then inside these stony vaults too might lie the causes
and possibility of cure. German philosophers and philosophical doctors characterised
madness as a form of illness whereby the 'mental' faculties of an ill person
come into disarray and lead to the obsession with an idée fixe and
hallucinations or intense sadness. A prevalent understanding of madness relied
on the conception of the person outlined in Immanuel Kant's anthropological writings.
Kant insisted that the person is a "free-acting being" or a "self-determining
being gifted with reason". Kant postulated that only the subject itself – asserting
its reason – can cure its own madness, release itself from "mental immaturity".
Only the subject can save itself and yet only the subject (or its blood relations)
have put it in such a position. For Kant there are no causes of madness. Madness
is innate and inherited, not elicited by external, social factors. It is the
disposition of a person, such as is the case with Werther and another of Goethe's
characters, mad Lila who was "always too little on the earth with her thoughts". In
1798, Kant wrote:
One often asserts the chance causation of this illness, so that it may be understood
not as inherited but acquired, as if the unhappy wretch is himself to blame. "He
became mad through love" (...) But to fall in love with an inappropriate person
with whom any thought of marriage would be the greatest madness, is not the cause
but the effect of madness.
The cause is internal. Madness is for Kant an "inherited disturbance of the mind" and
the "outbreak of a unbalanced (verrückt) disposition". 'Mental
immaturity' means an 'understanding' with "weaknesses in respect of its exercise".
Reason is absent. These weaknesses exist in women, children and the insane. Madness
precludes the possibility of ever attaining 'mental maturity'.
There is little use in doing anything about it, for it is a case of the powers
of the subject not participating (unlike in the case of physical illnesses) and
because only the self-exercise of reason can achieve this goal, all methods of
cure must be fruitless in this regard.
This is truly a sickness unto death. Kant continues in his exposition of madness.
The tendency to be turned in on one's self, together with the resulting delusions
of the inner senses, can only be brought back into order in leading the person
back into the external world and with that into the order of things which lies
before the external senses.
Once the exercise of common sense ceases, the subject is no longer a person or
moral being. This rests on its integration into a community
The only general characteristic of madness is the loss of a common sense (sensus
communis) and the logically ensuing singular sense (sensus privatus), e.g. in
the bright light of day a person sees a burning light on his table, which cannot
be seen by another person who is present, or he hears a voice that no-one else
can hear. For it is a necessary test of the correctness of our judgements and
so too the health of our understanding that we share it with others and are not
isolated with our own and yet at the same time judge publicly on the basis of
our private ideas.
Now the flaw in Kant's psychiatry becomes apparent. Kant postulates that the
subject itself in a loss of "common sense" produces the irrationality of madness.
Madness, then, is a portrayal of the subjective as objective. This is the 'self-willed
mental immaturity', a phrase which implies guilt and immorality. But the origin
of madness is also viewed as the effect of a "particular nature", inherited or
innate. This would preclude moral castigation. Somehow though Kant maintains
that 'unreason' is both produced by the subject and is the innate nature of the
subject – it is "blameless blame".
The philosopher Georg Lukács presumes Kant's dilemma is a consequence
of the structure of bourgeois society, where "natural" bonds have been exploded
(in the break with the fixed feudal-agricultural order) and exchanged for, equally
as rigorous, "self-generated" bonds – the bourgeois personality who is fixated
on accumulation and order. The bourgeois subject is, as the violence against
itself necessitates, still an unfree subject. The violence of rationality against
itself – the Kantian imposition of unfreedom in the act of exercising rationality
- is comparable to the status of the mental patient, who is under the rule of
an idée fixe. The mental home is the externalised operation of
'reason'. Instead of self-administration, it is the "being held in order by alien
reason". Inside and outside the mental home, the violence of reason rules.
Until the end of the eighteenth century, the world of the insane was peopled
only by the abstract, faceless power that conducted confinement. Within these
limits, everything that was not madness was excluded. Then William Tuke, a quaker
philanthropist, established a mediating element between guards and patients,
between reason and madness in setting up a retreat in York in 1796. Compassionate
moral treatment was the avowed aim. The isolated space of the asylum reserved
by society for insanity was invaded by the prestige of the confining authority
and the vigour of judging reason. 'Self-control' was rewarded, useful occupation
encouraged. The 'keeper' now intervenes, without violence, instruments of torture
or quack treatments, without what in Goethe's play Lila is called '..dissection,
syringing, electrifying...'. The play recounts
the story of baroness Lila who is being cured from madness. After she has been
mistakenly informed that her husband is dead, she is unable to recognise anybody.
When her husband returns, she can no longer recognise him either. Doctor Verazio
finds out that she believes her husband to have been imprisoned by evil spirits.
These spirits are pursuing her too, and she must find a way to rescue her husband.
As part of her cure, Lila has been subjected to violent measures unsuccessfully.
I shudder when I think of the cures that have been tried out on her, and I shiver
to think of the sort of cruelties that I could have been led to and almost was
led to carry out on her.
With the transition to the new organisation of society, a realm is now entered
which operates on the level of language and observation. Madness is confronted
as a being imbalanced, displaced, evident in the common German word for madness,
'Verrücktheit' – which literally means such displacement. If something or
someone has been displaced, knocked off balance, then they can be righted again.
The mad person can be led back under the guidance of a figure who has been deemed
rational. Thus, the idea of Dr. Verazio leading Lila back into the world. Cure
means here leading the figure back from where they have strayed, in order to
illicit, ultimately, the desired self- administration.
Dr. Verazio is the figure of rational authority. "With his subtlety",
he works without torture or witchcraft, utilising only the exertion of a powerful
personality. Dr. Verazio appears as an early psychotherapist, a persuasive patriarch
exercising cautious "leading of the soul". This is the scientific age of observation,
Moritz's "dissection of the soul", the finding out of individual conditions,
to enable penetration into the inside, so as to carry out a quite individual
course of cure.
...the moral doctor must study these illnesses in respect of their appearance,
their causes and their results, if he intends to cure them.
And yet the violent component exists latently. Dr. Verazio grasps at it when
it seems necessary. Even in the age of the self-declared humanisation of healing,
shock treatments were still inflicted. Shock treatment is applied when Lila's
dream appears too stubborn and resistant to reason. Fear chases away the fantasy
in its concrete brutality. The doctor thinks of the types of violence and injustice
that could be used against Lila in order to shake her from her delusion.
Dr. Verazio's status as Magus is significant. Michel Foucault outlines the new
role of the doctor within the asylum in this period.
The doctor's intervention in the asylum is not made by virtue of a medical skill
or power that he possesses in himself and that would be justified by a body of
objective knowledge. It is not as a scientist that homo medicus has authority
in the asylum, but as a wise man.
The medical profession is here required as a moral and juridical guarantee, rather
than as a representative of science. Pinel wrote:
Must it not be an inviolable law in the administration of any establishment for
the insane ... to grant the maniac all the liberty that the safety of his person
and of that of others permits, and to proportion his repression to the greater
or lesser seriousness of danger of his deviation ... to gather all the facts
that can serve to enlighten the physician in treatment, to study with care the
particular varieties of behaviour and temperament, and accordingly to use gentleness
or firmness, conciliatory terms or the tone of authority and an inflexible severity.
The idea of a strong personality exerting influence over another subject was
popular in medical thought, at the time that Goethe wrote Lila . In Vienna
in 1777, Mesmer healed, at least temporarily, the blind pianist Marie Paradies.
This made the 'mesmerist' famous throughout Europe. The woman had already been
subjected to leeches, electrification and the like. Mesmer's theory rested on
more subtle psychic influences – the gaining of confidence of the patient and
relations, the therapeutic use of music – instrument was called a glass armonica.
The magnetising Mesmer saw himself as the mediator of healing. He regarded his
therapy as dependent on the benevolent effects of cosmic powers. Magnetism -
his healing medium – was seen as a fine, light-like material (materia luminosa)
which streams over the nervous system healing mind and body. This is a combination
of modern psychotherapeutic thought, whereby a strong patriarchal figure reinforces
authority through his aura ("Your word, your voice attracts me",
and a metaphysical belief in cosmic power and the healing effects of nature which
directly effect the body-soul, the physical and psychic, as yet unsplit in this
remnant of non-rational, 'scientific' thought. It is reminiscent of Goethe's
understanding of cure in Lila. Goethe presents madness, in part, as the
possession of the soul by an uncanny thing; an evil spirit, strange powers. The
battle is between friendly godheads and the monstrous 'demonic'. But in part,
Lila's madness is, more conventionally, more modernly, a fault in her capacity
to understand rationally, caused by the violent passions unleashed in tragic
Drawing on the eighteenth century idea that violent emotions are 'illnesses of
the mind, by whose appearance 'reason' no longer has control of 'powers of the
soul', Goethe shows how the harmonic balance of Lila's inner powers is disturbed
and 'apparition' and 'reality' are no longer distinguishable. Lila's cure involves
the 'vocal use' of reason. Lila's freedom is in recognition and labour – the
concrete understanding of reality and the self-conscious appropriation of actuality
and self. Finally fantasy and reality will coincide. When Lila holds her husband
in her arms, having saved him, or rather believing that she has saved him from
the demons, it is an individual action.
The person helps himself best of all. He must go strolling to find his happiness,
he must put his hand out to grab it.
The peculiarity of Dr. Verazio's method is that thereby "one allows the madness
to enter, in order to heal the madness". Medics in Goethe's time tended to stress
that the patient must be distracted from their fixed delusions. A few had, however,
recommended a practice that involved the temporary entering of the patient's
delirium (Johann Christian Reil, Philippe Pinel, Jean-Baptiste Pussin). Reil
stated that sometimes when the cause of madness is not understood it is "better
not to contradict, but to afford belief to his tales". The
idea of psychodrama (entering the fiction) is an extraordinary procedure. In
conventional terms, theatrical representation is a technique opposed to the awakening
of the patient by the labour of reason in slow pedagogy or imposition through
authority. The pact sealed here is a complicity of the unreal with itself. Imagination
forced to play its own game, cure itself, paradoxically perhaps because there
is no visible dialectic. ("If we could cure fantasy through fantasy".)
If the illusion can appear as true, then perception can flood the dream, fill
in its gaps and integrate the irreality of the image into the perceived truth
without the latter seeming to contradict the former. The role of the magus, the
master of ceremonies, is to continue the discourse of madness in the same language,
leading it to paroxysm and crisis, whereby the dilemma is confronted by its self
and forced to argue against the demands of its own truth. The magus is compelled
to remain within the boundaries of Lila's illusion. It is fortuitous that she
renounces her belief that her husband is dead and offers the possibility of a
dramatic confrontation in inventing his imprisonment by the ogre.
Martin Luther had theorised psychodrama, but it was Reil who made it a practical
method, considerably more brutal than what Goethe portrayed. On delivery to an
asylum the patient was met with terrifying scenes, drumbeats, cannon fire, thunder.
All this to rouse him or her from 'sunkenness into apparition' and compel 'alertness'.
Throughout the treatment, dramatic situations are enacted, until finally the
patient moves from passive observation of scenes to active participation, to
'self-activity' – the Enlightenment exhortation. The plays unfold in a shocking
theatrical world in which the patient as acting subject must show a willingness
to fight with wild animals or demons. The patient is continuously encouraged
to new efforts. Reil called for a grandiose scheme of therapy and organisation
of asylums, and psychiatry as an academic discipline. He positions the doctor
at the point where nature combats the distortions of the 'unnatural'. The psychotherapeutic
ringmaster is the medium of the nature 'untuned' by the soul. He retunes. Battie's
influential Treatise on Madness (1758) conceived the programme of 'moral
management' or regimentation of madness. This was a steering of the mentally
ill linked to the old principle of 'regimen sanitatis', necessitating an intimate
relationship between doctor and patient. The mediating psychotherapist's role
is creative, his characteristics are those of the artist, maintained Reil. This
bears new significance considering that Goethe performed the role of Dr. Verazio
when Lila was performed in 1777.
Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship and the Retreat to Order
A country priest describes the 'assimilation method' of treating the insane in
the fifth book of Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. He says that he finds
the methods to cure insanity very simple:
They are precisely the same by which healthy people are prevented from becoming
mad. If their spontaneous initiative is aroused, if they are made used to order
and if they are given the thought that they share their life and fate with so
many others, and that extraordinary talent, the greatest happiness and the most
intense misfortunes are only slight deviations from what is usual, then no insanity
will creep in, and if it is there it will gradually disappear. I have given the
old man a timetable. He teaches the harp to a few children. He helps with work
in the garden and is already much more cheerful. He wants to enjoy eating the
cabbage that he has planted (...) As clergyman I try to say only little to him
about his strange scruples, but an active life brings with it so many events
that he must soon feel that every kind of doubt can only be removed by activity.
The clergyman wants to remove the cowl and beard from the old man, in order to
make him the same as the others. Conformity is the cure.
At the close of the eighteenth century there was general outrage at the incarceration
of the insane. Reil spoke of wretches "thrown like state criminals into dungeons
where the eye of humanity never penetrates" A new humanitarianism advocated a
transposing of the patient into a rural environment where the ordering cycle
of daily labour and season changes would restore reason.
The origins of the harp player's madness lie in unhappy love, an incestuous love
affair, which unleashes a conflict of conscience. On one level he is driven insane
by the inconceivability of his demanding the right to love in a society which
sanctions incest as immoral. On another level he internalises the guilt which
he is made to feel for his transgression.
I have never seen a mind in such an unusual state. For many years he did not
make the slightest response to anything outside himself, in fact to anything
at all; he merely turned in upon himself, he contemplated his hollow, empty self
that seemed to him an immeasurable abyss.
The harp player's madness leaves only the feeling of guilt.
...no emotion is left except the feeling of my guilt, which none the less can
only be seen in retrospect as a remote, amorphous ghost.
The guilt, which the harp player feels, stems from a strictly upheld taboo on
incest, which ignores individual desire. The split between vital claims and renunciation
is unbearable for Augustin. The consciousness of guilt is essentially the cause
of the mental disorder. Sperata too is mad due to the guilt imposed by the priest.
No sooner had the child been weaned, no sooner did he believe that her body was
strong enough to bear the most fearful torment of mind, than he began to paint
the transgression to her in terrible colours, the transgression of having yielded
to a priest, which he treated as a kind of sin against nature, as a form of incest.
For he had the strange idea of making her remorse equal to the remorse she would
have felt, if she had learnt about the truth about her misdemeanour.
Goethe demonstrates how the harp player is returned to 'reality' by a therapy
that demands self-activity, invoking a desire for order and conformity in an
ordered generality. The country priest expresses his belief in conformity, as
an essential component of reintegration:
...for nothing brings us nearer to madness than when we make ourselves different
from other people, and nothing preserves our normal reason so much as living
in general accord with many people..
The cure is a forcing back into universal bourgeois morality. This is not without
some critique of existing social reality, such as a reproach of the church for
its fostering of guilt feelings – both the harp player and Sperata are by nature
religiously inclined – and a progressive recognition of social determinants of
madness – that schooling and civic institutions might play their part in causing
madness. What this omits to mention is that
bourgeois normality – an economic system that instituted the slave trade, generated
war and imperialism and condemns its populations to soulless drudgery – might
itself be mad.
The modern classicist approach sees ideally, in its treatment of madness, chaos
dissolved into cosmos, the sensuous-empirical and intelligible character of a
person brought into a hierarchical order of reason, whereby irrationality is
chased out by the internalisation of rationality. In the early nineteenth century,
ideas of 'fulfilment of duty' began to gain credence in the medical profession.
The pedagogic Prussian care method involved an administration of reason and ethical
duty, with liberal intent. The aim was a 'internalisation of compulsion'. Curing
moves from a medieval mechanical-physical (a knock on the head) to a psychic-moral
(a rule in the head) conception. Though Goethe dismisses guilt as a repressive
reaction on the part of the clergy, he still understands madness as arising not
from a somatic or even ultimately social externality but from within the subject's
individual nature. The cure undergone must be a change in the constitution of
the individual who returns – through conformity – to the world of order and universality.
The harp player is sent to a retreat to be kept under the watchful eye of the
pedagogy of good sense, truth and morality. Foucault identifies the therapeutic
retreats of this period as milieus where the patient is kept in perpetual fear
and anxiety, ceaselessly threatened directly as an individual by the law and
the injunction against transgression. The stifling anguish of responsibility
is imposed. Through work the patient returns to the order of God's commandments.
The avoidance of physical constraint was part of a system whose essential element
was the constitution of self-restraint, made manifest in the submission to labour.
Pinel's retreat was based on the moral power of consolation and a docile fidelity
to nature. He aimed to resume the moral enterprise of religion, exclusive of
the bible, on the level of virtue, labour and social life. The underlying notion
is that, beneath the phenomenon of insanity, the social nature of the essential
virtues is not disrupted. At his retreat, Pinel effected moral syntheses to ensure
an ethical continuity between the worlds of madness and reason. He erected an
environment that guaranteed bourgeois morality a universality of fact. Writing
of Saragossa he stated that there had been established
a sort of counterpoise to the mind's extravagances by the attraction and charm
inspired by the cultivation of the fields, by the natural instinct that leads
man to sow the earth and thus to satisfy his needs by the fruit of his labours.
From morning on you can see them (...) leaving gaily for the various parts of
a large enclosure that belongs to the hospital, sharing with a sort of emulation
the tasks appropriate to the season, cultivating wheat, vegetables (...) the
surest and most efficacious way to restore man to reason.
The changing perception of madness has moved here from the sixteenth century
view of insanity as the product of human animality – a break out of the primitive
nature within – to an understanding of the break with nature as the cause
of unreason. This nature, mediated by morality, is perceived as the very ontological
justification and reflection of bourgeois order. Liberty in the retreat is put
on a level with the laws of nature. The retreat's enforcer of reason bears a
different perception of madness to Dr. Verazio. Madness is illusion and as such
is cured by the suppression of theatre and artificiality in the return to an
illusion-free world of labour. Life in the asylum is essentially a microcosm
of structures in bourgeois society and its values.
Psychology itself is in question in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. Wilhelm
must learn the pitfalls of introspection, self-analysis, diary-keeping. The journey,
the external movement is the 'true' way to discover the self, through social
interaction. The heroics of Werther's suicide are no longer relevant. It is the
drive to conform, to accept the necessary and control the coincidental. Wilhelm
The texture of this world is made of necessity and chance; man's reason comes
between the two and can dominate them. It treats necessity as the basis of existence,
and it can steer, lead and make use of chance factors. Only when it stands firm
and unshakeable does man deserve to be called a god of the earth. Unhappy is
he who from early age becomes accustomed to trying to find something arbitrary
in what is necessary, who would like to attribute to chance elements a kind of
reason, the following of which would in fact itself be a matter of religion.
The Kantian categorical imperative entails a setting of limits on the urge towards
A person is not happy until his unrestricted striving determines for itself its
The weakness of the characters in Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, the
harp player, Mignon, Sperata, the Countess and Aurelie, is that they have not
successfully integrated themselves into the objective world, by imposing certain
limits upon their subjective perceptions of reality. They withdraw into the inwardness
of hallucinatory fantasies. The harp player's deluded conviction that he will
injure and be injured by a young boy is ultimately more powerful than the healing
nature of ordered activities. Nothing can dispel the Count's premonition that
he is to die, nor the Countess's belief that the physical imprint of her husband's
medallion has caused her to contract cancer. These fixations arise, on the one
hand, because of a nature natively predisposed to effusion and rapture, as well
as because of a lack of activity and distraction in the external world. The doctor
in Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship says,
It is a misfortune for anyone to get fixed in his mind some idea of other which
has no influence on active life, or even withdraws him from active life.
This motif of a lack of activity causing mental instability is repeated in the
later sequel, Wilhelm Meisters Wandering Years (1821). Lenardo is haunted
by the memory of a scene which "whenever I was alone, whenever I was unoccupied,
that image emerged before my soul. It was an insoluble impression, which could
be overshadowed by other images and sympathies, but could never be completely
In this context it is revealing to note Goethe's later assessment of Werther's
psychoses in his autobiography, Poetry and Truth .
Suicide is a phenomenon of human nature that demands everyone's attention and
needs reassessment in every epoch, however much it may already have been discussed
and treated. Montesquieu grants his heroes and great men the right to take their
lives at will, saying that everyone must be at liberty to conclude the fifth
act of his tragedy as he pleases. Mover, my subject here is not those who have
led a significant and active life, who have dedicated their days to some great
realm or to the cause of freedom. When the idea that inspired such people has
vanished from the earth, we do not begrudge them the wish to carry it into the
other world. Here we are concerned with those who actually become disgusted with
life because – out of a lack of deeds – have placed exaggerated demands on themselves
in the most peaceful situation imaginable.
Werther's melancholy and suicide is seen as caused by lack of occupation and
a youthful error. These are the thoughts of an old, complacent man, who has found
a place in the new bourgeois world – he is a Prussian bureaucrat by now and has
been admitted to the ranks of the aristocracy – and no longer understands rebellion.
The harmonic synthesis after which Wilhelm Meister must strive is outlined in Maximen
The botanists have a type of plant that they call incompletae; one can also say
that there are incomplete, unfinished people. It is those whose longing and striving
is not in proportion with their activity and achievement.
Conclusion. The Reorganisation of Madness
In the Middle Ages madness was associated with forbidden knowledge of the Fall
and with the divine madness of Christ's redemption. During the classical Enlightenment
period, madness came to be perceived as a violation of the orderly and rational
laws of nature. It is telling that beggars and criminals were not seen to have
transgressed reason, but rather the codified norms of society, and so they could
often be immediately usefully reintegrated into the labour market. Anyway the
need for a large subsistence level workforce allowed for social reintegration
of the dispossessed – the poor were forced to work. But the mad had to be put
away – for they could not work, because they were said to possess no 'reason'.
They had to be brought back into labour. A moral stigma afflicted the insane,
who were to be punished for not conforming to the orderly laws of nature.
Foucault has been influential in detailing the shapes of madness over the last
half-millennium. He pinpoints three stages of punishment-treatment of deviance
in the development of western civilisation: firstly, the 'monarchical', in which
punishment is 'technical', that is, a visible attack on the body using torture;
secondly, the 'law of the reforming jurists', a 'corrective' practice whereby,
in Hegelian terms, the criminal or insane
person re-qualifies as a juridical subject by self-willed punishment; thirdly,
the 'Disiplinal', which involves the normalisation of individuals, understood
as the training and mastering of the body, the reintegration into bourgeois morality,
through discipline and the making-conscious of individual guilt.
Goethe, a truly omniscient intellectual, fascinated by biology and anthropology,
had contact with medical theorists and practitioners throughout his life. Many
of Goethe's medical acquaintances, including his pietist-alchemist doctor, J.
E Metz, had studied at Halle, where a tradition of 'university psychiatry' set
out from the premise of the superiority of the soul as determinant of good or
ill health. Goethe would have been involved in discussions on madness, its apparent
composition and supposed causes. Traditional understandings of madness based
on the effects of the four humours were in turmoil and subject to revision and
debate in this epoch. From time to time in Goethe's writings, a person, diagnosed
as mad appears, signalling a certain attitude on the author's part to insanity.
Goethe's understanding of madness and the possibility of cure shifts as the debates
on madness reshape through an epoch of change. In his work there is a movement
from a championship of madness as emancipation to an increasing burdening of
guilt and moral compulsion on the lunatic. Madness becomes pushed out of the
harmonic cosmos, rearing its head perhaps only as the symbol of artistic intoxication,
not a real madness but the symbol of genial manifestation, which compels to create.
Madness and melancholia are for the mature Goethe manifestations of an inactive
self. Inactivity is an unacceptable attitude in bourgeois society. Madness is
an affront to, and dialectical opposite of 'bourgeois order.