«Remov’d from human eyes»: Madness and Poetry 1676–1774

Ilaria Natali, University of Florence

Madness, imputed madness, and poetry: weaving threads

Few concepts can be considered as unsteady and changeable as madness. Its multiple discourses have long concerned, puzzled, and fascinated virtually every field of knowledge, including social studies, medicine, philosophy, history, law, fine arts, and literature. In the twenty-first century, scholars of various disciplines have tried to capture the elusive nature of madness following its declinations in different cultures and times, emphasizing the forms it can take, the abilities it can affect, or comparing old methods with the latest techniques now available to understand mental disorders.

Any efforts to capture the essence of this phenomenon, however, have proven only partially useful: the inherent plural and variable nature of madness can be thought of as its primary meaning. Before illustrating the scope and perspective in which the present work deals with the vast idea of madness, I would like to draw some generalizations about recent cross-disciplinary understandings of this term.

Without aiming to be in any sense comprehensive, the following reflections on the concepts of insanity have emerged in an attempt to structure and organize the object of study, or — allow me the paradox — to find a rational path into insanity. After all, because «the controversy and debate which surround notions of madness are integral to these notions» (Geekie and Read 2009, 143), the idea of madness itself is also pervaded with paradoxes.

Among the competing formulations presented in the last few decades, in fact, we can recognize some prevalent patterns. In what might be considered an attempt to transcend or re-articulate traditional binary ways of thinking, some ideas combine to form, in my opinion, three main interrelated aporias concerning insanity. As we will see, these notions recur in different forms when looking at madness, so they might also be considered as recurring motifs in this book.

The first aporia is connected with the explanation of madness in terms of spatial metaphors. Insanity is often seen as continuously crossing the threshold between an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’ (of society, thought, self, etc.), or as belonging to both spaces at the same time. For instance, we are accustomed to associating madness with a «remote and unfamiliar phenomenon» that causes the subject’s alienation and exclusion (Radden 2009, 59), but it should also be acknowledged that madness «has currently be- come a common discursive place» which «occupies a position of inclusion and becomes the inside of a culture» (Felman 2003, 4, original emphasis).

Sociology has demonstrated that today the mentally challenged may still occupy a liminal position in society, one which consists of inclusion and exclusion simultaneously. Surveys and studies concerning current options for the integration of mental health patients show that acceptance is not always coupled with «psychological integration», «participation» and «opportunities» for participation, so that the subject may be in a state of mere absence of exclusion (Baumgartner and Burns 2013). If madness can be «mis à l’intérieur de l’extérieur, et inversement» (Foucault 1972a, 22; Murphy 2006, 11: «placed on the inside of the outside, or vice versa»), it is also true that some mental conditions are still seen as making the individual «for the most part unaware of the distinction between its self and the world around it» (Lafrance 2009, 13), with «practically no sense of inside and outside or self and other» (Ogden 1989, 33).

It is probably in relation to a generic idea of ‘lack of the self’ that western civilizations have traditionally seen mental disorder as a condition that can be studied and even understood, but not from within that condition itself. Studies on madness are therefore dominated by external formulations that have historically included recurring psychiatric, psychological, socio- logical and philosophical ideas of the phenomenon. The second aporia on madness can be seen to concern cyclical continuities and discontinuities regarding notions of insanity over time. Whereas scholars from disparate fields often concur on the protean mutability of madness, it has often been pointed out that such mutability is coupled with permanency. According to Katharine Hodgkin, «there is some concept of madness in every human culture, and […] every human culture identifies some people or some forms of behaviour as mad» (2007, 4). Whereas the forms of deviance may vary according to cultures and times, recognizing certain behaviours as insane can be thought of as an innate and biologically determined procedure, which appears «natural to the human mind» (Hodgkin 2007, 4).

DOI: 10.36253/978–88–6453–319–3

Read Full Text: https://fupress.com/catalogo/%C2%ABremov-d-from-human-eyes%C2%BB-madness-and-poetry-1676-1774/3312

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