Monday, December 12, 2011

Foucault -- By the sweat of thy brow

On page 55 of Madness and Civilization Foucault writes, “In [the] first phase of the industrial world, labor did not seem linked to the problems it was to provoke; it was regarded, on the contrary as a general solution, an infallible panacea, a remedy to all forms of poverty. Labor and poverty were located in a simple opposition, in inverse proportion to each other. As for the power, its special characteristic, of abolishing poverty, labor – according to the classical interpretation – possessed it not so much by its productive capacity as by a certain force of moral enchantment. Labor’s effectiveness was acknowledged because it was based on an ethical transcendence. Since the Fall, man had accepted labor as a penance and for its power to work redemption. It was not a law of nature which forced man to work, but the effect of a curse. The earth was innocent of that sterility in which it would slumber if man remained idle: ‘The land had not sinned, and if it is accursed, it is by the labor of the fallen man who cultivates it; from it no fruit is won, particularly the most necessary fruit, save by force and continual labor.’

“. . . Pride was the sin of man before the Fall; but the sin of idleness is the supreme pride of man once he has fallen, the absurd pride of poverty. In our world, where the land is no longer fertile except in thistles and weeds, idleness is the fault par excellence. In the Middle Ages, the great sin, radix malorum omnium, was pride, Superbia. According to Johan Huizinga, there was a time, at the dawn of the Renaissance, when the supreme sin assumed the aspect of Avarice, Dante’s cicca cupidigia. All the seventeenth-century texts, on the contrary, announced the infernal triumph of Sloth: it was sloth which led the round of the vices and swept them on. Let us not forget that according to the edict of its creation, the Hopital General must prevent ‘mendicancy and idleness as sources of all disorder.’ Louis Bourdaloue echoes these condemnations of sloth, the wretched pride of fallen man: ‘What, then, is the disorder of an idle life? It is, replies Saint Ambrose, in its true meaning a second rebellion of the creature against God.’ Labor in the houses of confinement thus assumed its ethical meaning: since sloth had become the absolute form of rebellion, the idle would be forced to work, in the endless leisure of a labor without utility or profit.”

Foucault’s provides us with an interesting perspective not only of the development of our treatment of the mad and indigent. It bears a faint but unmistakable hint of Marxism, which may have prevented him from putting this whole matter in an anthropological perspective. The Biblical account of the Eden, the Fall and its aftermath, epitomizes the transition from Hunter-Gatherer societies into farming communities. Prior to this transition, hunter-gatherer women walked about picking fruit, nuts, vegetables, etc while the men were out with hunting. Hunter-Gatherers did not earn their living by the sweat of their brow – not in the sense that a farmer did, planting, weeding, and harvesting his grain or the herder moving his flocks about from place to place to feed and guard them. Prior to this transition man relied upon God’s bounty for food and clothing, but afterward he had work for it.

Anthropological evidence suggests that man’s evolution occurred by fits and starts moving him from the jungle (a place of plenty) out onto the plains to move about from place to place hunting and gathering. But when the weather turned bad, few who couldn’t plant grain and tend flocks survived. This movement from hunter-gathering to farming villages and from thence into towns occurs in the last tiny sliver of our existence. Our hunter-gatherer existence began 1.5 million years ago with Homo Erectus. It is no wonder that we haven’t figured out the best ways of doing things in the short period of time since civilization began. We are making do with the wrong bodies and the wrong needs (based upon what would be right for our hunter-gatherer ancestors).

Friday, December 9, 2011

Foucault's The Great Confinement vs. Lebensraum

On page 46 of Madness and Civilization Foucault writes, “Confinement, that massive phenomenon, the signs of which are found all across eighteenth-century Europe, 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; the question Voltaire would soon formulate, Colbert’s contemporaries had already asked: ‘Since you have established yourselves as a people, have you not yet discovered the secret of forcing all the rich to make all the poor work? Are you still ignorant of the first principles of the police?’”

Further down he writes, “Let us return to the first moments of the ‘Confinement,’ and to the royal edict of April 27, 1656, that led to the creation of the Hopital General. From the beginning, the institution set itself the task of preventing ‘mendicancy and idleness as the source of all disorders.’ In fact, this was the last of the great measures that had been taken since the Renaissance to put an end to unemployment or at least to begging. In 1532, the Parlement of Paris decided to arrest beggars and force them to work in the sewers of the city, chained in pairs . . . a decree of Parlement dated 1606 ordered the beggars of Paris to be whipped in the public square, branded on the shoulder, shorn, and then driven from the city; to keep them from returning, an ordinance of 1607 established companies of archers at all the city gates to forbid entry to indigents.”

But with the Hopital, “for the first time, purely negative measures of exclusion were replaced by a measure of confinement; the unemployed person was no longer driven away or punished; he was taken in charge, at the expense of the nation but at the cost of his individual liberty. Between him and society, an implicit system of obligation was established: he had the right to be fed, but he must accept the physical and moral constraint of confinement. . . .”

In England “In 1622 [two years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock] appeared a pamphlet, Grievous Groan for the Poor, attributed to Thomas Dekker, which emphasizing the danger, condemns the general negligence: ‘Though the number of the poor do daily increased, all things yet worketh for the worst in their behalf; . . . many of these parishes turneth forth their poor, yea, and their lusty labourers that will not work . . . to beg, filch, and steal for their maintenance, so that the country is pitifully pestered with them.’ It was feared that they would overrun the country, and since they could not, as on the Continent, cross the border into another nation, it was proposed that they be ‘banished and conveyed to the New-found Land, the East and West Indies.’

Foucault’s book isn’t about those out-of-work lusty labourers and “criminals” shipped off to North America and Australia, but it is worth pausing to think about them. Those who were sent, or requested to be sent, to these new lands endured tremendous hardships, but such hardships seemed preferable to what those who stayed had to endure. And we of Australia, Canada & the U.S. could put off for many years having to establish a system of “confinement” because we could send our malcontents and troublemakers beyond the frontier where they would be killed by natives or the environment or set up new communities and with no help from the people who sent them expand their borders.

Frederick Jackson Turner in his essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” described the effect of the frontier in glowing terms. It was in the West and not the East where the rugged American identity was forged. The frontier conferred on this rugged individual the power strength to tame the wilderness. This was an attractive concept to many in Europe with (seemingly) no such option. Friedrich Ratzel visited North America in 1873 and read Turner’s thesis; which later German propagandists used to argue the right of the German race to expand within Europe for Lebensraum.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Foucault and the Great Confinement

Foucault discusses (reminding me of the excellent prose of Nietzsche) the sending of the mad off on ships to the sending of them to the Hospital. “Oblivion falls upon the world navigated by the free slaves of the Ship of Fools. Madness will no longer proceed from a point within the world to a point beyond, on its strange voyage; it will never again be that fugitive and absolute limit. Behold it is moored now, made fast among things and men. Retained and maintained. No longer a ship but a hospital.

“Scarcely a century after the career of the mad ships, we note the appearance of the theme of the ‘Hospital of Madmen,’ the ‘Madhouse.’ Here every empty head, fixed and classified according to the true reason of men, utters contradiction and irony, the double language of Wisdom: ‘. . . the Hospital of incurable Madmen, where are recited from end to end all the follies and fevers of the mind, by men as well as women . . .”

“. . . the Hopital General is not a medical establishment. It is rather a sort of semijudical structure, an administrative entity which along with the already constituted powers, and outside of the courts, decides, judges, and executes. ‘The directors having for these purposes stakes, irons, prisons, and dungeons in the said Hopital General and the places thereto appertaining so much as they deem necessary, no appeal will be accepted from the regulations they establish within the said hospital . . .”

Foucault goes on to describe the associated laws the powers of those who run these Hospitals. Once you are inside, there is no appeal. It reminds me of Dana’s Two Years before the Mast, and of Melville’s stories. Why did authorities move from banishment, to something very like banishment in the ships of fools to the confinement in Hospitals? If it had happened in America I would have said that the local authorities ran out of a frontier. The sheriff could no longer tell the unwelcome to get out of town by sundown because the sheriff in the next town would very likely send him back. In the absence of places of banishment, the local officials needed to deal with their own problems locally; which isn’t to say that they didn’t still send the unwanted away, but don’t we still do that today, kicking the homeless out of parks and from under bridges?

Taking responsibility, that is keeping one’s unwanted, is a development in a way, but Foucault doesn’t see it that way: “A quasi-absolute sovereignty, jurisdiction without appeal, a writ of execution against which noting can prevail – the Hopital General is a strange power that the King establishes between the police and the courts, at the limits of the law: a third order of repression. . . . .” Of course if Foucault (or his translator) meant “repression” as a clinical term then I would agree, but if intended to connote negative criticism then I would ask what else was available to them at the time and where else was a better method being employed.

While Foucault doesn’t say what ought to have been done instead, he strikes me as being critical of what was done. And if my suspicion is accurate at times guilty of anachronism -- in his underlying assumption that criminals, the insane and the mendicant should be neither sent away nor locked up.

Think of the confinement of the Japanese during World War Two and of the Arabs at Guantanamo Bay. The initial concern was to protect American citizens; so in each case they rushed through procedures that seemed right to the authorities at the time – just as the French did with their Hospitals. Later on people arose who were critical of these procedures and laws were (are being) changed. The incarcerated are treated more humanely and the places of confinement differentiated: the mad to one place and criminals to another.

“There must have formed, silently and doubtless over the course of many years, a social sensibility, common to European culture, the suddenly began to manifest itself in the second half of the seventeenth century; it was this sensibility that suddenly isolated the category destined to populate the places of confinement. To inhabit the reaches long since abandoned by the lepers, they chose a group that to our eyes is strangely mixed and confused. But what is for us merely an undifferentiated sensibility must have been, for those living in the classical age, a clearly articulated perception. It is this mode of perception which we must investigate in order to discover the form of sensibility to madness in an epoch we are accustomed to define by the privileges of Reason.”

[to be continued]

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Das Narrenschiff, Don Quixote and Foucault

Das Narrenschiff (The Ship of Fools) was written by Sebastian Brant and published in 1494. Using Wikipedia: “Under the form of an allegory, a ship laden with fools and steered by fools goes to the fools’ paradise of Narragonia. Brant here lashes with unsparing vigour the weaknesses and vices of his time. Here he conceives Saint Grobian, whom he imagines to be the patron saint of vulgar and coarse people.

“The concept of foolishness was a frequently used trope in the pre-Reformation period to legitimate criticism, as also used by Erasmus in his In Praise of Folly and Martin Luther in his Address to the Christian Nobility. Court fools were allowed to say much what they wanted; by writing his work in the voice of the fool, Brant could legitimize his criticism of the church.”

Foucault writes, “The first canto of Brant’s poem is devoted to books and scholars; and in the engraving which illustrates this passage in the Latin edition of 1497, we see enthroned upon his bristling cathedra of books the Magister who wears behind his doctoral cap a fool’s cap sewn with bells. Erasmus, in his dance of fools, reserves a large place for scholars; after the Grammarians, the Poets, Rhetoricians and Writers, come the Jurists; after them, the ‘Philosophers respectable in beard and mantle’; finally the numberless troop of the Theologians. But if knowledge is so important in madness, it is not because the latter can control the secrets of knowledge; on the contrary, madness is the punishment of a disorderly and useless science. If madness is the truth of knowledge, it is because knowledge is absurd, and instead of addressing itself to the great book of experience, loses its way I the dust of books and in idle debate; learning becomes madness through the very excess of false learning.”

Foucault’s emphasis might be questioned at this point. Brant does indeed have a standard against which he judges 110 different kinds of fools, but is it “the great book of experience”? To quote from the Catholic Encyclopedia, “The election of Maximilian as emperor had filled him and many other patriots with high hope. To see in the emperor the supreme temporal ruler of Christian nations, and the Church as the supreme spiritual ruler on earth was his one great desire and henceforth coloured all his poems. Especially did he hope for the restoration of imperial power in Germany and the strengthening of the realm. But he was doomed to disappointment. In 1499 Basle was separated from the empire and became a member of the Swiss confederacy. Brant's position here now became untenable, and he decided to change his residence. . . . Not only follies in the usual sense of the word are satirized, but also crimes and vices, which are conceived of as follies in accordance with the medieval way of thinking. Hence among the fools appear such people as usurers, gamblers, and adulterers. A chapter is devoted to each kind of folly and there are one hundred and twelve chapters in which one hundred and ten kinds of fools pass muster. As a work of art the poem does not rank high, though its tone is serious and earnest, especially where the poet pleads for his ideals, as in chapter xcix, entitled "Von abgang des glouben" (on the decline of faith). Knowledge of self is praised as the height of wisdom.”

The 11th ed of the Encyclopedia Britannica says “Although, like most of the German humanists, essentially conservative in his religious views, Brant’s eyes were open to the abuses in the church, and the Narrenschiff was a most effective preparation for the Protestant Reformation.”

Foucault then turns to Don Quixote: The chimeras are transmitted from author to reader, but what was fantasy on one side becomes hallucination on the other; the writer’s stratagem is quite naively accepted as an image of reality. In appearance, this is nothing but the simple-minded critique of novels of fantasy, but just under the surface lies an enormous anxiety concerning the relationships, in a work of art, between the real and the imaginary, and perhaps also concerning the confused communication between fantastic invention and the fascinations of delirium. ‘We owe the invention of the arts to deranged imaginations; the Caprice of Painters, Poets, and Musicians is only a name moderated in civility to express their Madness.’ Madness, in which the values of another age, another art, another morality are called into question, but which also reflects – blurred and disturbed, strangely compromised by one another in a common chimera – all the forms, even the most remote, of the human imagination.”

For Don Quixote “Poor, he is rich; ugly, he admires himself; with chains still on his feet, he takes himself for God. . . Measureless madness, which has as many faces as the world has characters, ambitions, and necessary illusions. Even in its extremities, this is the least extreme of madnesses; it is, in the heart of every man, the imaginary relation he maintains with himself. It engenders the commonest of his faults. To denounce it is the first and last element of all moral criticism.”

“Denounce” may be what we ought to do when we soul-search, but it seems too strong a word for what Cervantes did. He loved Don Quixote and didn’t denounce him. The reader sees the hallucination but enjoys it. We can take the tilting at windmills as criticism as Foucault does, or we can take it as a noble calling. Let us go out and do what we believe is right even if the whole world calls it wrong. Surely if we believe we are tilting at enemies or errors we would not denounce ourselves. Don Quixote didn’t.

On the Wisdom of Madness

The Middle ages closed, Foucault tells us with the end of leprosy as a major concern. He traces the decrease in the number of leprosariums throughout Western Europe. He speculates upon the “strange disappearance, which was doubtless not the long-sought effect of obscure medical practices, but the spontaneous result of segregation and also the consequence of the Crusades, of the break with the Eastern sources of infection. Leprosy withdrew leaving derelict these low places and these rites which were intended, not to suppress it, but to keep it at a sacred distance, to fix it in an inverse exaltation. What doubtless remained longer than leprosy, and would persist when the lazar houses had been empty for years, were the values and images attached to the figure of the leper as well as the meaning of his exclusion, the social importance of that insistent and fearful figure which was not driven off without first being inscribed within a sacred circle.”

“Leprosy disappeared, the leper vanished, or almost, from memory; these structures remained. Often, in these same places, the formulas of exclusion would be repeated, strangely similar two or three centuries later. Poor vagabonds, criminals, and ‘deranged minds’ would take the part played by the leper, and we shall see what salvation was expected from this exclusion, for them and for those who excluded them as well. With an altogether new meaning and in a very different culture, the forms would remain – essentially that major form of rigorous division which is social exclusion but spiritual reintegration.”

At the Marine base at 29 Palms years ago I subscribed to “The Classics Club” and read every book the Black company sent me. One of them was Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly. How could Erasmus get by with such a book I wondered when enemies of the church, heretics, were being put to death? Was his prestige so great that he was immune? The Middle Ages transitioned into the Renaissance at the same time that Leprosy transitioned into The Ship of Fools. Many, Foucault illustrates, wrote as Erasmus did.

Why “does the figure of the Ship of Fools and its insane crew all at once invade the most familiar landscapes? Why, from the old union of water and madness, was this ship born one day, and on just that day,” Foucault asks? “Because it symbolized a great disquiet, suddenly dawning on the horizon of European culture at the end of the Middle Ages. Madness and the madman became major figures, in their ambiguity: menace and mockery, the dizzying unreason of the world, and the feeble ridicule of men.

“First a whole literature of tales and moral fables, in origin, doubtless, quite remote, but by the end of the Middle Ages, it bulks large: a long series of ‘follies’ which stigmatizing vices and faults as in the past, no longer attribute them all to pride, to lack of charity, to neglect of Christian virtues, but to a sort of great unreason for which nothing, in fact, is exactly responsible, but which involves everyone in a kind of secret complicity. The denunciation of madness (la folie) becomes the general form of criticism.”

Foucault takes la folie as a substitute for death. Instead of being faced with an external death that leprosy reminds us of, we are faced with the internal death of an empty mind. It could as well be said, based on the illustrations Foucault provides that madness, rather than the denunciation of madness, becomes (at least in later times) the general form of criticism (of society, societies members, and societies leaders). Mort Sahl was once a comedian whose prop was the morning’s newspaper. He would find humor in whatever he read and was very popular at “The Hungry Eye” and later on Television. Was he not a fool? He was certainly tolerated as a fool until he became very serious about the second gunman on the grassy knoll. Don’t most comedians bear some resemblance to the fool who is so mad he can insult the king (or Pope) and make him laugh?

Also, the Humanism of the Renaissance deviated from the Medieval (Judeo-Christian) teaching, “raise up a child in the ways of the Lord and when he is old he will not depart from them.” We still raise up a child to respect law and order and hope he will conform to them, but the madman doesn’t conform. He has his own way of seeing thing. He may ridicule Judeo-Christian teaching and modern law and order. And the madman has a great following.

Or think of Heidegger. When he graduated from University he was considered a great treasure by the Catholic Church. It offered him security and a good paying position if he would teach Thomistic Philosophy (the ways of the Lord), but he didn’t want to be constrained in that way. He wanted to follow the humanistic (madness) of being able to think at variance with these ways.

Certainly the scientific method has followed the ways of the madman. We take the old way of thinking and attack it to see if it has flaws and perhaps find a new and better way of doing science.

No doubt it is “early days” in terms of following the great advancements that have come from such madness. But if it is wonderful to be able to find wisdom by thinking at variance with all that was previously considered wisdom, where is there a standard we can teach our children?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Madness, Foucault, Nietzsche & Emerson

As Jose Barchilon, M.D. writes, “Naturally, it is impossible to discuss a book as complex as Madness and Civilization without oversimplifying and doing it an injustice. It is a tale of nuances, relative values, and delicate shadings.” Foucault’s intent is to provide, as his subtitle indicates, “a history of insanity in the age of reason.” Barchilon provides an example:

“Renaissance men developed a delightful, yet horrible way of dealing with their mad denizens: they were put on a ship and entrusted to mariners because folly, water, and sea, as everyone then ‘knew,’ had an affinity for each other. Thus, ‘Ships of Fools’ crisscrossed the seas and canals of Europe with the comic and pathetic cargo of souls. Some of them found pleasure and even a cure in the changing surroundings, in the isolation of being cast off, while others withdrew further, became worse, or died alone and away from their families. The cities and villages which had thus rid themselves of their crazed and crazy, could now take pleasure in watching the exciting sideshow when a ship full of foreign lunatics would dock at their harbors.”

I read this book back in 1998 and was so impressed by it that I bought several other books by Foucault. I became interested in Foucault from a different point of view after reading Ferry and Renaut’s French Philosophy of the Sixties,” subtitled, “An Essay on Antihumanism. Foucault is one of their villains. On page 77 they write, “When the history of madness is written from a perspective borrowed from Nietzschean or Heideggerian deconstruction of the modern ratio, the ‘natural’ horizon of the topic is a strong defense for the irrational, to which the last pages of this work are unrestrainedly devoted. Passionately describing the great figures of madness (Goya, Sade, Nietzsche), Foucault praises their ‘sovereign affirmation of subjectivity’ (we will question Foucault’s use of this word in what follows), their ‘rejection of natural freedom and equality,’ their ‘excessive expression of violence’ as ‘free exercise of sovereignty over and against nature.’ Through such lightning flashes, the truth of madness returns, a truth reason tries to disguise, the truth of a ‘power to annihilate’ that suddenly rediscovers its own power; with Sade or Goya, ‘the Western world acquired the possibility of overcoming the violence of reason.’ Overcoming reason: the horizon of the interpretation is thus clearly traced, and thus is it entirely logical that the gook should end with an homage to Nietzsche, in whom the irrationality of madness triumphed over what was believed to have negated it.” In the undermining of rationality, Ferry and Renaut see Foucault as being an antihumanist and a detractor of “the subject.”

On page 78 and 79 they write “the whole group of ‘imprisonments’ . . . marked the political arrival of the bourgeoisie at the beginning of the nineteenth century, which have the names factory, prison, lycee, school barracks, psychiatric hospital – precisely the places where, since 1968 nothing works any more.’ As a result, whoever reads Madness and Civilization carefully will see that what Foucault says about the ‘great confinement’ of the classical age is clearly about the domination of the bourgeoisie, since ‘the classical age is the period of transition between feudalism and capitalism.’”

In the above, Foucault sounds like a Marxist but he considered himself a Nietzschean. In an interview in 1984 Foucault said “Heidegger has always been for me the essential philosopher. . . . My whole philosophical development was determined by my reading of Heidegger. But I recognize that Nietzsche won out,’ to such an extent that one can even speak, he claims, of his ‘fundamental Nietzscheanism’: ‘I am simply Nietzschean and I try as well as I can, in a number of areas, to see with the help of Nietzsche’s texts – but also with anti-Nietzschean these (which are all the same Nietzschean!) – what can be done in one area or another. I seek nothing else, but I seek it with care.”

Why are Americans attracted to Nietzsche and through him to Foucault? In the 16th November 2011 edition of Prospect Magazine, Adam Kirsch wrote “America’s Superman,” a review of American Nietzsche by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen. In it Kirsch (following Ratner-Rosenhagen) enumerates a great number of Americans who have been influenced by Nietzsche, Rorty for example, but Nietzsche was influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Unlikely as it may seem, Emerson, as Ratner-Rosenhagen explains in a prologue, was one of Nietzsche’s own greatest influences. ‘The most fertile author of this century so far has been American,’ Nietzsche declared, and it is uncanny how many of Nietzsche’s central ideas turn up, slightly disguised, in Emerson’s essays. ‘The only sin is limitation,’ ‘the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it,’ ‘the civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet’: it is the expression more than the substance of these sayings that mark them as the product of Concord, Massachusetts, not Sils Maria.

“Emerson’s insistence on the sovereignty of the self, his skepticism about traditional morality, his metaphysical irony, all prefigure Nietzsche. So why is it that the word ‘Emersonian’ has an infinitely more benign sound than the word ‘Nietzschean’? The reason may have less to do with each thinker’s propositions than with the spirit, and the prose, in which they are advanced. Nietzsche’s Superman and Emerson’s Oversoul are not principles to think with, like Kant’s categorical imperative; they are experiences to be sought. As with all such experiences, they cannot be divorced from the language that induces them; they are, in the strongest sense, literary.

“That is why the difference in style between Emerson and Nietzsche is more telling than the similarity in their concepts. Emerson’s spacious, rippling, blurry prose is the insignia of his trustfulness, just as Nietache’s aphorisms communicate his sarcasm and aggression. Because Americans recognize in Nietzsche the bearer of Emerson’s alienated majesty, they hear the Nietzschean provocation muffled in the old Emersonian reassurance: ‘Life is a series of surprises. We do not guess today the mood, the pleasure, the power of tomorrow, when we are building up our being.’

“The prospect that tomorrow may not bring pleasure and power, but in Nietzsche’s words ‘profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished’ is – even in these days of recession and uncertainty – a notion as remote from American thought as from American experience.”

Monday, December 5, 2011

Madness and the Creative Mind

Lionel Trilling’s essay “Art and Neurosis” appears both in “The Liberal Imagination” and “The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent.” He writes, “it was commonly said that the poet was ‘mad,’ but this was only a manner of speaking, a way of saying that the mind of the poet worked in a different fashion from the mind of the philosopher; it had no real reference to the mental hygiene of the man who was the poet.”

Trilling then refers to Charles Lamb, “someone,” Trilling tells us who knew quite a lot about madness. Lamb’s essay “On the Sanity of True Genius” which undertook to refute the idea that the “exercise of the imagination was a kind of insanity.”

In more recent times, Trilling tells us, “the connection between art and mental illness has been formulated not only by those who were openly or covertly hostile to art, but also and more significantly by those who are most intensely partisan to it. The latter willingly and even eagerly accept the idea that the artist is mentally ill and go on to make his illness a condition of his power to tell the truth.”

In regard to those “hostile to art,” Trilling writes, “The excommunication of the arts, when it was found necessary, took the form of pronouncing the artist mentally degenerate. . . In the history of the arts this is new. The poet was always known to belong to a touchy tribe – genus irritabile was the tag anyone would know – and ever since Plato the process of the inspired imagination . . . was thought to be a special one of some interest, which the similitude of madness made somewhat intelligible . . . no one was likely to identify the poet with the weakling. Indeed, the Renaissance ideal held poetry to be, like arms or music, one of the signs of manly competence.

“The change from this view of things cannot be blamed wholly on the bourgeois or philistine public. Some of the ‘blame’ must rest with the poets themselves. The Romantic poets were as proud of their art as the vaunting poets of the sixteenth century, but one of them talked with an angel in a tree and insisted that Hell was better than Heaven and sexuality holier than chastity; another told the world that he wanted to lie down like a tired child and weep away this life of care; another asked so foolish a question as ‘Why did I laugh tonight?’ and yet another explained that he had written one of his best poems in a drugged sleep. The public took them at their word – they were not as other men. Zola . . . submitted himself to examination of fifteen psychiatrists and agreed with their conclusion that his genius had its source in the neurotic elements of his temperament. Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine found virtue and strength in their physical and mental illness and pain. W. H. Auden addresses his ‘wound’ in the cherish language of a lover, thanking it for the gift of insight it has bestowed. . . and Edmund Wilson, in his striking phrase ‘the wound and the bow,’ has formulated for our time the idea of the characteristic sickness of the artist, which represents by the figure of Philoctetes, the Greek warrior who was forced to live in isolation because of the disgusting odor of a suppurating wound and who yet had to be sought out by his countrymen because they had need of the magically unerring bow he possessed.

“The myth of the sick artist, we may suppose, has established itself because it is of advantage to the various groups who have one or another relation with art. To the artist himself the myth gives some of the ancient powers and privileges of the idiot and the fool, half-prophetic creatures, or the mutilated priest. . . By means of his belief in his own sickness, the artist may the more easily fulfill his chosen, and assigned, function of putting himself into connection with the forces of spirituality and morality; the artist sees as insane the ‘normal’ and the ‘healthy’ ways of established society, while aberration and illness appear as spiritual and moral health if only because they controvert the ways of respectable society.”

“. . . the whole economy of the neurosis is based . . . on this idea of the quid pro quo of sacrificial pain: the neurotic person unconsciously subscribes to a system whereby he gives up some pleasure or power, or inflicts pain to himself in order to secure some other power or some other pleasure.”

Trilling concludes, “when we have said all this, it is still wrong, I believe, to find the root of the artist’s power and the source of his genius in neurosis.” He takes the more pragmatic view that “one cannot be and do everything and the wholehearted absorption in any enterprise, art for example, means that we must give up other possibilities, even parts of ourselves.” If one has a sufficient degree of creativity and is willing to give up a sufficient number of other things then one can hope to produce art of an adequate quality. And if one gives up everything for it perhaps one will go mad in the process, but there is the chance that this added intensity will result in the production of even better art.

The poetic achievements of Robert Lowell and Delmore Schwartz have never impressed me. I wouldn’t be willing to go mad in order to write the poetry that they did. Of course if one is mad anyway and through no choice of one’s own that’s another matter. Sylvia Plath was probably mad from an early age. Perhaps Lowell was as well. Dylan Thomas and John Berryman may have been a bit mad but they were also alcoholics. I recall the belief that alcohol like madness could enhance your poetry. Could they have written better poetry if they hadn’t been heavy drinkers? They could certainly have written more of it. But the post-partum depression that occurs after having written a good poem is something like a hangover. How many of those could Berryman experience before deciding to jump off the bridge?

Or Hart Crane off the fantail of a ship – if he jumped and was not thrown? (He was known for not being above importuning sailors and one of them may have been offended in the extreme).

Anne Sexton was in and out of mental institutions. She seems to have learned to write poetry in one of them. I don’t have the impression that her madness enhanced her poetry; although it was the subject of a lot of it. Her being impressed with the way Sylvia Plath committed suicide struck me as more willful.

Lest the philosopher congratulate himself on not being a poet, Foucault in Madness and Civilization, on page 217 wrote “If the progress of knowledge dissipates error, it also has the effect of propagating a taste even a mania for study; the life of the library, abstract speculations, the perpetual agitation of the mind without the exercise of the body, can have the most disastrous effects. . . The more abstract or complex knowledge becomes the greater the risk of madness.”

On page 285 Foucault writes, “The madness of Tasso, the melancholia of Swift, the delirium of Rousseau belong to their works, just as these works belong to their authors. Here in the texts, there in the lives of the men, the same violence spoke, or the same bitterness; visions certainly were exchanged; language and delirium interlaced. . . The madness of Nietzsche, the madness of Van Gogh or Artaud, belongs to their work perhaps neither more nor less profoundly, but in quite another way . . . from the time of Holderlin and Nerval, the number of writers, painters, and musicians who have ‘succumbed’ to madness has increased . . . but between madness and the work of art, there has been no accommodation, no more constant exchange, no communication of languages; their opposition is much more dangerous than formerly . . . theirs is a game of life and death. Artaud’s madness does not slip through the fissures of the work of art; his madness is precisely the absence of the work of art . . . Nietzsche’s last cry, proclaiming himself both Christ and Dionysos, is not on the border of reason and unreason, in the perspective of the work of art . . . it is the very annihilation of the work of art, the point where it becomes impossible and where it must fall silent; the hammer has just fallen from the philosophers hands.”