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.”

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