Wednesday, December 7, 2011

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?

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