R. D. Laing

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 949

[Madness and Civilization ] is a work of such distinction that it takes some time to accustom one's self to its sustained intensity and verbal momentum, before one can begin to come to terms with the measure of its truth, as total picture or in terms of its constituent...

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[Madness and Civilization] is a work of such distinction that it takes some time to accustom one's self to its sustained intensity and verbal momentum, before one can begin to come to terms with the measure of its truth, as total picture or in terms of its constituent elements.

Foucault's overall plan is to excavate the sane perception of madness (la folie) of the 17th and 18th century in Europe, and France in particular. He lays before us the archaeology, as he puts it, of the broken dialogue between reason and unreason: he reveals by a phenomenological method the history of how the theoretical, experiential and practical connotations of madness (as error, blindness, animal innocence and human culpability, derangement of reason and monstrous freedom) came at the beginning of the 19th century to be imprisoned in the medical theory and practice of pathology.

He shows clearly how, in the 17th century, a movement spread all over Europe to confine by a massive police operation what to us appear as a heterogeneous set of people, but who were perceived then in terms of some synthetic unity we can surmise without fully recapturing—the debauched, spendthrift fathers, prodigal sons, blasphemers, vagabonds, the poor and the mad. Within a few months one in a hundred of the inhabitants of Paris found themselves imprisoned thus. These people were a danger to the State, a threat to family life, exemplars of the fruit of sin….

After Foucault the textbooks will have to be rewritten…. The separation of the 'insane' from the mass of the confined was, to a considerable extent, for the sake of the 'sane' population. Physical restraint was given up (and then only very partially) because 'moral' coercion was found to be an even more effective technique of terrorisation. No one ever dreamt of any other form of treatment than repression of one form or another. No one ever took what the mad were saying or doing with any other emotions than pity or horror.

It is not the account of the madness of the supposed madmen of the 17th century to the 19th century that is particularly terrifying about this book. We hardly hear their voices at all. What we do hear through these pages is how the men of reason experienced and treated the men of unreason. Victory belonged to those who could control the power structures of society. The other side of the story is possibly irretrievably lost. The madness of Europe is revealed not in the persons of the madmen of Europe, but in the actions of the self-validated sane ones, who wrote the books, sanctified, and authorised by State, Church, and the representatives of bourgeois morality. The history of madness documented here is the history of the projection into the few who were destroyed or forgotten, of the lunacy of the majority who won the day.

This book was first published in 1961, and it could not have been possible much before that. Until a few years ago, the collective definition of European man as sane by his own consent imposed such an iron vice on consciousness that hardly anyone was able to break out without breaking down. I do not know any other book which see through (that is dia-gnoses) what has been going on, in such a scholarly and systematic way. It remains itself fully within the idiom of sanity, while undermining the presuppositions of its own foundations. To define true madness—is to be nothing else but mad….

Foucault's disenchanted illuminations reveal a desolate space occupied by the ruins of that classical age of reason which found it necessary to disavow all that threatened its formal purity. Madness epitomised the nightmare of being destroyed by what had been exiled from its elegant and ordered cosmic landscape. Foucault's intellect, style, and erudition would be impossible without the whole tradition that he both adorns and destroys. The intellectual structures of its ontological imperialism are rapidly crumbling, along with grosser material forms of dominion they once were used to justify, and perhaps sometimes also found justification within….

Foucault sometimes whirls words into pirouettes which are more to be admired for their brilliance than trusted for their veracity. 'Madness designates the equinox between the vanity of night's hallucinations and the non-being of light's judgments.' He can be so daring as to begin the closure of an already long sentence with '… for tragedy is ultimately nothing but …' and tells us in 15 words!

Foucault does not 'take sides'. He simply brings into view a few turns of the amplifying spiral of one form of breakdown of communication between human beings in Europe, and by a classical dialectical reversal, the madness of the apparent sanity of 'reason'. More spirals of this vicious vortex have unfolded since the moment Foucault breaks off his narrative at the beginning of the 19th century, but he appears to have no axe to grind in contemporary psychiatric controversy.

His concluding chapter where he moves rapidly from Goya to Artaud is the weakest, leaving it unclear whether reticence, tact or lack of time may have deterred him from adding his own attributions about 'madness' to those of others he has so mercilessly displayed before us. Perhaps he was too clever to fall into a trap, he was not sufficiently wise fully to see. Nevertheless, we can surmise that if Foucault continues to survive the torrent of his own intellect he will be one of the writers to whom we shall in our life time continue to turn with a somewhat terrified delight, to be instructed when we are not too dazzled.

R. D. Laing, "The Invention of Madness," in New Statesman, Vol. 73, No. 1892, June 16, 1967, p. 843.

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