The PARIS REVIEW
Madness and Meaning
By Andrew Scull, April 22, 2015
Depictions of insanity through history.
Modern psychiatry seems determined to rob madness of its meanings, insisting that its depredations can be reduced to biology and nothing but biology. One must doubt it. The social and cultural dimensions of mental disorders, so indispensable a part of the story of madness and civilization over the centuries, are unlikely to melt away, or to prove no more than an epiphenomenal feature of so universal a feature of human existence. Madness indeed has its meanings, elusive and evanescent as our attempts to capture them have been.
Western culture throughout its long and tangled history provides us with a rich array of images, a remarkable set of windows into both popular and latterly professional beliefs about insanity. The sacred books of the Judeo-Christian tradition are shot through with stories of madness caused by possession by devils or divine displeasure. From Saul, the first king of the Israelites (made mad by Yahweh for failing to carry out to the letter the Lord’s command to slay every man, woman, and child of the Amalekite tribe, and all their animals, too), to the man in the country of the Gaderenes “with an unclean spirit” (maddened, naked, and violent, whose demons Christ casts out and causes to enter a herd of swine, who forthwith rush over a cliff into the sea to drown), here are stories recited for centuries by believers, and often transformed into pictorial form. None proved more fascinating than the story of Nebuchadnezzar, the mighty king of Babylon, the man who captured Jerusalem and destroyed its Temple, carrying the Jews off into captivity all apparently without incurring divine wrath. Swollen with pride, however, he impiously boasts of “the might of my power,” and a savage and jealous God has had enough: driven mad, he “did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hairs were grown like eagle’s feathers, and his nails like bird’s claws.” The description has proved irresistible to many an artist: above, an unknown German artist working in early fifteenth-century Regensburg provides a portrait of the changes madness wrought upon the sane.