Thursday, March 26, 2015

'Madness in Civilisation' at the Wellcome Collection, 25th March 2015

A successful historian must play psychoanalyst to their period. Entire societies are gently laid on the couch, their ambitions, paranoias, pride and history intelligently probed in an effort to get at what made them tick. You could look at what they say about themselves, but this strays into the realm of propaganda, neither individual nor civilisation wants to look like a chump. 

You can approach this understanding of the past through many prisms, each refracting the past in their own way. Professor Andrew Scull has chosen the processes and understandings of mental illness: the understanding of cause, processes of diagnosis and treatment shedding light into the minds of our ancestors.

This interrogation is the subject of the 2015 Roy Porter lecture, hosted by the wonderful people at the Wellcome Collection. Prof. Scull, a former colleague of Porter, is Distinguished Professor if Sociology and Science Studies at the University of California, San Diego. His new book, Madness in Civilisation: The Cultural History of Insanity has just been released and provides the raw material for this lecture, which zeroes in on the nascent science of mental illness in the 1800s.

George Cheyne
Our introduction to this world is the pioneering work of physician George Cheyne. His publication, The English Malady; or, A Treatise of Nervous Diseases of All Kinds, as Spleen, Vapours, Lowness of Spirits, Hypochondriacal and Hysterical Distempers (1733) was a huge influence on popular conceptions of mental illness and depression. That title, with the English laying proud claim to mental disorders, initially feels a touch odd. Why would an proud, patriotic nation hurry to 'own' these conditions?

As a point of comparison, Prof Scull explains the shifting colloquial names for syphilis, which in England, was called 'The French Disease', in France 'The Italian disease', in Italy 'The Neapolitan disease' and so on, with the Turks throwing their hands up and simply calling it  'The Christian disease'. These pejorative names are reflections of nationalistic spite: after all, nobody really wants to be 'the syphilis country'.

George Durer's Syphilitic Man
What this reveals is that far from being a negative, 'nervous disorders' were proudly incorporated into the English psyche as a point of patriotic pride. The explanation for why is based around comparing 'primitive' and 'modern' man. The primitive has their mind occupied with acts of survival, a daily life and death struggle for food and shelter. Whereas the modern man, with his refined sensibilities, sharpened mind and rarefied talents, is akin to a precision-tooled piece of machinery - with many more components able to fail. Or, as Cheyne put it: 
"those of the liveliest and quickest natural Parts...whose Genius is most keen and penetrating were most prone to such disorders. Fools, weak or stupid Persons, heavy and dull Souls, are seldom troubled with Vapours or Lowness of Spirits."  CHEYNE (GEORGE) The Natural Method of cureing the Diseases of the Body, and the Disorders of the Mind depending on the Body. 
So, the more Britain succeeded economically, scientifically and culturally, the more 'nervous disorders' we should expect to see - with mental illness an unexpected herald of social success.

This period of history, with luminaries like Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, Edmund Halley and Christopher Wren et al defining the boundaries of the universe and identifying hitherto unknown invisible forces like electricity, gravity and magnetism must have been an astonishing time to live through. Finally the nuts and bolts of the universe were being revealed, the role of God gradually moving towards to absent caretaker rather than a being that intervenes in the lives of men.

Anything must have seemed possible, an outlook that gave rise to the success of one Franz Mesmer. He invented the concept of 'animal magnetism'; that energetic transference takes place between all objects, animate and inanimate. By manipulating this process he claimed to be able to cure nervous illnesses. Word soon got around, and before long crowds rich and poor were clamouring for a taste of mesmeric therapy.

A mesmerist using his 'magic finger' to cure a comely woman. 
It was all bunkum of course, Prof Scull inferring that a decent portion of his success came from providing erotic experiences for buttoned down society women. With scandal constantly nipping at his heels, Mesmer hopped between European cities, eventually coming a cropper at the hands of a scientific dream team that included Antoine Lavoisier, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin,  Jean Sylvain Bailly, and Benjamin Franklin. They conducted tests, concluding 'biomagnetic fluids' to be a load of cobblers. Mesmer soon vanished into obscurity, the last 15 years of his life large unknown.

Though firmly discredited, his therapies acted as a seed in treated conditions of the mind. Mesmer's animal magnetism therapies evolved into hypnosis therapy (from which we get the word 'mesmerism'). We later learn that Sigmund Freud began his therapeutic career as a hypnotist, the interaction of patient and clinician eventually formalising into psychoanalysis.

It's here that Prof Scull links the behaviour of the past to the present. His examples outline the broad strokes of the 18th century 'personality': nationalism, scientific progress and a belief in progress. Mesmer's popularity inevitably leads the mind toward modern pseudo-scientific therapies, arguably more popular now than they've ever been. Similarly, the ownership of mental disorders feeds into identity politics: in an increasingly homogenous world everyone wants to stand out, with internet self-diagnosis leading to the rise of 'disease/allergy/mental illness as fad'. 

What will future historians think of us when they examine these trends? What rationale can be given for masses of people running to alternative therapies when faced with the myriad miracles of modern medicine? Why are increasingly large amounts of people desperate to find 'their' disorder? 

Perhaps it's only with the hindsight of history that the answers can really be theorised. Nonetheless, Prof Scull's lecture leads us down fascinating intellectual paths, subtly nudging us towards applying historical analysis to modern trends. It was a real treat watching him speak, I'll have to get hold of his book.

Prof Scull's book, Madness in Civilisation: The Cultural History of Insanity is available here.

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