Book Launch Interview: Greg Eghigian (ed.), Routledge History of Madness and Mental Health (2017)

routledge greg eghigianWe are delighted to announce the publication of the Routledge History of Madness and Mental Health edited by Greg Eghigian, Professor of History at Penn State University and H-Madness co-editor.

The Routledge History of Madness and Mental Health explores the history and historiography of madness from the ancient and medieval worlds to the present day. Global in scope, it includes case studies from Africa, Asia, and South America as well as Europe and North America, drawing together the latest scholarship and source material in this growing field and allowing for fresh comparisons to be made across time and space.

Thematically organised and written by leading academics, chapters discuss broad topics such as the representation of madness in literature and the visual arts, the material culture of madness, the perpetual difficulty of creating a classification system for madness and mental health, madness within life histories, the increased globalisation of knowledge and treatment practices, and the persistence of spiritual and supernatural conceptualisations of experiences associated with madness. This volume also examines the challenges involved in analysing primary sources in this area and how key themes such as class, gender, and race have influenced the treatment and diagnosis of madness throughout history.

Chronologically and geographically wide-ranging, and providing a fascinating overview of the current state of the field, this is essential reading for all students of the history of madness, mental health, psychiatry, and medicine.

With this opportunity, we have asked Greg a few questions about his new book.

Why did you feel it important to begin with the ancient world rather than with the creation of psychiatry as a distinct medical discipline in the 19th Century?

There are a number of reasons I wanted to begin with the ancient world rather than with the 19th century, but let me give you two. First, I think the historiography of mental health suffers from an over-emphasis on the modern period. Now, this is certainly not unique to the field of the history of psychiatry. In many (maybe even most) sub-fields and academic departments in history, specialists in modern history tend to outnumber those in, say, ancient and medieval history. Of course, this is as much a function of demand and general interest as anything else, but it does have the intellectual consequence of skewing research toward the developments of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

In doing so – and this was my second consideration – we reinforce the widely accepted impression that before psychiatry emerged as a discipline, all that existed in the treatment of madness was superstitious belief and abusive interventions. Yet, not only do we know that this is very far from the truth, but when we take a longer view, we can see how ideas, attitudes, and regimens forged centuries ago still cast a shadow today (e.g., the ancient Greek idea of psychagogia as an art of persuasion). We also, however, can note how some of our present-day assumptions about mental illness need to be corrected (e.g., the malady of melancholy is mentioned very little in ancient Greek texts, and the symptoms associated with it over the centuries cannot be linked to the contemporary idea of clinical depression in any kind of direct, linear fashion).

What, in your opinion, is the main novelty of this volume?

It’s really a combination of things. Taken together, the temporal and geographical scope certainly makes it different from most edited volumes I know of. The idea was to give the reader a sense of the state of the field today and the new directions in which it is moving. One cannot do this, in my estimation, without capturing long-term trends and patterns as well as recognizing that the history of madness and its treatment is no longer the preserve of historians of the North Atlantic world. This last point bears repeating. Like our colleagues in other sub-fields, historians of mental health have come to recognize the need for a more global understanding of the subject. The contributions here aim at helping to promote the transnational, cross-cultural, and comparative study of the history of mental disorders and their treatment.

At the same time, I thought it crucial that the volume reflect the growing interest in new topics (e.g., the material culture of psychiatry) and that it also show how perspectives are undergoing some modification about familiar topics, such as psychotherapy and somatic treatments.

Choosing how to separate this vast history into thematic sections is no doubt arbitrary. How did you go about selecting these topics? Are there any other topics you would have liked to see included?

You’re quite right that the task of framing a subject matter so vast is daunting. I began by reflecting on the important epochs and developments historians of madness have flagged as well as themes and regions that often have been overlooked. I then began seeking out scholars with recognized experience in these areas.

What naturally happens in a volume like this, with so many contributors, is that some authors end up having to bow out, leaving some unforeseen gaps. So as editor, one has to improvise a bit and look for connecting threads in what you have before you. In the end, it seemed to me that the connections were there, often in some intriguing ways (e.g. the section on perspectives and experiences).

I would like to have been able to incorporate some contributions on other parts of the world, such as the Middle East, Russia/USSR, and eastern Europe. But in the end, one does the best one can under the circumstances.

I notice you have a rather international list of contributors. Was this intentional, from a theoretical/historiographical perspective?

Oh, yes, this was quite intentional. The historical study of mental health is now an international enterprise, and I considered it essential that the volume reflect this. This means not just including scholars from all over the world, but recruiting scholars with the requisite language and analytical skills to evaluate relevant primary and secondary sources.

In this context, I should also mention that I considered it vital to include contributions from scholars at various stages in their professional development. Senior, mid-career, and junior scholars may well be engaged in a common enterprise, but they often bring different interests, talents, and perspectives to the table. So I wanted to be sure that the volume reflected some of this diversity as well.

And finally—could you tell us more about that beautiful cover image?

Yes, this was done by the German artist Paul Goesch (1885-1940) and is entitled Traumphantasie (Dream Fantasy). Over 300 of Goesch’s works are now featured in the collection of the Prinzhorn Museum in Heidelberg, Germany (as many readers know, the collection began as a project of psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn during the interwar years to assemble various artistic works created by mentally ill patients). Goesch himself was an active member of the avantgarde, and over the years, he ended up spending two decades in a number of different psychiatric facilities. Tragically he was murdered by German authorities in 1940 in what appears to have been an act that was part of the Nazi regime’s so-called T-4 “euthanasia” program, one that killed over 200,000 mentally and physically disabled individuals. I thought that a book that purports to explore the history of madness (an experience) – and not just, say, the history of psychiatry (a discipline) – needed to give the first word to someone who had to grapple with that experience.

Thank you so much, Greg, for this insightful interview. I think I speak on behalf of everyone at H-Madness when I say we are much looking forward to reading the book!

For more information on this book, click here.

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