Series: A Great Read

Dear h-madness readers,

We want to put our h-madness team in the spotlight via a new series, A Great Read, because the team helps us in discovering relevant information for h-madness — especially the section editors. For this purpose we asked them to write something about one or multiple books that they find interesting or important. This way you not only get to know the team behind h-madness but also have the chance to (re)discover interesting books about psychiatry.

We kick off this new series with the books chosen by Arnout de Cleene. He works at Dr. Guislain Museum in Ghent, a museum for the history of psychiatry. Arnout is responsible for exhibitions on h-madness.

These books are not studies on the history of psychiatry. Nevertheless, they have profoundly influenced the way in which I think about the history of psychiatry and the possible ways to approach it. The first book approaches the history of psychiatry from a rhetorical and philosophical perspective, the second one looks at it from an art historical viewpoint, the third one offers a literary account.

1. Shoshana Felman, Writing and Madness. Literature/Philosophy/Psychoanalysis. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2003.

In Writing and Madness (or the original French La folie et la chose littéraire) Shoshana Felman offers an array of thrilling analyses of literary works by authors such as Gérard de Nerval, Henry James and Honoré de Balzac. She combines an in-depth study of these works with thorough reflections on the works of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan on madness and literature. In a thought-provoking way, she continuously lets literary works interact with theoretical frameworks, and vice-versa, via the rhetoric of madness. In the end, Felman’s reflections on literature, madness and philosophy have enriched each other in such a profound way that it becomes unthinkable to approach one of them without taking into account the other two, or, for that matter, to study the history of psychiatry without focusing on the rhetoric of madness.

2. John M. MacGregor, The Discovery of the Art of the Insane. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.

John MacGregor’s The Discovery of the Art of the Insane is a tour de force. Spanning centuries and overseeing continents, the work presents an encyclopedic account of the changing attitude towards artworks made by psychiatric patients. From Romanticism to art brut, Cesare Lombroso to Jean Dubuffet, Théodore Géricault to Adolf Wölfi: it’s a broad cultural history MacGregor narrates, in which the art of the insane appears as a force field, surrounded and molded by a discourse composed of psychiatric, aesthetic and societal ideas on art and insanity. MacGregor’s nuanced, detailed and richly illustrated historical work gives insight into the present-day attention for outsider art. Not only because of its emphasis on the variety of the art of the insane, but even more so because of the light it sheds on the complexity of the appreciation of it.

3. Jan Arends, Ik had een strohoed en een wandelstok. Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 1974.

During the heyday of antipsychiatry, Dutch author Jan Arends (1925-1974) wrote many short stories and poems about mental illness and psychiatry. ‘Ik had een strohoed en een wandelstok’ [I had a straw hat and a walking-cane] in particular, an unfinished short story published posthumously, has always gripped me. The first-person narrator (named ‘Arends’) describes his youth, the way in which his life was defined by societal expectations, institutional constraints (orphanage, school, psychiatric facility), poverty, mental illness… The short, clear sentences Arends uses sketch strange logical patterns and give an account of the position of an outsider trying to fit in. It is the bleakest of accounts. Above all, Arends gives a terrifying image of what it means to feel the need to write in those conditions. ‘I’m a book that’s written in the wrong way’, says the narrator. The story to which this quote belongs, is one of the most tantalizing I have read on what it means to be an outsider.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s