Andrew Scull


On his book Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity, from the Bible to Freud, from the Madhouse to Modern Medicine

Cover Interview of December 13, 2016

In a nutshell

Madness is something whose mysteries puzzle us still. The loss of reason, the sense of alienation from the common sense world the rest of us imagine we inhabit, the shattering emotional turmoil that seizes hold of some of us and will not let go: these are a part of our shared human experience down through the centuries and in every culture. Insanity haunts the human imagination. It has drawn the repeated attention of artists and writers, as well as physicians and divines. It reminds us of how tenuous our own hold on reality may sometimes be. It challenges our sense of the very limits of what it is to be human. Even in our own time, definitive answers about the condition remain almost as elusive as ever. The very boundaries that separate the mad from the sane are a matter of dispute.

Madness in Civilization examines the phenomenon of mental disturbance from Ancient Palestine to the present, looking at both Western and non-Western societies and cultures, both medical and lay perspectives, both religious and supernatural accounts and interventions. Madness extends beyond the medical grasp in other ways as well. It remains a source of recurrent fascination for writers and artists, and for their audiences. Novels, biographies, autobiographies, plays, films, paintings, sculpture - in all these realms and more, Unreason continues to haunt the imagination and to surface in powerful and unpredictable ways. All attempts to corral and contain it, to reduce it to some single essence seem doomed to disappointment. Madness continues to tease and to puzzle us, to frighten and to fascinate, to challenge us to probe its ambiguities and its depredations.

I seek to probe this vast territory in all its almost infinite variety and complexity. I’m not interested in easy answers or glib generalizations. I do not celebrate modern psychiatry, but I do try to give it its due, and I try to remain sensitive to the fact that mental troubles are the most solitary of afflictions to those who experience them, but the most social of maladies given their impact on families, on communities, and on societies. My book is enriched by almost a hundred and fifty images, many in color, and reproduced with great fidelity. These don’t merely grace or illustrate the text: they are a central part of the argument I present.