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 14, 2016

The wide angle

I have worked on the history of psychiatry for four decades now. I originally wrote on the rise of the asylum in Victorian Britain, and the emergence of the modern psychiatric profession there. In later work, I looked at deinstitutionalization and the failures of community care, before turning to an examination of the eighteenth century “trade in lunacy.” Mental patients have been stigmatized and uniquely vulnerable throughout history. Their vulnerability was particularly marked during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when psychiatrists branded them as biologically inferior, tainted creatures - a characterization that licensed attempts to exterminate them in Nazi Germany (more than a quarter million of them perished under Hitler), but which also led to a great deal of uncontrolled experimentation on those confined in asylums. Having written extensively on the eighteenth century through the present, I next turned to looking at a particular variety of psychiatric disorder, hysteria, and traced its place in Western culture from ancient times to its apparent disappearance in the late twentieth century, suggesting that reports of its death perhaps misunderstood and misconstrued contemporary realities.

So I have worked on this general field for a very long time now, and have drawn on the knowledge I have accumulated over many years in writing my latest book. I have long thought that we lacked a good synoptic account of the multitude of ways in which individuals and societies have sought to cope with the problem of Unreason. Any such account, in my view, had to see mental disturbance as an absolutely central and all-but-universal aspect of human experience. More than that, our collective encounters with mental disorder have inspired painters, sculptors, composers, dramatists, poets, novelists, and filmmakers to attempt to capture the essence of what it means to be disturbed, deranged, or distracted. Indeed some of these figures have themselves suffered from various forms of mental distress. I love all these arts, and have sought to show how much materials like these can help us explore the place of madness, and to place it firmly within civilization, not as something alien to it.