Something an academic might experience

Michael Neve

  • The Faber Book of Madness edited by Roy Porter
    Faber, 572 pp, £14.99, September 1991, ISBN 0 571 14387 3

A small news item with a large history behind it: John Sylvester, an inhabitant of Lancashire, was released last month from a life spent in mental hospitals and institutions, aged 81. He had been incarcerated when he was six years old, and his offence had been the stealing of an apple. His mother had died soon after this first confinement, and so when declared ‘mentally fit’ in 1929, he became the responsibility of his father, who was disabled and could not take up his case. Sylvester was 19 at the time, and speaks of an entirely wasted life – a view shared by the social services who now look after him.

It is a tribute to the social historian Roy Porter that he has devoted three books, and any number of articles, to the history of the John Sylvesters of this world. A prodigious historian, Porter has done the work that French historians can only theorise about. He has travelled from writing about 18th-century English geology, English 18th-century social history, the social history of medicine and science, to madness and to books about madness. Porter (once again, the surnames have it) is the kind of historian whom librarians telephone, asking him not to produce another book, since parts of their tired library floors are breaking up under the strain of the shelving that is specially marked ‘Books and Articles by Roy Porter’. (If you don’t believe me, ask the librarian at Christ’s, Porter’s old Cambridge college, where he was one of the last undergraduates taught by J.H. Plumb.) There are, quite literally, hundreds of students of English history whom Porter has brought alive to the 18th century he has made his own: ribald, libertarian, learned, tough. For some, the Enlightenment manifests itself through the world of ideas or of the salon, through the civilised exchange of half-remembered philosophies. For Porter, the English Enlightenment was made up of rougher trade, being marked by a kind of anti-intellectual wisdom, schooled in that harsh world Samuel Johnson endlessly held up to the face of the bon ton: ‘Slow rises worth, by poverty depressed.’ Porter’s 18th century forms a counter-world to conventional evocations of that age. The expression ‘Georgian’ is meant to convey an 18th century with all the sleaze taken out; it conveys an idea of early capitalism without any problems. Everyone is drunk, wenching, living life to the full. In his justly celebrated Social History of 18th-Century England, Porter conveys all the B-movie scenes but adds depth and colour to scenes of agricultural work and business life, to harsh reality and harsher wit. Sometimes his book seems a description of what England will be like in the 21st century, when the tide of imperialism has finally gone out, revealing once again the muscularity and menace of England’s Enlightenment.

It is hard to imagine Porter as president of an Oxford college. A more plausible scene would have him growling greetings to the black cleaning lady at a quarter to six in the morning of a dreary January, as he comes in to finish an article about the night soil trade in 18th-century London, in an academic institution that is only just managing to contain him. And he it.

Porter’s industry has taken him far out, and indeed taken him so far that we now have something called The Faber Book of Madness (what would T.S. Eliot have made of that, his dear ghost having just survived seductions, blue poetry, gay short stories). In his prize-winning Mind Forg’d Manacles of 1987, Porter examined the history of madness in England from the Restoration to the end of the 18th century, and established that madness was a much-discussed subject, and a relatively common experience. That the imputation of madness, for example to enthusiastic religious groups, or to wayward individuals, served certain purposes. That Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy was, as Johnson thought, magisterial, and unread. Above all, that madness was proximate to Reason, indeed twinned to the idea of ‘Reason’, and that madness was the secret history of the Enlightenment, its exhausted partner, its child. With its crude and unruly libertarian politics, England continued in the 18th century the joke about its becoming a kind of homeland of the mad that Shakespeare had offered in 1604. The joke had been of course the gravedigger’s, that Hamlet’s madness would be invisible in England, because ‘there the men are as mad as he.’

It’s quite rightly a frogmarch, maybe even a toad’s march, to Pseud’s Corner even to bring up the name of William Blake, but historians of English madness, including Porter, help us see the Blakean contradictions: all those élitist mouthings-off about Reason, all that hypochondriacal cool, all those dancing lessons, all culminating, two hundred years later, in nonsense like Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract, with all the while the bitter reality of the taxman, the press-gang, the whore, the rope, the dead child, the waste, the stolen apple. And all those books, about all those things. Madness.

It’s a moot point as to whether one should recommend books about madness, and it’s clearly a pretty dreadful thought that madness has become an academic subject, as against something an academic might experience. Porter’s earlier work gave a richer context than this book is able to do, but he keeps his faith with what Continental writers call hermeneutics, but which over here (it’s the English who now appear as underpaid, oversexed and over here) is known as listening to what the other bugger is trying to say. He’ll be a bit bonkers, as will she, but give it a go. Not least, the weird proximities of madness to reason, the bungled conversation, will be exposed. As might (and this is a central theme for Porter) the facts of injustice, false imprisonment, wrongdoing, the wounding of the gentle, the incarceration of the confused and innocent. It is part of Porter’s achievement to establish that listening to the mad is nothing to do with making madness chic. Presumably tired out by listening to the ghostly living, he now listens to the mad dead, in this at least sailing somewhere into seas that Eliot might have recognised, even permitted onto Faber’s list.

The anthology is arranged, in the proper 18th-century manner, as a journey, a journey in and then a journey out. Extracts from various historical epochs jostle together, not always effectively, and not always helped by introductory remarks from the editor that can seem trite, as if the reader will be bound to miss some pretty obvious points. But the intelligence behind the selection, and the work of collation, is formidable, as we progress through the collapse of reason, the onset of melancholy (‘the black dog’) and the character of delusion and delusional states. Without aspiring to the achievement of Richard Hunter and Ida Macalpine’s Three Hundred Years of Psychiatry, an anthology of psychiatric texts, Porter wants to give a voice to the patient, the sufferer, and especially to those inhabiting a borderland, a borderland of disconnection, of isolation and unease, of hopelessness. The strange democracy of madness is his theme: David Hume and his breakdown, as described to the physician George Cheyne; and from Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne, the story of the idiot boy, who spent the summer eating bees, his only earthly occupation. Porter takes his cue from Burton’s Anatomy: although madness takes certain forms, all streets in time are visited.

Porter’s selection is especially revealing about the extreme sense of discomfort that madness may bring: not just that no one believes what you are seeing or hearing, but even if they did, they would be the wrong people to be talking to in the first place. The great example here is John Perceval, son of the only British prime minister to be assassinated, who was confined in the 1830s, in two fairly luxurious private institutions. He wrote a two-volume work on his experience between 1838 and 1840, and gives powerful expression to a sense of class-consciousness (how dare these plebeian attendants come near me?) as well as disturbed consciousness. He went to tell everybody, but he could not get across what he knew about the Holy Spirit, about his own angelic status, about the fate of the patient as a tabula rasa for the projections of an inferior branch of medicine. And throughout the volume, Porter skilfully keeps alive the endless paradox: mad, but don’t we understand exactly what they are saying?

Possession by the devil, or the passions, or by strange external forces, delusions, often of a political kind – mesmeric revolutionists in the 1790s, a case from Esquirol in 1845, of a man followed all the way to Rome on the open road by his imaginary father-in-law: Porter puts these together as part of ‘Going through it’, and shows just how varied, and how mysterious, all this can be. He places these extracts before a central section on the lunatic asylum and its vicissitudes. In mid-19th-century Illinois, a woman is institutionalised for dissenting from the religious views of her husband. The English poet William Cowper falls into his asylum at St Albans with relief and thanks. The asylum system appears here as a bizarre arena for endless folies à deux, from their early history up to R.D. Laing. Porter’s extracts convey a sense of menace, of exchanges of rage between the doctors and the confined, trapped in the asylum milieu. While clearly believing that dreadful things have been done to patients, and quoting throughout the book from David Cooper to good effect, Porter is careful. The Victorian psychological doctor John Conolly says some shrewd things here, and the extracts suggest that asylums need self-government, not abolition. This Faber anthology helps the current debate on the closing down of large institutions by insisting that an admission of dialectical craziness – mad doctors meet mad patients – be accompanied by a defence of the asylum system.

On Freud, Porter shows greater respect than he has in other writings, seeing the great man as an immortal, even if he did unleash the wild comedy that is psychoanalysis. Freud as a comic genius is a nice idea, with all that transference and semi-controlled paranoia, but Porter (surprisingly) pays Freud the tribute of quoting the whole of Auden’s farewell poem of 1939. The world of psychoanalysis itself, the game that had to be played after the death of the father, seems as barmy as anything Burton could have dreamt up. There are many quotations that speak of the enraged possibility that the transference is just the analyst’s device for crushing the opposition.

No anthology can do everything, and the best show their prejudices, as with John Carey, in an earlier Faber volume, making reportage overwhelmingly the way people report warfare. In Porter’s case, there is not enough about the suffering psychiatrist, although Porter himself may have become one. There is also not enough about madness and love, partly no doubt because this anthologist has too great a sense of humour. It seems reasonable to wonder about Porter himself, about the nature of his interest. Is he trying to make his reader admit to madness, to hold a mirror up to nature in these pages, or is there something else?

There is great humanity in this book, as there might be in the (no doubt forthcoming) Faber Book of Sanity. Anthologies must after all reflect the kinds of thing that the compiler happens to have been reading. This fine example keeps faith with the unmentioned Laurence Sterne, and in its last section, which is called ‘Recovery’, Porter as a true 18th-century Englishman allows himself to be sent on his way by a poem that carries the breeze of futurity from the century to which he has devoted his academic life:

Thus, thus I steer my bark, and sail
On even keel with gentle gale.
At helm I make my reason sit,
My crew of passions all submit.
If dark and blustring prove some nights,
Philosophy puts forth her lights;
Experience holds the cautious glass,
To shun the breakers, as I pass,
And frequent throws the wary lead,
To see what dangers may be hid;
And once in seven years I’m seen
At Bath or Tunbridge to careen.
Tho’ pleas’d to see the dolphins play,
I mind my compass and my way,
With store sufficient for relief,
And wisely still prepar’d to reef,
Nor wanting the dispersive bowl
Of cloudy weather in the soul,
I make (may heav’n propitious send
Such wind and weather to the end)
Neither becalm’d, nor over-blown,
Life’s voyage to the world unknown.

Matthew Green, ‘The Spleen’ (1737)