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Foucaultís Madness and Civilization and the American Gothic(30 Jul 2015)
By Ms Erika Rothberg
I figured I would be remiss not to include at least one theory-heavy post during my time here so this is a short paper I wrote about Foucault and the American Gothic. It's more personal and colloquial than the others, and relates more to my research emphases, but I hope it interests you nonetheless!
The preface and chapter 9 (“The Birth of the Asylum”) of Foucault’s Madness and Civilization are particularly illuminating pieces of writing that shine a light on the bleak, black heart of the American Gothic. Foucault’s treatise catalogues the history of madness (as its subtitle “A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason” clearly notes) as it progressed; in it, he traces the way in which madness has been systematically “Other”-ed, as madmen and lunatics began to be cordoned off from society with the rise of the asylum. Foucault’s interpretations of the way in which society views madness can also shed light on the way in which the Gothic treats the same subject. For the sake of brevity, I’ll focus on one topic in gothic texts that we can tie to Madness and Civilization that is particularly relevant to my research interests: the double/divided self (which can be linked with Freud/Foucault’s doctor-patient couple.) While I have written about and studied doubles quite a bit, Foucault’s discussion of the doctor-patient couple in terms of combating madness made me reevaluate the way in which I interpret my favorite trope and changed my reading of the concept.
The preface of this text is a brief introduction in which Foucault outlines his argument for the book, noting that he is writing about the “archaeology of [the] silence” regarding madness. He purports that there is no “language” about madness, but rather, silence, as “the modern man no longer communicates with the madman” (Foucault X-XI). Chapter 9, “The Birth of the Asylum,” is largely a historical account and analysis of two men in charge of asylums: Tuke and Pinel. Tuke’s retreat focused on treating the residents with respect, allowing them to walk about the house freely, without limitations. He, according to Foucault, “substituted for the free terror of madness the stifling anguish of responsibility,” as his system focused on rousing a madman’s supposedly dormant conscience back into action (247). Conversely, Pinel tried to encourage the patients to become well again by employing three principles: silence, recognition by mirror, and perpetual judgment (260-266). He did so in order to encourage his patients to recognize their illness and adapt their behaviors accordingly. Foucault points out that Freud studied Tuke and Pinel, and developed his notion of the doctor in light of their work.
I am extremely fascinated by the idea of the double and the divided self within gothic texts, but I had not heard of Freud’s “doctor-patient couple.” I was intrigued by this, since we do see a particular set of doubles in the gothic, as many occasions the doubled pair is a scientist or creator and his creation (Frankenstein and his Monster, Dr. Jekyll and his split personality Hyde, and, in Lunar Park, Bret Easton Ellis [as a creator of stories] and his figure Clayton, to name a few.) These doubles frequently metaphorically represent good and evil, morality and immorality—and most importantly for this essay, madness and reason. Foucault frequently uses the term “thaumaturge” to describe the doctors. He means that the patient views the doctor as a savior, since the doctor uses his authority to “miraculous[ly]” heal/reform the patient (275).
In this way, we can view the doctor as the same scientist/creator figure, as he re-shapes his patient’s sanity to create a nearly-new person. This gives the doctor extreme authority, which also plays into the gothic notion of fear/mistrust of authority. The reshaping of one’s conscience—which is arguably the representation of one’s soul—is the most terrible power one could have, barring the creation of a new life. Skepticism of authority is an integral trait to the Gothic genre. The ties between the possible overexertion and misuse of power as a literally life-altering force are clear. In the age of the asylum, a doctor can have a godlike power over his patients that, in gothic terms, is extremely dangerous and problematic.
Furthermore, Foucault explains that the doctor “has found some almost daemonic secret of knowledge…[used to] unravel insanity” (275). The term “daemonic” is chief here: it alludes to the doubling nature of the doctor-patient couple, since a daemon is sometimes defined as a figure that is constantly with its owning/governing figure, connected with the notion of a “personal demon.” This idea of the daemon is true in all three of the aforementioned texts, since Victor Frankenstein, Jekyll, and Ellis all partially created their doubles, and were haunted by them. Each man’s daemon is also linked to their “personal demons”—craving power, swelled narcissism, etc. Foucault’s mention of “daemonic knowledge” therefore encouraged me to think about the implications of the concept of this dual figure and lead me to read Foucault’s doctor as a person with an otherworldly knowledge rooted in the double.
But what did this mean for me, as a person so already dedicated to reading doubles? It may seem obvious, but I hadn’t even thought of the social context of madness as it appears in the double. I always viewed doubles of the manifestation of one’s personal demons, but I never considered the larger implications of madness in society. I hadn’t analyzed the double as a metaphor for the displacement of one’s ills, physically being exorcised in order for one to fit in with society once more. This led me to reinterpret the murder or exorcism of the double as a necessary step for one to be successfully re-integrated with society. Foucault’s way of situating the “problem” of madness in the discussion of the doctor-patient couple encouraged me to consider the issue of the double in terms of medical madness. This text forced me to reexamine my understanding of the double and helped me to view it as a representation of social ills instead of exclusively a personal haunting.