“But in the anxiety of the second half of the eighteenth century, the fear of madness grew at the same time as the dread of unreason: and thereby the two forms of obsession, leaning upon each other, continued to reinforce each other. And at the very moment we note the liberation of the iconographic powers that accompany unreason, we hear on all sides complaints about the ravages of madness. Already we are familiar with the concern generated by “nervous diseases,” and the awareness that man becomes more deli-cate in proportion as he perfects himself. As the century advanced, the concern became more pressing, the warnings more solemn.” ( Foucault )
Most of the romantics who wrote about insanity preferred playing a kind of cat-and-mouse game with it. “I have pray’d/ For madness as a blessing,” Byron says, speaking through the mask of the melancholy “Manfred”; though one of the sanest men who ever lived, he was not averse to giving the impression that he was “Mad, bad and dangerous to know” , as Lady Caroline Lamb was delighted to attest. It was the “otherness” of madness and its proximity that attracted yet repulsed; a curiosity with the rigorous geometry of desire.
Such literary posturings sometimes led to a denouement where real madness took over from the simulated kind. Only rarely, however, does anyone give us an insider’s view of insanity; perhaps because it is so difficult to write coherently without incoherence. The one romantic writer who speaks eloquently and from personal experience about what it actually means to go mad is Géreard de Nerval, who manages to be poetic and explicit about his psychotic interludes.
Nerval was thirty-three when he suffered his first severe attack of hallucinations in 1841. One evening as he was walking through Paris he felt himself magically attracted by an eastern star. As its magnetism drew him onward he began shedding his “terrestrial garments” and scattering them on the sidewalk. ” The roadway seemed to lead continually upwards and the star to grow bigger,” he writes in “Aurelia”. “Then I stood still, my arms outstretched, waiting for the moment when my soul should break free from my body, attracted magnetically by the rays of the star. A shudder went through me. Regret for the earth and for those I loved there gripped my heart, and so ardently within myself did I beseech the Spirit drawing me up towards it that it seemed as if I went down again among men. A night patrol surrounded me.”
He spent the night in jail, still hallucinating. Friends came to fetch him in the morning, and he was transferred to a private clinic, where the visions continued for many weeks. The continents opened up before him; he saw to the ends of the earth,” beyond the Mountains of the Moon and ancient Ethiopia,” to Granada and the banks of the Rhine, but “Everywhere the suffering image of the eternal Mother was dying, weeping, or languishing.” It occurred to him, then, that he was embarked on the kind of spiritual journey which the ancients must have regarded as a descent into hell.
…Already Raulin had observed that “since the birth of medicine . . . these illnesses have multiplied, have become more dangerous, more complicated, more prob-lematical and difficult to cure.” By Tissot’s time, this general impression became a firm belief, a sort of medical dogma: nervous diseases “were formerly much less fre-quent than they are nowadays; and this for two reasons: one, that men were in general more robust, and less frequently ill; there were fewer diseases of any kind; the other, that the causes which produce nervous diseases in especial have multiplied in a greater proportion, in recent times, than the other general causes of illness, some of which even seem to have diminished. … I do not hesitate to say that if they were once the rarest, they are today the most frequent.” And soon men regained that awareness, which had been so intense in the sixteenth century, of the precariousness of a reason that can at any moment be compromised, and definitively, by madness. ( Focault )