Henry Fuseli’s painting “The Mandrake” , now lost, struck the aging Horace Walpole as “shockingly mad, madder than ever, quite mad!” But Fuseli would hardly have regarded that as an insult. Much of the time he was trading on madness the way lesser painters exploited sunsets. For his Shakespeare illustrations he painted, among others, the mad Lady macbeth and Lear raging on the heath; from Milton’s “Paradise Lost” , to justify still another madhouse scene, he chose the vision of the Lazar house whose inmates suffer from “Daemonic Phrenzie, moaping Melancholic/ And Moon-struck madness, pining Atrophie…”
The way to the asylum thus becomes a pilgrimage for artists with sketchbooks under their arms. In the 1820’s Gericault, the first of the great French Romantic painters, set up his easel in the Salpétriere Hospital in Paris to do a series of ten portraits of mental patients. The idea had been suggested to him by a young psychiatrist, Dr. Georget, who book “De La Folie” had made him an authority on madness at twenty-five; Géricault intended to record the particular facial expressions associated with various types of madness-kleptomania, hysteria, criminal compulsion, and so on.
Géricault’s friend Delacroix followed his example and produced two historical paintings of “Tasso in the Madhouse” . Both show the great sixteenth century poet lost in schizoid reveries, ignoring the taunts of his fellow inmates. it is no coincidence that Delacroix’s “Tasso” bears a marked resemblance to the traditional “Christ Mocked by Soldiers.” To the romantics Tasso was a Christlike culture hero, a poet who went mad for the sake of his art.
One of the earliest German romantics, Wilhelm Heinse, was the first to write about Tasso as the exemplary madman who had fallen victim to the world’s conspiracy against love and genius. Then Goethe took up the theme, to write one of his finest dramas about him; Liszt composed a piano piece and two symphonic tone poems; Donizetti a three-act opera. Lord Byron, in “The lament of Tasso” , has the poet falsely imprisoned for imputed insanity in an asylum where he is made to suffer “Sickness of heart, and narrowness of place”:
Feel I not wroth with those who bade me dwell
In this vast lazar-house of many woes?
Where laughterot mirth, nor thought the mind,
Nor words a language, nor ev’n men mankind;
Where cries reply to curses, shrieks to blows,
And each is tortured in his separate hell —
For we are crowded in our solitudes —
Many, but each divided by the wall,
Which echoes Madness in her babbling moods;…
Though he claims to have been sane when he came, he feels himself slowly going mad “From long infection of a den like this,/Where the mind rots congenial with the abyss…”
None of this has much to do with the actual life of Tasso, who was confined by the Duke of Ferrara for the defensible reason that he was insane and had to be kept out of the way of the Inquisition. But the function of the romantic artist-madman is literary, not historical; he provides access to the long-neglected darker sides of passion and imagination and helps to demolish the eighteenth-century convention that man is subject to the rule of reason.
Madness makes all symbols possible, and the sleep of reason is one of the ways a writer can probe and expand the limits of his domain. Goethe’s Faust is the exemplary neurotic of the age, and Gretchen goes completely mad; together, with the help of their therapist, Mephistopheles, they break through to deeper psychological levels than any characters since Shakespeare’s. It was Shakespeare incidentally, who taught the romantic playwrights how sweet are the uses of insanity in the theatre. The great mad scenes in works like “Faust” and “Lucia di Lammermoor” – the frenzied laugh , the disheveled hair, the plaintive ditty sung by witless maid; all derive in one way or another from Ophelia, Lear, or Lady Macbeth.
There are symbols of a literary dementia that takes a tremendous toll among Bellini’s and Donizetti,s heroines. For a clinical description of a typical case we need look no further than Sir Walter Scott’s “Bride of Lammermoor” , the novel on which Donizetti’s “Lucia” is based. The story comes to a climax after Lucy has stabbed her rejected bridegroom on their wedding night and her parents find her in the chimney corner of the bridal chamber,
seated, or rather crouched like a hare upon its form- her head gear disheveled; her night clothes torn and dabbled with blood, – her eyes glazed, and her features convulsed into a wild paroxysm of insanity. When she saw herself discovered, she gibbered, made mouths, and pointed at them with her bloody fingers, with the frantic gestures of an exulting demoniac.
“John Buchan contends that The Bride of Lammermoor is atypical of Scott’s novels in that it ends tragically, with no hope for the future, its characters engulfed in a destiny beyond their control. The terrible darkness is only momentarily relieved by Caleb Balderstone’s “raid” on the nearby village of Wolf’s-hope in order to provision his master’s castle for the unexpected reception of Sir William Ashton and his daughter. Scott wrote it, as Coleridge wrote “Kubla Khan,” in a drugged and abnormal condition; in fact, having no recollection of its composition, he pronounced it “monstrous, gross and grotesque” at the completion of his first reading.”
It is hardly surprising that this horror story should have been written, or rather dictated, when Scott was in an almost continal opium stupor, taking as much as two hundred drops of laudanum and six grains of opium a day to relieve the pain of a stomach ailment. Afterward, when he had recovered from both the treatment and the disease, he was unable to remember any details of what he had written, and found the results “monstrous, gross and grotesque.”
All the literary opium eaters- notably Coleridge, Crabbe and De Quincey- wrote about lunacy and hallucination, but they were a long way from being the only ones who were attracted to the theme: some of the most eminently sober and even-keeled of writers introduced mad scenes in their work, often as much for stylistic as for psychological reasons. On the operatic stage, where there was a near epidemic of lunacy, it afforded composers a marvelous opportunity to write delirious music for the coloratura soprano.