“At the very beginning of the long dialogue between thinkers that makes up western political theory there is Plato’s Republic, and at the very beginning of the Republic there is this strange and interesting exchange. Socrates asks an old man, Cephalus, if he can define justice. Cephalus says, Of course, justice means to tell the truth and to return anything you have borrowed. Socrates then asks, Suppose you have borrowed a sword from a man, and while the sword is in your possession the man goes mad. In this state of madness (mania) the man comes and asks for his sword. Does justice require that you return it?”….
Madness, lunacy, insanity, and even extreme eccentricity have been one of the great themes of art;whether in tragic or harmless form; and dealing with some form of madness, whether by tempting, taunting or sheer accident, the edge of the abyss has always been closer than it appears in a world of mirrors and illusion. Many an uncontrollable conflagration has been sparked by innocent play with Promethean fire, from the amusing to the tragic and sometimes the absurd. Insanity can be viewed as an ecstatic dance of freedom that mimes man’s revolt against the restraints of civilization. Mostly heroes and not villains whose actions anticipate R.D. Laing’s contention that madness is often nothing more than a desperate bid for liberty.
In his psychoanalytic study of “Madness and Civilization” French historian Michel Foucault traces the middle to end of the eighteenth century as the beginning where mental images emerged, where among them “the complicity of desire and murder, of cruelty and the longing to suffer, of sovereignty and slavery, of insult and humiliation,” corresponded to the new passions of the age where the myths of a polite,perfectible society were transformed into often repulsive, strange images that were compelling, and alienating; madness has often held a deeply rooted allegoric purpose beginning the in romantic age where the artist felt an instinctive brotherhood with the madman in his isolation, which so closely paralleled his own increasing alienation from the “normal” nineteenth century world.
According to Sacheverell Sitwell, Richard Dadd was “the only good painter who worked through a lifetime of mental disease.” “The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke”, is his masterpiece, or at least his surviving masterpiece , for Dadd lived in insane asylums nearly half a century and much of his work was lost or destroyed. The painting depicts a strange world amid the creeping vines: fallen hazel nuts and stems of grass give scale to the miniature landscape. It is populated by, among others, the king and queen of fairies, two buxom women with winged hats, an odd couple costumed in the mode of the 1840′s, and a cross-eyed gnome hunched distractedly before the “fairy feller,” whose axe will never fall. It is all as inexplicable as the title.
Born in 1817, Richard Dadd early proved to have great artistic gifts, which his adoring father had the means to encourage. The family even moved to London to enroll the young man at the Royal Academy. He was just beginning to be well known and to receive important commissions when a hallucinatory psychosis overwhelmed him. In 1843, aged twenty-six, he stabbed his father to death. Pronounced a criminal lunatic, he was locked away the rest of his life. Ordinarily a gentle man, Dadd attracted the sympathy of a physician who urged him to paint.
Among the surviving drawings is “The Child’s Problem” . In it, a crazed little boy is advancing upon his sleeping father, whose head is partially shrouded. In he background hangs an engraving, famous in its day, of a black slave begging for freedom; there is also a classical nude and a picture of a ship in a gale. The drawing surely contains a clue, however mysterious as to why Richard Dadd became a patricide.
Carl Jung, referring to the medieval concept of the daemonic, professed that “from the psychological point of view demons are nothing other than intruders from the unconscious, spontaneous irruptions of unconscious complexes into the continuity of the conscious process. Complexes are comparable to demons which fitfully harass our thought and actions; hence in antiquity and the Middle Ages acute neurotic disturbances were conceived as daemonic possession.” Indeed, prior to the seventeenth-century philosophical revelations of René Descartes–which later spawned the scientific objectivism that so characterizes the contemporary study of psychopathology–it was commonly believed that an emotional disorder, madness, lunacy, or insanity was literally the work of evil demons, who in their winged travels would inhabit the unwitting body (or brain) of the unfortunate sufferer. This archetypal imagery of invasive flying entities with supernatural powers is still evident today in such colloquialisms for insanity as having “bats in the belfry,” and in the delusional patient’s obstinate belief about being manipulated by “aliens” in flying saucers. ( Stephen A. Diamond )
This is not to imply that the romantics were mad, some of them were, or that madness is the prevailing tendency in their work, since there are a great many rationalist currents to be found in romanticism though distorted or manipulated. But the romantic is at least aware that he is no longer living in an age of reason, and he often recognizes some of his own features in the grimaces of the lunatic. Eventually, he may conclude that the whole of human life is madness, or that he has been born into a mad age. Romanticism had revived the ancient belief that madness is orphic knowledge. Insanity, said Charles Nodier, the teacher of Victor Hugo and Alfred de Musset, represented an upward step in the evolution of consciousness….
” Principal hobgoblin painter to the devil” . So said the critics of Henry Fuseli, and undoubtedly he was pleased. ” I was born in February or march,” he wrote, ” it was a cursed cold month, as you may guess from my diminutive nature and crabbed disposition.” His self portrait below, is crabbedness incarnate- beaky nose, bony fingers, bushy brows. He was known, even to friends, as the ” terrible Fuseli” , for he lived in perpetual anger. The rumor went around that he consumed a plate of raw meat each night at bedtime in order to make his dreams more fearsome. Fuseli, however, was no lunatic, and his eccentric behavior had an element of showmanship about it. He had many devotees, among them William Blake, who praised his friend in a sardonic bit of doggerel: “The only man that e’er I knew/ Who did not make me almost spew/ Was Fuseli: he was both Turk and Jew-/ And so, dear Christian Friends, how do you do?
… And, as Jungian analyst James Hillman notes, for the almost two millennia since this distortion of the originally ambiguous daimones into evil demons, devils, or Satan, “the denial of daimons and their exorcism has been part and parcel of Christian psychology, leaving the Western psyche few means but the hallucinations of insanity for recognizing daimonic reality.” The epoch-making Cartesian approach of the late Rennaissance separated mind and body, subject and object, and deemed “real” only that aspect of human experience which is objectively measurable, or quantifiable. This advance led, notoriously, to the abject neglect of “irrational,” subjective phenomena. Descartes’ seventeenth-century breakthrough was a dubious development in human thought: It enabled us to rid the world of superstition, witchcraft, magic, and the gamut of mythical creatures–both evil and good–in one clean, scientific sweep. …
Fuseli shared and in large part instigated the taste for the macabre that characterized his age. “The Nightmare” was painted in 1781, and made him internationally famous. A hundred years hence, and engraving of this frightful scene was to be found in the office of Sigmund Freud, who greatly admired it. The term “nightmare” originally meant a dream of being suffocated or crushed, and Fuseli interprets this literally: a fiend is squatting on the chest of his curvaceous victim, while his horse peers wildly through the bed curtains. The physiologist Erasmus Darwin also liked the painting, so much so that he paid tribute to it in verse:
So on his Nightmare, trough the evening fog,/ Flits the squab Fiend o’er fen, and lake, and bog; /Seeks some love-Wilder’d Maid with sleep oppress’d, / Alights, and grinning, sets upon her breast.
…Demons served as ready scapegoats and repositories for all sorts of unacceptable, threatening human impulsions, such as anger, rage, guilt, and sexuality. Moreover, writes theologian Gerardus van der Leeuw, “horror and shuddering, sudden fright and the frantic insanity of dread, all receive their form in the demon; this represents the absolute horribleness of the world, the incalculable force which weaves its web around us and threatens to seize us. Hence all the vagueness and ambiguity of the demon’s nature…. The demons’ behaviour is arbitrary, purposeless, even clumsy and ridiculous, but despite this it is no less terrifying.”
…Certainly Don Quixote’s death occurs in a peaceful landscape, which at the last moment has rejoined reason and truth. Suddenly the Knight’s madness has grown conscious of itself, and in his own eyes trickles out in nonsense. But is this sudden wisdom of his folly anything but “a new madness that had just come into his head”? The equivocation is endlessly reversible and cannot be resolved, ultimately, except by death itself. Madness dissipated can be only the same thing as the imminence of the end; “and even one of the signs by which they realized that the sick man was dying, was that he had returned so easily from madness to reason.”
But death itself does not bring peace; madness will still triumph -a truth mockingly eternal, beyond the end of a life which yet had been delivered from madness by this very end. Ironically, Don Quixote’s insane life pursues and im-mortalizes him only by his insanity; madness is still the imperishable life of death: “Here lies the famous hidalgo who carried valor to such lengths that it was said death could not triumph over life by his demise.”
But very soon, madness leaves these ultimate regions where Cervantes and Shakespeare had situated it; and in the literature of the early seventeenth century it occupies, by preference, a median place; it thus constitutes the knot more than the denouement, the peripity rather than the final release. Displaced in the economy of narrative and dramatic structures, it authorizes the manifestation of truth and the return of reason.
Thus madness is no longer considered in its tragic reality, in the absolute laceration that gives it access to the other world; but only in the irony of its illusions. It is not a real punishment, but only the image of punishment, thus a pre-tense; it can be linked only to the appearance of a crime or to the illusion of a death. ( Michel Foucault )