Years ago, a friend recommended I read Foucault’s Madness And Civilization. After over a decade, I am revisiting the text. I have just started re-reading it, and already there are so many things to think about.
Foucault’s main point, I believe, is that, as society’s ideas in general shift, so does its view of insanity. That is, mental health is subject to paradigm theory.
In the Middle Ages, the phenomenon that ostracized people, that mainly marginalized them, was leprosy. Foucault makes a connection with “madness”– that once leprosy left Europe, it was the mentally ill who assumed the position of the leper.
Madmen represent certain things, Foucault writes in his first chapter. They embody, in a sense, death itself– or, a sort of death in life. The crazy person is like a grinning skull. The aspects of life that are uncontrolled, absurd, undefinable– these things are the purview of madmen.
It seems to me, then, that mentally ill people serve a societal function– at least at this point in history– to represent that all about life cannot be controlled or rationalized, that culture has its limits, and that conditioning and socialization cannot always conquer nature.
Mentally ill people allow the sane to externalize this force of chaos– by embodying it, the madman allows the healthy person to say, “I am not that”. The sane casts away what is absurd in life– perhaps similarly suggesting that there are aspects of life that will forever remain inexplicable, and at the same time, that these aspects are associated with a human mind that has become dysfunctional.
If you say, “I am sane, and you are not”, you vanquish your own fears and insecurities. I become the bearer of nature’s chaotic forces. Without meaning to, I help you to ground yourself– to remind you that you are healthy, cultured and well-adapted.