“25 Years of Madness and Modernism” A review by James Whitehead

I first encountered Louis Sass’s Madness and Modernism about a dozen years ago, when I was studying for an MA in modern literature. I had always been interested in writing about madness and the psyche as an undergraduate, and was looking around for a suitable topic for a dissertation, and perhaps a PhD too. My initial literature review had not been encouraging. I had found the critical literature on ‘madness’ full of lukewarm Laingisms and Freudianisms — which is not to say that I didn’t, or don’t, appreciate thinking in the anti-psychiatric or psychoanalytic traditions. But the second-hand madness-as-liberation and the-insanity-of-daily-life stuff was wearing thin, and I was beginning to think that other topics might be more interesting or productive. Then I read Sass. Madness and Modernism was of a different intellectual order entirely. For one thing, despite the general title, it avoids grand general pronouncements about that tricky term, ‘madness’. The book is instead almost exclusively about the experience of schizophrenia, or schizophrenia spectrum disorders, which it describes with humane insight and great phenomenological richness, drawing on a range of historical and contemporary cases, many of the latter from Sass’s own work as a clinical psychologist. These are discussed in parallel with an equally rich array of examples from (mostly) high European modernism, which seemed to describe a parallel domain of being, only captured aesthetically rather than clinically. It proved indispensable for the dissertation (of which more anon). I held on to the university library copy of Madness and Modernism for as long as possible, but when it had to be relinquished, it was hard to get a copy of my own. The book was out of print, and second-hand copies always seemed to go for exorbitant sums on Amazon. This suggests it had become something of a cult work. I did ultimately get my hands on a cheap copy, but was nevertheless delighted to see at the turn of the new year that it had been republished by OUP, and that a symposium would be held in Durham, organized by Angela Woods, the CMH, and the Hearing the Voice project, to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of its publication — another indication of the esteem in which the book is held. So I jumped at the chance to attend the symposium, which took place on Friday 11th May.


A range of scholars from different disciplines (Åsa Jansson from the history of psychiatry, Joel Krueger from philosophy, Elizabeth Barry from literary studies, and Matt ffytche from psychosocial and psychoanalytic studies) gave a fascinating set of responses to Madness and Modernism, addressing such topics as the overlap between the symptomatology of schizophrenia and that recorded under now discarded historical psychiatric categories, especially melancholia; phenomenology, the physical world, and ‘unworlding’ in schizophrenia; Beckett, the subject, and ‘ipseity’; and the forms of social judgement involved in discussing ‘outsider writing’. The day ended with a wide-ranging and lucid conversation between Louis Sass himself and Patricia Waugh, Professor in English Studies at Durham. The papers and conversation were too interesting and intricate to attempt further (inevitably crude) summary, but those who missed the event may console themselves with the prospect of a recording of the last session becoming available at some point in the near future. Questions from the floor also brought in important topics such as stigma, the nature of psychiatric classification and diagnosis, and the contested coherence — or even use altogether — of terms such as schizophrenia and schizophrenic (Sass has a robust defence of this in the preface to the revised edition). I am an inveterate question asker in conference Q&A sessions, and had more than my turn earlier in the day, so can’t claim any lack of opportunity, but I was left with these thoughts. With so many questions in the air about schizophrenia, we didn’t quite get a chance to turn the arrow of interpretation, to use Sass’s phrase, back to modernism, the other half of the equation in Madness and Modernism. What I’d found so useful but also provocative about the book in 2006, apart from its wonderful range of reference both to primary materials and to the various contributions to the understanding of schizophrenia made by medical-model psychiatry, psychology, psychoanalysis, phenomenology, and other areas of philosophy, was its relatively non-critical (in the sense of non-judgemental) use of literary and cultural texts. In that now distant-seeming dissertation I began to take some faltering steps towards interrogating Sass’s ‘parallelism’ (his word), addressing a question that Madness and Modernism largely sidesteps: namely, not how literature might innocently illuminate madness, but how and why modernist authors might have been deliberately motivated to imitate, appropriate (more or less knowledgably or cynically), or otherwise draw parallels between their creative output and the experience of the mad; faltering because not remotely achievable in the space of an MA dissertation, of course! I am still working on this question today, in one form or another, having gone back to the nineteenth century and earlier to think about the cultural history and complicated politics of identifying or claiming links between the arts and psychopathology. There was — is — a lot more to say here.


The other question I wanted to ask was about Madness and Modernism’s impeccable taste. Its choice of literary examples is clearly the result of Sass’s obvious enthusiasm for, and no mean ability to understand and interpret, experimental work in the high modernist tradition from several European literatures: Baudelaire, Kafka, Eliot, Joyce, Beckett, Musil, Borges, Artaud, Sarraute, and others all feature — and that’s just the writers. I wondered how much this was due to Sass’s own penchants, and his early education, which I was not previously aware of, as an English major, and how much to a notion that there is something about experimental writing that gives it special insight into the world of the schizophrenic. Can examples drawn from more popular or generic writing provide equal insight into this world? I am thinking particularly of science fiction, and an author like Philip K. Dick, who, while not quite a modernist formally speaking, has passages in his work reminiscent of what Sass calls the stimmung, or prodromal mood of schizophrenia, which are almost as compelling as the texts cited in Madness and Modernism. Do they count in the same way? Or not? Perhaps this would be complicated by that fact that Dick had read quite a lot of psychiatry, including touchstones of phenomenological psychiatry like Binswanger, and even some case histories, or Schreber’s memoirs at least. But then the same could be said of earlier modernist writers’ knowledge of psychiatry. So it may be useful for future work in this area to break down such barriers as exist between the ‘high’ modernist canon and ‘lower’ genres of modern literature. (Waugh asked Sass a question about ‘ordinary modernism’ in the discussion session which may have been suggested by a similar thought, though I’m not sure this is what she meant.)


But it strikes me that Sass’s approach is still compelling, such questions notwithstanding, partly because I think it does implicitly insist on, and demonstrate, a special quality of experimental modernist writing, outside of, if not entirely free of, questions of authorial motivation, context, or cultural politics. It can be easy as an English academic nowadays not to venture beyond the confines of models derived from historicism and cultural materialism. In the quarter of a century since Madness and Modernism was first published, most periods of literary study have been marked by the ascendancy of such models, and modernism, with its ‘material turn’ since the 1990s, is no exception. Of course this has produced much fine work, including scholarship on the relation between literary and medical or scientific cultures and discourses. But I’m not sure a modernist scholar from this milieu could write Madness and Modernism, even if they were to master the clinical and philosophical literature it draws on. The book’s full-throttle insistence on the insight of literary texts, entirely on their own terms, or in a philosophical frame of reference drawn from perhaps unfashionable (because once so fashionable) areas such as existentialism or phenomenology (and it was refreshing to hear Sass challenge this directly: why wouldn’t we be interested in these intellectual traditions?) was a great and somewhat audacious feat to pull off, even then. I’m not sure who would even publish it now, if it were a new and unknown book. Perhaps this is unjust to academic publishers. Madness and Modernism shows us, in any case, that interdisciplinary work is not always or not only about the give and take of new and innovative methods and knowledge between disciplines, but also, perhaps, how the disciplinary ‘outsider’ can remind us of the value of what has been set aside or forgotten by the vicissitudes of our own disciplines.


Dr James Whitehead is a Lecturer in English Literature at Liverpool John Moores University. His research and teaching interests include Romanticism and its legacies, psychiatry and mental illness in nineteenth and twentieth-century literature, including modernism and contemporary literature, and life-writing (autobiography and biography). He has three main research projects completed or underway, one on the figure of the mad poet in the nineteenth century, now out with Oxford University Press, one on the representation and appropriation of schizophrenia in twentieth-century culture, to appear in Liverpool University Press’s Representations series, and one on autobiographical narratives of mental illness and confinement.

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