The Man Who Thought He Was Napoleon

Here’s a cool summary of a book about madness and the French Revolution: “The Man Who Thought He Was Napoleon“.

Pinel, the first in the emerging profession of psychiatry to speculate on the effect of revolution on a nation’s mental health, was confronted with a paradox between revolution’s means and its ends. The national mind might have been reinvigorated, but many individuals had never recovered from ‘the profound seizures that are generally produced by various bloody and atrocious scenes’. Many more had been driven to mental collapse by the unbearable randomness with which anyone could lose livelihood, family or property. Emergency state powers, simultaneously vague and absolute, fed paranoia and fantasies of persecution. Food, fuel and medicine ran short, epidemic disease and mass starvation loomed; armies raped and pillaged, asylums were requisitioned and the mad and the sick spilled onto the streets.

For those unsympathetic to its ends the conclusion was plain: revolution was madness on a national scale. Edmund Burke, also writing in 1790, argued that the fear engendered by violent mass upheaval ‘robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning’, and had surrendered the French people to an ‘incomprehensible spirit of delirium and delusion’.

This section reminds me of something Camus wrote in Combat: “I am well aware that it takes a powerful prime mover to get men into motion and that it is hard to throw one’s self into a struggle whose objectives are so modest and where hope has only a rational basis—and hardly even that. But the problem is not how to carry men away; it is essential, on the contrary, that they not be carried away but rather that they be made to understand clearly what they are doing.”

And again, from the aforementioned article:

Even if insanity increased during revolutions, it might be understood as an inevitable side-effect of progress. In his Maladies mentales of 1838 Esquirol characterised mental illness as ‘a disease of civilisation’: the fact that it was encountered more rarely in tribal cultures or under despotic rule was not an argument in their favour. The ‘new man’ hailed by Rousseau and brought into being by the Revolution had thrown off the feudal yoke and acquired rights as an individual, but this also meant new burdens of selfhood. Citizens had more freedoms than ever before, but social ties were looser; there was less constraint from family and community, but also less support. It was no coincidence that madness was most prevalent in the big cities at the leading edge of modernity, where the stresses on the self-fashioning individual were most acute. ‘A republican or representative government’, it seemed to Esquirol, might be optimal for the advancement of civilisation yet ‘more favourable to the production of insanity’.

Texas Flood

Despite the weeks of rain, and the now famous floods, Central Texas is no nearer to escaping approaching-desert status, thanks to a little thing called feedback loops. Stage 2 water restrictions persist, even though the lakes to the west of Austin have been “filled” (to 55%). That’s because the soil was so dry for so long, and then saturated so quickly, that the ongoing rain only served to wash way top soil—not to mention trees—which will result in less capacity to hold future rain, and thus more capacity to accelerate desertification, as less trees mean less shade, which means drier soil, which means more flash flooding, which means more soil erosion, which means… you get the idea.

In the meantime, the creeks in Austin certainly flexed their muscles on Monday. It’s a good thing the Pease Park/Shoal Creek riparian zone has been saturated with herbicides in recent weeks, for no apparently sound reason. All those chemicals are now in the Colorado River, which is the main source of drinking water for the region. Good thinking.

Hypothetical Scenario

If you were to walk into your kitchen to find the faucets gushing, the sink over-flowing, and three inches of water already covering the floor, what would you do first? Would you go find a jackhammer, and drill into the tile to empty the water into the basement? Would you look for a bucket under the sink so you could start bailing water out the window? Would you pull out your phone and look up a good plumber in your area? No, of course not. The first thing you would do is turn the faucet off.

Wreckage and Revolution

On the heels of Mad Men’s final episode, which I found both subversive and saccharine, here’s a cool short article about Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter, Mary Shelley: “Romantic Outlaws”.

It’s strange to think of a time when people would actually kill themselves over an intellectual revolt, or over a philosophical absurdity. Although, I guess we all do that now; it just takes a lot longer.


“The same year I first saw the Peat Glossary, a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was published. A sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture, and willow. The words introduced to the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player, and voice-mail.”

– Robert MacFarlane, from Landspeak

In Defense of Nostalgia

“To believe in progress is not only to believe in the future: It is also to usher in the possibility that the past wasn’t all that. I now feel — and this is a revelation — that my past was an interesting and quite fallow period spent waiting for the Internet.”

This is my “favorite” sentence from this essay: “In Defense of Technology.” I read it because I’d hate to be one of those people who can’t even entertain any possible merits from a viewpoint they oppose.

And yet, while there is a case to made that our* lives are made “better” by time-saving apps, the production of iphones alone (never mind their use) rules them out as being considered a benefit to humankind—unless of course you’re pro- child slavery, let alone pro- destruction of our only habitat. The author of the piece mentions that he can now cut down on research time (going to the library? ew), as if more efficiently adding footnotes to a book more than merits the extinction of some 200 species a day. That research must be pretty damn important.

* By “our” I mean members of the First World; it’s hard to see how a teenage factory worker or a small-scale farmer gets to enjoy the perks of hand-held access to the internet, without even mentioning the incalculable destruction and misery it rains down upon non-humans.

Lest we forget—looking only at the sleekness and portability of an iphone—that the internet takes an entire oil-based infrastructure to produce and maintain. Or did you not know that there are miles of cables running at the bottom of the ocean?