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’.


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