Drawing madness

by DRM

1857 lithograph by Armand Gautier, showing personifications of dementia, megalomania, acute mania, melancholia, idiocy, hallucination, erotic mania and paralysis in the gardens of the Hospice de la Salpêtrière.

In an attempt to catalog madness, the artist has created a zoo exhibit for lunacy.

They are curious objects, these women who have lost their mind with such intensity that they have to be locked up behind thick, high walls.

We look at this illustration with detachment, as an historical oddity. But once it was a diagnostic tool: a young medical student with an interest in the illness of the mind would study this lithograph and, on the basis of a woman’s appearance, coupled with her behavior, determine what mental illness she suffered and what treatment she should get.

A woman would pay a profound cost for being declared mad.

Today’s diagnostic devices are not much better. The lithograph has been replaced with video of therapeutic sessions, treatments and symptoms. The doctor still works with a check list of questions, trying to triangulate patterns of excitement, absence of control, lassitude and apathy to make a diagnosis that can be managed with pills and talk.

The effort is sincere but superficial. Madness is a mystery.

Don’t think madness doesn’t exist, or that it is a gift from God, a sign of genius, a creative emblem. Madness is pure pain, a deep, impenetrable hole where nothing makes sense.