...a brief summary

((It should be noted that this conclusion is Foucault at his most dense, his most paradoxical, his most impenetrable. Thus, this summary is necessarily doomed to fail. It would be better to read the ten pages (closely).))

Goya’s Idiot who shrieks and twists his shoulder to escape from the nothingness that imprisons him—is this the birth of the first man and his first movement toward liberty, or the last convulsion of the last dying man? (281)

That is to ask: is Goya’s work situated within the birth of the classical conception of madness (“the first man”) or is it the dying gasp of the Renaissance conception of madness? For Foucault, Goya’s work might be superficially aligned with that of Bosch and Brueghel (“Does Goya not link us… with the old world of enchantments..?” (280)), but this alignment misses a sharper difference. Bosch’s (Renaissance) paintings illustrate “forms that are generated by the world itself; through the fissures of a strange poetry, they rise from stones and plants, they well out of an animal howl; the whole complicity of nature is not too much for their dance” (280). Thus, Bosch’s paintings are firmly situated within the Renaissance episteme, and are, indeed, both constitutive of and constituted by that episteme (and its perception/constitution of madness as somehow bestial). Goya’s work, on the other hand, is based on forms (of madness) that are “born out of nothing: they have no background, in the double sense that they are silhouetted against only the most monotonous darkness, and that nothing can assign them their origin, their limit, and their nature” (280). Madness, for Goya (unlike Bosch) is not situated within the natural order, or seen as an extension of nature itself, rather it is radically unnatural; it is madness ex nihilo, a figure that cannot be reached by reason. Thus, madness has become, for Goya, “man’s impossibility of abolishing both man and the world—and even those images that challenge the world and deform man” (281). Just as madness proper cannot be treated as anything but a psychiatric ‘subject’, Goya cannot treat madness as anything but an absolutely ‘other’ separation from reason.

Yet, for Foucault, this radical separation between reason and unreason is always mediated by figures in which madness and the work of art are combined: Nietzsche, Artaud, Van Gogh. He asks:

…this madness that links and divides time, that twists the world into the ring of a single night, this madness so foreign to the experience of its contemporaries, does it not transmit… those barely audible voices of classical unreason in which it was always a question of nothingness and night, but amplifying them now to shrieks and frenzy? But giving them for the first time an expression… and a hold on Western culture which makes possible all contestations as well as total contestation? But restoring their primitive savagery? (281).

He argues that “where there is a work of art, there is no madness; and yet madness is contemporary with the work art…” (288-89). Because these figures are mad yet manage to create works of art, they allow the gap between reason and madness to be bridged via the work of art itself. Though we cannot get at the truth of madness through the ‘measurement’ of science and reason, we can, through the madness’ experience of its own absence in the work of art (exemplified for Foucault by Artaud’s works) get at least a glimpse of it.

All references are to:
  • Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, translated by Richard Howard (Vintage Books/Random House, New York, 1988 (1965)). This English translation (the only that I know of) is incredibly abridged. The original French text runs around 700 pages I think, while this edition is 299 pages. If you are interested in the book at all, and you read French, do yourself a favour and get the original.

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