"Madness and Civilization" is the English translation of "Folie et deraison; historie de folie", a seminal work by French philosopher and sociologist Michel Foucault. The book serves as a critical history of the perception of mental illness in Western society, starting in the middle ages and working through to the (somewhat) modern era.
Of course, when I write "mental illness", I am engaging in a bit of an anachronism, since neither Foucault or the people he writes about would use that term. The term he uses is "Folie", which is apparently the French term that is translated into the now quaint-sounding English term "Madness". It is hard to approach this book at times because of the gulf between my conception of "mental illness", a series of discrete states with classifiable origins and effects and Foucault's conception of "Madness", which is more nebulous and all-embracing. And Foucault's prose is also quite a bit to get through:
"Madness designates the equinox between the vanity of night's hallucinations and the non-being of light's judgements."
Even in context, the meaning of this is to me, unclear. And the book is close to 300 pages of this, combining references to French history with which I was not versed with the most flowery and seemingly meaningless prose. Perhaps someone with more of a handle on both Foucault and European history would be able to understand his point better than I. But for me, it was hard to construct his point, other than that "Madness" was the antithesis of European society's concept of progress.
My biggest point of objection to all of this is that when Foucault talks about "Madness" and "The Mad", he is not talking about men and women who have a mental illness. In my contemporary culture, mental illness is often looked at as a common thing, and it has many of the stigmata attached to it debunked. I have known many mentally ill people, some seriously, but for the most part, they share many of the same agendas and goals with people who are not mentally ill. Rather than treating the mentally ill as a diverse group who have concrete problems and concrete identities, he instead lumps them all together and uses them as a foil for some type of dialectic theory of European social progression. In other words, his "Madness" has little to do with the lives of people living with mental illness, but is instead just an abstraction that he sticks into some complicated (and to me, irrelevant) theory of social structure. To me, he uses them and reduces them just as the people he criticized did. I perhaps am missing the point in this, but I found this book to be much more instructive about Foucault's agenda than it is about its titular subject.