let’s whisper our diagnoses and start a science

a close reading of a nearly mystical passage at the end of History of Madness

Man and madmen are perhaps more closely linked in the modern world than they could ever have been in the powerful animal metamorphoses illuminated by the burning mills of Bosch: they are joined by the impalpable link of a reciprocal and incompatible truth; they murmur to each other this truth of their essence, which evaporates from having been said by one to the other. Each light is extinguished by the light that it has brought into being, and is thereby returned to the light that it tore, yet which had summoned it, and which it had so cruelly exposed. Today, the only truth that men possess is the enigma of the mad that they both are and are not; each madman both does and does not carry within him this truth about man, which he bares in the fall of his humanity.1

L’homme et le fou sont liés dans le monde moderne plus solidement peut-être qui’ils n’avaient pu l’être dans les puissantes métamorphoses animales qu’éclairaient jadis les moulins incendiés de Bosch : ils sont liés par ce lien impalpable d’une vérité réciproque et incompatible; ils se disent l’un à l’autre cette vérité de leur essence qui disparaît d’avoir été dite à l’un par l’autre. Chaque lumière s’éteint du jour qu’elle a fait naître et se trouve par là rendue à cette nuit qu’elle déchirait, qui l’avait appelée pourtant, et que, si cruellement, elle manifestait. L’homme, de nos jours, n’a de vérité que dans l’énigme du fou qu’il est et n’est pas; chaque fou porte et ne porte pas en lui cette vérité de l’homme qu’il met à nu dans la retombée de son humanité.2

This passage comes at the climax of History of Madness, wherein Michel Foucault turns his archeology of madness to the human sciences: (the medicalization of, the giving voice to) madness becomes the condition that makes possible for Man to become the subject and object of anthropological study, to become the bearer of a truth that resides in the psyche of the self, a truth that can be excavated and analyzed by sociologists and psychologists. This brief context—which is only a sliver of Foucault’s archival digging—should give his suggestion that man and madmen are more closely linked its drama. While the giant toads and chimerical incarnations in Bosch’s paintings are monstrous, unnatural, and terrifying in the meticulous forms fixed in oil and pigment, they are the kind of eldritch horrors that reside within us, the kind of little devils that live in our own sinew. The painting with the mills on fire, for instance, refers to a triptych called The Temptation of Saint Anthony, wherein the desert father has basically a carnival from Hell attempt to lead him astray, and this carnival, in its didactic role as an altar piece, clearly makes certain vices into a vision of demons feasting on people. In short, the point of Bosch (for Foucault) was that these monsters were in us from the beginning, that the human person tends towards all sorts of brutal tendencies that reveal the undead splendor of the infernal and the untamed chaos of nature.3

Temptation of St Anthony Triptych Bosch
Foucault was looking at this very image while writing the above words.

That equation of our own weak humanity with monstrous forms was not nearly as tight as the bond between Man and the mad as exists in modernity.

Michel Foucault, author of History of Madness, about to enjoy some delightful udon soup after a taxing day considering the birth of the modern subject.
Michel Foucault, author of History of Madness, about to enjoy some delightful udon soup after a taxing day considering the birth of the modern subject.

And the word bond is not quite sufficient to characterize what this relationship is either. Although the English translation by Jonathan Murphy and Jean Khalfa uses “link”—a word that nicely echoes the “impalpable link” in the next line or so—Foucault’s word choice is “lier.” What is lost in the passage from French to English is a richness of connotation: both the literal meanings of lier and its use in idiomatic French speech. Specifically, Foucault puns on the phrase “être fou à lier,” which means to be raving mad, literally to be mad (enough) to be tied down. Lier, here “to link,” does not only (or primarily) carry the connotation of linking ideas together; rather, it is the same verb one would use to describe what a nineteenth century doctor would do to a frenzied inmate or a convulsive: to tie them up, to bind them.4 A word-for-word translation of the first line would be “Man and madman are tied in the modern world more securely than perhaps…” The use of the adverb “solidement” (solidly, securely) further extends this metaphor, which now sees the mad and the not-mad tied together, firmly, constrained to be connected to one another—not merely by theme, but by body.

It is after the colon that Foucault shifts from the realm of the body to the realm of discourse and genealogy. Continuing to use the word lier, he now adds “lien,” the link to this passage. Lien, obviously cognate with lier (specifically from the third-person plural form, lient, which is nevertheless not pronounced like lien), does mean primarily relationship, though it pulls together imaginative and logical links (between thematic connections), textual links (as the word for hyperlink, as in English), physical links (like in a chain), and genealogical links (family ties). This link, the one between man and madman, is impalpable, something that cannot be felt, something intangible. Despite its ethereal nature, this link must be something whose force is still strong enough to chain together the fates of man and the mad. But what could it mean for a link to be so strong and not be felt, especially a link that had at its origins some kind of material reality located in the body of the person? Impalpable is the negation of the palpable, from the Latin palpitare (to touch gently), a word that is the origin word for another “delightful” 19th century medical terms: palpitation—the trembling of the heart aflutter, the prodding of the doctor towards the wombs of his hysterics, the convulsions of everyone thrown in the asylum.

A few denizens of the Salpêtrière, a little over century before Foucault died there.
A few denizens of the Salpêtrière, a little over century before Foucault died there.

This impalpable link is of a “reciprocal and incompatible truth.” It is the flow of a truth from Man to the mad and back again, and, with each circuit, the truth of Man is not the right truth for the mad and (definitely) vice-versa. It is a truth that is ephemeral (impalpable, if you will). A truth that evaporates like some liquid solvent—the ether for cleansing the tools of trepanation?—is something that becomes transmitted across the impalpable link. Foucault alludes here to his argument that the medicalization of madness gives madness a voice with which it can communicate with the world of reason (in fact, banishing the unreason that came before). The original French does not use evaporate, instead choosing “disparaître,” to disappear. But the translation stays close to the “spirit” of the passage, which plays off of the double meaning within “essence,” a word that is commonly used in French to refer to gasoline in addition to the core reality of a thing found in ontology. Essence in French also refers to a type of a thing, a definition that puts the sentences murmured (“se disent” in the original: to say to oneself, to claim) back and forth between the mad and the not-mad in a different light. I can almost imagine the archetypal Man and the archetypal Madman, uttering their diagnoses at one another, claiming their DSM-IV categories, listing the ways in which they utterly fit the criteria for some pathology or another. And then the telling itself exorcises those categories, undoes the existential underpinnings of the rupture between madness and non-madness—or at least makes those categories, those essential truths of categorically different selves disappear (only to reappear later).

The next sentence in the English translation is marked by the mystical language of a parthenogenic light. When I first read it, my first thought was the phrase in the Nicene Creed used by Roman Catholics, referring to Jesus: “the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, one in being with the Father; through him all things were made.” Foucault inverts this formulation: it is both a light-from-light situation and a situation where the original light snuffs out the begotten one. In the preceding few sentences, Foucault had established the figure of Man (and the truth contained in that category) as the metaphorical light.5 Light here references both the positive pole of the obvious good/evil, white/black binary and the light of the Enlightenment: the light of rationality and visibility that rid the world of its superstitions, ignorance, theatre, and madness. The problem of madness post-Enlightenment was that of the counterpart, the darkness, the night-time mysteries that retain the old-world flair of the supernatural. Foucault challenges this easy scheme, placing the rational Man and the madman in the same category of light. Although Murphy and Khalfa’s translation creates this lovely parody of the Catholic confession of faith, Foucault’s words less closely mirror the lumen de lúmine section of the creed. In fact, the phrase in English would actually translate to “Each light is extinguished by the day it gave birth to and finds itself returned to the night it tore apart” (my italics). Here, the logic is slightly different: the light (truth, or specifically, the truth of the essence) is extinguished by the day (reason), a day created by that light, and returns to the night (unreason), which the light had destroyed.


I would suggest, however, that though it seems like there is a major word-level translation error here, the English does point toward some of the same interpretations that the original does. For one, there is still the strange doubling, the double-birth (recalling another god of sacrifice—Dionysus, the twice born, who drove his followers to stark madness).6 The light creates the day, the light of some kernel of awareness that could only exist as consubstantial with the day. And this light, encountering the impossibility of itself as a truth spoken by and through the figure of the mad, extinguishes the day, which it had created. It is tossed back to the night, a tossing back that destroys the night, for the emergence of light at night-time is the end of night—either as the great light called dawn that breaks the darkness or a light that clarifies that which can be hidden (and therefore imagined to exist) at night. Furthermore, the light had already thrown itself into this night, exposing the shadows and the possibility of magic in the shadows to be nothing more than fantasy, to be just the fears of an ignorant species who needed a helping of light to see that everything is a function of biology and economics and history. This is the cruelness Foucault speaks of: the light of rationality snuffing out an imagination borne from the impossibility to know, from a titillating uncertainty.

But at the same time, this light of reason is also what has conjured up the night of madness in the first place. It is unclear in the English translation whether the summoning was done by the original light (the subject of the sentence: “Each light…”) or the ruptured light/night. It is also ambiguous in the French (“qui l’avait appelée pourtant”), though following the trail of antecedents implies it is the light of reason, the little truths murmured by man and the mad to one another, that does the summoning. This reading seems to be more in line with the trajectory of Foucault’s genealogy: that in the classical age, a distinction between reason and unreason gave way to one between reason and madness. It was only possible to consider oneself reasonable by not being mad, and this naming of a sudden presentation within the scalar field of unreason was what enabled a shift in inquiry toward the truth within man. What was “exposed” (“manifestait”) were the divisions of behavior into symptoms, symptoms that arose from a natural order written by doctors and philosophers, symptoms that were no longer (at least not quite) marks of sinfulness, criminality, or even a separate (unreasonable) way of seeing the world. The exposition was that, for the mad, nothing spooky was going on, only traits that were not normal. These traits were put under the knife, in laboratories and on analytic couches, scrutinized under the harsh light of reason. Under this light, no one found anything that could not be accounted for.

A common procedure during the Age of Enlightenment.
A common procedure during the Age of Enlightenment.

Concerning the genealogy expressed in this sentence, we are brought back to the genealogy of gods. “Brought into being” and “fait naître” can both be translated as “to beget.” The light that is extinguished by what (another light or day) it has brought into being is not the progenitor of the light of the Enlightenment or the day of the “freeing” of the mad or the system of study wherein Man is the subject and object of his own research. It is an impossible origin, one that makes possible this new episteme and exists alongside it, can be extinguished by it, and can yet be found (“se trouve”) in another realm. As ephemeral as it is, this light cannot be destroyed. In the previous sentence, the verbs “evaporate” or “disparaît” tell us as much. Neither verb marks a destruction, but a change in state. When water evaporates, it becomes vapor and carries the potential threat of coalescing back into liquid, to create a mist or storm. To disappear has nothing to do with not being somewhere, but to not appear to be somewhere. Likewise, this light is snuffed out in its relationship to the day it brought forth. Another theological term is useful here: perichoresis or circuminsession. Perichoresis is a possible candidate to explain the unreason of the triune god of Catholicism: each person (Father, Son, Holy Ghost) is interpenetrated by each other, they are enveloped. The expression of God as Father, for instance, contains within it the full expression of the godhead as Son or Spirit. This envelopment has also been applied to the relationship between God and Man, wherein the Holy Spirit indwells within the body.7 Unsurprisingly, another use of the word indwelling is in medicine, referring most often to catheterization—to fix something inside the body of a patient for a long period of time (the imperfect tense for an injection).

Following this path, the next sentence, where truth (the light, essential knowledge, etc.) is something to be found inside the person, is a bit less murky. Man contains within him the ghost of madness, and to be mad is a condition that also contains the ghost of reason. The mad are paradoxical because they still do represent that night of unreason, but then again, they do not. They are part of the natural order; they have these symptoms that cause them to be abnormal, to be unpredictable, to be chaotic. This chaos is enveloped by the totality of nature as it understood by positivistic scientists, charted out on the edges of normal curves. Their reliance on probabilities, on language, on the rightness of classification models defangs madness, gives the mad some terms they can use to describe their affects. But Man now is called into question as the origin of truth, the sovereign wielder of the cogito, of the capacity to critique and self-critique. It is only by sloughing off the nagging concerns that one might be crazy can one develop a theory of rational truth. This banishing (the opposite of summoning) of madness within the human subject allows him to access himself as a fount of truth. From the thigh of madness, he enters life by a double door.8

A rare medical diagram depicting "thigh birth."
A rare medical diagram depicting “thigh birth.”

This double door is the dual states of being a person must undergo—being both mad and not mad, the bearer of truth and not the bearer of truth—to be able to function as excavation site of truth. The madman, the tragic and shifting hero of History of Madness, “bares” this enigmatic passage to truth. In the French, it is “met à nu,” to undress, to strip, literally to put on nudity (instead of clothes). Both verbs have a bodily dimension, to uncover, to be naked. To bare all. To strip. The mad, then, strip off their straightjackets, wipe away their lithium grins. They show that beneath their clothes is their body (like ours), which itself is the fleshy source of our truth—the truth of Man—and this body shows itself as the site of enigmatic truth in the moment its humanity falls. Foucault could have used tomber, to fall, to express this fall, but he chose instead “retomber,” which also means to fall in the sense of waning (the fall of Rome) but has the added dimension of falling again. This process of shedding all to uncover the body of a paradoxical truth (a reciprocal and incompatible truth, preferably whispered) is a cyclical, Sisyphean fall: one that happens again and again and again. It is a fall because the special quality of being the body of truth makes the self alien. The self becomes too precious, too analyzable, too orderly. It falls because the moment of truth is marked by the banishing of unreason from the equation first and banishing madness into treatable symptoms at last. It is a fall because falling is the only way for it to rise again, playing the game of ephemerality and murmurs, disappearing and reappearing, and changing shape. It is a fall because the only way we can get to this truth is by deciding that truth is something that can be found and can be found in us. This last fall begins a process of creating and distinguishing the possible outcomes of being human, a process that we unceasingly repeat in different forms in different times, a process we memorialize by creating histories.

Among the many things that tempted Saint Anthony is this crazy head, according to Joos van Craesbeeck.
Among the many things that tempted Saint Anthony is this crazy head, according to Joos van Craesbeeck.

Our madnesses are no longer the uncanny alchemy of demonic beasts in a weird landscape replete with apocalyptic windmills, a landscape where anything could happen. They are now philosophical questions that can be swallowed up by sweatless logicians. They are now glitches, the contradictions that prove the theory. They are vices we give ourselves permission to treat. They are objective splinters in our objective subjectivity. Whatever madness is now, it is something that is in close, intimate dialogue with Man, the realm of reason, the realm of doctors and statisticians. This situation is not unsexual either: the reasonable and the mad are securely tied up, murmuring to each other sweet truths that dissolves the stability of their bodies—which are then made bare for the hunt for truth. What happens in this foundational courtship is nothing less than the creation (parthenogenically, by virgin birth, begetting not making) of a total body of knowledge. A body of knowledge that excludes the violence that allowed it to be, that reshapes exclusion as the great devourer, that does not silence what is outside (such as unreason) so much as gerrymander the field of knowledge so that nothing is outside of it, so that everything in this district is subject to regulation. This district is called Man, a landscape that both is and is not human due to side-effect of its engineering.

  1. Michel Foucault, History of Madness, translated by Jonathan Murphy and Jean Khalfa (New York City: Routledge, 2006), 529. [↩︎]
  2. Michel Foucault, Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1972), 548. [↩︎]
  3. Nature here refers to the bestial aspects the classical age associated with madness, which contains its own paradoxes about sin, morality, the natural, grace, etc. [↩︎]
  4. Here, nineteenth century is not meant to be an exclusive date range. [↩︎]
  5. “If madness in the modern world has a meaning other than being a night in the face of the light of truth…” English translation, page 528. “Si la folie pour le monde moderne a un autre sens que celui d’être nuit en face du jour de la vérité…” Original, page 548. [↩︎]
  6. Besides the dithyrambs—which were named in his honor, although the etimology is hazy—retelling of his strange double birth of womb and thigh, most Dionysus tales end in his crazy followers (Maenads) or some other victim slaughtering someone/something and eating the target while bathing in blood. See Homer, Illiad 6: 136–137 and Homeric Hymn to Dionysos; Euripides, Bacchae; Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and Beyond Good and Evil. [↩︎]
  7. For a great and strange exploration of indwelling in this sense, please read the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. [↩︎]
  8. Enter now life’s second portal,
    Motherless mystery ; lo I break
    Mine own body for thy sake,
    Thou of the Two-fold Door, and seal thee…

    From Euripedes, Bacchae, 519, referencing Dionysis. [↩︎]