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.
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.
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.