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Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Faculty of Language, Literature and Humanities - Alexander von Humboldt Professorship

Project description

A History of madness and mental sanity in the greek world. From the Archaic to the Classical period

My research plan aims at exploring representations of madness in the ancient world, offering an overview of literary instances from different genres, in close dialogue with the testimony offered by ancient medical writings, under the heading of a ‘History of madness and mental sanity in the Greek World’.

Scholarly research in ancient emotions and mental life is expanding at present, so that my project falls in an area of growing interest. The discipline has recently experienced important developments. Scholarship has concentrated on the field of literary studies with reference to specific genres (e.g. epic or tragedy). Secondly, there are contributions within the history of ancient medical writings. Thirdly, modern psychological and psychiatric categories have been applied to ancient texts, as well as comparative anthropology and history of religion. Another strand of studies has focussed on notions of personality and selfhood. Finally, several works have attempted to qualify the nature of ancient emotions in connection with recent developments in contemporary philosophy and psychology. In my research on the specifics of ancient madness I shall make use of these researches; at the same time, I shall expand the field along three new lines.

1) Content: I shall combine the study of madness as a psychological experience of the individual with the study of madness as related to social phenomena. These include madness as religious experience (initiation and divine possession); madness linked to specific activities or skills, in particular prophecy and poetry, madness in its articulations of gender. In earlier scholarship the psychological on the one hand and the religious or the social on the other tend to be kept separate. Instead, I will endeavour to contextualise literary representations of madness within ancient society. Moreover, an assessment of mental ‘sanity’ as counterpart to a ‘madness’ which is ambivalent (as it can be both a curse and a mark of election; both a destructive experience and an enriching one) is a crucial area to research which has been noticeably ignored by scholarship. I will analyse the representation and the vocabulary of sanity and recovery as inseparable from that of madness and mental disorder.

2) Sources. I shall establish a tight dialogue between literary sources (in the traditional sense) and the medical texts, treating the first as documentation of medical states, and the second as literary ‘work of art’, subject to the same constraints and creative freedoms as any other text, in pursuit of an assessment of ancient madness, its metaphors and its terminology as comprehensive and accurate as possible. The contacts between medical texts on mental disorders and tragedy and epic have already received scholarly attention. I shall expand the inquiry to the testimony found in authors of prose, as well as poetic texts underexplored in this connection.

3) Methodology: I shall use the instruments of formal literary analysis and stylistics in order to assess the representation of madness, mental sanity and recovery in ancient texts. Studies of cultural history, especially when they are wide-ranging and historical in their goals, often bypass the textual level and postulate, at different degrees, a ‘universal intelligibility’ of human feelings and experiences. Notwithstanding the partial access that we have to ancient texts, mediated as it is by accidents and choices of survival, texts remain the foundation of cultural studies with reference to the ancient world. This is especially true in the case of madness, a concept which gains substance precisely from the rhetoric, metaphors and analogies through which it finds expression. In this field, therefore, a combination of formalist and philosophical concern is vital. By formalist approach, I mean not only the level of terminology, but also issues such as the use of imagery, the very applicability of the concept of ‘metaphor’, the objectification of mental states through linguistic and narratological devices and the interplay between a text and the conventions of the genre it belongs to.

In conclusion, a comprehensive, historical study on madness as cultural phenomenon and object of medical study is much needed. The subject would benefit from a combination of the literary with the medical evidence and from a focus on linguistic and stylistic facts.