Nerval’s Illuminés : eccentricity, and the evolution of madness
Merkin, Lucy Claire
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This thesis looks at the changing status of madness in French psychiatric and literary culture in the first half of the nineteenth century, considering the ways in which shifting interpretations of this phenomenon were inseparable from the specificities of this precise historical and ideological context. The work of Gérard de Nerval, in particular Les Illuminés (1852), is central to the thesis. The early decades of nineteenth-century France saw a revolutionary transformation in the understanding of the concept of madness, reflecting the broad ideological changes wrought by Enlightenment philosophy and the 1789 Revolution. Part One examines the appropriation of the study and treatment of madness by the newly emergent psychiatric profession, considering the way in which age-old religious and supernatural interpretations of madness were now replaced by the pathologising discourse of medical science. Whilst the study of mental abnormalities had previously been considered the prerogative of the Church, religion in this period became identified as both a cause and a symptom of madness, and this thesis studies the emergence of the controversial diagnostic category of religious madness. The early psychiatric concept of religious madness was two-fold: either excessive religious sentiment was perceived as the cause of mental alienation; or pathological religiosity was interpreted as a symptom of madness. On the one hand, the idea, central to early psychiatry, that imbalanced passions were the primary source of mental illness, implied that the emotive dimension of religious experience was a major cause of madness. At the same time, apparently visionary and mystical experience was increasingly interpreted as pathological hallucination and considered symptomatic of mental illness, leading to the highly controversial psychiatric practice of “retrospective medicine”, which involved reinterpreting the visions of influential historical and religious figures. This section of the thesis also looks at the identification of multiple forms of partial madness, in particular the distinctly nineteenth-century concepts of monomania and eccentricity, considering the way in which the latter concept, besides gaining a pathological dimension, became bound up, in both medical and Romantic writings, with enhanced creative and intellectual capacities. Part One closes with a consideration of these themes within the general writings of Gérard de Nerval, examining the way in which he evokes his own diagnosis with madness, especially the subcategories of religious madness, or monomania, theomania and demonomania, in his writings. It looks, in particular, at the theme of religious madness within his semi-autobiographical Aurélia (1855), and how the narrative of this text oscillates between medical and metaphysical discourse relating to religious madness, while never explicitly identifying with either ideological perspective. Part Two focuses specifically upon Nerval’s Les Illuminés, a collection of portraits of historical visionaries and madmen, associated, to varying degrees, with mystical and esoteric belief systems. The theme of religious madness is central to this work, which depicts ambiguous phenomena, such as hallucination, prophetical vision, and dream, which were increasingly analysed from a scientific perspective in psychiatric writings, but which continued to elicit religious and mystical interpretations. Nerval’s narrative simultaneously embraces and rejects contemporaneous psychiatric ideas in relation to these themes. In the preface to Les Illuminés, Nerval’s narrator twice describes his subjects as “excentriques”, and the present thesis considers how the six portraits contained within this text reflect contemporaneous popular and psychiatric ideas relating to this newly emergent nineteenth-century concept. Exploiting the inherent ambiguity of eccentricity, Nerval attaches both a positive and negative dimension to his subjects, fusing pathologising discourse with suggestions of privileged mystical vision, enhanced creativity, and even genius. In Les Illuminés, Nerval portrays various states of madness and eccentricity in a distinctly ambivalent manner, mediating between medical, Romantic, and mystical perspectives of madness, and depriving the reader of a stable authorial perspective. This thesis shows that, if the subjects of Les Illuminés cannot be described as illuminés in any conventional, historical sense of the term, in relation to the eighteenth-century Illuminist movement, they nevertheless adhere to a later definition to the term, which appeared in dictionaries from the middle of the nineteenth century, and which is concerned with the impassioned pursuit of irrational and illusory phenomena. This thesis offers a fresh reading of Nerval’s Les Illuminés in light of nineteenthcentury psychiatric writings regarding madness, monomania, and eccentricity, particularly in relation to deviant or excessive religious and mystical beliefs.