Monday 11 January 2010

In Praise of Madness

In The Praise of Folly Erasmus' heroine is wise in spite of herself. In the plays of Shakespeare the 'fool' is usually the wisest person around. Did people in the early modern period have a different understanding of madness and folly?

A fascinating subject, indeed; and as ever Great wits are to madness near allied/And thin partitions do their bounds divide. There is a very real sense, to be found in the work of Erasmus and other Humanists, that in a crazy world only the 'detached' are truly sane. I am thinking here of Robert Burton and the Anatomy of Melancholy;

When I go musing all alone,
Thinking of divers things
When I build Castles in the air,
Void of sorrow and void of fear,
Pleasing myself with
phantasms sweet,
Methinks the time runs very fleet.
All my joys to this are folly,
Naught so sweet as Melancholy.

It was folly to be wise, for 'Much learning doth make thee mad', and Don Quixote, driven crazy by his books, goes off in search of windmills! The Bethlem Hospital in London, the source of the word 'Bedlam', used to be open to casual visitors, as both a form of entertainment and a warning. In one such visit Ned Ward, a journalist, saw one of the inmates "...holding forth with much vehemence against Kingly government. I told him he deserved to be hanged for talking such treason. 'Now', says he, 'you're a fool, for we madmen have as much privilege of speaking our may talk what you will and nobody will call you in question for it. Truth is persecuted everywhere abroad, and flies hither for sanctuary, where she sits as safe as a knave in a church, or a whore in a nunnery. I can use here as I please, and that's more than you dare to.' Only the mad are free. And as for the truly insane William Hogarth's Bedlam is a mirror held up to England.

There is actually a 'progress' for folly, as well as for rakes. By the time of Hogarth the day of the 'witty fool' had long passed. For Nicholas Robinson, an eighteenth century physician, madness was a medical condition, no more. The kind of subtleties and ambiguities, explored by people like Erasmus, was no longer admissible, as insanity was turned step by step into pathology. For the mad poet, and the outsider, the asylum opened its doors; even for James Carkesse, who, consigned to Bedlam, used the occasion to write Lucidia Intervalla (Lucid Intervals), a scourge for a crazy world.

And who is my favourite 'fool'? That would have to be King Lear himself;

FOOL: The reason why the seven stars are no more than seven is a pretty reason.
LEAR: Because they are not eight?
FOOL: Yes, indeed; thou wouldst make a good fool.


  1. Interesting, Ana. The inventors of the printing press, and of the later so-called enlightenment, have much to answer for.

    'A little learning is a dangerous thing,' and a little learning is as much as most people can take. They never get as far as, 'Further learning largely sobers us again.' (Yes, I know I haven't got the quote quite right.)

    Far too many half-learned people about ; and, with the internet, the number grows apace. Good, innit? ;-)

  2. There was something John Major said that stuck in my mind, Jamie. In reference to the expression that someone is 'too clever by half' his response was most people are 'too stupid by three-qurters', or words to that effect.

  3. I know lots of anecdotes of madmen spouting wisdom. There is also the Holy Fool.

  4. I'm sure you must have read Dostoevsky, Rehan. One of his greatest characters is a 'holy fool.'