YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

March 2, 2014

Roy Porter and the anti-psychiatry movement

Roy Porter

Roy Porter

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-psychiatry. In this long and seemingly exhaustive article on the anti-psychiatry movement, I note that Roy Porter’s name is not mentioned, though he was considered an academic superstar in Britain, incomprehensibly productive, and that his “social histories” of madness and medical quackery in general were original, unrepetitive, and exemplary.

Since we had an intense friendship between 1989 and his early death on March 4, 2002 at the age of 55, and since he was a reader of all my work in draft form, and a major influence on my career and interests, I thought that I should reread his major works, including the big book on the British Enlightenment (published in 2000), and a book he sent me from the UK after he did a semester’s residency at UCLA in 1988-89, A Social History of Madness. His last words to me before he left Los Angeles were that “we should read Freud together.” That is a statement that seems odd to me now. Had he never read Freud earlier? Or did he intend to convert me away from my interest in the mental health profession?

Porter was considered to be secretive (about his politics, for one thing) by his colleagues in England, but Simon Schama, a classmate at the University of Cambridge, has confirmed that Porter would not go to doctors—something he told me as well, owing to not wanting doctors to witness “the chaos inside me.” A worshipful colleague has put up a website in Porter’s honor, and it claims that his hero was never in need of much sleep, since early childhood.  What neither of these close friends revealed, was that Roy Porter was Jewish, a fact or factoid confided to me by Margaret Jacob, a leading American historian of science several years after his death. The jeweler father made sense in establishing some kind of Jewish descent, but what about the widowed Cockney mother he described to me, and what about his working class uncles, mentioned perhaps to establish his radical, even working class credentials?

Why does all this matter to readers of my website? First of all, most of my essays have been concerned with the twentieth-century move away from empiricism and rationalism to various types of irrationalism, including primitivism and counter-Enlightenment theories such as critical theory or postmodernism. I have also been busy tracking the takeover of the humanities by activist scholars involved with either social democracy or factions within Marxist-Leninism, to the point now where social democrats and communists are so blended in their statism that they are hard to separate from one another.

But more, while giving subjectivism its due, I have insisted on what Freud called “the observing ego” capable of standing outside the psyche and learning to observe its various evasions, selective memories, idealizations, crushing disillusionments,  and so on. In short, I believe that it is possible to create a history that is relatively accurate, if always subject to revision. I was not prepared for Porter’s belligerent approach to Freud in his misleadingly titled “social history” of madness. Worse, he left out Freud’s theory of the instincts, that include both sex and aggression. In the voluminous commentary on Freud, there is plenty of criticism of the pan-sexualism of many of Freud’s followers, but in Porter’s  book, nothing about aggression or “the unhappiness of everyday life” in the ongoing civil war between ego and Id. Rather, the civil war is limited to various types of sexuality, for instance repressed homosexuality.

Consider first the methods of the social historians. Social history was an innovation of the Left, that sought to recover life from “the bottom up,” to restore the lives of ordinary people through the scouring of diaries, court records, and other materials, hitherto considered to be irrelevant to the records of famous men. Since this was a leftist innovation, the aim was obviously to highlight class struggle and resistance to elites and their supposedly self-serving records or tendentious biographies and memoirs.

Porter’s social history of madness starts off mildly enough, seeking to redress the balance between authorities and patients by listening to the voices of the patients, thus taking their sides in a rather scandalous picture of repression by religious leaders, asylum entrepreneurs, and self-serving psychiatrists. No problem there, as no enlightened modern believes in demonic possession, or considers most mental health treatment in the modern period as anything but punitive and disciplinary. We didn’t need Michel Foucault to tell us that. The movie industry had long made that case, particularly in the movies of Ingmar Bergman or Tennessee Williams to name two of the more talented cineastes dealing with mental illness.

Several chapters deeply shocked me about the social history of madness as told by Roy Porter. Although I knew that he had campaigned on behalf of the British Labour Party, I was not prepared for his strong hint that he was not only anti-Freudian and mocking of the pretensions of “the American Dream,” but that he came down on the side of behaviorism (a.k.a. behavious modification, and “taking responsibility” for one’s mental health. Moreover, he relied on published accounts of his various sufferers and victims of evil psychiatry, taking them at their words as if their own memoirs were not deeply problematic. (This error was partially addressed in Porter’s 2002 book Madness: A Brief History (Oxford UP), where he advises “historians” to “read between the lines and judge for themselves….” (p.161: i.e., in case of contested realities. In my view, a judgment none of is qualified to make, though technocratic elites are inseparable from the progressive movement). And revealingly, none of his characters was working class: the closest he got to the proles was John Clare, a “peasant poet” and we know that peasants are not proletarians.  (See comment below: Clare was an agricultural laborer, never a landowner. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Clare) And how did Porter come to write at length about the would-be Superman Nietzsche, surely no friend of the plebs.

Porter had confided in me once that as a child, he wore a hat with the word “alien” embroidered on it. (Did he make that up too?) His colleagues in the UK remember his stories of childhood precocity, and I have no doubt that his brilliance exhibited itself at an early age. I knew that he was depressed after his retirement, and that he was having fantasies of playing the trumpet in heaven. I consider his death a form of suicide, as he was indulging in unaccustomed heavy exercise, and died of a massive heart attack.

But it was not until I finally read all of A Social History of Madness (1989) that I suspected that my dear friend and mentor had projected himself into all his characters; that he too was both adjusting and rebelling; that he was the madman who had been misunderstood and mistreated by the “publish or perish” demands of his profession, and perhaps the exorbitant expectations of his imperceptive following.  Nowhere did Porter admit to me or to his readers that academe was hostile to the independent thinker by reason of its conflicting demands for both truth and order.

Now I harbor the deep and unsettling suspicion that he may have been sometimes an anarchist, sometimes a Stalinist (the behaviorism remark), but at all times, deeply ill and suffering all the torments of the arriviste, assimilating “Jew,” opportunistically masked like the rest of them/us. [For a related blog see http://clarespark.com/2013/03/10/what-remains-useful-about-freud/.]


May 30, 2011

Index to Melville blogs

Sam Francis: The Whiteness of the Whale

This is a partial index to my Herman Melville blogs, and is necessarily incomplete, as an homage to an author who remains “unpainted to the last.” I am posting it on Memorial Day, 2011, even though HM has been revived as a pacifist, though he buried Malcolm, his teen-age son, an apparent suicide, in a military uniform. And then there is his tribute to Robert E. Lee.











November 29, 2010

Index to lobotomy blogs

Dr. Walter Freeman and patient

The History of Madness website has noted the research of Miriam Posner into Walter Freeman’s photos of his patients before and after lobotomy. Here is what already existed on the YDS website. [I found a website on lobotomies that claimed that Freeman had been killed by a "berserk" patient in 1955. This is not true: he died of cancer in 1976.]

http://clarespark.com/2009/11/07/disparities-between-image-and-text-some-cases-of-lobotomy/. (This image shows case 123 before and after lobotomy, along with Rockwell Kent illustration for Moby-Dick that erases the male-bonding and tattoos. I have seen the preliminary drawings for this text and it morphed from realism to primitivism. Kent obviously pulled back from insinuations of homosexuality.)


http://clarespark.com/2010/03/04/after-lobotomy-case-123/. (These illustrations from Freeman’s book are the single most shocking example of medical malpractice that I have found in my work on the history of medicine. Please read the before and after sequence together.)

http://clarespark.com/2009/11/16/when-lobotomies-cured-the-romantic-agony/. (Lobotomy was originally seen as a cure for anxiety and depression, but it also seemed from the pictures, and from Freeman’s book Psychosurgery, as a way to control rebellious females.)


http://clarespark.com/2010/09/27/cannibals-negro-jazz-and-servile-revolt/. This is about Tennessee Williams and the film Suddenly, Last Summer, with its terrifying mob scene, redolent of the French Revolution. Video clip of the movie included. Elizabeth Taylor’s character is threatened with lobotomy.

September 27, 2010

Cannibals, “Negro jazz,” and servile revolt

Tennessee Williams

I saw the 1959 film “Suddenly, Last Summer,” last night, with its graphic representation of the not-so-saintly Sebastian’s flight from a mob of young, nubile Spanish boys, who then tear his limbs and eat of his flesh (off camera). The Wikipedia entry on the film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s one-act play speculates upon the underlying politics of the film, linking it not only to Williams’ personal biography and homosexuality (a theme that the Catholic Legion of Decency repressed) but to “mob violence”:

[Wikipedia entry:] “…The film’s plot is said to take place in 1937, which would mean that the death of Sebastian in Spain during the previous summer would coincide with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936. The war is not explicitly mentioned in the film; however, the time before its outbreak was characterized by widespread social unrest in Spain, and the Civil War’s first days saw numerous cases of mob violence – both well fitting with the circumstances of Sebastian’s death as revealed at the film’s climax.” [end Wiki excerpt]

     But whoever wrote this suggestion neglected to mention the strange and frightening instruments and cacophony of sound the musical mob produces in its riotous, relentless march toward the white-suited, elegant Sebastian. (To see the scene go here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nWndDghOIdQ.)

     I have been reading Earl R. Beck’s Germany Rediscovers America (1968), a survey of German responses to all facets of American life during the Weimar Republic years. To some, American music was almost entirely “Negro”-produced jazz (to be contrasted with a more sedate and less crazy-making European variety). The author quotes one German’s horrified, even paranoid, description of the genre that he links to cities and to modernity itself:

    Beck writes, “After describing the polyphony of sounds produced by ‘water-gurgling sprinkling cans, swinging saws, howling pot covers, primitive forest tones of buzzing sticks, bells, saxophones, etc. Dr. Fritz Giese declared that these were joined ‘to a suggestive, close-cut disciplined rhythm. A rhythm just as harassed, just as concentrated, just as determined as the brutal turning tempo of the industrial machine, the speed of the racing car, the momentarily changing lighting and constant rotation of the lighted advertisements on the business houses.’

   Beck continues, “And Giese described one band in New York with appropriate symbols: ‘First it rattles like the air-pressure pump in the subway; suddenly a dog is run over by an auto bus; just as unexpectedly the gas stove explodes; then one hears the whining sound of the elevator motor. This instrument sounds off like a motor horn in haste; the other hums like the carpet sweeper; in the midst of it purrs in eternal calm the ventilator. Swinging cranes, locomotive steam, telephone snarls, back-fires of motorcycles—this and everything else is actually caught and melted into a musical film full of emphatic express-train tempos.’” (pp. 161-62)

   Which leads me to this question. Wikipedia, in focusing on the repressed theme of homosexuality in the film version of Williams’ play, ignored cannibalism as a symbol of the Jacobin mob. Finally, as students of the Spanish Civil War are aware, Ernest Hemingway  produced in For Whom The Bell Tolls, one of the most graphic, and prolonged scenes of mob violence in modern fiction, in this case the renowned Anarchist attack on the ruling classes of Ronda. The climax of Suddenly, Last Summer, brilliantly conceived, scored, and edited to demonstrate the almost pychotic vision that had to be repressed by the overwrought character Katherine/Tennessee, displays the specter of servile revolt that continues to haunt post-romantic artists writing for the gentility. Melville’s Benito Cereno (1856)comes to mind.

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