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 https://clarespark.com/2013/03/10/what-remains-useful-about-freud/.]

(Update; 7-9-15: In retrospect, Porter was, like his friend Margaret Jacob, a rehabilitator of mysticism, vitalism, and the Middle Ages, a social democratic movement that has been underway for centuries: see the latest paean to the Middle Ages here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2015/jul/09/two-cheers-middle-ages/.)




  1. […] https://clarespark.com/2014/03/02/roy-porter-and-the-anti-psychiatry-movement/ (How the punkish Foucauldians discourage mental health interventions.) […]

    Pingback by Links to blogs on mass murder/pop culture | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — May 25, 2014 @ 3:11 pm | Reply

  2. John Clare got labeled a “peasant poet”, but he and his father before him didn’t own land and were agricultural laborers on other people’s land. I don’t know if that makes him close to a “proletarian” but I like any chance to clarify the circumstances of this very great poet….

    Comment by Stephen Baraban — March 6, 2014 @ 7:40 pm | Reply

    • Stephen Baraban is correct regarding John Clare’s non-peasant status. However, in A Social History of Madness, Roy Porter describes him as “a peasant true to his roots and his folk….” (p.78).

      Comment by clarelspark — March 6, 2014 @ 8:18 pm | Reply

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