Revels in Madness

Insanity in Medicine and Literature
Allen Thiher
A sweeping survey of how notions of madness have been represented in medicine and literature from the Greeks to the present


Revels in Madness offers a history of western culture's shifting understandings of insanity as evidenced in its literature and as influenced by medical knowledge. The survey traces the period from the development of Greek medicine, and of Greek tragedy and comedy, to contemporary representations of madness as shaped by modern psychiatry and psychoanalysis and portrayed in literature. It surveys a remarkable range of writers, including Cervantes, Nerval, Rimbaud, Hölderin, Charcot, Freud, and Kraepelin.

Conceptions of madness in literature have reflected the cultural assumptions of their era. During medieval times, insanity was viewed as a trial sent by God, while during the nineteenth century, it was seen simply as a sign of degenerate heredity. These two points of view represent a pre-modern and a modern understanding of madness, and the book is organized to emphasize the transition from classical theories of madness to modernity. This transition began at the end of the Enlightenment and culminates in the reactions seen in recent women's writing which challenge the postmodern understanding of madness as a fall from language or as a dysfunction of the cybernetic system that we now define as culture.

This book will interest those intrigued by the relationship between culture, medicine, and literature, both in the history of medicine and literature and in literary depictions of cognitive disablities. Students of comparative literature or the history of science, as well as doctors, therapists, and those interested in clinical psychology will enjoy reading this book.

Allen Thiher is Curator's Professor of French in the Department of Romance Languages, University of Missouri. His other books include Words in Reflection and The Power of Tautology: The Roots of Literary Theory.

Praise / Awards

  • "Fascinating and important . . . a work of prodigious scholarship, covering the entire history of Western thought and treating both literary and medical discourses with subtlety and verve."
    —Louis Sass, author of Madness and Modernism
  • "Perhaps the most significant achievement of this study is Thiher's recognition of the ways in which the language available to writers shapes their understanding of their own condition even as it influences scientists' formulations; the reciprocal nature of conceptualizing the self and its dissolution will both sharpen readers' understanding of medicine and enhance their reading of literature. In his postscript, Thiher reiterates his conviction that the study of literature is essential to an understanding of madness—because literature supplies both historical context and 'access' to madness."
    —R. Nadelhaft, Emeritus, University of Maine, Choice, March 2001
  • ". . . a welcome enrichment of the field. The scope of this book is daunting, ranging from madness in the ancient Greco-Roman world, to Christianized concepts of medieval folly, through the writings of early modern authors such as Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Descartes, and on to German Romantic philosophy, fin de siecle French poetry, and Freud. I particularly applaud the author's inclusion of discussions of a series of twentieth-century imaginative writers, such as Antonin Artaud, Marguerite Duras, and Sylvia Plath."
    —Mark S. Micale, Isis, December 2002

Product Details

  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4.
  • 368pp.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 2000
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-11035-3

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  • $90.00 U.S.

  • Paper
  • 2005
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-08999-4

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  • $29.95 U.S.

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