Idiocy: A Cultural History

Writers love a fool, as Penny L. Richards learns from a roll call of idiots across the centuries

June 18, 2009

Idiocy has been endlessly useful to the English novelist, according to Patrick McDonagh's exciting study. Need an otherworldly voice of simple truth to contrast with other characters' elaborate lies? An idiot can be that holy fool. Need a frail, defenceless figure to showcase social neglect and cruelty? Make her an idiot for an extra dose of pathos. Need an amoral brute to embody the worst fears of the popular imagination? Yes, he can be an idiot, too.

H.G. Wells split the difference with his Morlocks and Eloi, spinning eugenic fears of racial degeneration into two races, both (McDonagh argues) defined by features drawn from the flexible idiot tradition. "The idea of idiocy is changeable," McDonagh concludes, "its borders move and its meanings shift very much according to where and when one is standing."

This is the sweeping story of idiocy's shifting and twisting meanings through several centuries of (mainly) English culture, from the legally exempt "idiota" of 16th-century dictionaries to the "perfectly horrible" imbeciles in Virginia Woolf's diary, through William Wordsworth's romantic idiot boy and Charles Dickens' Barnaby Rudge, among others.

Far from being a niche history of limited interest, McDonagh's careful and eclectic scholarship makes the case for idiocy as a crucial subject for readers interested in literature, medicine, psychology, gender, family, property, inheritance, romanticism, rationality, sensation fiction, technology, institution-building, religion, crime and civil society.

At times, Idiocy reads like the history of a natural disaster or the build-up to war: we know the story will lead somehow from the fool as a happy innocent to the segregation, sterilisation and demonisation of generations of people with cognitive disabilities, but McDonagh makes that process fascinating and complex.

He draws mainly from literary sources, as the book's title indicates, but there are also explorations of medical treatises, court records, newspaper editorials and legislative reports. These additional texts ground the story: we are never far from a reminder that literary characters reflect and inform their milieu, which in turn affects their real-life counterparts.

The argument in this book, which is based on McDonagh's doctoral work, is meticulously assembled, and the writing is strong, even wry at times, as in the jaw-dropping catalogue of passages relating to stupidity, imbeciles, fools and idiots in Joseph Conrad's novel The Secret Agent (1907). There are some gaps in the literature McDonagh cites, most noticeably the collection Mental Retardation in America: A Historical Reader, edited by Steven Noll and James Trent (2004). It was published after McDonagh's doctoral submission, but presumably during the preparation of this manuscript. However, this does not harm the book as it stands.

Whether you know a great deal about the history of disability or nothing at all, Idiocy is an excellent book. For the scholar, it offers a sophisticated map of the concept's past and a model for further studies. For the general reader, it offers an insightful view of some familiar characters and plots, and an introduction to idiot characters from across English literary history and genres.

Idiocy: A Cultural History

By Patrick McDonagh

Liverpool University Press

256pp, £65.00 and £18.95

ISBN 9781846310959 and 10966

Published 1 November 2008

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