The Man Who Thought He Was Napoleon: Toward a Political History of Madness, by Laure Murat

Biancamaria Fontana on the tangled connections between historical events and mental illness

October 9, 2014

The subject of Laure Murat’s fascinating history of French psychiatry is the nature of the relationship between folly and history, between mental illness and the historical contexts in which it manifests itself. Are people more likely to lose their mind when they are confronted with unsettling and traumatic historical events? Or is it the case that violent and rebellious acts – during a revolution or a civil war, for example – occur precisely because their authors are insane to begin with?

In the 1960s and 1970s, Michel Foucault’s pioneering works set forth the view that folly was largely defined by the ways in which different societies fixed the limits between “normal” and “deviant” behaviour. In his reading, the scientific definition of madness and the means employed to treat it were the products of evolving forms of social discipline. Thus the medical understanding of mental illness developed in parallel to the growing ambition, on the part of modern states, to shape the lives of their citizens in every detail. Murat’s work is partly inspired by Foucault’s original intuition about the political uses of the notion of madness (after all, one does not need to go very far back in history to find authoritarian regimes treating political dissidents as lunatics). However, her study offers a less militant, more nuanced picture of the complex relations that connect folly to historical events.

Scientific expertise was placed at the heart of both capital punishment and imprisonment on medical grounds, but the result was not a detached approach

Writing in 1816 after the end of the Napoleonic wars, Jean-Étienne-Dominique Esquirol – one of the French medical practitioners who feature in Murat’s narrative – claimed that it was possible to write the history of the revolution of 1789 and of Bonaparte’s empire through the study of mental illness. One could begin this “parallel” history in 1790: during that year the newly established French Constituent Assembly voted for, among many other items of legislation, two significant measures. The first was the adoption of the guillotine – an invention designed and perfected by medical experts – as a new instrument of capital punishment, intended to make death both quick and painless. The second measure concerned the internment of people said to be suffering from mental illness. Until then, internments were arbitrarily decided by the families of sufferers or by political authorities; now people could be committed only on the joint advice of doctors and magistrates. Thus in one stroke the Assembly placed scientific expertise at the heart of both capital punishment and imprisonment on medical grounds, and yet the outcome would be far from the clinical, detached approach that legislators had intended.

If not exactly pleasant and “refreshing”, as claimed by its inventors, death by guillotine was far less cruel and gruesome than the torments and mutilations dispensed under the Ancien Régime. However, in the years of revolutionary terror, the guillotine’s constant presence on the public square and the executions of prominent personalities stimulated collective imagination, generating all sorts of morbid fantasies. Did people really die when they were struck by the blade? In spite of medical reassurance to the contrary, bystanders mistook the real or imagined spasms of severed heads and bodies for signs of continuing life. Soon there were reports of post-mortem apparitions of beheaded victims, whose ghosts haunted the scaffold as in folktales of old. At the same time, asylums registered among their inmates a significant number of people who claimed to have – literally – lost their head. (Interestingly, Robert Badinter, a prominent French lawyer and later the minister of justice who would oversee the abolition of capital punishment in France in 1981, echoed this original horror of the guillotine by describing to the jurors in a 1970s murder trial how, were they to vote for death, a living human being would be cut in two.)

It is hardly surprising that the sight of protracted violence, or the fear of imminent death, should push people over the edge, causing irreparable psychic damage to the most vulnerable. But in the context of the 1790s, an eloquent counter-revolutionary literature was ready to label the revolution itself a form of collective delirium. Corrupted by radical propaganda and deluded by false promises of justice and prosperity, the French people, it was argued, had simply lost their reason, succumbing to hallucinations and turning into a mass of bloodthirsty beasts. The very belief in democracy, in the Utopia of a society of equals, was a sign of mental derangement and a dangerously contagious disease.

The association between revolution and folly was originally set forth in 1790 by Edmund Burke in his famous pamphlet Reflections on the Revolution in France; the claim would return over and over again in the writings of conservative authors throughout the 19th century on the occasion of every new revolutionary episode, down to the tragic insurrection of the Paris Commune in 1871. What was originally a political condemnation of democratic ideals morphed into a clinical diagnosis, with morbus democraticus becoming an acknowledged form of mental illness. The descent into madness of some disappointed revolutionaries, such as the unfortunate feminist militant Théroigne de Méricourt, was produced as evidence of this phenomenon. It is easy to dismiss these views as the desperate resistance of a threatened ruling class unwilling to resign itself to the loss of its original power. There is, however, surely some truth in the notion that the opposition to established values and the adoption of radical ideologies can seem to defy reason. (After all, we often react to the actions of today’s terrorists by claiming that they must be “mad”.)

A further illustration of the psychological consequences of political disruption can be found in the phenomenon evoked by the title of this worthy book. It turns out that the popular picture of the madman in Napoleon’s hat is closer to reality than one might expect. In 1840 the body of the emperor, who had died in St Helena some 20 years before, was brought back to Paris and reburied with great pomp at the Invalides. The same year, the doctor Félix Voisin recorded the presence in the asylum of Bicêtre of some 14 “Napoleons”. Throughout the 19th century, the number of patients suffering from megalomania who claimed to be the emperor greatly outnumbered those who identified with, say, Jesus Christ or Louis XVI. Why was Napoleon so popular with lunatics? Murat offers an interesting answer, namely that there was an obvious element of folly in Bonaparte’s own measureless ambition. It had taken him just five years – from 1799 to 1804 – to turn from victorious republican general to emperor of the French, crowned in Notre Dame like Charlemagne. As a usurper, one may argue, he had no more right to his title than the next man: enough to justify the “why not me?” response of other, less successful megalomaniacs.

Murat’s analysis, informed by extensive archival research, shows how difficult it is to disentangle the intricate connections that link individual sensibility and imagination to the currents of history. Is our identity entirely shaped by our environment, or do we simply adjust our fears and dreams to external circumstances? And what exactly constitutes a “normal” attitude towards one’s own times? Some of these questions are bound to remain open: this compelling book offers a valuable opportunity to consider them, and to explore some of the answers.

The Man Who Thought He Was Napoleon: Toward a Political History of Madness

By Laure Murat
Translated by Deke Dusinberre
University of Chicago Press, 304pp, £31.50
ISBN 9780226025735 and 5872 (e-book)
Published 13 October 2014

The author

“I was born and raised in Paris,” says Laure Murat. “I hope I don’t share the multiple flaws Parisians are renowned to have: arrogance, snobbery, stiffness, etc. Although I am impatient, that is true.”

Murat, professor of French and francophone studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, lives in LA “most of the year, although I go back to Paris on a regular basis to do research, sometimes for long periods (one to several months). I therefore have the best of two worlds: in one way or the other, I am always sad to leave, and happy to arrive.

“My partner, Zrinka Stahuljak, who is a medievalist and Croatian, feels the same about the privilege of sharing our time between the US and Europe.

“When I moved to Los Angeles, all my friends were worried. How, after almost 40 years of Parisian way of life, would I adjust in LA, where there are no cafés like the ones in Paris, where people can talk on the terrace for hours?”

The clincher? “Paris doesn’t have palm-trees! ‘Comparison is not reason’, as we say in France. Although Paris can be wonderful, LA is the most dynamic, changing and exciting city I have ever experienced. I couldn’t have dreamed of a greater place to go to - precisely because it has no points of comparison with Paris, except excellent food - indeed, it’s probably even better in some LA restaurants I know. The French, and Parisians, who can be very arrogant, don’t see how refined and interesting California is.” 

Of her early years, Murat recalls: “I was an undisciplined child and a very mediocre pupil. My father, a well-read dilettante, was the one who influenced me the most when I was a teenager. We used to talk a lot about literature and cinema.”

And what sort of undergraduate was she?

“Well, as real estate agents say when characterising weird spaces that are impossible to sell, my profile would be ‘atypical’. I left home at 19 in order to escape my family. Instead of studying at university, I worked for years as an art critic and as an independent writer.

“At the age of 36, I decided to go (I can’t say ‘go back’) to university, to the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. Because I already had written books that got critic and public recognition, I was allowed to skip the undergraduate part of my studies. I wrote a memoir to get an EHESS diploma - the equivalent of an MA - that opened the way to the PhD programme in history.

“But when I was about to enter the programme, I got a fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where I wrote my dissertation on the concept of the ‘third sex’. While I was at Princeton, the UCLA job opened, I applied and I got it. In other words, I am a professor with a PhD who has never sat in a class and who has never been taught herself…I am afraid I am the worst case scenario for your audience!”

The EHESS and UCLA are both world-famous academic institutions. Asked what commonalities she finds in the two, Murat says, “Actually, everything is different: the spirit, the places, the system, the budget, the ‘style’ of teaching and managing an institution of higher education. But both gather amazing minds. And both are threatened by administrative conventions and managerial imperatives.”

One of Murat’s most acclaimed books is the 2003 monograph Passage de l’Odéon: Sylvia Beach, Adrienne Monnier et la vie littéraire à Paris dans l’entre-deux-guerres, which focuses on the romantic and literary partnership of Beach, the American-born founder of Shakespeare and Company, and Monnier, a Modernist poet, bookseller and publisher.

“I became interested in them a long time ago, when I edited and co-wrote a book on ‘Paris of the writers’. There were a few brochures and memoirs on Adrienne Monnier, and a biography of Sylvia Beach had been published. But there was no monograph on the couple they formed and the work they did together to facilitate exchanges between writers, readers, French and American people. In 2001, I realised that Adrienne Monnier Archive, which had been loaned to a public institution a few years before, remained unexploited. It made me decide to work on the topic.”

Murat adds: “For me, their most important legacy is to have demonstrated that two women who loved each other, with no money and no network when they started, can play such important roles in the best of avant-garde literary life.” 

Returning to her own decision to cross the Atlantic to begin a new life, in the opposite direction to Beach, Murat says: “It was not a difficult decision at all to move to the US. I was not forced to go to the US for political or economic reasons. It was for a great job, in a beautiful place.

“Of course, it is a bit tricky to reinvent one’s life at almost 40 years old and move to the opposite part of the world. I was a successful writer in Paris, where I had my friends. I certainly didn’t move in a fit of pique but, quite the opposite, because I was excited to move on and to try something different - from the big fish in the small pond to the tadpole in the ocean…”

She confesses: “I think it is too late for me ever to ‘feel like an American’. But I have to say I am getting closer to it every year. Now that I am eligible, I intend to take American citizenship next year. Will it change my feelings? Who knows?”

And where is it more fun to be an intellectual - Paris or Los Angeles?

“It is so different!” Murat exclaims. “I think the main difference is that the notion of ‘public intellectual’, so decisive in France, doesn’t really exist in the US. In Paris, culture is everywhere, every day on the front page of the newspapers. In the US, it is basically limited to campuses and the academic world. The result is that in France it is more varied and more lively, while intellectual debates are more dense, professional and specialised in the US.”

If a good fairy could give Murat the gift of any skill or talent, she would ask for, she says, “The talent for music. I am an amateur clarinetist and a big music lover. But my enthusiasm is proportionate to my absence of talent: no ear, no sense of rhythm, no gift, nothing. Hopeless. Unless a good fairy eventually decides to do her job.”

Karen Shook

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