Kirkus Star


A Cultural History of Insanity, from the Bible to Freud, from the Madhouse to Modern Medicine
Email this review


Far-ranging, illuminating study of minds gone awry across space and time.

Scull (Sociology and Science Studies/Univ. of California, San Diego; Madness: A Very Short Introduction, 2011, etc.), a specialist in the history of science, warns at the outset that the very word “madness” is laden with cultural baggage: our idea of the subject, limned by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and various psychotropic medications, would likely be alien to a maenad-beset Greek of old. “We run enormous risks of misconstruing history,” he writes, “when we project contemporary diagnostic categories and psychiatric understandings back on to the past.” Still, when we look at Achilles, we can see PTSD, just as Mozart is better explained by throwing a little bipolarity into the picture. Though careful, Scull allows some imaginative readings into his long but utterly absorbing tour of history from ancient times to our own. Without overexplaining, he looks at medical controversies through time in familiar ways. The anti-vaccination crowd takes on different colors when seen as modern-day followers of the old temple gods: “If these methods did not bring about the desired result, failure could always be explained away. The gods were still displeased, the prayers insufficiently fervent.” Just so, by Scull’s account, traditional Chinese medicine, beloved of so many today, represents a victory of conservatism over progress, though Chinese physicians did tend to eventually reject the idea of wind-caused madness. Scull is sharp on every point, but some of his best moments come when he explains the introduction of psychoanalysis into pop culture in the postwar period, thanks in good part to Hollywood, and when he takes a sidelong look at both the drug-dependent psychiatry of today and its discontents, such as Scientology.

To be read as both corrective and supplement to Foucault, Szasz, and Rieff. Often brilliant and always luminous and rewarding.

Pub Date: April 1st, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-691-16615-5
Page count: 456pp
Publisher: Princeton Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 2015


NonfictionBECOMING FREUD by Adam Phillips
by Adam Phillips
NonfictionGRACEFULLY INSANE by Alex Beam
by Alex Beam