The Future of History

Friday, 25 October 2013

Tobacco & Masturbation

Hello.  This is your Friday blogpost, and its all about tobacco and masturbation!

Well, no, actually, it isn't.  But if you found us through Google - ha!  What were you looking for?

Here's a list of things that would have got you admitted to West Virginia's Hospital for the Insane (Weston) - otherwise known, much more musically, as the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum - in the second half of the 19th century.  Which, in real terms, wasn't all that long ago.

It's a fascinating list.  I'm prepared to accept that some of these symptoms might have led to temporary insanity.  "Kicked in the Head by a Horse" would do it, as might "Fits and Desertion of Husband", "Shooting of Daughter" or "The War".  And maybe "Women Trouble".  But the "Salvation Army"??

"Laziness" seems a slightly odd diagnosis for insanity.  "Exposure and Quackery" doesn't really mean very much to me; neither does "Gathering in the Head", although it does conjure up images.  "Asthma" - is that a mental condition?  And what is the difference between "Deranged Masturbation" and plain old garden variety masturbation?  When do normal vices become "Vicious Vices"?

Looking down the list, there seem to be some recurring themes.  "Grief", for example, can upset the delicate balance of sanity, which is fair.  Masturbation is evidently tricky, whether it is "Deranged", "Suppressed" or indulged in with "Tobacco" or over the space of "30 Years" (presumably, "Masturbation & Syphilis" was about as mad as you could get).

And then there's "Mental Excitement".  "Novel Reading" isn't usually considered a sign of lunacy these days, but "Over Action of the Mind" (or "Over Taxing Mental Powers") might be an indication that you're overdoing things.  Your problems might then take the form of "Political Excitement" (possibly in conjunction with "Bad Habits") or "Religious Enthusiasm" (as a result of "Over Study of Religion", and perhaps exacerbated by "Jealousy" or the "Salvation Army").

What the list tells us is that madness can be difficult to define.  It apparently has as much to do with social norms and a sort of moral consensus as any actual illness.  Some experts have even questioned whether mental illness is real (in the sense that cancer is real).  Thomas Szasz felt that psychiatry was a pseudo-science designed to label people who had no disease as such, but who simply behaved in ways which society didn't like.  Such people were struggling with life's problems.  The tendency of religion to control people's thoughts and actions had been inherited by the scientists (the "priests" of the democratic age), and therefore the diagnosis of mental illness was really a kind of social control.  Szasz highlighted the 19th century moral campaigns against masturbation as an example of society throwing a fit and locking up people whose behaviour was considered a bit odd.

R.D. Laing more or less agreed: he, too, identified psychiatric illness as a social or cultural, rather than a biological, problem.  It was, more often than not, a problem caused by society.  An individual can find him or herself placed in an impossible situation at the mercy of conflicting or contradictory demands or instructions.  The outcome is what we (mis)diagnose as madness.

The list of admissions to the West Virginia mental institution would appear to confirm this.  There is something of a preoccupation with moral behaviour.  Men tend to go off the rails (from drinking "Bad Whiskey", for example, or experiencing "Business Nerves"), while women are predisposed to psychological problems, whether they take the form of "Imaginary Female Trouble" or "Uterine Displacement".

Reading the list, we might sense a sort of moral policeman - a doctor who prowls the wards looking for signs of unacceptable behaviour, such as "Self Abuse" or "Snuff Eating for 2 Years".  Neither is likely to land you in a mental institution today, but back then these were serious abnormalities, as were "Bad Company" and "Superstition".  We all have to draw the line somewhere, and clearly "Greediness" or "Hard Study" were not acceptable in West Virginia.

Here's another list.  I've seen it go by on Facebook a few times, and the thinking behind it makes the West Virginia headshrinks look positively enlightened in comparison:

The issue, once again, is social control - the imposition of a certain kind of moral norm.  Now, admittedly, some of the practices mentioned here might be thought of as mildly dangerous ("Lycanthropy" should only be attempted with extreme caution), but most of them aren't too bad.  Okay, Scientology is bad.  But Vegetarianism?  Really?  (I'm relatively confident that Christ was a vegetarian, by the way).  And Postmodernism?  Meditation?  Earth worship?  Yoga?

(Note the presence of "Fornication" on the list as a gateway to demonic possession - we're dangerously close to the 19th century list of bad behaviour, here).

The point is that whoever drafted that list above doesn't want other people to live their lives, and certainly not to enjoy popular literature ("Lord of the Rings" or Harry Potter - "Novel Reading", as the West Virginia list put it) or other pastimes ("Video games", "Rock music").  Indeed, anything that might be construed as interesting, enlightening or experimental is absolutely ruled out.  If you don't obey these diktats, you're going to hell.  That's how certain religions work.

Okay, so it's a bit extreme, but the list above compares with the one at the top of this post.  Both seek to impose a rather narrow standard of behaviour.  If you look a bit excited, or unhappy, or you've been having a bit too much fun, there's a chance you'll be locked away in a madhouse or Satan's lair, and you'll be lucky to get out again.  You will do as you are told, or our moral policemen/religious fanatics/cultural arbiters/men in white coats will electro-convulse your ass!!

At least the 19th century doctors recognised that "Religion" could be bad for you (Pope Francis recently made a distinction between genuine Christianity and "ideological" Christianity, which he felt - rightly, in my view - was a sort of dangerous infection).  The list above is as good a sign of madness as any: the madness of insisting that everybody should be just like you.

What I would like to see is a new cultural norm.  We have a habit of certifying or sectioning people whose thoughts or behaviour strike us as unacceptable and socially destructive.  So let's do it properly.

There is real madness out there.  It takes the form of the politician who tells blatant lies for short-term political gain.  The speculator who destroys businesses and livelihoods in order to turn a quick buck.  The economist who quotes false figures in order to justify yet more theft from the public purse by greedy corporate drones.  The religion extremist who preaches vicious, hard-right gibberish.  The newspaper editor who invents crazy headlines to incite racial hatred.  The historian who leaves out vital evidence in order to convince you of something that isn't true.  The NIMBY who spreads stupid stories about solar or wind farms in order to agitate the neighbours.

That's madness.  Those people inhabit a parallel universe, in which they make up their own realities and then try to impose them on others.  But for some reason, we tend to treat these people as our superiors.  We even vote for the loons!

Look at the list at the top of this post again.  See there, between "Dropsy" and "Epileptic Fits"?  You could be locked away for "Egotism".  So they got that one right, back in the day.

If we sectioned the Egotists in our society, and treated them with psychiatric drugs, we'd be getting somewhere.  Politics and Religion would cease to be manifestations of mental illness, then.  And we wouldn't be in quite the same mess as we are today.

Have a nice weekend!

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