Published in: Anglistik – International Journal of English Studies 24.1 (March 2013), pp. 223-224.
Susanne Rohr and Lars Schmeink, eds. Wahnsinn in der Kunst: Kulturelle Imaginationen vom Mittelalter bis zum 21. Jahrhundert. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2011. 260 pp. Susanne Rohr and Lars Schmeink's Wahnsinn in der Kunst: Kulturelle Imaginationen vom Mittelalter bis zum 21. Jahrhundert sets out to provide a wide-ranging diachronic and interdisciplinary survey of depictions of madness in literature and the arts which aims to describe sanity (and, by extension, madness) as a question of relativity. The essays, which predominantly locate madness in historical and social discourses, are presented in roughly chronological order: Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach surveys madness in art and music, looking at medieval art (Hieronimus Bosch's Extraktion des Wahnsinns), William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress and Theodore Gericault's 'mad portraits' (1820), and then turns to opera, arguing that mad scenes in opera are frequently used to showcase exalted femininity. Beate Neumeier discusses how English Renaissance drama interrogates and challenges social and cultural structures of order via gender categories and the opposition of madness and sanity. The next article, by Mark Föcking, moves to 19th-century France, exploring the combination of medical and literary discourses in Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, a focus on medicine that is shared by Yvonne Wübben's depiction of Büchner's Lenz, in which Büchner creates parallels between madness, somnambulism, magnetism and monomania. In brief case studies ranging from the 19th (Pushkin's Pique Dame) to the 20th century (Zamyatin's We: A Novel), Horst-Jürgen Gerigk focuses on Russian literature. The last seven articles of the volume are devoted to 20th-century Anglo-American depictions of madness. Johann N. Schmidt interprets Hitchcock's classic Psycho as creating a quasi-complicity between the audience and the murderer Norman Bates, and then goes on to develop a brief Foucauldian reading of the development of the 'mental institution' film as representative of a social examination of madness as disease. Hans-Peter Rodenberg and Dennis Büscher-Ulbrich focus on the depiction of drug-induced 'madness' in the works of the beat poets and rock musician Jim Morrison, whose texts allow a 'mad discourse' to intrude into the everyday. Peter Hühn's contribution is an analysis of the characterisation of psychopathic protagonists in crime novels by Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell, and Claudia Heuer examines Patrick Bateman, the protagonist of Bret Easton Ellis's controversial American Psycho, as an example of unreliable narration. Norbert Greiner turns to British dramatist Sarah Kane, and points out how her plays Cleansed and Psychosis 4.48 not only depict madness, but also criticise a society which seeks to define 'sanity' as a norm from which 'madness' clearly deviates. Sophia Komor investigates a comparable phenomenon when she looks at what she terms 'authopathography' – Elizabeth Wurtzel's Prozac Nation and Susanna Kayson's Girl, Interrupted. The final contribution, by Lars Schmeink, is an analysis of the motif of the mad scientist – Mary Shelley's Victor Frankenstein – as a Barthesian myth which negotiates social categories such as man/monster, nature/science, madness/normalcy, and reads Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake as one contemporary variation of this myth.
Like so many collections of essays, Wahnsinn in der Kunst is a mixed blessing. As this brief summary has
probably demonstrated, the collection of essays as a whole could be more balanced – eight of twelve articles look at madness in the context of Anglo-American literature and film, the 16th to 18th centuries are conspicuously under-represented, and the Middle Ages are only briefly alluded to in the opening chapter. While the collection has much to offer to students and experts in the fields of contemporary Anglo-American literature and culture, those interested in the more conclusive interdisciplinary survey of madness in literature and the arts which the title promises are likely to be disappointed. In addition to these qualms, a more rigorous editing process could have produced a more coherent volume with a consistent focus on madness: the article by Meier-Dörzenbach, for example, is too eclectic to provide a meaningful overview; Rodenberg and Büscher-Ulbrich's essay on the beat poets and Jim Morrison's lyrics and music, while providing valuable insights into these artists' creation of a 'mad discourse,' suffers from lengthy descriptive passages about the effects of hallucinogenic drugs, which could easily have been cut; a similar problem arises in Hühn's instructive analysis of crime fiction, which starts with a brief overview of the development of crime and detective fiction that could have been cut for the sake of a more stringent focus on the collection's topic; finally, Heuer's contribution sits uneasily with the whole collection – her strong focus on the use of satire and unreliable narration makes her essay a strange fit for a volume on madness.
That being said, readers with a more specific interest in particular phenomena of madness will find
innovative and rewarding contributions. Neumeier's article, for example, shows in an exemplary manner how depictions of madness, gender and genre shift and change during the course of the Renaissance: different genres, Neumeier points out, force authors to negotiate gender and madness in different ways – comedies explain madness and transgressive gendering in medical terms, tragedies focus on the perilous vicinity of madness, death and the destruction of individual identity, while tragicomedy, finally, is dominated by a medical-psychological discourse. Greiner's discussion of madness in contemporary British theatre poses important ethical questions about the position of madness in society and, even more importantly, about the situation of those people whom a society that defines itself according to the standards of mental 'normalcy' has excluded: with Kane, Greiner wonders whether 'normalcy' is legitimate and normative, and inquires in how far psychiatric patients should be granted the right to dissent from 'normalcy.' Many essays in Wahnsinn in der Kunst therefore not only demonstrate that madness is a current topic that is still in need of scholarly attention and work, but also have the potential to complement and replenish existing scholarship on madness in the humanities.
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