Book Review – ‘Madness and Modernism’ by Louis Sass (2017 Ed.)

This ground-breaking work revises traditional understandings of schizophrenia as ‘a form of encroaching dementia, regression, or dominance by instinct and the irrational’ and instead views it as ‘involving unusual forms of self-consciousness together with associated alienation and withdrawal – not only from the surrounding world and other human beings, but also from one’s own thoughts, feelings, and bodily presence.’ (Preface).

It is a work of ‘comparative phenomenology,’ which uses modernist art and literature as a tool to help us better understand schizophrenia. By placing both next to each other, Sass draws out some striking similarities to illuminate a potential logic that might underpin them both.

Sass argues that both modernist art and schizophrenia can be understood as evidencing ‘hyperreflexivity’ and a concomitant ‘alienation’. The range of material that he covers, and the detailed analyses of case studies of individuals with schizophrenia, make this book a brilliant attempt at better understanding a mental disorder that has, since its conception, baffled psychiatrists and researchers.  

My own academic background is in both psychology and literature, so I was extremely excited to see the disciplines used productively together to help us understand, phenomenologically, madness – and, by bringing its opposite into relief, sanity as well. Sass doesn’t try to explain the aetiology of schizophrenia, other than gesturing towards the likely conclusion that it will involve several primary and secondary factors, in unpredictable combinations, and this is a good thing. His aim is to understand, rather than explain, and this book does a fantastic job in making sense of symptoms and behaviours that have typically been distinctive by their complete incomprehensibility. I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone interested in phenomenological psychopathology and/or modernist art.

I’d be very interested to know whether any other scholar has attempted a study of contemporary, 21st century art and thought, in its relation to another form of madness? It seems that Sass is right in identifying the parallels between 20th century modernist art and schizophrenia, but times have changed, and I wonder what the contemporary parallel could be? The present day has moved interestingly away from the ‘modernist/postmodernist’ zeitgeist that Sass studied, into new territory, and I think one deserving the same kind of scrutiny that Sass gave the 20th century!

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