A Bad Case of Mixed Metaphors: Psychiatry, Law, Politics, Society, and Ezra Pound

Article excerpt

The article by Frederic Wertham, "The Road to Rapallo: A Psychiatric Study," written one-half century ago, could just as well have been written today. The only difference is that psychiatry has become so impressed by its seemingly scientific, diagnostic system and emerging technology that it no longer questions its' fundamental conceptualizations. Terms like "mental illness," "insanity," "sanity," or even "psychosis" still arouse controversy Nowhere is this more evident than in psychiatry's relationship with the law, politics, society, and the arts. The Ezra Pound case continues to highlight the limitations of psychiatry whenever it makes excursions into other fields.

Although many of the psychopharmacological and technical developments in psychiatry have been impressive, the conceptual foundation for the field continues to be primitive. As a result, inconsistencies, contradictions, and confusion reign whenever certain fundamental issues arise. Psychiatry still has yet to come up with a sound definitions of "mental illness," "insanity," "normality," or "sanity." And it still has yet to come up with a sensible notion of personal responsibility, which lies at the heart of most legal issues.

According to Aristotle (and generally consistent with most legal theory), there are three components of responsibility: 1. The person should be the "prime mover" or cause of his actions; 2. As such, he should be accountable for what he does; 3. Being accountable means receiving approval for good deeds and punishment for bad ones. Unfortunately, psychiatry has difficulty conceptualizing the nature of the "I," which can willfully initiate actions, and how that "I" can be autonomous and yet be influenced by past psychological traumas, social inequities, and current neurochemical disturbances. Being unclear on this matter, psychiatry is likewise bound to take inconsistent stands on the matter of accountability, and the nature of good and bad deeds. As Wertham so clearly shows, it should not be surprising to find that when psychiatry becomes involved in legal matters, two incompatible, immiscible conceptualizations often result.

The Ezra Pound case also illustrates how the political context determines judgments about whether certain beliefs are irrational or not. …