Colonial Madness: Psychiatry in French North Africa

Colonial Madness: Psychiatry in French North Africa

Colonial Madness: Psychiatry in French North Africa

Colonial Madness: Psychiatry in French North Africa

Synopsis

Nineteenth-century French writers and travelers imagined Muslim colonies in North Africa to be realms of savage violence, lurid sexuality, and primitive madness. Colonial Madness traces the genealogy and development of this idea from the beginnings of colonial expansion to the present, revealing the ways in which psychiatry has been at once a weapon in the arsenal of colonial racism, an innovative branch of medical science, and a mechanism for negotiating the meaning of difference for republican citizenship.

Drawing from extensive archival research and fieldwork in France and North Africa, Richard Keller offers much more than a history of colonial psychology. Colonial Madness explores the notion of what French thinkers saw as an inherent mental, intellectual, and behavioral rift marked by the Mediterranean, as well as the idea of the colonies as an experimental space freed from the limitations of metropolitan society and reason. These ideas have modern relevance, Keller argues, reflected in French thought about race and debates over immigration and France's postcolonial legacy.

Excerpt

Novelists, travelers, and physicians in the mid-nineteenth century conjured a North Africa that was a space of savage violence and lurid sexuality, but also a space of insanity. For many authors who passed through the region during a period of expanding European contact and influence, it was the madness of the Muslim world that constituted its fundamental difference from the West. “Egypt is bursting with hospitals,” Maxime du Camp tells us, and it appeared only natural that in Cairo, one of the “largest” of them was “intended for madmen, whom one hears shrieking and moaning behind the thick walls of their padded cells.” Alphonse de Lamartine went a step further, proposing that madness offered a sympathetic means of understanding Muslims. the mannerisms of Lady Stanhope, his “Circe of the Desert,” evoked “a studied, voluntary madness”; this form of her “génie” helped her to communicate with the “Arab populations living near the mountains” and elicited their “powerful admiration.” For his part, Gustave Flaubert suggested the corrupting power of prolonged exposure to this world of unreason. His ruminations on the tensions between reason and insanity in La première éducation sentimentale proclaim that the confinements of bourgeois society prompt his protagonist, Jules, to “create the djinns” that take him “into madness and into savagery.”

It is significant that Flaubert uses the Arabic djinn, rather than the roughly equivalent “spirit,” as the vector of madness. Lamartine employs the French “génie”—a double entendre signifying “brilliance” and in this context “genie”—but the term conveys the same sense as Flaubert's djinn. Both locate . . .

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