Madness in Buenos Aires: Patients, Psychiatrists, and the Argentine State, 1880-1983

Madness in Buenos Aires: Patients, Psychiatrists, and the Argentine State, 1880-1983

Madness in Buenos Aires: Patients, Psychiatrists, and the Argentine State, 1880-1983

Madness in Buenos Aires: Patients, Psychiatrists, and the Argentine State, 1880-1983


This book examines the interactions between psychiatrists, patients, and their families, and the national state in modern Argentina. This book offers a fresh interpretation of the Argentine state's relationship to modernity and social change during the twentieth century, while also examining the often contentious place of psychiatry in modern Argentina. Drawing on a number of previously untapped archival sources, Jonathan Ablard uses the experience of psychiatric patients as a case study of how the Argentine state developed and functioned over the last century and of how Argentines interacted with it. Ablard argues that the capacity of the Argentine state to provide social services and professional opportunities and to control the populace was often constrained to an extent not previously recognised in the scholarly literature. These limitations, including a shortage of hospitals, insufficient budgets, and political and economic instability, shaped the experiences of patients, their families, and doctors and also influenced medical and lay ideas about the nature and significance of mental illness. Furthermore, these experiences, and the institutional framework in which they were imbedded, had a profound impact on how Argentine psychiatrists discussed, not only mental illness, but also a host of related themes, including immigration, poverty, and the role of the state in mitigating social problems. Co-published with Ohio University Press.


There is something fundamentally tragic in madness. It at
tracts. This phenomenon has already been observed. the most
interesting doctors of the insane enjoy the reputation of being
slightly off. Madness is contagious. Like lead for typographers,
or mercury or arsenic, it ends up soaking into your marrow,
slowly, imperceptibly.

– Roberto Arlt

In the 1987 Argentine film Man Facing Southeast, a nurse in a cavernous and decrepit porteño (Buenos Aires) mental hospital informs the supervising psychiatrist, Dr. Denis, that a new patient has mysteriously appeared in the ward. When finally located, the new patient tells the doctor that he came to earth in a space ship from another planet. During a series of conversations, the doctor comes to believe alternately that the patient, who calls himself Rantés, is a criminal hiding from the law; a lunatic; and, finally, perhaps a saint. Meanwhile, Rantés inverts the roles of patient and doctor and tries to cure the psychiatrist of his deep loneliness and alienation while also ministering to the physical and spiritual needs of his fellow patients. Soon the patients are in awe of Rantés, whom they hold in higher esteem than the doctors. Concerned about the new patient’s threat to their authority, hospital administrators order Dr. Denis to pacify Rantés through medications. the well-intentioned doctor reluctantly obeys but the injections prove fatal to the gentle Rantés.

The film, which was made inside the Borda psychiatric hospital in Buenos Aires, reflects the decades-long popular critique of the relationship of the psychiatric profession and its institutions to broader social and political issues. Since the 1960s, activists inside and outside of the mental health professions have argued that the neglect and abuse of involuntary psychiatric patients is symptomatic of a political system that violates human rights . . .

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