Academic journal article Ife Psychologia

Madness as a Signifier: A Study of Doris Lessing's Briefing for a Descent into Hell

Academic journal article Ife Psychologia

Madness as a Signifier: A Study of Doris Lessing's Briefing for a Descent into Hell

Article excerpt


Based on Michel Foucault's idea of the power/knowledge relationship reflecting a sense of cultural criticism of the modern world, this paper investigates the issue of madness as a signifier in Briefing for a Descent into Hell, challenging the status quo of culture from all aspects, socio-political, medical, historical perspectives.

How does one define madness or insanity? One can attempt a definition by contrasting the term with the definition which recognizes one who has lost all sense of self and the society or culture that produces the so-called insane.

The issue of madness in modern fiction often expresses itself in crisis and transgression of the cultural establishment In Briefing for a Descent into Hell, Doris Lessing suggests a possible "brave new world" in a madman's "inner space." By juxtaposing Charles Watkins's "real" world and his "dream" world, the author criticizes such cultural institutions as hospitals and universities, the society in which the insane lives, the depravity, the insanity and the violence of the time which makes it almost impossible for one to reason appropriately. The multiple realities in the novel are not just designed for narrative purposes, but to ridicule the absurdity of what the society terms "reality," In this respect, this study will be examining the representation of "madness" in Briefing for a Descent into Hell as a signifier as well as a cultural malaise.


Foucault in Madness and Civilization preoccupies himself with the issue of madness, what one thinks at a particular time, why one must have such thought at the time and who decides what in the society.

The concept of mental illness or insanity which includes: delusions, lucid intervals, moral insanity, schizophrenia, and psychosis is enormous to define. However, it has been taken to mean the, abnormal state of the human mind which is conditioned and deluded. Sanity on the other hand would be the mind untainted by those defilements; it would be what is pure and clear.

Foucault's acceptance or awareness of the existence of a dimension which he calls "savior", "episteme or "archive" is very visible in most of his theories because to him, these things control the conscious, normal, rational functioning of one's thought and consciousness as one can see forms the basis of Foucault's discourse.

In Madness and Civilization, Foucault treats the issue of madness as a gateway to knowledge. He considers madness as an element of reason and this study intends to see how this theory can be weaved into literary discourse by applying it to the discussion of Doris Lessing's Briefing for a Descent into Hell. Michel Foucault describes the history of madness as the history of the Other - of that which, for a given culture, is at once internal and foreign, therefore for him, to be excluded (as to exorcise the interior danger) or being shut away (in order to reduce its otherness) ; or the history of the order imposed on things does not mean that it would be the history of the Same.

Foucault asserts that insanity should be defined according to a particular society's definition of irrational behavior, rather than an amalgam of symptoms. This phenomenon contributes to modern society's continually evolving characterization of madness. To Foucault, madness consists of peculiarities all people share, and by identifying and isolating those qualities, "we can relieve ourselves of the fear that this strangeness is our own." According to Foucault, society seeks to confine the "other" lest it contaminate the social order. Those people considered "mad" are institutionalized so society may avoid those it deems beyond contempt; madness "betrays a form of conscience to which the inhuman can suggest only shame. Nichole Maiman (2004:3).

To Foucault, the concept of madness is used to maintain the dominant order and so, mental illness could be better explained as a troublemaker's disruption of the social and cultural orders; for this reason, madness is as shameful and fearful as Foucault portrays it to be in his book, The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Science (1973)

In lit er ature, madness is a powerful device in that the insane are sometimes frightening, sometimes comical, and often believed to have insights that escape those bound by rational thought. …

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