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Madness In Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity

  • Deutsches Haus at NYU 42 Washington Mews New York, NY, 10003 United States (map)
William Hogarth's A Rake’s Progress (Plate VIII), 1734-5. Creative Commons.

William Hogarth's A Rake’s Progress (Plate VIII), 1734-5. Creative Commons.

Please join us for a panel discussion of Andrew Scull's new book, Madness in Civilization: A History of Insanity from the Bible to Freud, and the Madhouse to Modern Medicine, with Andrew Scull, George Makari, Patrick McGrath, and Sylvia Nasar.

The loss of reason, a sense of alienation from the commonsense world we all like to imagine we inhabit, the shattering emotional turmoil that seizes hold and won’t let go—these are some of the traits we associate with madness. Today, mental disturbance is most commonly viewed through a medical lens, but societies have also sought to make sense of it through religion or the supernatural, or by constructing psychological or social explanations in an effort to tame the demons of unreason. In his recent book Madness in Civilization (Princeton University Press), Andrew Scull traces the long and complex history of this affliction and our attempts to treat it.

Madness in Civilization takes readers from antiquity to today, painting a vivid and often harrowing portrait of the different ways that cultures around the world have interpreted and responded to the seemingly irrational, psychotic, and insane. From the Bible to Sigmund Freud, from exorcism to mesmerism, from Bedlam to Victorian asylums, from the theory of humors to modern pharmacology, the book explores the manifestations and meanings of madness, its challenges and consequences, and our varied responses to it. It also looks at how insanity has haunted the imaginations of artists and writers and describes the profound influence it has had on the arts, from drama, opera, and the novel to drawing, painting, and sculpture.

About the Participants


ANDREW SCULL is Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Science Studies at the University of California, San Diego. His books include Hysteria: The Disturbing HistoryMadhouse: A Tragic Tale of Megalomania and Modern Medicine, and Masters of Bedlam: The Transformation of the Mad-Doctoring Trade (Princeton). He lives in La Jolla, California.

GEORGE MAKARI is director of the Dewitt Wallace Institute for the History of Psychiatry and professor of psychiatry at the Weill Medical School of Cornell University. He is the author of Revolution in Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysis and the forthcoming Soul Machine: The Creation of the Modern Mind (Norton).

PATRICK MCGRATH is the author of eight novels, including Asylum, Martha Peake, Port Mungo, and Trauma, which was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award. His most recent novel is Constance (Bloomsbury). A native of London, he grew up near Broadmoor Hospital, where his father was medical superintendent.

SYLVIA NASAR is the author of A Beautiful Mind, which inspired the Academy Award–winning film, and Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius. She was an economics correspondent for The New York Times and is the John S. and James L. Knight Professor of Business Journalism at Columbia University. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Newsweek, and other leading publications.

Later Event: September 30
Nixon and Kissinger