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The madness of Gerard de Nerval

Abstract

This paper examines the madness of Gerard de Nerval, the nineteenth-century French writer. It looks at his account of mental disturbance, how he responded to the psychiatric profession and how he reacted to being diagnosed as insane. It considers his autobiographical novella of madness, Aurelia, which he began at the suggestion of his alienist, Dr Emile Blanche, and while he was still an asylum inmate. Nerval's story raises important questions about the nature of madness. Is it, as he contended, a mystical experience revealing truths about spiritual worlds inaccessible to the ‘sane’? Does psychiatry fail to understand it and inappropriately reduce it to the categories of scientific reason? Or are such notions of the spiritual value of madness guilty of the charge that they romanticise insanity? Do they make extravagant claims for an experience that is often disturbing and debilitating? What is the relationship between madness and recovery? Should an individual try to forget their experience of mental disturbance once they recover, or should they examine what the event reveals about themselves? Can the language of madness be decoded to unveil profound truths as Carl Jung and R.D. Laing have suggested, or is it, as the psychiatrist German Berrios maintains, merely a series of ‘empty speech acts’, signifying nothing? And finally, how does one avoid writing about madness, and instead write madness?

  • Spirituality

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