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Reviews367 Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light ofModern Art, Literature, and Thought, by Louis A. Sass; ? 8c 595 pp. New York: Basic Books, 1992, $30.00. In seeking to relate madness to modern aesthetics, Louis Sass has constructed an ambitious paradigm indeed. A clinical psychologist, he draws on a wide knowledge of modern literature and art in order to reinterpret schizophrenic symptomatology in a broader, humanistic context. To simplify his task he identifies seven interdependent aspects or features of modernism that are also seen in schizophrenic patients. These are: the defiance of authority and convention, uncertainty or multiplicity of perspective, submersion of the conscious self, a sense of irreality, static aperception, auto-referentiality, and ironic detachment. Simplifying further, the author concludes that modernism may be subsumed under the double heading of hyperreflexivity and alienation. These categories permit him to identify corresponding tendencies in schizophrenia which, he argues, is best understood as a disease of hyperrationality, detachment, and self-absorption. Although I sympathize with the need to reduce contemporary trends and schools to manageable proportions, oversimplification inevitably leads Sass to engage in misrepresentation. Might modernism be "only a negative category," he asks initially, "an utterly diverse collection of styles and attitudes, linked by nothing more than . . . the sheer fact of deviating from a norm?" (p. 37). In fact, as I have argued before in these pages, this is precisely the case. "Modernism " is a relatively recent concept created by Anglo-American critics to describe twentieth-century literature written in English. Despite recent books by Peter Bürger andJean François Lyotard, it has very litde currency in Europe or in Latin America (where modernismo means something quite different). To many critics the term's lack ofspecificity renders itvirtually useless. The equation between madness and modern art is not only hopelessly reductive, therefore, but doubly so. It is no more valid (or useful) than lumping together schizophrenia , manic-depression, paranoia, and organic brain disease under the heading of "insanity." What makes hyperreflexivity and alienation so attractive is their preexisting role as schizophrenic categories. Similarly, the artists and writers chosen for comparison are diose that present the greatest resemblance to schizophrenic patients. Antonin Artaud, who spent much ofhis life in mental hospitals, is an obvious choice. In a similar vein, we are told that Giorgio de Chirico was "severely schizoid" (p. 44) and that Alfred Jarry had "schizoid tendencies of nearly psychotic proportions" (p. 134). There is no attempt to present an objective selection, which inevitably skews the results. For these and other reasons, psychologists and psychiatrists will find the book more interesting than literary critics and art historians. While it is well written and wide-ranging, the bulk of the discussion is concerned with mental illness. 368Philosophy and Literature This is to say that modern art serves primarily as a metaphor for the schizophrenic condition. Although the author also maintains that schizophrenia can provide important insights into modern aesthetics, this seems doubtful. If the volume has important implications for the treatment of mental illness, as a jacket blurb proclaims, scholars of modern art and literature will be disappointed . As J. H. Matthews points out in Surrealism, Insanity, and Poetry, diere is a vast difference between madness and the simulation of madness. Whereas painters and poets delight in exploring different states of consciousness, the mentally ill are unwilling victims of their condition. The distance between aesdietics and psychopathology is so great, the abyss diat separates them so deep, that no artist has passed from one domain to the other willingly. Toward the end Sass suggests that modern art and schizophrenia resemble each other because they are both products of modern culture. To the contrary, I would argue that diese similarities exist primarily in the author's mind, which is able to "recognize"' them only because it has itself been shaped by modern culture. Illinois State UniversityWillard Bohn The Return ofThematic Criticism, edited by Werner Sollors; xxiii & 321 pp. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993, $34.50 cloth, $15.95 paper. TL· Return of Thematic Criticism is an odd, modey collection that does not manage to get to the bottom of its subject. In his introduction, Werner Sollors notes that "themes" in literature are rarely...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 367-368
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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