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  • The Man Who Thought He Was Napoleon: Toward a Political History of Madness by Laure Murat
  • Amy Milne-Smith
The Man Who Thought He Was Napoleon: Toward a Political History of Madness, by Laure Murat, translated by Deke Dusinberre. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2014. xiii, 288 pp. $45.00 US (cloth).

First published in French in 2011, Laure Murat’s highly acclaimed work has been translated and published for an English readership. The Man Who Thought He Was Napoleon is a story of the manifestations and interpretations of madness amidst the political turmoil of France between 1789 and [End Page 578] 1871. As she states, revolution “provided not only a screen for the projection of delusion but also a space for its translation” (p. 158). On the surface, this might seem like a simple truth; nineteenth-century psychiatry was notoriously subjective at best, and moralistic at worst. And yet the text quickly reveals itself as an impressive attempt to uncover the political history of madness. Taking a middle ground between the extremes of anti-psychiatry and Whiggish apologists, Murat’s text outlines how both psychiatrists and their patients were deeply implicated in the dramatic political events of their age.

After a brief and useful Foreword by David A. Bell, the work begins with a Preamble that functions both as a love letter to the archives and as an explanation of methodology. A cultural historian, Murat is comfortable with the limitations of the psychiatric archives, including its gaps, its coded language, and inconsistencies. Instead of crunching the numbers, she explores a personalized selection method that follows the more detailed and original cases of delusions (p. 15).

The first chapter begins with how the spectre of the Terror and its ultimate symbol, the guillotine, plagued the nightmares of the mad. Murat details the many inmates of the asylum haunted by images of the guillotine, and notes that modern psychiatry in France was born at the same moment as the guillotine (pp. 33–34). Vivid depictions of “victims’ balls” and images of guillotine earrings help situate the asylum within its social and cultural context (pp. 26–27).

“Asylum or Political Prison” interrogates the relationship between these two institutions, and explores the politics of how people were institutionalized by the revolutionary state. While Murat does not follow a simple Foucauldian interpretation in her work, it is clear that despite the elimination of the infamous lettres de cachet, asylums were still used to incarcerate society’s more problematic citizens. Yet for many of those citizens, freedom was already forfeit. The infamous Marquis de Sade, for example, entered the Charenton asylum only after a series of prisons (pp. 87–103). The asylum and the prison worked as part of the same politicized space in identifying and incarcerating social outcasts.

The third chapter introduces the madhouse Napoleons. Murat places the historical phenomenon within not only the contemporary diagnostic contexts (monomania and general paresis) but also within the shifting political events of the age. The asylum Napoleons were doubly intriguing as such men “imitated a monarch who was himself said to suffer from delusions of grandeur” (p. 134). Yet not all delusions were created equally; Napoleon was joined by a fair number of Louis XVIs, and yet Louis-Philippe did not inspire much imitation. The false dauphins who emerged were sent to prison, not the asylum. [End Page 579]

The idea of revolution, and even moreso, democracy itself, as madness is the focus of the fourth chapter. The events of the Terror were horrifying, but nineteenth-century psychiatrists went further, pathologizing the uprising as a symptom of underlying madness. While this might explain the excesses of violence, it also explained away any underlying reasons people might have had for their revolt. This chapter also makes the point that the cause of madness is hard to tease out, and the line between politics and poverty is a hard one to draw.

The finale of the text takes us through the Franco-Prussian war and the Commune. This period had the most direct effect on the asylums themselves as most were converted to treat war casualties. Saint Anne was the only hospital in Paris open for...


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