Vogue Diagnoses: Functions of Madness in Twentieth-Century American Literature

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Title: Vogue Diagnoses: Functions of Madness in Twentieth-Century American Literature
Author: Donnelly, Taylor
Abstract: Fiction and drama have engaged with madness across the epistemes of the American twentieth century. Given the prominence of the subject of madness, both historically and literarily, we need a unified methodology for analysis and action. As a subfield of disability studies, "mad studies" deals specifically with representations of mental distress rather than physical otherness, examining how "madness" enables writers to convey certain meanings or produce certain stories. In minor characters, these meanings are infused into characters' actantial function within the symbolic model of disability: madness works as a device for plot, psychological depth (of other characters), and thematic resonance. Onstage, these meanings transform as they inhabit the social/political/cultural model of disability rather than the medical or symbolic models. Realistic, expressionistic, and musical theatre across the twentieth century have all found ways to stage not only "madness," but also the social responses and contexts that construct it, while simultaneously giving audiences formal opportunities to sympathize with the so-called mad characters. Mad protagonists follow particular plot patterns prompted by the temporal, existential, or hermeneutic mystery posed by madness. Male madness narratives often engage with the legitimizing etiology of war, freeing them from the temporal mystery - "what caused this to happen?" - and allowing them to address the existential mystery - "what is this like?" - through formal experimentation. Female madness narratives, grappling with a medical discourse that emphasizes endogenous causality for women, retort to such discourse by emphasizing a broader temporal plot. Offering more possible answers to "what caused this to happen" than doctors do, female madness narratives show that subjective experience exists within a social, as well as a biological, framework. Yet, popular as fictions remain, in recent years, the genre of memoir has eclipsed them. Madness memoir engages in a real-world context with the central linguistic challenge of madness. Memoirists' use of metaphor to convey recalcitrant experiences of distress not only engages with existential and hermeneutic mystery (what is it like, and what does it mean), but suggests a way forward for intersubjective understanding that sympathizes without co-opting, allowing for meaningful communication and political action across differences.
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/1794/12366
Date: 2012


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