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pantodragon

The OED and the mad man

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I have just finished reading “The Professor and the Madman” by Simon Winchester. The book yielded some interesting things, upon which I comment below.

The book (non-fiction) describes the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in the latter half of the 19th century, with particular reference to two of the main players: Professor James Murray who took on the job of creating the dictionary and Dr Minor who became one of its major contributors. Murray, something of a self-taught polymath with a bent for language, was a Scot from the Borders. Dr Minor, the “madman” of the title, was an American medical doctor who had served as a surgeon in the Civil War. After the war, Minor had moved to London. There he committed a murder, was categorised as criminally insane, and banged up in Broadmoor Asylum for the last half of his life. It was from Broadmoor that he contributed to the making of the OED. The book, therefore, is not only an account of the creation of the OED, but contains a brief history of the treatment of mental illness from Victorian times.

I had to skim-read much of the book for there was simply too much trivial, extraneous detail. The book could, and should, have been a quarter of the length. But books today are getting longer and longer and longer, while simultaneously saying less and less and less…………...

As to the creation of the OED, the mechanics of the whole process was extremely interesting. For example, I have thus far been under the impression that the internet encyclopedia Wikipedia broke new ground in that it is compiled largely by volunteers from the public. Not a bit of it. The OED had already set a precedent a century before. This confirms my suspicions that there is nothing new on the internet, and that what there is, is a debased version of what was already available elsewhere.

As to the author’s discussion of mental health, it strikes me that he has had little, if any, experience of mental illness. He talks of people with mental illness as being “mad” or “insane” as if their condition is somehow mysterious, exotic even. In other words, mental illness IS a mystery to the author. In fact, he reminds me of how I used to think of people who were mentally ill when I was very young and before I had any experience in the area myself.

For example, I was fascinated by Mervyn Peake’s third novel in his Ghormenghast trilogy which was written just before he became “mad”: it seemed to ooze “madness”, to exhibit a mysterious quality of impending doom. This fascinated me and was, in fact, the start of a developing interest in psychology which later prompted me to explore Jung, Freud and Adler to name but a few, as well as many of the “therapies” commonly available today such as CBT, NLP, psychoanalysis, counselling and various others whose names I have long since forgotten. But the reality of mental illness is actually much more mundane (and much more interesting). And furthermore, reading books does not tell you what a mental hospital is like.

Nonetheless it was interesting to read about Minor’s treatment in Broadmoor. Not being considered dangerous, he had quite a lot of freedom (having money also helped here, for he could pay other inmates to be his servants etc). Most strikingly, however, he seems largely to have been left alone and certainly not to have been forced to take drugs or to endure any Victorian equivalent of ECT.

In the modern psychiatric hospital patients sit around, virtually comatose, silent, drugged up to the eyeballs. Having had their mental faculties thus curtailed and dulled, the very idea that they could do what Minor did and compile word lists and quotations for the OED by extensive reading is ludicrous. Yet small libraries do exist in the modern psychiatric hospital --- leaving one wondering just what planet modern psychiatrists are living on.

Given what a modern psychiatric hospital is like, one also wonders just how accurate the depiction of an asylum was in the film Amadeus. I daresay the depiction was much exaggerated for dramatic effect: the patients were extremely lively and noisy, unable to stand still ---- not, in fact, unlike pupils in the modern classroom. This suggests that 18th century mental patients were not drugged either and, as with Salieri, largely left to their own devices.

The author takes the traditional view too that modern psychiatry and treatment is much more advanced, and benign, than anything that went before. Of course, he is not alone in this. On a programme about mental health, Stephen Fry described (the horror of) being “sectioned” as if it was a picnic in the country. Yet the more I discover about modern methods, the more confirmed I am in taking the opposite view: that is, the more modern the treatment the worse it is for the patient. In fact, given how little psychiatry and psychology does understand, then they have absolutely no business poking about in people’s minds.

For example, ECT seems to have much the same effect as a mind wipe. But this isn’t The Bourne Identity or some fantasy fairy defence mechanism from an Artemis Fowl novel, it’s the real thing where your memories are wiped and return only very slowly. In other words, you are erased. You loose your identity. You don’t know who you are. You are in limbo. You can only reconstruct yourself when your memories start to return. This is the stuff of nightmares. It is horrific.

In fact, the emphasis today is on diagnosis and ever finer distinctions between the various conditions. So, instead of actually trying to find a cure for, say, schizophrenia, the emphasis is on giving it a different name --- and a name which will, if it is accepted, make famous the name of the scientist who first diagnosed the condition. Well, well, now isn’t that a surprise!

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Posted (edited)

There are over 300 psychiatric disorders listed in the DSM-IV. With continued research, more are named every year and some disorders are removed or re-categorized.

http://allpsych.com/disorders/

According to the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) it seems we are all mentally ill, especially children.

Edited by StarMountainKid
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I read the book shortly after it was published. It's focus is not on mental illness, it's not a book about mental illness. If you skimmed it looking for just references to mental illness you missed most of a good read.

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Kurt Vonnegut's son, Mark, wrote a really good book about his own mental illness entitled The Eden Express: A Memoir of Insanity. You might find it helpful, it's certainly well written.

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And of course we have our own Psycho with ODD ... obsessive debunking disorder.

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Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

......................Abandon hope all ye who enter here!

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I read the book shortly after it was published. It's focus is not on mental illness, it's not a book about mental illness. If you skimmed it looking for just references to mental illness you missed most of a good read.

I am aware that the focus of the book is not on mental illness, however, I felt it devoted a disproportionate number of words to the subject whereas I had hoped for more on lexicography. That was, after all, both men's claim to fame.

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Kurt Vonnegut's son, Mark, wrote a really good book about his own mental illness entitled The Eden Express: A Memoir of Insanity. You might find it helpful, it's certainly well written.

Well, I do have an interest in mental health and psychology, but it is well fed and that is probably why I chose to focus so much upon the mental health aspect of the book. My current interest, however, is not psychology but lexicography, which is currently starving and was too little fed by this book.

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Well, I do have an interest in mental health and psychology, but it is well fed and that is probably why I chose to focus so much upon the mental health aspect of the book. My current interest, however, is not psychology but lexicography, which is currently starving and was too little fed by this book.

I think you'll find The Eden Express a worthwhile read. It certainly gave me a better understanding of my mother, who was a paranoid schizophrenic. Your posts indicate you have a strong interest in mental illness, not lexicography, so I thought you might find this book of value because of Mark Vonnegut's personal experiences with mental illness.

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