On the Writing of the Insane (1870)

G. Mackenzie Bacon (1835–1883) — alienist and superintendent of the Cambridgeshire asylum that would become Fulbourn Hospital — set out, in 1870, “to place before the reader a series of pictures of insane minds, painted by themselves”. While the gestures and speech patterns of the mentally ill had been commented on in the nineteenth century, Bacon believed that a lack of attention had been paid to their writing. To carry out his research, he resorts to a kind of layman’s analysis of semantics and graphology. Describing one sample of a man’s handwriting reproduced in the book, Bacon notes that its “incoherency of idea, broken purpose, and want of consequence in the words, is shown in the odd scrawl and fantastic figures. It gives a better picture of his mental state than any verbal description could.” Throughout his text, the doctor defaults on this same commonsense heuristic of sensibility, such as when he tries to demonstrate, through a series of letters written some months apart, that a patient’s correspondence evidences her successful convalescence: “The next letter shows a great improvement, but there is still some flightiness; and the last is quite sensible in tone”.

It makes sense that handwriting would appear on the dotted line between sanity and madness. In the nineteenth century, penmanship became an ennobling pedagogy — a way to cultivate beautiful souls in schoolchildren through florid scripts. Beginning with Platt Rogers Spencer (1800–1864), whose calligraphic style can still be spotted in Coca-Cola’s curlicue logo, handwriting was no longer merely about displaying one’s education or social status: “it became a process through which one learned key values”, notes Anne Trubek. The popular cursive “method” of A. N. Palmer (1860–1927) was used as a disciplinary mode of moral reform. “Penmanship training ranks among the most valuable aids in reforming ‘bad’ children”, he once wrote — and it is thanks, in large part, to Palmer that left-handed children, whom he considered “devious”, were long forced to right their ways in the United States. While handwriting analysis may have helped identify conditions associated with the degradation of fine-motor control, often its clinical use smacked of the punitive schoolteacher, such as when Bacon’s colleague Edward Charles Spitzka (1852–1914) deduced insanity from the overuse of punctuation: “in monomania the paper is covered with underlining marks, queries, exclamation points, dashes, and strange symbols”. Thankfully, handwriting was only diagnostic for Bacon — the doctor did not believe that disordered thinking could be cured by writing lines on a chalkboard.

Diagram created by Bacon's unnamed patientScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Two of the most striking images in the book, the only printed in color, were created by a “respectable artisan of considerable intelligence” who suffered a prolonged “melancholy mood”. During his two years in the asylum, the unnamed man spent “much of his time writing — sometimes verses, at others long letters of the most rambling character, and in drawing extraordinary diagrams.” The two featured images were drawn on both sides of the same small sheet of paper, and the patient, “as though anxious, in the exuberance of his fancy, to make the fullest use of his opportunities, . . . filled up every morsel of the surface — to the very edge — not leaving an atom of margin.” The result is a kind of concrete poetry meets horror vacui, the words conforming to the contours of a figure of eight, or venn diagram, and all space teeming with text in various scripts and colors. Reading the frontispiece as a series of distinct and overlapping sets juxtaposes “FULBORN” — a spelling of the asylum’s location that perhaps summons “full born” — with “THE SUN KINGDOM”; at the union of the two circles is the phrase “DESPERATION DRIVEN TO THE VERGE”, which is bordered by “VACUITY”.

Bacon goes on to explain that the artisan, after leaving the asylum, went “to work at his trade, and, by steady application, succeeded in arriving at a certain degree of prosperity, but some two or three years later he began to write very strangely again”. After a visit from a medical specialist who tried to dissuade the unnamed man from writing this way, the former patient penned the following letter:

Dear Doctor,

To write or not to write, that is the question. Whether tis nobler in the mind to follow the visit of the great ‘Fulbourn’ with ‘chronic melancholy’ expressions of regret (withheld when he was here) that, as the Fates would have it, we were so little prepared to receive him, and to evince my humble desire to do honour to his visit. My Fulbourn star, but an instant seen, like a meteor's flash, a blank when gone. The dust of ages covering my little sanctum parlour room, the available drapery to greet the Doctor, stowed away through the midst of the regenerating (water and scrubbing - cleanliness next to godliness, political and spiritual) cleansing of a little world. The Great Physician walked, bedimmed by the ‘dark ages’ the long passage of Western Enterprise, leading to the curvatures of rising Eastern morn. The rounded configuration of Lunar (tics) garden's lives an o'ershadowment on Britannia's vortex . . .

Unfortunately, things ended sadly for the man. As Bacon recounts: “In the course of another year he had some domestic troubles, which upset him a good deal, and he ended by drowning himself one day in a public spot”.

Diagram created by Bacon's unnamed patientScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Folded into On the Writing of the Insane is a soft critique of Victorian attitudes toward the variety of conditions once clustered under madness and insanity. “There is a popular notion that the insane are a very wily and cunning class”, he writes, “but those who live amongst the insane know well how little such notions are supported by facts.” In his suspicion of “the habit of regarding society as divided into two camps, the sane and insane, more or less opposed to one another”, Bacon almost anticipated Michel Foucault’s well-known theory of confinement, which describes how reason and rationality became the norms of European civility after the Enlightenment. By banishing unreasonable persons to asylums — or by exhibiting their irrationality as a spectacle meant to prove the inhuman, animal quality of madness — labor markets, property, and the legal sphere could be protected from potentially destabilizing modes of being. Bacon does not quite go this far, but, unlike some of his peers, he resists labeling “hysterical” women and those of “feeble mind” as insane: “The proper way to understand such cases is to think of them as victims of a permanent state, and not objects for pharmaceutical treatment”. A close reader of Bacon’s text will feel him groping toward a revelation that never comes, like when he observes that letters from “the poorer class” are “perhaps not so well marked [as sane]” when compared to his other examples.

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