The Madness of Old Town

Image KH Fields

 ’Your shoe,’ I repeated. ‘Perhaps you’d put it on.’ He continued to look downwards, though not at the shoe, with an intense but misplaced concentration. Finally his gaze settled on his foot: ‘That is my shoe, yes?’ Did I mis-hear? Did he mis-see? ‘My eyes,’ he explained, and put a hand on his foot. ‘This is my shoe, no?’ ‘No, it is not. That is your foot. There is your shoe.’ ‘Ah! I thought that was my foot.’ Was he joking? Was he mad? Was he blind? If this was one of his ‘strange mistakes’, it was the strangest mistake I had ever come across.

Oliver Sacks – The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat   (Sacks, 1985, p.9) 

Dr Oliver Sacks’ patient, Dr P, a well-known and respected musician, has started to make ‘strange mistakes’, inexplicable it would seem, as he is mostly ‘normal’ in all other aspects, but nonetheless odd enough for Dr Sacks, the psychologist, to spend an afternoon examining his mental behaviour. Dr Sacks concludes that Dr P “… had no body-image, he had body-music: this is why he could move and act as fluently as he did, but came to a total confused stop if the ‘inner music’ stopped” (Sacks, 1985, p.17). Dr P appears to have lost (due to a large tumour in his brain we are later to find out) the world of representation but has maintained that of music or movement (Sacks, 1985). One could quite casually agree with Dr Sacks initial reaction, that Dr P is mad, but one is still left wondering over his ability (or disability) to see the world in a new light. What if one could position oneself within his world, within the realm of the mad, what new light would one see?

The concept of madness within human civilisation has always fascinated, and has throughout the ages, as illustrated by Foucault in ‘Madness and Civilization’ (1965), given rise to an almost romantic idea of what it is to be mad. Foucault’s account of the history of madness demonstrates a near necessity in the post-renaissance period, referred to as the classical age, to confine the mad. Madness was the epithet given to nearly everyone not complying with the reason of the time; madness was unreason. “Madhouses” were built to confine the poor, the odd, the strange, the insane, and to reinforce the epistemological ethics of the time the mad were put on display, and one was taught to know better than to go mad, to not be unreasonable; reason justified itself as the polar opposite to unreason (Foucault, 1965).

It is generally accepted that the human being is mind and matter, body and soul, body and ‘image’. The ‘image’, or the inner world of representation that develops in early childhood, is the basis for the splitting of the mind into the conscious and the unconscious (Piaget, 1972). Historically one would refer to the madman as one finding it hard to differentiate the passions of the unconscious from the societal norms commonly accepted by the conscious (one could comically note that the madman is simply living the dream) (Foucault, 1965). However, after this short introduction to the concept of madness, one might ask; what has this got to do with the city?

Cities in general, but historic cities in particular, are concerning themselves with its ‘image’, its representation, cities as physical bodies also have an ‘image’, a collective unconscious (Bollas, 2009; Pile, 1996). History is representation (Kearney, 2002) and many historic cities are presenting themselves through its past. Once again authorities confine the passions of the unconscious, reason displays the madness of history through romantic representation; historicism becomes the societal norm.

Such a statement could comfortably lead to a critique of contemporary conservation theory, but would it not be more poetic to argue that one should let the ‘image’ of the city rest for a day? Let the ‘music’ of the collective unconscious sing for a moment, let us take a foot for a shoe or mistake our wife for a hat, let the Madness of Old Town express itself in full passion. What new light would we see then, what reality would we experience?

by Klas Hyllen

MPhil in Architecture candidate, Edinburgh College of Art

 References

  • Bollas, C., 2009. The Evocative Object World. London: Routledge.
  • Foucault, M., 1965. Madness and Civilization. London: Routledge Classics.
  • Kearney, R., 2002. On Stories. London: Routledge.
  • Piaget, J., 1972. Psychology and Epistemology – Towards a Theory of Knowledge. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd
  • Pile, S., 1996. The Body and the City. London: Routledge.
  • Sacks, O., 1986. The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. London: Pan Books Ltd.

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