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Is the Joker Hypersane? He combined his considerable abilities as historian, teacher, writer and broadcaster to put together books remarkable for their intelligence, wit and clarity. Porter is scholarly without being abstruse, and can be brief without being superficial.

To some extent, Madness: A Brief History is a pocket-sized distillation of Porter's long-standing interest in the history of psychiatry and mental illness. In he published A Social History of Madness. Four years later his Faber Book of Madness appeared.


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Over the last three decades he wrote or edited 80 books. One reviewer observed that Porter wrote faster than most people read. He was also guided by the rules of eco-friendly writing: reduce, reuse, recycle. For instance, the story of medieval mystic, Margery Kempe, appeared in A Social History of Madness ; 15 years later, for Madness: A Brief History , he edited the borrowed bits to create a shorter and more energetic version. Madness: A Brief History is a fast-paced, panoramic survey of madness through the ages, accompanied by historical highlights of the enterprise we now call psychiatry.

From the outset his purpose is clear:. Porter's account starts with the Babylonians and ends with the fourth revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

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Madness: A Brief History

To read Porter is to enjoy not only his lively and polemical style, but also his memorable phrasemaking: therapeutic terror, medical materialism, institutional solution, atavistic degenerationism, and myth-maestro another reference to Freud. Magnus Huss in , and Johann Christian Reil at the turn of the 19th century, respectively.

Not coincidentally, I have another brief history of madness on my desk. Psychiatry in Canada: 50 years, edited by Quentin Rae-Grant, is a page collection of essays on psychiatry in Canada during the second half of the 20th century.

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Whereas Porter's work is painted on a large canvas, this volume is a microhistory published to mark the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Psychiatric Association. Although Psychiatry in Canada differs in scope and style from Porter's book, I suspect that Porter would have agreed with one of Rae-Grant's conclusions about the long and winding road that is the history of psychiatry:. Before walking away in despair from the issue of mental illness, we should recognize that at least part of this despair may derive from the fact that we have no cures.

Indeed, we have no illnesses. The most admirable thing about the book is the way it balances multiple themes. Nineteenth-century asylum-building is highlighted, but not at the expense of nineteenth-century efforts to explain mental disorders as brain disorders.

Madness: a brief history by Porter, Roy,

Porter is always urbane but never bland. The account of America's mid-twentieth-century lobotomy craze, for instance, appreciates all the pressures that psychiatry was under at the time but still exudes righteous indignation. Obviously, doctors, their theories and their practices, feature prominently in the book but Porter reserves some of his most deeply-felt passages for the opinions and experiences of mad people themselves.

It is remarkable how much information is packed into the pages of this tiny volume: sentences sum up entire episodes, parenthetical remarks sketch world-views, and even the captions to the skilfully chosen illustrations supplement the text. Although any reader with any interest in the subject would find this a clear, compassionate and witty introduction, experts alone will appreciate quite how comprehensive and generous it is—and how free of the ideological obsessions and jargon-laden prose that the recent historiography of psychiatry seems unable to transcend.

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