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The American Revolution

John Fiske

Library of Alexandria
I. It’s a mad world, my masters. I suppose that the motto I have affixed to the first chapter of the brief history of a singular personal experience is by this time an accepted axiom. Was it in one of Mr. Sala’s columns of gossip that I was reading the other day of the man of the pen who commented upon the imprisonment in an asylum of a brother of his craft merely by saying, ‘What a fool he must be! For years I have been as mad as he, only I took care never to say so’? There are odd corners in the brains of most of us, filled with queer fancies which are as well kept out of sight; eccentricities, I suppose they may be called. The man who is so ‘concentric’ as to be innocent of peculiarities is a companion of a dull sort. But Heaven help us all when such things may be called, and treated as, madness. For, if all of us were used according to our deserts in that way, who should escape the modern substitutes for whipping? England would not contain the asylums that should be constructed, and might go far to deserve the Gravedigger’s description of her for Hamlet’s benefit: ‘There the men are as mad as he.’ Let me go a step further. There are few of us, perhaps, who have not seen something in our lives of the strange nervous disorders which have been generalised as ‘hypochondria,’ which are, in fact, I think, the different outcomes of a common affection—temporary exhaustion of brain. Beyond a certain point it becomes delirium, the wandering of weakness which is so closely connected with many forms of illness, both in the beginning and during the course and recovery. When the victims of delirium may be added to the eccentric members of society; when at any moment the certificates of any two doctors who may be utter strangers to the patient—acting under the instructions of friends who are frightened and perplexed, perhaps, and try to believe that they are ‘doing for the best’ (I leave out of consideration here the baser motives which, it is to be feared, come sometimes into play)—may condemn him to the worst form of false imprisonment, the death-in-life of a lunatic asylum, at a time when he is himself practically unconscious;—who is there amongst us who can for a moment believe himself safe? Death-in-life did I say? It is worse; for it is a life-in-life, worse than any conceivable form of death. The sights and sounds through which one has to live can never be forgotten by him who has lived through them, but will haunt him ever and always. Never let next friends persuade themselves that they are ‘doing for the best’ for him for whom they so do. For themselves they may think that they are. For him they cannot possibly do worse. Every nerve should be strained to save a man from that fate, if it be humanly possible, ay, even if he be mad indeed; for while there is life there is hope, till that step has been taken. When it has, I verily believe that hope is reduced to its smallest. For the personal experience which I have to tell has taught me this: that the man who comes sane and safe out of the hands of mad-doctors and warders, with all the wonderful network of complications which, by Commissioners, certificates, and Heaven knows what, our law has woven round the unlucky victim in the worst of all its various aberrations, is very sane indeed. And very safe too, happily. His lines afterwards are not altogether pleasant. The curious looks and whispers, the first meetings with old friends, the general anxiety that he should not ‘excite himself’ (which he may be better excused for doing than most people, perhaps), magnified, no doubt, by his own natural sensitiveness, are difficult in their way. He does not mind them much, is amused by them at times; for, with the strong sense of right on one’s side, conflict is rather pleasant than not to the well-balanced soul. But the thread of life and work and duty has been rudely broken by the shock, and has to be knit again under great drawbacks. It can be done, though; and one starts again the wiser and the better man. ‘Jurant, quoiqu’un peu tard, qu’on ne l’y prendra plus.’ It is no bad thing to have part of one’s work and duty so clearly pointed out as this of mine. When this evil question is being stirred to its depths as it is now, every contribution of personal experience is valuable. It is not for me to suggest schemes of reform, as it is the fashion to ask critics to do, but for those who are paid to do that work rightly and earnestly, or who choose to undertake to legislate for us. Nor have I any advice to offer them except the advice of Hamlet: ‘O, reform it altogether.’ The system is radically wrong, all through, under which such wrong is possible. And I believe it all the more because it seems to me without reasonable excuse. Madness is the most terrible of all visitations; but also, probably for that very reason, the most unmistakable. And in spite of doctors and lawyers and the whole artillery of organised Humbug, I have deduced another lesson from this hard experience of mine: I do not believe that there is any mistaking a madman when you see him. The especial experience which I have to tell has nothing especially painful, and is, perhaps, none the worse for that. I have nothing to write of dark rooms or strait-waistcoats or whippings, or to reveal such secrets of the prison-house as will make each particular hair to stand on end by the telling. My lines were cast in pleasant places. The private asylum in which I was confined for many months, which in the retrospect seem like one dreary dream, is, I believe, highly recommended by Her Majesty’s Commissioners as a delightful sanitary resort—quite a place to spend ‘a happy life.’ During those months I had the advantage of living in a castellated mansion, in one of the prettiest parts of England, which I shall hate to my dying day, with a constant variety of attendants, who honoured me by sleeping in my room, sometimes as many as three at a time. I was dying in delirium and prostration, simply, and wasted to a shadow; consequently voted ‘violent,’ as the best way out of it. With carriages to take me out for drives, closed upon wet days, open on fine; with cricket and bowls and archery for the summer, and a pack of harriers to follow across country in the winter; with the head of the establishment, who lived in a sweet little cottage with his family, to give me five o’clock tea on the Sundays; with five refections a day whereof to partake, with my fellow-lunatics, if so disposed, in my private sitting-room when I could not stand it; with a private chapel for morning prayers or Sunday service, the same companions and attendants for a congregation, and some visitors who would come to look at us; with little evening parties for whist or music amongst ‘ourselves,’ and a casual conjuror or entertainer from town to distract us sometimes for an evening; with an occasional relative to come and see me, beg me not to get excited, and depart as soon as possible,—what more could man desire? As I look at this last sentence of mine it reads like an advertisement. Stay—I had forgotten the medicine. They did not give me very much of it, I suppose, or I should not be alive. Indeed, it seemed to me that the general principle was to give it when one asked for it, and pretty much what one asked for. When I got unusually weak and delirious a good strong dose on the ‘violent’ theory—homœopathy, I suppose, from a new point of view—was enough, literally, to reduce me to reason. For then I became too weak to speak, and the matter ended for a time