Monday, April 29, 2013

The Professor and the Madman

Last year I read HHhH, which is amazing, and, to paraphrase myself (to paraphrase Eric Stoltz in Kicking and Screaming) it's basically made the average historical non-fiction completely unbearable for me.  The amazing thing about HHhH is that the author doesn't call it "non-fiction", despite the fact that the entire story IS true, because he acknowledges that his own bias in retelling the story changes it.  Even as he's recounting how these two spies are being fired upon by like, hundreds of Nazi's, he won't even suppose that they might be scared.
In The Professor and the Madman, all kinds of supposing is going on.  Author Simon Winchester freely associates as he images conversations and emotions throughout his best-selling non-fiction book from 1998. We amused ourselves at book club by reading out the most egregious of these presuppositions - mine was "Mrs. Merrett had no reason to be concerned: She assumed, as she had for each of the twenty previous nights on which her husband had worked the dawn shift, that all would be well."  Really?  A lady thought that, every morning for twenty years in 1871?  That was page 10... I had a long way to go.

For me, the most annoying thing about Professor and the Madman was this offensive language Winchester insisted on using regarding people with mental illnesses.  It's quite clear that the so-called "madman" had schizophrenia, however, he refers to him as "mad" or consumed by "demonic mischiefs"and so on (not to mention prostitutes were referred to as "whores").  I think that he was going for an over-all tone of 19th century yellow journalism or the penny-dreadful, but it's really unclear what purpose it serves.  

The most ridiculous part was where he implies that the "madman" had a sexual relationship with the wife of the man he killed, even while prefixing it with "No suggestion exists..."  What a bizarre thing to write!  Because this man and a woman were possibly in a room alone maybe once, oh, good lord, they probably/well could have/certainly could have/but probably didn't have sex.  Thus I rend my garment and cry out in rage.  

Overall, I found the entire book completely offensive - I mean, the basic premise is CAN YOU BELIEVE IT? A MENTALLY ILL PERSON HELPED WRITE AN IMPORTANT BOOK??? As if the mentally ill are incapable of contributing to society.  

No comments: