Wednesday, February 28, 2018
Marion Quirici – “Psychiatric Degeneration Theory and Irish Modernism: Blending Sickness with Sin“
Presented by the Health Humanities Lab and the Neurohumanities Research Group
Degeneration theory, a paranoia that the human race was in mental and moral decline, arose in the nineteenth century, when growing industrialization brought with it an increase in psychiatric institutionalization. Degeneration theorists like Bénédict Morel, Cesare Lombroso, and Max Nordau conflated mental disability with immorality and criminality, classifying vulnerable populations as dangerous deviants and thus justifying incarceration and eugenics. This lecture considers discourses of degeneration in twentieth-century Ireland, where the Catholic Church exerted authority over life and literature alike. The nation regarded loosely determined psychiatric categories like feeblemindedness as useful labels when segregating people it viewed as sinners, such as unwed mothers, in institutions like the Magdalen Laundries. Fear of degeneration motivated the birth of the Gaelic Athletic Association, as well as a draconian regime of censorship of literary texts. It even played a role in recruiting volunteers for the nationalist uprising. Dr. Quirici argues that resistance and critique of degeneration theory was a defining strategy of Irish modernism. Samuel Beckett and Flann O’Brien both recognized the hypocrisies of the degeneration theory driving the Censorship Bureau, and satirized it in their work. Edna O’Brien and Sebastian Barry wrote devastating accounts of the experiences of women under an ableist capitalist religious patriarchy. This lecture will dwell, in particular, on James Joyce, who was personally and explicitly targeted as a degenerate whose art would spread both sickness and sin. Pathologized as a “perverted lunatic” in his reviews, Joyce reworked that imagery into a defiant portrait of the modernist artist in Finnegans Wake. Ultimately, her project asserts that Irish modernists resist standardization and normalization at the level of both form and content. Reclaiming various categories of disability, and assuming disabled identities, these authors assert that vulnerability is what defines the human.