Nation, World + Society

When the French lost their heads for Napoleon

UCLA professor traces the connection between politics and mental health in Revolutionary France

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Laure Murat
Valérie Minetto

UCLA professor Laure Murat mined 150-year-old medical records for her history of mental illness in revolutionary France, “The Man Who Thought He Was Napoleon.”

In France, a well-known saying conveys just how intertwined politics and mental illness are in the national psyche: “Every madman thinks he’s Napoleon.”

Inspired by the connection, UCLA cultural historian Laure Murat set out in 2006 to tell the story of France’s most politically turbulent century — the late 18th century to the late 19th — through the records of what at the time were unapologetically referred to as “insane asylums.”

“I wanted to understand how the political context acted on minds and the collective unconscious,” said Murat, a professor of French and Francophone studies in the UCLA College.

Murat’s investigation found that delusions tended to evolve based on current events. During one period of nostalgia for Napoleon, many men and even one woman actually believed they were the French emperor. During another timeframe, three mental patients, all convinced they were the monarch Louis XVI, fought each other for the right to the title. And during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, several women and at least one man thought they were Joan of Arc; they just believed they were fighting against 19th century Germany as opposed to 15th century England.

Murat recounted this history in a widely praised 2011 book, “L’homme qui se prenait pour Napoléon: Pour une histoire politique de la folie” (“The Man Who Mistook Himself for Napoleon: Toward A Political History of Madness”). Published by the premiere French firm Gallimard, the work earned widespread praise in Murat’s native France, won the prestigious Prix Femina Essai nonfiction prize and attracted considerable media attention.

The University of Chicago Press plans to publish the English translation, under the title “The Man Who Thought He Was Napoleon,” on Oct. 6.

The book shows how ailments presented in a newly established system of mental hospitals in France held up a kind of fun-house mirror to the era’s often horrific political dramas, amplifying and distorting historic events in metaphoric, poignant and tragic ways.

The University of Chicago Press
Created by artist Ambroise Tardieu for an 1838 French treatise on insanity, this engraving, “Dementia,” is said to have been informed by an actual patient.

A former journalist and art writer, Murat teaches courses at UCLA on the history of madness in literature and French literature from the 19th and early 20th centuries. She also serves as faculty advisor for the UCLA Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Studies program.

Mining a wealth of psychiatric records

Murat’s four previous books include a 2001 biography of Esprit and Emile Blanche, a French psychiatrist and his son who treated the mental illnesses of famous 19th century artists and writers. “La Maison du Docteur Blanche” (“The Clinic of Doctor Blanche”) won France’s prestigious Goncourt Prize for Biography and the French Academy’s Critique’s Prize.  She credits the project with opening her eyes to the wealth of French psychiatric records, which she mined for “The Man Who Thought He Was Napoleon.”

Beginning with the French Revolution of 1793 and ending with the revolutionary and socialist Paris Commune government that briefly ruled Paris in 1871, the era that Murat explores was a merry-go-round of regimes as the country tried to come to terms with the Enlightenment’s new values and freedoms.

In addition to its political and economic upheaval, France also underwent a revolution in how the mentally ill were viewed and treated, she explains. The book tracks the way in which mental illness came to be seen as an ailment that could be treated and cured and how, for the first time, circumstances under which individuals could be committed to asylums were limited. Family members and the government had previously been able to commit anyone to prison-like institutions where patients were bound with chains and housed with criminals and the destitute. But beginning in 1790, individuals — at least in theory — could not be committed without having their mental illness verified by independent doctors, who kept copious patient records.

These records become public in France after 150 years, which allowed Murat to plow through the dossiers of hundreds of people who were housed in the four major mental institutions that operated in greater Paris through the 19th century.

Not all mental illness in revolutionary France had a political character, especially since scientists had yet to discover a cure for syphilis, a major cause of dementia. And the kinds of misery and deprivation dramatized in Victor Hugo’s celebrated novel “Les Misérables” cast a much longer shadow over 19th century asylum records than political intrigue did.

In fact, the most harrowing revelation in Murat’s book involves a woman who, in 1853, driven insane by destitution, was reduced to eating the remains of her own child.

“Thousands of men and women, many of whom were working class… lost everything else before losing their minds,” Murat said.

The era’s most famous madman — Marquis de Sade — figures in Murat’s history but not because of any influence current events had on his psyche.  In the period leading up to de Sade’s death 100 years ago December, the asylum where he was committed saw a major power struggle between an older form of treating the mentally ill and the more medically based approach that became the hallmark of the era, Murat writes.

Still, politics figured prominently in the era’s diagnoses, she found. During the six-month height of the French Revolution’s violence, an estimated 2,600 to 3,000 people were beheaded by revolutionaries using the newly invented guillotine. Murat shows how losing one’s head — and mind — to the “national razor” came to dominate popular culture and the obsessions of madmen. An especially vivid diagnostic report from that era involved a clockmaker who believed that he had been guillotined but managed to stay alive — but that the head of another guillotine victim had been mistakenly attached to his body:

He fancied that he had lost his head on the scaffold; that it had been thrown indiscriminately among the heads of many other victims; that the judges, having repented of the cruel sentence, had ordered those heads to be restored to their respective owners and placed upon their respective shoulders; but that, in consequence of an unfortunate mistake, the gentleman who had the management of that business had placed upon his shoulders the head of one of his companions in misfortune.

‘Napoleonic fever’

The return of Napoleon’s remains to the city in 1840, nineteen years after he died in exile, also sent ripples through the city’s insane asylums. Coming at a time of nostalgia for France’s past greatness, the event sparked an epidemic of delusions of grandeur, Murat discovered. One doctor reported admitting 14 “emperors” to his asylum. Exasperated caregivers bemoaned how belligerent these “Napoleons” were, and that they expected to be obeyed like despots.

“Rarely has the phrase ‘The king is dead; long live the king!’ seemed so apt,” Murat writes.

A decade later, France’s Second Empire, under Napoleon’s nephew, would touch off a resurgence of “Napoleonic fever,” Murat found.

Yet even when patients imagined themselves to be king, they rarely took themselves for the contemporary one, Murat found. From 1830 to 1848, King Louis-Philippe I positioned himself as a champion of the middle class and eschewed his predecessors’ trappings of grandeur. Rather than believing themselves to be Louis-Philippe, asylum patients often mistook another inmate or asylum staffers for him, she found.

“Reduced to the ‘middling’ dimensions of the class he promoted, Louis-Philippe became an approachable human in the asylums, even if he retained his status of head of state,” Murat writes.

By the mid-19th century, psychiatrists started to debate whether revolutionary zeal itself was pathological. They coined such phrases as “morbus democraticus” (“democratic disease”) and “paranoia reformatoria” (“revolutionary neurosis”), Murat found. Although such maladies aren’t diagnosed by today’s psychiatrists, Murat’s book leaves one wondering whether they ought to be.

“The fine line that separates the mentally ill from the mentally healthy,” she writes, “never gets thinner than during these episodes of passion for democracy.”

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