Saturday, December 18, 2010

Leprosy and Modern Madness

“He is unclean: he shall dwell alone; without the camp shall his habitation be.” So says the Judaic law in Leviticus 13, which proscribes the method by which the leper can become clean and re-enter society. Similarly, the insane become outcasts who must be purified and re-assimilated into the sane, rational world.

Michel Foucault, in Madness and Civilization, attempts to show the madman assumed the meaning and social importance of the leper – the social importance of exclusion, the ability to define ourselves by excluding what we are not. Mentioning how leprosy disappeared from memory, Foucault writes, “With an altogether new meaning and in a different culture, the forms would remain – essentially that major form of a division which is social exclusion but spiritual reintegration.” The leper in Medieval Europe is a foreigner in his own country, because he is impure – judged by God. He represents sin and its punishment, by which the non-leper can differentiate himself. Eventually, the madman comes to hold a similar position – a foreigner in the world of sanity. However, the leper not only allows man to define himself, but also provides an example.

In the Christian mythos, the leper is a sacred symbol of God’s judgment and grace. In the book of Exodus, God makes Moses’ hand leprous as a sign of punishment for unbelief (Ex. 4:6-8). The prophet Elisha cures the Syrian general, Naaman, of leprosy in the book of Second Kings (2 Kings 5). The Cannonical Gospels give four accounts of Jesus Christ healing lepers, who becomes witnesses for the redemption he provides. The purpose of the law of leprosy is defined in the book of Leviticus as being, “To teach when it is unclean and when it is clean” (Lev. 14:57). The law requires the leper be expelled from the community until he becomes clean, at which time he may return to make sacrifices and be examined by the priest to determine his purity to re-enter the community. In Leprosy and the Charity of the Church, Rev. L. W. Mulhane writes, “The person healed and purified in this manner was again allowed to mingle with his friends and use sacred things.” The leper, being expelled, and afterwards cleansed of his leprosy, can re-enter society by making the appropriate sacrifices and being confirmed purified by the priest.

The example of the leper provides modern man with a precedent for treating the mentally ill – the insane. Mental illness, or insanity, becomes our leprosy and the psychiatrist our priest. The insane can be excluded from society; put in mental institutions where they are treated for their condition – to reform them, to make them sane. Viewing insanity as an illness to be cured, the modern madman, like the leper, can re-enter society, after he has been made whole. Modern medicine can diagnose schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder and proscribe a cure, redeeming the sufferer from his affliction. Like the leper, the madman of the present shows what is foreign to us, and we continue the ancient form of exclusion and reintegration.

We define ourselves by what we are not, by what is foreign to us. In Medieval Europe, the leper defines man as redeemed; in modern society, the mentally ill defines man as sane. What gives us hope is the ability for men to regain what was lost, whether it be one’s physical or mental health.

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