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Poster for Perceval's lecture

Poster for Perceval’s lecture

Delusions as metaphor: conflict and the middle ground

HOT’s Chandra Masoliver reviews local artist Robin Holtom’s recent book entitled, Perceval’s Quest. This is a commentary on the Victorian gentleman John Perceval’s account of his personal journey through madness. It rekindles questions about the causes and potentially illuminating or creative nature of so-called ‘mental derangement’, and its treatment through the ages.

Robin Holtom trained as a painter and sculptor, worked as an art therapist for many years and also studied with Francis Huxley and R.D.Laing at the Philadelphia Association, a UK charity concerned with the understanding and relief of emotional suffering. He now lives in St Leonards on Sea.

‘Perceval’s Quest’ is a book about John Thomas Perceval (1801-1875) who wrote an account, published in 1840, of his experience of lunacy and the ‘injudicious’ treatment to which he and others so designated were subjected. The full title of this account was: A narrative of the treatment experienced by a gentleman during a state of mental derangement; designed to explain the causes and the nature of insanity and to expose the injudicious conduct pursued towards many unfortunate sufferers under that calamity. (For brevity this chronicle is referred to in this article as the Narrative.)

John Perceval's Narrative

John Perceval’s Narrative

Holtom first became interested in John Thomas Perceval when he was working as an Art Therapist in a large Victorian Asylum in South London. In his informative and thought-provoking commentary on Perceval’s life and inner conflicts, Holtom demonstrates that the former’s understanding of emotional suffering anticipates later thinking on the origins and nature of mental distress. Perceval’s appreciation of the significance of metaphor, the unconscious, the poetic imagination and family conflict was prescient for our understanding of madness. He was also keenly attuned to the impact of wider social discrimination on the treatment of the ‘mentally deranged.’

John Perceval was the son of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval, an Evangelical Tory and former lawyer, who had prosecuted William Cobbett and Tom Paine. After only three years in post, Spencer Perceval was assassinated by John Bellingham in 1812. This was an era of turbulence both in religion and politics, when many in England hoped for revolution. As Holtom observes: “At the beginning of the 19th century, Britain had lost the American States and George III had lost his mind.”(1)

Illustration of the shooting. Artist unknown. Photo The Norris Museum in St Ives

Illustration of the shooting. Artist unknown. Photo The Norris Museum in St Ives

After leaving Harrow School, John Perceval joined the army and served in the Iberian Peninsular; however he later decided not to gain his living by “cutting his neighbour’s throat. I had already too much religion to enjoy thoughtless dissipation and too much reflection to be the blind instrument of power.”(2)

John Perceval became deeply embroiled in the Evangelical Movement led by Edward Irving, a charismatic Scottish minister who believed in the return of the Pentecostal gifts of the spirit, including speaking in tongues and prophesying. Perceval believed in the humanity of Christ and that Jesus did not sin; although His human nature was sinful, his victory was to overcome that sinfulness. Irving took this further, arguing that if Christ was human, then humans too could touch divinity.

John Perceval went to Scotland and witnessed how ordinary people, very often women, spoke in tongues and prophesied. He felt conflicted, inclined to laugh, not knowing if it was “an awful truth or a damnable delusion”. He also found it beautiful in the extreme, and he himself sang, “Knowing this voice was given to me but I was not the master of it.” (2)

Holtom writes that many of these prophesies were violent, “the inevitable opposites erupting from their unconscious to balance the conscious requirement of religious people to be always loving and considerate”. They avoided an inner clash by projecting their own dark side onto sinners and the devil. John Perceval fell victim to this clash, was overwhelmed by it, unable to hold onto the opposites within himself and create a middle ground. He went to Dublin, where he writes that “a woman of the town… led me away to my destruction.”(2) A physician treated him for the syphilis he thought he had, but he wondered if he could be cured by spiritual means. While feeling this to be ridiculous, he doubted both his physician and his delusions and took only half the required dose. He began hearing voices telling him a great fight would take place within him between Satan and Jesus.

Perceval’s brother, Spencer, forced him into Brislington House, a private asylum owned by a Quaker mad doctor, Doctor Fox, who had also treated George III. Here Spirits told Perceval to fight and wrestle with his keepers, to suffocate himself with his pillow and to prove his faith and courage by hurling himself head over heels over stiles and gates and pissing in his bed. He imagined the cool air on his neck was the spirit of his sisters encouraging him to do these things. He felt his father’s crystal tears trickling down his own shoulders and thought the jet of gas from the fireplace was his father’s spirit, contaminated by his own foul thoughts.

Brislington House

Brislington House

Holtom writes that Perceval’s conflict was between spontaneity and control: his family, schooling and the army had taught him to keep his feelings in check, while Evangelism encouraged abandonment of rational thinking, to allow the spirit to take over his voice: thus he was to obey contradictory instructions. He wrote “I relapsed into an agonising sense of hopelessness and ingratitude.”(2)

Holtom cites Dr David Cooper’s depiction of how some families can drive an individual mad by being unable to tolerate doubt and individuality. (The Death of the Family, 1971). Perceval, Holtom writes, realized that he himself was such a victim: “My family have not much originality of idea or independence of mind; they thought with the world that lunacy was an impenetrable mystery – that lunatic doctors were the only persons capable of meddling with it. So weak are so-called sane man’s imbecilities such as make me less ashamed of having been a madman.”(2)

Perceval's family home in Ealing

Perceval’s family home in Ealing

Holtom quotes the double bind theory of the anthropologist and social scientist, Gregory Bateson, who edited Perceval’s Narrative: “the voices present him with the false thesis that there exist alternatives of action among which he might choose one course of which the voices would approve. He makes his choices and tries to obey, but… even if he does the right thing he is blamed for doing it for the wrong reasons. He is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.” (3)

John Perceval eventually struggled out of his delusional state; his voices started to present him with real choices, as neither his brother, Spencer, nor the doctors had done. He realised that doubt was a sane thing, thus being able to dwell in a middle ground between his opposing feelings. In his Narrative, he wrote: “I suspect that many of the delusions which I laboured under… consist in mistaking a figurative or a poetic form of speech for a literal one”(2), noting that this could be important to those who attend to their cure.

He decoded his concrete beliefs into metaphorical thinking; he realized that when told to suffocate himself with his pillow, his spirit was referring to the suffocation of his feelings of grief and indignation. And when they told him he was not in England, it meant the way he was treated was not worthy of England. He also analysed slips of the tongue on similar lines to Freud, and spoke of the unconscious.

John Perceval was released in 1834 and married Ann Kesley Gardner, aged 15, the daughter of a cheesemaker; they had four daughters and lived first in Paris, then Kensington and Herne Bay. In 1838, he published political pamphlets against The Poor Laws on behalf of the English Labourers and in 1845 he helped found the Alleged Lunatics Friends Society. Holtom calls this a model for mental health advocacy, which, he says “is not much improved to this day.”(1)

Perceval criticized the power system, where a person is condemned in their absence and is not told what they are accused of. In 1854, he gave a lecture in the King’s Arms Pub in High Street Kensington on reforming the Laws of Lunacy. And in 1859, he was invited to testify to the Select Committee on Lunacy, introducing himself as the Attorney General of Her Majesty’s Lunatics, which was ironic, since his father had actually been Attorney General.

Images of madness as spiritual awakening or creative illumination were commonplace during the Renaissance, but have been in decline since then. They had a brief resurgence in the sixties with the advent of the anti-psychiatry movement and the work of Laing in particular. The continuing debate between orthodox and so-called heretical approaches to the understanding of emotional distress gives this book an important contemporary feel.

Chandra Masoliver will shortly be interviewing Robin Holtom about his thoughts on current attitudes and practices in the field of mental health, and ongoing conflicts between orthodoxy and heresy.

(1) ‘Perceval’s Quest’ by Robin Holtom 2016. Available from Bookeeper, 1, Kings Rd, St Leonards, or from the author at holtom.robin@gmail.com cost £9.00
(2) Narrative by John Perceval 1840
(3) Perceval’s Narrative, Editor Gregory Bateson, pub. Stanford, 1961

Posted 15:41 Tuesday, Oct 11, 2016 In: Literature

1 Comment

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  1. bogbrush

    Thank you for this highly interesting and vivid account of the management of mental disorder in the early 19th century. Might not the assassination of his father have had some part to play in John Percival’s mental breakdown? His experiences in religion with the Pentecostals might also be blamed for his descent into frank psychopathy. His recovery and subsequent marriage suggest that the mad doctors of the day had some successes. Personally I regret the passing of the lunatic asylums. Their substitution by care in the community too often means high strength lager on the park bench. Bring back the mad house and if necessary fund it in the way they did in the 18th century (see Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress, where in the last painting he is an inmate and is being observed by paying visitors for their entertainment. That should bring down the rates.

    Comment by bogbrush — Sunday, May 27, 2018 @ 23:04

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