Wednesday, May 27, 2015


Today I read Laure Murat’s The Man Who Thought He Was Napoleon.

I was disappointed. It's little more than a footnote to Michel Foucault’s equally francocentric Madness and Civilization.

Murat concludes, not surprisingly, that harsh social circumstances drive people mad (at the height of the Terror, people who had witnessed executions began imagining they had been guillotined themselves, and were headless). Also not surprisingly, the definition of madness changed as society changed (deviance is always defined by what is defined as the norm). 

Some people’s madness was cured by the revolution, when the prognosis for civilization still seemed more hopeful because of the revolution; and later some people’s madness was exacerbated by the revolution, when their faith in revolution had given way to disillusion and revolution seemed to them no more than violence and disorder.  

I had hoped the book would discuss what it means for someone to believe he is Napoleon, or any of the other historical figures with whom the mad are prone to identify. 

I don't understand how anyone, even a madman, can believe he is someone else. It’s not the same as believing he is not the person he could be, or should be - we all believe that, to the extent that we know ourselves, or think we know ourselves - but how little sense of self must someone have to believe he is not himself at all, but some historical figure whom he knows only from books?    

But how many people believe in anything - beginning, as Descartes did, with one’s self? 

I’ve always been interested in what people claim to believe. Most people have no beliefs of their own, and claim to believe what they think they should believe, or what they think others believe. 

I’ve had debates with people, on the rare occasions when I’ve met people capable of debate, about what they claim to believe. These debates usually ended with them admitting that the things they claim to believe are absurd and/or their behavior demonstrates they do not in fact believe what they tell themselves and others they believe. But having admitted this, they then continue to claim they believe what they just admitted they do not believe, thereby demonstrating that they actually believe nothing and merely say whatever they think others (myself included) expect them to say. 

It’s because they believe nothing that most people can be made to believe anything given the right circumstances. It’s because they are ready to believe anything that they refuse to question what they claim are their beliefs. They know their beliefs will not survive questioning.  

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