This special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly brings together scholars from a range of disciplines—including philosophy, anthropology, and literature—who are committed to thinking about the condition of contemporary black life. Moving among Africa, the United States, and the Caribbean, this issue demonstrates the vibrancy and historical roots of Africana thought and philosophy.
One essay reveals the intricate richness of Africana thought, moving through psychoanalysis, folktales, Western metaphysics, and a critique of the political. Another essay offers a cautionary tale about the prospects for black life in the United States, even in the wake of Barack Obama’s historic political victory. A third essay argues that a “dead zone”—a place where black lives are lost, where hopes are dashed, where history has failed the black subject—exists between the black elite and the disenfranchised black underclass. Still another essay addresses how the discourse about the political has triumphed over everything else in considerations of colonialism and its aftermath and proposes that a turn to culture might offer a new thinking of black futures.
Using eighteenth-century France as a case study, David Bell offers an important new argument about the origins of nationalism. Before the eighteenth century, the very idea of nation-building—a central component of nationalism—did not exist. During this period, leading French intellectual and political figures came to see perfect national unity as a critical priority, and so sought ways to endow all French people with the same language, laws, customs, and values. The period thus gave rise to the first large-scale nationalist program in history.
The Man Who Thought He Was Napoleon is built around a bizarre historical event and an off-hand challenge. The event? In December 1840, nearly twenty years after his death, the remains of Napoleon were returned to Paris for burial—and the next day, the director of a Paris hospital for the insane admitted fourteen men who claimed to be Napoleon. The challenge, meanwhile, is the claim by great French psychiatrist Jean-Étienne-Dominique Esquirol (1772–1840) that he could recount the history of France through asylum registries.
From those two components, Laure Murat embarks on an exploration of the surprising relationship between history and madness. She uncovers countless stories of patients whose delusions seem to be rooted in the historical or political traumas of their time, like the watchmaker who believed he lived with a new head, his original having been removed at the guillotine. In the troubled wake of the Revolution, meanwhile, French physicians diagnosed a number of mental illnesses tied to current events, from “revolutionary neuroses” and “democratic disease” to the “ambitious monomania” of the Restoration. How, Murat asks, do history and psychiatry, the nation and the individual psyche, interface?
A fascinating history of psychiatry—but of a wholly new sort—The Man Who Thought He Was Napoleon offers the first sustained analysis of the intertwined discourses of madness, psychiatry, history, and political theory.