Plzeňské sympozia

Daniela Tinková

The Dark Corners of the Mind. The Issue of the Medical Explanation of the Darkened Reason of Suicides

pp. 93–109 (Czech), Summary pp. 110 (English)

This study is a contribution on the issue of the recognition and study of the "dark corners of the mind" in the first half of the 19th century, based on the example of the trials of people accused of self-killing (Selbstentleibung), which was a crime in the Austrian lands up until 1803 and then a "serious police transgression against life and health" until 1850. We are interested in how the "dark corners of the mind" became the subject of official and medical processes when investigating the offense of suicide, how from Enlightenment times "darkened reason" became part of the strategies of escape from the mesh of repressive norms of criminal and canon law,and what role in these strategies was played by the growing authority of healthcare workers. Investigative records dealing with self-killing are all the more valuable for us because it was necessary to describe and prove this "darkened reason" in order that the people under investigation were not condemned as "murderers of themselves". In spite of the gradual development of "alienistics", in the first half of the 19th century normally suicides did not yet end up in the hands of a "psychiatrist". If they survived, they were usually committed to the care of a clergyman, under the supervision of the authorities - and subject to regular medical checks. If they did not survive, their bodies ended up with an "official" surgeon, usually a state or municipal one (Obrigkeitswundarzt, Stadtwundarzt), or occasionally with a doctor, who during the autopsy would mainly follow the principles of pathological anatomy and judicial medicine. Nevertheless, this shift in authority to a healthcare worker is quite fundamental. Through the analysis of manuals of judicial medicine from that time (Josef Bernt) and several selected examples from judicial practice we show how the adoption of incontestable, "indisputable" empirical evidence that had been "found" thanks to the autopsy and presented by an "expert" was used to recognize mental disorder. In other words, there was a reliance on medical/surgical authority, before which the spiritual authority usually capitulated. In normal everyday practice it was thus a barber-surgeon with pathological training who became the "expert" on the dark corners of the mind. On a more general level, the examples studied show to what extent the language of the bureaucratic structures represented a specific compound of specialist terminology and fixed topoi of impersonal, supra-individual legislative formulas and "incontestable" expert opinions. Its result takes the form of an "authoritative discourse" which is superior to other authorities, in particular the ecclesiastical authority. It becomes an integral part of the power communication in a state which is modernising (and secularising) itself, and for which it is characteristic to have such an alliance between the increasing power of the state bureaucracy and the (also increasing) power of "scholarly", expert "knowledge", in which each authority reinforces the other (in terms of discourse as well).

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