Photo: Wikicommons.

Madness and Civilization in Cambridge, MA

The Geniuses, the University, and the Asylum


Cambridge is Boston’s brainy twin. Born at almost exactly the same time, to the same aristocratic parents, the two have grown apart over the years. Boston is now the place where history and tradition are worshiped at all costs, even at the expense of political correctness and fashion. Cambridge—home to dozens of Nobel Laureates and two of the best universities in the world—is too smart for this sort of conservatism. Of course, Harvard and MIT have conventions and rituals, but, for the most part, Cantibrigians worship the legacy of genius. Whoso would be a man or woman in Cambridge, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “must be a non-conformist.”

The tour guides who shepherd thousands of visitors through Memorial Hall’s transept each year like to say that it houses the world’s largest collection of secular stained glass. In Cambridge, England, the windows of the colleges are filled with martyrs, saints and saviors, but in this Cambridge—the one fashioned by Emersonian self-reliance—they are filled with scientists, writers, artists and leaders: Homer, Dante, Virgil, Charlemagne, Columbus. Tourists aren’t granted access to its most hallowed halls, or for that matter, the vast majority of Memorial Hall, including Sanders Theatre, the glorious, cylindrical 1000-seat performance hall modeled after Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre that sits at the center of Oxford University. Folks also aren’t permitted in Annenberg Hall, Harvard’s freshmen cafeteria—evoking something out of Hogwarts—that serves 3400 meals daily. The elevator in Memorial Hall is off limits as well; this lift takes the chosen few to the gallery overlooking the great hall and to the tower steps.

From the outside of Memorial Hall, looking up, you can see two small windows at the top of the grand turret. These aren’t for show. They are there to ventilate and brighten a classroom at the very top of the tower. It was, many years ago, for three delightful and disturbing semesters, my classroom. The freshman composition course was entitled “Imagination and Genius” and traced the concept of genius through the Western philosophical canon—from Plato’s criticism of the poets, to the Enlightenment and Romantic renderings inspiration, to the fate of genius in the post-modern age. I was—somehow—the visiting instructor and came to learn what the German philosopher Immanuel Kant meant when he said that, “genius cannot be taught.”

The class was a case study in self-selection: a small coterie of young savants who had come with the not-so-veiled purpose of learning about themselves. They had come to Cambridge, as many do, to perfect themselves. There was the 17 year-old concert pianist who had played at Carnegie Hall when he was eleven; the Olympic swimmer who spent time in West Africa treating victims of Ebola; the kid from Silicon Valley whose first start-up was featured in Forbes; the woman from the middle-of-nowhere New York who dropped out of biochemistry (because it was too easy); the young Indian man who dropped out of Harvard in his first term (because it was too easy). Their talents were so diverse, so natural, so unforced that it was easy to understand how the Romans understood the Latin word genius as something innate and begotten. Trying to slow genius down, or constrain it, or force it to turn things in on time was a grand exercise in futility.

Goethe’s Faust is a force of nature. At the beginning of the play we get to meet a man whose talents are matched only by his aspirations, but we also get to know a member of Faust’s supporting cast: Wagner. Wagner is no genius. He has modest — pathetically modest — ambitions, contenting himself to make his minute contribution to human knowledge. He’s the sloth of the academic world. Following Faust, a reader tends to pity and disdain Wagner in equal measure. One of my better students looked up from his Goethe and gave me a half-kidding-but-mostly-not smile: “Dr. Kaag, you’re a little bit like Wagner.” Then he went back to his reading.

As I walked down the steps after class, I couldn’t really argue with him. Teachers are, by definition, part of the supporting cast, but as I stood on the gallery overlooking Annenberg Hall, watching young Charlemagne and Dante eat their lunches, several things struck me about this place at the heart of Cambridge.

Charlemagne and Dante still had to eat. But they didn’t cook their food. Or clean their dishes. Or their bathrooms.  The cult of genius seems to arise naturally and miraculously from the deep recesses of human culture, but, in fact, it depends in no small part on the mundane labor of domestic help. This, I thought, is the other side of genius, the other side of Cambridge. The neighborhoods to the north and east of Harvard Yard are decidedly less swanky than Memorial Hall.

Earlier that year an African American student had admitted to me his insecurity about being admitted to Harvard. “I just don’t fit in,” he had said. Another freshman was an undocumented student and faced deportation to Mexico after the semester concluded. Ultimately, after a long and media-frenzied fight, he was allowed to stay as a “Dreamer,” but he too had to work hard to “fit in.” As lunch finished up and the students shuffled off to their next class, a squad of black and Latino workers stayed behind to take care of the mess so that the dining room would be spick and span for dinner.

I’m not the first to make this observation about the nature of genius—that it depends on the structural and institutional forces of oppression. Linda Nochlin, the Lila Acheson Wallace Professor of Modern Art at NYU, has spent her career, among other things, explaining why there are no black men or Latina women in the beautiful windows in Memorial Hall: too often, they were expected to serve or facilitate the brilliance of others. The naturalness of genius is a convenient myth put in place by those in power. There is more than something to this. When women (the historical caretakers of genius) did make it into Memorial Hall’s iconography they were represented by Cornelia or Andromache. Cornelia: a supposedly modest woman, whose primary claim to fame was siring the Roman tribunes, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. Andromache: a supposedly devout wife, whose primary claim to fame was mourning her husband Hector. Today, thankfully, women and racial minorities can gain access to the inner intellectual sanctum of Cambridge (and aren’t just expected to be servers, mothers, and wives).

I looked down from the gallery at three women who were still sitting by themselves finishing their lunch in Annenberg. Or not finishing. Two of them picked at their food, dicing it up into ever-smaller pieces. One student finally broke down, left her uneaten meal at the table, and slunk out of the cafeteria with a half-eaten donut and a barrel-sized Diet Coke. Another—a skeleton draped in a bulky sweater—rolled up her sleeves, as if to make a final go at the burger she hadn’t touched, exposing horizontal scars that ran in perfect parallel from her wrist to her elbow. After a minute, she pinched off a piece of bread, put it in a zip-lock bag, and gave the rest of the sandwich to the trashcan. I took the elevator down to ground level and followed the student outside as she simultaneously lit and smoked two cigarettes. “I am a sick man…” admits the nameless narrator from Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, in 1864, the same year that planning began for Memorial Hall. I wandered back to my office on Prescott Street and changed clothes to go for a quick jog before an evening lecture at the Humanities Center.


In the late 19th century there was still the hope that genius could be enshrined in stained glass, but this hope was fading quickly. Dostoevsky anticipated Nietzsche and Rimbaud in suggesting that the brightest flames are often the most destructive and short-lived. This was always the case with genius, but in previous generations, as Michel Foucault explains in Madness and Civilization, intellectual and artistic outliers were regarded as being possessed with a kind of divine wisdom. They were, like religious prophets or shamans, marginalized but also respected. In the Enlightenment, however, this changed. In the 18th century, Kant had warned that genius could, occasionally, be confused with what he called “original nonsense,” a dangerous rejection of rational standards, but, a hundred years later, there was no mistake: genius was (and still is) inextricably bound to madness.

Wearing my running kit, I made for Cambridge Street. If you travel away from Memorial Hall on Cambridge Street, you’ll come to a small hill before you reach Charlestown. This is where the Asylum for the Insane was erected in 1818, an institution that, over the years, was renamed McLean Hospital. “For nonconformity,” Emerson explains, “the world whips you with its displeasure.” Well, not exactly. It sends you to McLean for “moral treatment.” No whips will be used, but you’ll be confined in a hotel-like setting at the edge of society and strict care will be taken, as a chronicler of the McLean planning wrote in 1811, “not to be returned home too soon.” Prior to the 18th century, the physiological causes of insanity were traced to disorders of the spleen, intestines, and liver, but with the findings of the American physician Benjamin Rush, in 1812, madness began to be regarded as a fever “affecting that part of the brain that is the seat of the mind.” The Asylum, at the border between Somerville and Charlestown (which was originally part of Cambridge), was designed to ease this fever of the mind: a long orchard-lined driveway led to gardens, pools and gracious neo-classical buildings that looked more like a country club than a hospital.

The 19th century German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, suggested that a human being finds joy in life “just in proportion as he is dull and obtuse.” Those who are not dull or obtuse find it unpleasant, and those who are brilliant find it unbearable. In the 20th century, McLean Hospital became the notable resting place for dozens of intellectuals, the true geniuses of our age: David Foster Wallace, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, John Nash, Anne Sexton, among others. Many of these thinkers became famous for the ways their mental illness fed their genius. In the 19th century, however, the luminaries who visited the hospital were generally more discrete about their time at McLean.

In the early 1870s, as the windows for Memorial Hall were being commissioned, William James, the father of American philosophy and psychology, was in the throes of his darkest depression. His polymathic abilities were, at least in part, responsible for his divided self—part poet, part biologist, part artist, part mystic. He was a young man of disparate parts. In his later life, James describes an individual, all too common to Cambridge neighborhoods, who is, from birth, psychologically vexed: “There are persons whose existence is little more than a series of zigzags, as now one tendency and now another gets the upper hand. Their spirit wars with their flesh, they wish for incompatibles, wayward impulses interrupt their most deliberate plans, and their lives are one long drama of repentance and of effort to repair misdemeanors and mistakes.”

These are, in James’s words, the “sick-souled,” who are just as likely to graduate Harvard as they are to commit suicide at McLean. Rumors have swirled for more than a century that James had a stint at the hospital, but if this is the case, the James family has been very careful to redact it from his biography.  What is verifiable is that in the 1880s James developed The Principles of Psychology, widely regarded as the first textbook in modern experimental psychology. It was an ostensibly academic project with hidden existential and psychological motives. It is a handbook to cure the sick-souled. Developing the Principles was, for James, a matter of life and death. James is often described as a man who faced mental illness without the help of doctors.  This is, of course, completely absurd: he was the doctor.

As I finished my run, and headed back to the Yard, I thought to myself that mental illness and genius continued to live side-by-side in Cambridge. And at times—as was the case with James—genius slipped into the original nonsense of madness, and madness occasionally revealed itself as a moment of insight or originality. But as Foucault suggests, and Cambridge demonstrates, there is another, more disturbing relationship between insanity and modern civilization: madness is modernity’s outside, its necessary shadow, its delimiting condition, its “other.”

The evening lecture, a talk on decolonization organized by Homi Bhabha, was at the Mahindra Humanities Center. Everyone, including me, was dressed in some variation of tweed and corduroy. We talked for more than an hour about the “sub-altern,” “radical difference,” and the dark side of globalization. The conversation continued as the group of intellectuals sauntered out into the night air and made their way for martinis on Massachusetts Avenue. A block from the pub, a one-legged man with dirt under his nails tried to join our conversation, screaming headlong into the night about the injustices of capitalism. We quickened our pace, closed ranks to make one phalanx of tweed, and elevated the conversation above the madness that threatened to disrupt us. At its core, civilization depends on this sort of elevation. Cambridge boasts the largest collection of secular stained glass, but also among the highest concentration of homeless people in New England.


Next to Memorial Hall is a 15-story humorless skyscraper called William James Hall, or WJH. It is straight and narrow in a way that James never was. It is home to Harvard’s psychology department, which remains one of the best in the world. The building is on the bike route that I take to our apartment in Charlestown. But on a chilly February morning, Kirkland was cordoned off and WJH was closed to the public. The fifteenth floor is one of the saving graces of this monstrous building. In its central seminar room hangs a portrait of James looking out a window. The view from the fifteenth floor is spectacular and its balcony, at 170 feet, provides a fresh vantage point of Memorial Hall. At this height, it takes a body a little less than four seconds to hit the ground. The last time that happened, a professor who worked in the building reported that, “we found it hard to go about our daily routines.”