It is an indication of the nature of this century’s investment in sanity — and of its attitude to the moon — that the word, ‘lunatic’, is deemed an insult to the insane by the world’s most elaborate justice system. The American Congress has voted 397 to 1 in approval of the 21st Century Language Act, 2012, which strikes ‘lunatic’ off the country’s legal lexicon. The sole dissenting voice was a Republican from Texas who thought that far from having outgrown such a word, Washington could do well to use the word to describe its “immoral” tendency “to keep spending and not pay the price”. It is as if a word has to be banished from one kind of language-use in order to appear even more powerfully in another. In the process, its literal meaning is displaced to a series of metaphorical uses that crackle with a different sort of charge. It takes on an energy that may be unacceptable to law or medicine, but continues to animate other kinds of expression.
The English language is full of such words, which, like the mad, live out their robust lives beyond the limits of propriety and correctness. Think of the indispensable word, ‘humour’, which the world goes on using with gusto centuries after the physiological theory from which it sprang has become defunct. Words outlive the belief systems they originate from; or these systems of belief move from a certain kind of discourse or knowledge to enrich the less precise and more evocative realms of creativity and talk.
It is significant that the Oxford English Dictionary traces the first uses of ‘lunatic’ and ‘lunacy’, in their literal as well as figurative senses, to the great masters of the English language — the two Williams, Langland and Shakespeare. Piers Plowman, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Lear and Hamlet — all cited by the OED — remain some of the greatest depictions of the truths and fictions of sanity and insanity. The Dream also explores — in a way, and at a depth, that modern psychoanalysis would, centuries after the play was first staged — how the cycles of nature, life and the body are really (and surreally) intertwined with the phases of the moon. In all this, lunacy — call it that, or call it madness, insanity or folly (all four words part of early modern English) — was a dramatic expression, especially in extremis, of the human spirit. Lunacy was inseparable from love and poetry, dreaming and imagining. The capacity to recognize and represent, in all their comic and tragic possibilities, the many ways in which sanity came up against, and pushed, its own limits was an affirmation of human dignity, rather than an undermining of it.
But that was literature and this is law — although the British legal system still appoints “Masters of Lunacy” to protect the interests of the mentally ill. But between literature and law are language and life — and none, apart from law, is anxious about being correct, or particularly minds being maddened by the moon.