On the heels of finishing the first part of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, I came across this interesting passage, from Peter D. Kramer’s Against Depression:
The Renaissance sustained several simultaneous traditions of melancholy. Cervantes began his literary career with a long pastoral poem, full of pining and tearful shepherds suffering from unrequited love. Don Quixote makes use of a different version of melancholy, the comical inspiration of the madman. These traditions flourished for centuries, but they have not been sustained by it. Jean Canavaggio, the great biographer of Cervantes, writes that:
[M]adness–as Michel Foucault has brilliantly demonstrated–is now a source for uneasiness for us: it is incongruous, even indecent, to make fun of a madman, as our ancestors loved to do; and we preceive as tragic the loneliness of the hero that Cervantes shows us misunderstood by everyone. In a word, the distance that separates our view of Don Quixote from the one that classical Europe formed of him reflected, beyond any doubt, a profound evolution of customs and sensibilities.
In the case of insanity, what it is to us changed to meet the medical understanding. And then what emerged in our reading of the Quixote was the hero’s loneliness and alienation from his fellows.