alienist

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‘Prior to the twentieth century, persons suffering from mental illness were thought to be “alienated,” not only from the rest of society but from their own true natures. Those experts who studied mental pathologies were therefore known as alienists,’ historian and writer Caleb Carr clarifies in a preliminary note to his 1994 thriller novel. In ‘The Alienist’ Laszlo Kreizler, psychiatrist, hunts down a serial killer—the story taking place in a hardly gaslit New York City of the year 1896. Not only Theodore Roosevelt makes a cameo appearance, but also Franz Boas, American anthropology’s founding father of German descent. Boas being in the novel, like the many references to the works of psychologist and philosopher William James, is not mere decoration instilling the flavour of the period, but a decisive instrument of marking an intellectual transition. The transition from labelling the ‘alien’ as hopelessly lost and to be treated accordingly—because it surely is dangerous, to the notion, that the ‘other,’ even the pathological!, can be understood. Matchingly Stevie Taggart, the narrator of ‘The Angel of Darkness,’ the sequel to ‘The Alienist,’ relays, ‘that Nature’s domain includes every form of what society calls “unnatural” behavior; that in fact, just as Dr. Kreizler always has said, there’s nothing truly natural or unnatural under the sun.’ (Carr 1999 [1997]: 10)

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