The Politics of Interior Decoration

As mentioned in a recent post to our  In the Frame thread, Oliver Sacks devotes a chapter of his recent book Hallucinations to recounting the hallucinogenic experiences of himself, his patients and correspondents and those who have featured in medical literature on the subject since the 1840s. He could have included the visionary experiences to which Christopher Mayhew was subject after he took mescaline as part of a 1955 experiment for the BBC’s Panorama programme, footage of which was withheld from broadcast.

Mayhew was a British Labour MP with a sustained interest in issues of public health. (Later, in 1957, he checked himself into Warlingham Park Hospital in a bid to obtain first-hand experience of what a mental hospital was like, and also in order to interview staff and patients for the BBC.) During the experiment, which was conducted by Dr Humphrey Osmond, Mayhew pays unusually close attention to patterns he saw on a curtain hanging just out of shot, which he describes as having “the most extraordinary gradations of mauve, and ah, and ah, lights (sorry, it’s just my own poverty of vocabulary, I can’t describe it)”, and declares himself “amused” when Osmond ventures that “it look[s] to be a rather dull orange-red curtain”.

A variety of other causes of hallucinations are discussed in Oliver Sacks’ book. Among them is sensory deprivation (“the prisoner’s cinema”), which is commonly held to be the cause of the most celebrated fictional hallucinations in modern literature – those of the unnamed female protagonist in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper – an early example of the multiple forays writers of fiction have made into the arena of “madness” and mental health treatment over the last century and a half. Gilman’s spare prose does not actually assert, but encourages readers to infer, that the growing fascination with the wallpaper which is the central preoccupation of the book is the direct result of the application of a form of the ‘rest cure’ promulgated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by Dr Silas Weir Mitchell.

This managed regime of seclusion, bed rest and diet inter alia became a target of early feminists such as Gilman and (Virginia) Woolf, and it is easy to see why. They thought that the “rest cure” amounted to an assault upon the wills of (usually female) patients on the part of (usually male) doctors, in the context of unequal power relations between the sexes. No doubt they were right about the inequality of power between the sexes, but, as has been acknowledged within second wave feminism, it hardly seems fair to lay the blame for this entirely at the door of medical practitioners. “The nervous women of the fin de siècle were ravenous for a fuller life than their society offered them, famished for the freedom to act to make real choices,” writes Elaine Showalter. The doctors of that generation did nothing to dismantle patriarchy, true enough, but they did employ the “rest cure” to restore their patients, some of whom “had been total invalids of many years’ duration”, to “lives that were much more active and satisfying than the ones they had been leading”.1

Of course, such was not the case for the fictional protagonist of The Yellow Wallpaper. Her visual hallucinations, of the patterns on the wallpaper forming bars behind which a woman was (or many women were) trapped, comprise an eloquent protest, not so much against Weir Mitchell, Gilman’s ostensible target, as against the historical and social constraints that framed Victorian womanhood.

1 Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady (Virago, 1985), pp. 140-144.

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