A young surgeon seeks new techniques to relieve the suffering of his patients. He is a rationalist familiar with the latest advances in science. But his rationalism is severely tested when he meets a libertine steeped in ancient religious beliefs and haunted by the memory of his dead father. In The Burial Chamber, a meticulously researched dark thriller by Jeremy Cox, the entanglement between rationality and magic, dreams, talismans and ancient dogma is played out against the background of scientific advances in a nineteenth-century London of lunatic asylums, gentlemen’s clubs and rowdy meetings at the Royal Society. In one particularly gripping scene set at the Royal Society, where the surgeon has been invited to present a paper, theories and cures for mental illness are heatedly discussed. It is acknowledged that the religious theories attributing insanity to the influence of Satan, as well as existing theories of medical treatment such as ‘the purging of the bowels, blistering, and mortification of the extremities have not always proved effective’; although ‘blood-letting and the emptying of the stomach through vomiting can still have a beneficial effect’. The discussion moves on to a new ‘moral therapy’ which emphasises ‘kindness and patience in [the] treatment of inmates’. A stalwart of the Royal Society explains, ‘I consider the mind to be an immortal, immaterial substance identical to the human soul, and therefore lunacy cannot be a disease of the mind. It has to be that of the brain. As such, it will be medical advances that bring about an understanding of insanity and new medical treatments for it in its various forms. Erasmus Darwin’s rotating chair, for example. The chair spins the patient around at great speed so as to rearrange the contents of the brain into their right positions. The treatment also has the added benefit of bringing about subsequent vomiting’.
Al-Ghazzali, the Muslim theologian and jurist, considered the Muslim society of his time to be so deeply afflicted with social sickness, ‘an epidemic among the multitude’ as he calls it, as to be virtually insane. The only cure was a ‘moral therapy’, a heavy dose of religious devotion and piety. Religion, it seems, was not unlike Erasmus Darwin’s rotating chair: it would spin those persistently ‘straying from the clear truth’, those insistent ‘upon fostering evil’ and ‘flattering ignorance’, at great speed, thus rearranging their brains into pious order, while, as an added benefit, forcing them to spew out their heresies. All of those who are lured by ‘the Satan’, he tells us in The Book of Knowledge, ‘see good as evil and evil as good, so that the science of religion has disappeared and the torch of true faith has been extinguished all over the world’.