Epilogue to The Manufacture of Madness, A Comparative Study of the Inquisition and the Mental Health Movement by Thomas S. Szasz

The Painted Bird

The unifying theme of this book -- running through and connecting a number of seemingly diverse topics discussed in it -- is the idea of the scapegoat and his function in the moral metabolism of society. In particular, I have tried to show that social man fears the Other and, if need be, creates him, so that, by invalidating him as evil, he may confirm himself as good.

     These ideas are conveyed with consummate artistic skill by Jerzy Kosinski in his extraordinary book, The Painted Bird. The title alludes to the theme: "The Painted Bird" is the symbol of the persecuted Other, of "The Tainted Man."

     The story is a harrowing tale of what happens to a six-year-old boy "from a large city in Eastern Europe [who] in the first weeks of World War II . . . was sent by his parents, like thousands of other children, to the shelter of a distant village."2 To protect their son from the ravages of war in the capital, his middle-class parents entrust him to the care of a peasant woman. Within two months of his arrival, she dies. The parents do not know this, and the child has no way of making contact with them. He is adrift on a sea of humanity, sometimes indifferent, often hostile, rarely protective.

     During his peregrinations through the countryside of war-torn Poland, the child lives, for a while, under the protection of Lekh, a huge, solitary, but decent young man, who makes his living as a trapper. It is this episode that so movingly portrays the theme that, to the tribe, the Other is a dangerous alien, the member of a hostile species that must be destroyed.

     Lekh loves a woman, Ludmila, with whom he has passionate sexual relations. Ludmila had been raped as a young girl and, when we meet her, is crazed with sexual lust. The farmers call her "stupid Ludmila." The episode that concerns us here occurs after a period of separation between Lekh and Ludmila. I shall quote it in full.

Sometimes days passed and Stupid Ludmila did not appear in the forest. Lekh would become possessed by a silent rage. He would stare solemnly at the birds in the cages, mumbling something to himself. Finally, after prolonged scrutiny, he would choose the strongest bird, tie it to his wrist and prepare stinking paints of different colors which he mixed together from the most varied components. When the colors satisfied him, Lekh would turn the bird over and paint its wings, head, and breast in rainbow hues until it became more dappled and vivid than a bouquet of wildflowers.

     Then he would go into the thick of the forest. There Lekh took out the painted bird and ordered me to hold it in my hand and squeeze it lightly. The bird would begin to twitter and attract a flock of the same species which would fly nervously over our heads. Our prisoner, hearing them, strained toward them, warbling more loudly, its little heart, locked in its freshly painted breast, beating violently.

     When a sufficient number of birds gathered above our heads, Lekh would give me a sign to release the prisoner. It would soar, happy and free, a spot of rainbow against the backdrop of clouds, and then plunge into the waiting grown flock. For an instant the birds were confounded. The painted bird circled from one end of the flock to the other, vainly trying to convince its kin that it was one of them. But, dazzled by its brilliant colors, they flew around it unconvinced. The painted bird would be forced farther and farther away as it zealously tried to enter the ranks of the flock. We saw soon afterwards how one bird after another would peel off in a fierce attack. Shortly the many-hued shape lost its place in the sky and dropped to the ground. These incidents happened often. When we finally found the painted birds they were usually dead. Lekh keenly examined the number of blows which the birds had received. Blood seeped through their colored wings, diluting the paint and soiling Lekh's hands.3

     Still, Stupid Ludmila does not return. To vent his frustrated rage, Lekh prepares another bird-sacrifice. This is how Kosinski describes it:

One day he trapped a large raven, whose wings he painted red, the breast green, and the tail blue. When a flock of ravens appeared over our hut, Lekh freed the painted bird. As soon as it joined the flock a desperate battle began. The changeling was attacked from all sides. Black, red, green, blue feathers began to drop at our feet. The ravens ran amuck in the skies, and suddenly the painted raven plummeted to the freshly-plowed soil. It was still alive, opening its beak and vainly trying to move its wings. Its eyes had been pecked out, and fresh blood streamed over its painted feathers. It made yet another attempt to flutter up from the sticky earth, but its strength was gone.4

     The Painted Bird is the perfect symbol of the Other, the Stranger, the Scapegoat. With inimitable skill, Kosinski shows us both faces of this phenomenon: if the Other is unlike the members of the herd, he is cast out of the group and destroyed; if he is like them, man intervenes and makes him appear different, so that he may be cast out of the group and destroyed. As Lekh paints his raven, so psychiatrists discolor their patients, and society as a whole taints its citizens. This is the grand strategy of discrimination, invalidation and scapegoating. Man searches for, creates, and imputes differences, the better to alienate the Other. By casting out the Other, Just Man aggrandizes himself and vents his frustrated anger in a manner approved by his fellows. To man, the herd animal, as to his non-human ancestors, safety lies in similarity. This is why conformity is good, and deviance evil. Emerson understood this well. "Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members," he warned. "The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion."

     Anyone who values individual liberty, human diversity, and respect for persons can only be dismayed at this spectacle. To one who believes, as I do, that the physician ought to be a protector of the individual, even when the individual comes in conflict with society, it is especially dismaying that, in our day, the painting of birds has become an accepted medical activity, and that, among the colors used, psychiatric diagnoses are most in fashion.

  1. Jean-Paul Sartre, Saint Genêt: Actor and Martyr, p. 24.
  2. Jerzy Kosinski, The Painted Bird, p. 1.
  3. Ibid., pp. 43-44.
  4. Ibid., pp. 44-45.
  5. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance (1841), in Eduard C. Lindeman (Ed.), Basic Selections from Emerson, pp. 53-73; p. 55.

©reated for the benefit of all beings
Partnership for Drug Freedom in America