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Hysteria: A Circus


Andrew Scull is Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Science Studies at the University of California, San Diego.  His newest book, Hysteria: The Biography, is a volume in our series Biographies of Disease which we will be looking at for the next few weeks (read 9780199560967previous posts in this series here).  Each volume in the series tells the story of a disease in its historical and cultural context – the varying attitudes of society to its sufferers, the growing understanding of its causes, and the changing approaches to its treatment. In the excerpt below Scull looks at the spectacle hysteria patients provided, specifically the displays by Jean-Martin Charcot.

It was Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-93), the august Professor of Pathological Anatomy and later of Diseases of the Nervous System of the Paris Medical Faculty, the leading international neurologist of the nineteenth century, who made hysteria a spectacle and a circus.  It was a scandalous circus that attracted the attention of  tout Paris, one that regularly featured scantily clad women disporting themselves in unmistakably erotic cataleptic poses, or writhing and moaning in ways that mimicked orgasms on a public stage, before an understandably rapt audience – an audience soon drawn not just from the highest ranks of French society, but also from those attracted to Paris by news of these extraordinary Leçons du Mardi The photographs of these occasions, captured in carefully staged arrangements before the supposedly objective lens of the camera and thus transmuted into indelible visual representations for a vastly greater virtual audience, have survived for later generations to inspect, and have become iconic images of a disorder seen as at once sexual and feminine.

Yet Charcot thought of himself, and was acknowledged by his contemporaries, to be no nineteenth-century Mesmer, no marginal charlatan catering to depraved appetites (among patients and audience alike), but on the contrary a sober scientists, a man of genius, one of the leading contributors to the newly emerging science of the brain.  His accomplishments first in internal medicine and then as a neurologist were legion, and had brought him czars and princes, great merchants and bankers, as his clients, in the process making him a very rich man.  And, while his most famous patients were women, he personally insisted…that hysteria was not solely a female malady, but, on the contrary, could be diagnosed and detected among the male of the species.  Hysteria was, he confidently declared, a disorder of the nervous system, not of the female reproductive organs.  It was, moreover, as real and as somatic a disease as any of the other neurological catastrophes he had earlier elucidated….

…Charcot had his favorites, those who returned time and again to put on multiple, often increasingly elaborate, performances.  None was more famous than Blanche Wittman, the queen of hysterics, a performer who luxuriated in her role.  Perhaps the most famous single image of a hysterical patient is an 1887 painting by André Brouillet that captures Charcot presenting Blanche, his pet hysteric, to members of his neurological service.  She swoons over the outstretched arm of his assistant, Joseph Babinski, her pelvis thrust forward, her breasts barely covered by her blouse and pointing suggestively toward the professor, her head twisted to the side and her face contorted in what looks like the throes of orgasm.  (Freud kept a copy of this painting, which dates from 1887, in his study in Vienna, and again in London.)

Wittman was admitted to the Salpêtrière in 1878, and remained there for some sixteen years, performing on command.  After her discharge, she became Marie Curie’s laboratory assistant, and eventually was poisoned by the radium she was working with. In consequence, both legs and her left arm had to be amputated…

The Iconographies, the collections of photographs of the performers who made up the circus, circulated widely and disseminated the Charcotian vision of hysteria to an audience who could only virtually witness the Parisian scene.  They did much to fix the image of hysteria in the public mind, and perhaps to spread suggestively what purported to be neutral, naturalistic recording of a neuropathic disorder.  The photograph (at least before the age of digital manipulation) carried the illusion of providing the truth, a direct and unmediated portrait or even a mirror of nature, the instantaneous representation of what passed before the lens of the camera.  But the limitations of lighting, and the technical requirements of picture-taking with wet collodion plates, or even the later silver gelatino-bromide coating, made for long exposures, sometimes as long as twenty minutes per plate.  Perhaps appropriately, given that Charcot’s posthumous critics…viewed his clinical demonstrations as fraudulent, the “objective” photographs that recorded the pathologies were themselves necessarily staged, posed, and manufactured constructions whose status as “facts” is as slippery as the live demonstrations they purport to record.

Charcot was not alone in exploiting his patients, in treating them as so many specimens rather than as suffering human beings.  The disdain and the callousness were a feature of the whole clinico-pathological tradition, something that American medical students visiting Paris for instruction viewed with dismay as early as the 1830s.  As feminist historians focused their attentions on hysteria as a female complaint, and perhaps the product, as some them speculated, of an inchoate, inarticulate protest against the roles in which Victorian women were imprisoned, Charcot’s serial exploitations of these poor creatures, his willingness to expose them repeatedly to the prurient gaze of his audience at whatever cost to their emotional well-being drew fierce criticism and reproof.  But those same moral failings were visible to Charcot’s contemporaries, and were the subject of bitter commentary, even from the literary figures such as Tolstoy and de Maupassant.  A Madame Renooz, in the pages of the Revue scientifique des femmes, protested about his “sort of vivisection of women under the pretext of studying a disease for which he knows neither the cause nor the treatment.”…

…And yet Charcot, as the feminist historian Elaine Showalter acknowledges, cannot be easily typecast as a crude misogynist, for he adopted liberal positions by the standards of his time on women’s rights, and his students and externs included women training for the medical profession.  Moreover, one of Charcot’s more striking departures from the conventional wisdom of his time had been his insistence that hysteria was not just a female disease…

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