Excerpt: 'Medical Muses' by Asti Hustvedt


From Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris, Asti Hustvedt, 2011

From NPR:

During the decade of the 1870s, three young women found themselves in the hysteria ward of the Salpetriere Hospital in Paris under the direction of the prominent neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. All three — Blanche, Augustine, and ­Genevieve — would become medical celebrities. The stories of their lives as patients on the ward are a strange amalgam of science and religion, medicine and the occult, hypnotism, love, and theater. The illness they suffered from was hysteria. This disease was not an arcane preoccupation of the doctors that treated them, but an affliction that would increasingly capture the public imagination. Stories about hysterical patients filled the columns of newspapers. They were transformed into fictional characters by novelists. Hysterics were photographed, sculpted, painted, and drawn. Every week, eager crowds arrived at the hospital to attend Charcot’s demonstrations of hysterics acting out their hysterical symptoms. And it wasn’t only medical students and physicians who came to view the shows, but artists, writers, actors, socialites, and the merely curious. Hysteria had become a fascinating and fashionable spectacle. But who were these hysterical women? Where did they come from? What role did they play in their own peculiar form of stardom? And what exactly were they suffering from?

To answer these questions, I combed hospital records and municipal archives. I read case histories, gathered testimony from the scientific and the popular press of the day, and sifted through visual documents. I read memoirs and letters written by those who spent time at the Salpetriere in the late nineteenth century, including the young Sigmund Freud, who admired Charcot, and the enormously vindictive Leon Daudet, who did not. I pursued false leads and hit dead ends. History is filtered by subjectivity, and I repeatedly stumbled on the Rashomon effect of conflicting narratives. I relied heavily on the work of medical historians whose clarity in the face of so many bewildering accounts was enormously helpful.

I first came across this material when I was a graduate student in French at New York University. I was writing my dissertation on a late-nineteenth-century novel, The Future Eve by Villiers de l’Isle-Adam. At that time, hysteria was a fashionable topic in literary theory, and I came across multiple references to various hysterical women, but they were usually in passing, in footnotes, or in evidence to support an argument. Long after I had finished my Ph.D. work, those tantalizing bits of information continued to haunt me, and I decided to write a book about the women themselves.

Hysteria was at least partly an illness of being a woman in an era that strictly limited female roles. It must be understood as a response to stifling social demands and expectations aptly expressed in paralysis, deafness, muteness, and a sense of being strangled. Blanche, Augustine, and Genevieve exhibited symptoms that physically illustrated their actual social conditions.

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