The body as release and the brain as disease: hysteria and madness
For centuries, fainting and convulsing and various physical gyrations were classified in such as a manner as to, ironically, negate
scientific specifications: in a word, hysteria. In the 1790s, hysteria was in the midst of being reeroticized. French psychiatric
humanitarian Philippe Pinel's medical textbook classified hysteria as the "Genital Neuroses of Women." That is, eighteenth-century
writers blamed hysteria on sexual misconduct, represented iconographically, for instance, in "the "vaporous" salon ladies of
eighteenth-century Parisian society swooning from noxious uterine emanations to the heart and head" (Micale
Back in 1765, Scottsman Robert Whyatt advanced hysteria interpretations with the most significant and influential book on the subject of
the eighteenth century. With an improved understanding of the relationship between muscle activity and feeling, Whyatt came to the
assumption "that movement may be triggered by a nerve impulse even in the absence of a higher will or external stimulus; i.e., there
exist 'vital' or 'involuntary motions' without 'express consciousness.'" Whyatt concluded the cause of hysteria to be 'an uncommon
weakness, or a depraved or unnatural feeling, in some of the organes of the body'" (55).
And yet, during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century period, uterine theories of the disease reappeared and hysteria was
reintroduced as a female disease: "in new classifactory schemes, [physicians] linked hysteria causally to female sexuality. This
development, however, represented less a revival than a reversal of Hippocratic teachings. While medical writers in antiquity had
connected hysterical symptomatology with female sexual deprivation, eighteenth-century writers blamed it on sexual overindulgence" (Micale 22-3). Scotsman William Cullen, responsible for developing the concept of neurosis, According to
Micale, "the reasons for this reeroticization of the disease during the late 1700s and early 1800s are unclear" (Micale 23).
By the late 1760s, mechanical nerve theories were dismissed and nerve fluid defined as that which allows mobility between body states:
"man was now seen, so to speak, as something more than a physically operating entity" (48).
In the 1780s, William Cullen, who originated the concept of neurosis, endorsed this category, correlated hysteria with nymphomania,
"which he proposed was caused by a turgescence of blood in the female genitalia" (Micale 23).
Though psychiatry was indeed advancing, it remains true that at the end of the eighteenth century, very little was known about the
brain: "the tendency being to divide it into three main faculties (reason, imagination, and memory), or to regard it as a tabula rasa,
or, as Cabanis supposed, as an organ secreting thought" (90). The experimental science
Phrenology, with the
a priori assumption that mental phenomena have determinable natural causes, was also prominent: "Although it is remembered today only as
a method of reading character from the contour of the skull, its true foundation was the theory that anatomical and physiological
characteristics have a direct influence upon mental behavior. For purposes of classification the human race was divided into four basic
psychological types: the "nervous," distinguished by a large brain, delicate health, and emaciation; the "bilious," marked by harsh
features and firm muscles; the "sanguine," characterized by large lung capacity and moderate plumpness; and the "lymphatic," with
rounded form and heavy countenance" (Davies 3).
One of the most significant documents in the history of madness in the eighteenth century was William Battie's Treatise on
Madness, published in 1758. Battie espoused something called "Consequential Madness," believed that "becoming mad was an outcome of
some distinctive experience or accident" (Ingram 46) that occurred earlier.
Englishman John Haslam published Observations on Insanity in 1798, a work based on close contact with mad patients and autopsies
performed on the diseased deceased. Haslam "regarded mental illness as arising from somatic causes: it was a disease of the brain, not
of the mind. According to Ingram, Haslam also claimed that "as madmen frequently entertain very high, and even romantic notions of
honour, they are rendered much more tractable by wounding their pride, than by severity of discipline" (27). Language misuse was a typical feature of
madness. And with the excitement and anxiety surrounding the French Revolution, madness took a particular tone in 1790s literature.
THE CONTEMPORARY LITERATURE
According to Allan Ingram, eighteenth-century English novelist and poet Charlotte Smith "suffered from low spirits for most of her life"
(160). That is to say, she wrote about
lunacy, and many suspect she intended an autobiographical tint. Smith published her Elegiac Sonnets in 1784, with expanded
editions in 1789 and 1792, and a second volume in 1797, the latter of which contains the following sonnet:
On being Cautioned against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, because it was Frequented by a
Is there a solitary wretch who hies
To the tall cliff with starting pace or slow,
And, measuring, view with wild and hollow eyes
Its distance from the waves that chide below;
Who, as the sea-born gale with frequent sighs
Chills his cold bed upon the mountain turf,
With hoarse, half-uttered lamentation, lies
Murmuring responses to the dashing surf?
In moody sadness, on the giddy brink,
I see him more with envy than with fear;
He has no nice felicities that shrink
From giant horrors; wildly wandering here,
He seems (uncursed with reason) not to know
The depth or the duration of his woe.
Using this poem as an illustration for contemporary beliefs, Ingram goes on to note how "madness is envied for its security, its
self-containment, its speaking the language of 'the dashing surf' rather than the 'nice felicities' of the poet whose own 'response' to
'the dashing surf' has been the felicitous rhyme word 'turf'. Above all the lunatic is envied for his lack of self-consciousness, his
not knowing" (160)
Readers of the time would have considered confused and/or misused language to be indubitable proof of madness. In William Godwin's
Caleb Williams, madness appears essentially in the form of obsessions and failed narratives: "the particular agony of [Caleb
Williams's] persecution is not that it is unreal, or even that he believes it undeserved, but that he comes to value his persecutor more
highly than himself. Here is Williams's 'possession': the tale which he feels obliged to tell to the end is no longer his own, the
memoirs are such that he would prefer not to remember them, the language he writes gives access to nothing that is of any value. His
'invincible attachment to books of narrative' has culminated in his inability to finish his own story . Caleb Williams is unusual in
that through the narrative of one obsessed character it contrives to involve the reader in the construction and endorsement of two forms
of delusion, one of which brings about the collapse of the narrative itself and therefore of the language that secured the endorsement
in the first place" (98).
Relevant Bibliography Entries