Gentlemen’s Spleen

Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen

  • Hysterical Men: The Hidden History of Male Nervous Illness by Mark Micale
    Harvard, 366 pp, £19.95, December 2008, ISBN 978 0 674 03166 1

Mark Micale’s book opens with a scene from John Huston’s film Freud: The Secret Passion (1962), which re-creates one of Jean-Martin Charcot’s legendary demonstrations of hypnosis before an audience of doctors at the Salpêtrière. With magical ease, Charcot makes two patients’ hysterical symptoms disappear. As Micale notes, the scene is taken from André Brouillet’s well-known painting A Clinical Lesson at the Salpêtrière, a print of which Freud hung on his office wall. There are, however, two differences. In Huston’s version, one of the doctors attending the demonstration is the young Freud himself, fresh off the train from Vienna. And, more significant, while in Brouillet’s painting the audience’s eyes converge on a female subject who fully obeys the will of her Master, Huston also portrays a male patient, no less hysterical and suggestible than his female counterpart.

This might seem incongruous, so conditioned are we to think of hysteria in the feminine. Weren’t all the Salpêtrière’s hysterics women, much like the first psychoanalytic patients, from Anna O. to Dora? Even the word ‘hysteria’: doesn’t it come from the Greek hustera (womb/uterus), echoing the theories of Plato and Hippocrates on the erratic wanderings of the womb in women deprived of sexual intercourse? And yet it’s Huston who has it right: Charcot explicitly rejected the ‘uterine’ theory of hysteria, and for this reason recognised the existence of hysteria in men, whom he studied just as attentively as he did women. Indeed, it was Charcot who alerted Freud to male hysteria for the first time, before Freud made it, so Micale argues, into the unrecognised centre of his new psychoanalytic theory.

Charcot and Freud are the two heroes of Micale’s history, which narrates the slow and difficult recognition of a condition that had been concealed since antiquity by male doctors’ theories about the ‘uterine’ irrationality of women. Micale could scarcely have found a better image to introduce his ‘hidden history’ than the scene from Huston’s film. He seems, however, not to know that Huston had during the Second World War filmed a documentary on male hysteria, Let There Be Light. Initially titled Psychoneurotic Soldiers, the film showed how soldiers suffering from amnesia, paralysis or trembling due to the stress of combat were miraculously cured by hypnosis or sodium pentothal injections administered by an army doctor. Huston had no need for any extensive knowledge of Charcot’s and Freud’s texts to have a good idea of what a male hysteric was: it had been enough to enter a military hospital and see dozens of them. This complicates the story Micale wants to tell, for had he begun his book with a scene from Let There Be Light, he would not have found it so easy to end it with Freud, nor could he have turned psychoanalysis into virtually the sole source of our knowledge about male hysteria.

In a ‘note on usage’ at the beginning of the book, Micale tells us that he isn’t concerned with what hysteria ‘really’ is, but only with what innumerable doctors have had to say about it. This historical prudence is welcome, because it may well be that hysteria – this ‘Proteus’ as Thomas Sydenham called it in the 17th century – is never anything other than what we say about it, and that hysterics adapt themselves to doctors’ expectations and theories, thereby confirming them. This was the position maintained, notably, by Hippolyte Bernheim and Joseph Delboeuf, who reproached their colleague Charcot for having unwittingly fabricated (‘suggested’) the grande hystérie that Freud observed at the Salpêtrière. Start theorising male hysteria and suddenly you have an avalanche of male hysterics; stop talking about it and it disappears, or is interpreted as something else.

Micale, however, finds it even where it is concealed and unformulated: in Burton’s ‘melancholia’, the ‘hypochondriac’, ‘nervous’ or ‘splenetic’ men of the 17th and 18th centuries, the ‘neurasthenics’ and ‘decadents’ of the 19th, and in the ‘creative illnesses’ of young intellectuals such as David Hume, John Stuart Mill – or Sigmund Freud. In fact, all these men suffered from hysteria: that is, if we subscribe to Micale’s line of reasoning, from an unacceptable femininity that the body of masculine medicine could only ‘repress’ and ‘exclude’ by projecting it, misogynistically, onto the ravings of the female sex. Micale’s ‘hidden history’ is a psycho-history, in the sense that, far from sticking to the surface of the various discourses on hysteria, he retrospectively unveils a psychical reality that these discourses had avoided and concealed.

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