Categories for Hysteria: the Diagnosis

How did hysteria become a diagnosis applied to women? The understanding and reasoning behind hysteria differ between scholars, further proving the vague understanding of hysteria during the late 19th century. Though the origins of hysteria is also hotly contested by historians, I do not focus on that in this paper. Instead, I look at the understanding of and categorization of the diagnoses of hysteria during the late 19th century, in order to place Charcot’s photographs in an historical and social framework.

According to Claire Kahane, there was simply a nervous anxiety during this time anyway, because of the drastic social and political changes that were a direct result of industrialization and modernization. Additionally, she says the “generalized anxiety about change became increasingly linked to a particular anxiety about the change in and by women” (2). Women were participating in the public sphere by the end of the 19th century, and were becoming active members of the workplace (Kahane 4). Though they remained a small minority in the workplace, they became enough of a threat to the established order that they created a sense of anxiety and uncertainty among the citizens of this fin-de-siècle culture. According to Kahane, “even religion, the conventional stronghold of patriarchal authority, was invaded by these newly public women, who, newly inspired, used the pulpit with millennial zeal to envision utopias in which women prevailed as arbiters of morality and the law” (2). The age-old depiction of women, then, we may equate to a timid nature, to laziness and to lack of ambition. The female prototype was to remain within the bounds of her gender; that is to say, she was to be a mother, a wife, a subservient character to her male counterpart. Hysterical women, therefore, are quite the opposite. They were go-getters, they were participants in society, they were, obviously, ill. They were not women as defined by the traditional definition. The relationship between this feminine ideal of passivity and the emerging culture of powerful, business-minded women may have ultimately been an impetus for the category of hysteria. These deviant women defied the “normative and ideal femininity”, and overcame the stereotypes associated with their gender; for this, they were ruled hysterical (Kahane 9). The nervous anxiety that was a result of political and economic change coupled with social change by women. Maybe by categorizing the women as hysterical and thus ill, society could stop their growing influence.

Other descriptions of hysteria determine the origins based on different characteristics. Joan Ross Acocello presents an interesting point about “idioms of distress” (27). According to Acocello, every culture has these idioms, which emerge and subside in successive years (27). She notes how “mental disorders go in and out of vogue”, suggesting that the hysterical outbreak at the end of the 19th century may have simply been one of these cycles. This new culture of observation and spectacle may have simply created what it wanted to see in women who were deviating from the traditional norms of society. Naturally they must be diseased to think they should redefine their roles in society. This category of the diagnosis then was an “idiom of stress” in a changing society. The hysterical woman was a deviant, was attempting to break out of her oppressed position. Similar to Kahane’s category, this category proposes that women who are deviant must be ill. However, this category supposes that the idea of hysteria as a whole was just a “fad”, a disease of the mind that comes in cycles.

We must also understand that it was natural for women to be morally and physically weak—hysteria in the century before was thought to have been because of a woman’s “outsized sexual appetite”, her lusty gender (Acocello 31). Therefore this moral degradation was a natural assumption, characteristic of all women. The link between women and hysteria became simply inherent. “As a general rule, all women are hysterical” according to August Fabre in 1883 (Acocello 31). However, it may also be seen as a cyclical relationship between the innate nature of women and the disease: hysteria, before being an illness, is a temperament, and what constitutes the temperament of women is rudimentary hysteria” (Acocello 31). Therefore, hysteria was innate in women, and women were innately hysterical simply because of their gender. If this fact was generally accepted, it would not then be difficult to gain popular support from the public through photographic images of hysterical women. The depictions that the women posed in were what the public imagined women to be like, since, according to this definition, all women were hysterical.

These definitions are important building blocks to understanding how hysteria became the spectacle that it did in late 19th century Paris, primarily because of Charcot’s photographs. The diagnosis of hysteria had to be established in order for these pictures to be accepted as visual representations of hysterical fits. Without understanding the social context of hysteria, though there is not one set understanding, and historians have many different categorizations and reasoning for the disease, it would be difficult to see the effects of photography.

So, I have addressed the cultural development that was a result of Haussmannization and discussed the idea of spectacle as a cultural phenomenon. I have also addressed a few definitions of the general understanding of hysteria during the late 19th century. Next, I will draw distinct connections between photography, Charcot and the Salpêtrière, to show how photography created the spectacle of hysteria. Then I will address mass media representations of hysteria and how they interacted with the photographs to create the spectacle.

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