Impotence and Excess: Male Hysteria and Androgyny in Flaubert's Salammbo

By Rubino, Nancy | Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Fall-Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Impotence and Excess: Male Hysteria and Androgyny in Flaubert's Salammbo


Rubino, Nancy, Nineteenth-Century French Studies


In current, interdisciplinary studies on hysteria much attention has been given to the interrelationship between literary and clinical uses of this malady. For the most part, literary critics have explored how the circulation of the hysteria concept in diverse discursive fields and in various historical contexts has affected the construction of the feminine.(1) However, only a few inquiries have recently grappled with the often ignored but puzzling concept of hysteria as a male malady. Mark S. Micale's medical historical inquiry, "Charcot and the Idea of Hysteria in the Male," traces the emerging acceptance of masculine hysteria in late nineteenth-century clinical studies of the disease and its intrinsic connection to a neurologically-based model of hysteria. In a different vein, Jan Goldstein traces the dichotomy between medical and literary uses of male hysteria in the nineteenth century, and explores the possibility of its functioning in literary discourse "as a metaphor for androgyny and hence as a challenge to prevailing gender norms" ("Uses of Male Hysteria" 138).

The present article contributes to the exploration and understanding of this peculiar manifestation of the disease and its literary representation in nineteenth-century France, particularly in its functional relation to the figure of the androgyne in Flaubert's 1862 novel, Salammbo Flaubert's coupling of hysteria and androgyny, two widely used themes in French decadent and realist fiction, spawned one of the most alluring and often parodic literary figures of the nineteenth century, the hysterical poet. My goal is to illustrate that this literary figure operates as a trope of aesthetic modernity. Its principle function, I shall argue, is its symbolic portrayal of a modern type of artistic creation that emphasizes a dialectical process of empowerment and depletion, exaltation and fragmentation.(2)

In examining hysteria as a male malady Goldstein claims that in both literary and clinical discourses of the nineteenth century some attempts were made to destabilize gender definitions associated with the disease (156-57). Indeed, proponents of the neurological theory of hysteria, the so-called, "nerveux" which included such influential clinicians as Briquet, Georget, and Charcot, dissociated the disease from purely anatomical origins and ascribed to it neurological and psychological causes.(3) Pierre Briquet's influential Traite clinique et therapeutique de l'hysterie of 1859, for example, begins by exploring the predisposition and causes of the illness in men in the first seven cases of his treatise.

In one case study, Briquet describes the male patient as exhibiting the following qualities: "fort impressionnable, a l'esprit tres romanesque, pleure facilement et est toujours fort emu quand il va au spectacle"(16).(4) Echoing the taboos surrounding the corruptive effects of the imagination of reading women, Briquet describes the patient's propensity to nervous illness by making use of a nineteenth-century diagnostic commonplace that links reading, imagination, impressionability' and nervous disorder in women in a natural and causal relationship. Similarly, some years prior to Briquet's treatise on hysteria, one of his contemporaries Hector Landouzy (a supporter of the uterine theory of hysteria), characterized novels, and by extension other forms of cultural enhancement, as "toutes ces deviations litteraires [...] qui impriment presque necessairement une direction vicieuse a l'esprit, a la sensibilite et aux affections des jeunes rilles ..."(264).(5) Thus, while Briquet located the causes of hysterical illness in the male patient's personality, as with Landouzy, he described emotions that were typically regarded as feminine. As Goldstein rightly points out, "Briquet valorized male hysteria as part of his project of desexualizing the disease while at the same time leaving it resoundingly gendered" (152).

While Goldstein acknowledges that clinical treatises on hysterical illness reaffirmed the most stereotypical notions of the difference between the sexes, her article contends that the literary discourse of hysteria served in part as a subversive tool (134). …

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