Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Ill but Manly: Male Hysteria in Late Nineteenth-Century Medical Discourse

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Ill but Manly: Male Hysteria in Late Nineteenth-Century Medical Discourse

Article excerpt

Misha Kavka contests the accepted view that male hysteria has always been an illness that feminizes men or befalls only feminine men. Nonetheless, hysteria is always a gendered construct. Focusing on Anglo-European medical literature of 1880-1900, led by the great French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, Kavka argues that male hysteria as a discursive construct reinforced and even validated masculinity by inventing a new image of the homo hystericus. This new male hysteric was a stalwart working-class man who suffered hysterical symptoms as the result of traumatic impact with the mechanical or industrial world. Homo hystericus was born out of the discovery of traumatic hysteria, based in neurological theories of "railway spine," which provided male hysteria with a clear, verifiable etiology, or cause: an external shock to the body with delayed physiological effects. While male hysteria was caused by a traumatic event, however, female hysteria had no coherent etiology, bur was seen as a latent disturbance manifested in incoherent stories about an (implicitly sexual) past. When Freud brought psychoanalysis into being by listening to such stories, he grounded his new science on the demise of the masculine male hysteric. If hysterical symptoms denoted a repressed memory of early seduction, as Freud argued, then only women (and feminine men) could properly be hysterics, since only women (and feminine men) could be sexually inadequate. This rise and fall of male hysteria in the fin de siecle thus indicates that hysteria finds its cause as much in contemporary gender assumptions as in medical categories.

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It a widely held notion, by post-Freudians as well as those who came before, that hysteria is an illness of women. The more refined version of this belief rejects the reductive sex determination in favor of gender construction, holding that hysteria is gendered feminine, applicable not just to women but also to feminized men. Two recent accounts, Daniel Boyarin's Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man and Elaine Showalter's "Hysteria, Feminism, and Gender" convincingly argue this point. (1) Boyarin draws in part on Showalter's work to claim, "Hysteria is indeed about femaleness but not ... exclusively about 'women'"; he notes that it was not just women but also "certain racially marked men"--specifically, Jewish men--who were diagnosed as hysterics. (2) And Showalter begins her essay with an imperative: "... we need to see how hysteria in men has always been regarded as a shameful, 'effeminate' disorder," with the male hysteric assumed to be "unmanly, womanish, or homosexual, as if the feminine component within masculinity were itself a symptom of disease." (3) I wish to take issue with this broad characterization of male hysteria for the sake of what may seem, given the long history of hysteria, like a narrow episode--the efflorescence of male hysteria as a medical construct in the late nineteenth century. If, as Showalter also suggests, the term "gender" offers a critical purchase on "the social construction of sexual roles," then it is crucial both to take account of, and to account for, this brief period in which male hysteria was reinvented as an illness of masculinity.

The neurological introduction of male hysteria into the late nineteenth-century medical canon addressed anew not only the issue of symptomatology (how one recognizes the illness) but also the issue of etiology (why has the patient become ill?). No physician specifically disclaimed the importance of heredity to hysterical etiology, particularly not since the great French theorist of (female and male) hysteria, Jean-Martin Charcot, insisted on heredity as the fundamental basis for hysterical breakdown. The more immediate cause of male hysteria was nevertheless most often assumed to be trauma, understood as an accident to the body having neurological effects. Those theorists, on the other hand, who argued for a psychical etiology seemed to concern themselves principally, or solely, with female hysterics, as did Freud once he entered the debate over the nature of hysteria. …

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