Dream, Creativity, and Madness in Nineteenth-Century France

By Tony James | Go to book overview

9
The Beginnings of Retrospective Medicine

The term 'retrospective medicine' was coined by Littré in the 1860s.1 Belonging to a strong positivist and anticlerical tradition, it referred to attempts at reinterpreting, in the light of present-day knowledge, historical cases whose interpretation had hitherto depended upon their situation within a religious tradition. This tendency is already apparent in the early development of the theory of hallucination.

Esquirol's definition, quoted earlier, does not seem to have been influential before 1830 and its influence seems to depend less on the 1817 paper than on a reworking of his ideas presented before the Institut in 1832. Recalling how he had proposed a single generic term 'hallucinations', for what had formerly been called 'visions', he goes on to underline an important distinction:

Some modern writers, adopting my proposed designation for visions, have confused hallucinations with illusions, distinguishing none the less mental hallucinations (visions) from sensory hallucinations (illusions of the senses) . . . In hallucinations, everything takes place within the brain: visionaries and ecstatics are hallucinated, they are dreamers who are wide awake. The activity of the brain is so intense, that the visionary or the hallucinator gives a body and substance to images reproduced by memory, without the senses intervening.2

Illusions, on the other hand, depend on actual sense-impressions which stimulate the brain; they are deformations of existing objects, rather than imaginary ones. It will be clear that both Balzac and Hugo, in the texts

____________________
1
E. Littré, "Un fragment de médecine rétrospective", Philosophie positive, 5 ( 1869), 103-20.
2
'Quelques modernes, adoptant la dénomination que j'ai proposée pour les visions, ont confondu les hallucinations avec les illusions, les distinguant néanmoins en hallucinations mentales (visions), et en hallucinations sensoriales (illusions des sens). . . . Dans les hallucinations tout se passe dans le cerveau: les visionnaires, les extatiques sont des hallucinés, ce sont des rêveurs tout éveillés. L'activité du cerveau est si énergique, que le visionnaire ou l'halluciné donne un corps et de l'actualité aux images que la mémoire reproduit, sans l'intervention des sens': "Des illusions chez les aliénés" ( Crochard, 1832), previously read before the Institut on 1 Oct. 1832.

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