Hey, guys, remember when we discussed Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” in class? Remember when we unanimously agreed that the Duke’s instinct to immortalize the behavior he found so offensive in his “last duchess” as a demonstration of ownership and a warning to his future duchesses made him a terrible (probably murderous) creep?
Well, I recently learned about someone who might give Browning’s Duke a run for his money in the terrible creep department. In my anthropology of psychiatry class, we recently began a unit that deals with issues of gender and madness. As I read through Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture 1830-1980 (1987), I came across the photographs of Jean-Martin Charcot. Charcot treated primarily female “hysterics” at La Salpêtrière asylum in Paris in the mid 1800s and is credited as being one of the first physicians to acknowledge that hysterical symptoms were beyond women’s conscious control. He is also credited with developing a hypnosis treatment for hysteria. Oh, and he staged photos of patients experiencing hysterical “attacks” and published the photos in three volumes called la Iconographie Photographique de la Salpêtrière.
During his lifetime, even, Charcot was accused of staging the photos to make them visually pleasing and having patients act out symptoms at public lectures so that he could demonstrate the efficacy of his treatment. My question is, though, was this display of feminine mental illness about asserting Charcot’s psychiatric prowess or something else? I’m inclined to think that his motives were somewhat similar to those of the Duke. As Showalter notes in her book, manifestations of anorexia, neurasthenia, and hysteria in Victorian women could be understood as “mental pathology [as] suppressed rebellion” (147). Noting the possible danger of such behavior, the patriarchal (read: misogynstic) psychiatric community shuffled to regain control of the female image. Charcot’s photographs literally capture the disconcerting behavior of hysterical women and yet still manage to make that behavior aesthetically appealing. For me, the subtext the photographs is similar to that of Frà Pandolf’s painting and the Duke’s description: assertion of ownership that subsumes the women’s threatening, transgressive behavior and a warning to other women to avoid the same fate.
I found some of the photographs and I’d love to know what you guys think of them:
I accessed these photos here and there’s a whole, eerie gallery if you’re interested: http://cushing.med.yale.edu/gsdl/collect/salpetre/index.html
All info about Charcot’s practices came from The Female Malady.