Books Features

The Topicality of Hysteria

Sabine Arnaud’s essay bears the simplest of titles. Behind the English “On…” we can hear the Latin De echoing across the centuries. The essay is classically explicit about its subject. But the hysteria analyzed here is not in fact an entirely stable object of knowledge. Classical dissertations were able to announce their subject in full confidence that the topos was known to all informed readers, but that is not so in this instance. When we move on from the title, it quickly becomes clear that hysteria is not straightforwardly given, not ready to be found at every point as the object of inquiry. What might be called a cultivated uncertainty of topical focus might seem to put Arnaud’s work at odds with that of the many historians who wrote about hysteria in the 1970s and 1980s. The earlier group, including Janet Beizer, Sander Gilman, Mark Micale, and Elaine Showalter, might well claim that one of their great achievements was precisely to make hysteria into a topos, a place of analytical convergence and sustained critique. But Arnaud opens the field up again, at the risk of unmaking the topic. She extends the temporal range of her research far beyond the nineteenth century, which served as the shared focus for the earlier group, as she examines material from the late sixteenth century through to the early nineteenth.

The title, despite its nominal singularity, does not simply put forward a key word that is to be pursued with narrow purpose across a broad set of historical texts. If that were so, the thematic would be reduced to the lexical, and topicality achieved at the expense of triviality. As it happens, certain of the texts examined in Arnaud’s essay contain a proliferation of expressions like “hysteric illness,” “hysterica passio,” “hysteric passion,” “hysteric affection,” and “fits of the mother” without functioning as if these expressions referred unequivocally to the same thing (16). Texts like this, Arnaud is suggesting, must be respected and their lexical complication accounted for. Variety of expression clearly matters in its own right, and must be attended to by the intellectual historian. So the singular noun in the title both represents and refers to – masks and stands for, one might say – a number of expressions that are only approximately equivalent. Arnaud’s point about the early seventeenth century, for example, is that at the time no effort was made to distinguish between the diversely named pathologies in the list I have just quoted. And while she seems to attach value to a key word when she characterizes “hysteria” as a “term,” she does so while claiming that the use of a new term did not in fact produce a new referential thing: “The first appearances of the term ‘hysteria’ in French were not, however, associated with a radical change in the perception of any of its related pathologies” (23). So we are at some remove in historical thinking and historiographical practice from the “invention of hysteria” referred to by Georges Didi-Huberman in his well-known 1982 essay of that title. There is no precise historical moment of emergence here, and accordingly no singular object of knowledge that can subsequently be made the focus of critique.

What interests Arnaud most is to understand hysteria, not as a key word or even as a theme, but as a “category.” Her topic is not primarily lexical or even semantic, but pragmatic: “the book traces the uses of the category of hysteria, while considering the functioning and dissemination of texts in which this category appears” (3; original emphasis). Only then does Arnaud come to speak of singularity as she seeks to describe the intellectual work done by hysteria: “How, then, did hysteria develop into a singular category; what was the uneven and frequently backtracking movement of its theorization toward assimilation into a single term?” (5). In this account, hysteria becomes, certainly not a material thing, not even a theme or a topos, but a category. It is a way of organizing propositions, a way of making sense. Thinking and writing about hysteria matter historically because, says Arnaud, they allowed “the construction of a diagnosis” (6). The role of the historian here is not just to examine the content of statements about hysteria, but to understand “what was at stake in the writing of the diagnosis” (8). The business of intellectual history, understood thus, cannot amount to tracing a thematic thread from one text to another since “none of these themes formed a continuous thread throughout time” (49).

To put it as simply as possible, the task of the intellectual historian as Arnaud understands it is to read texts. To read them not merely to grasp their thematic content, but to engage with their rhetoric and to foreground matters of genre in the course of analysis (3-4). If, as Arnaud affirms, “hysteria” and “hysteric” have become “entrenched in today’s everyday discourse” (ix), attentive reading of the kind she practices must ensure that the object of knowledge not be “entrenched” in that way in her history. It is all about analyzing language, Arnaud says repeatedly: “a history of forms of enunciation in writings gathered retrospectively under a single diagnosis is here privileged over a history of ideas” (6). Facile topicality, we must understand, is inimical to intellectual history properly conducted.


Peter Cryle is an Emeritus Professor in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland. He is the author of a number of books on the history of sexuality, including (with Alison Moore) Frigidity: An Intellectual History, published by Palgrave Macmillan. He is currently completing (with Elizabeth Stephens) a critical genealogy of normality.

One reply on “The Topicality of Hysteria”

Comments are closed.