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An Alphabet of Feminism #8: H is for Hysteria

2010 November 22




O, how this mother swells up toward my heart!
Hysterica passio, down, thou climbing sorrow,
Thy element’s below.
– King Lear, II.ii.246

No Reason To Get Excited

In its purest sense, hysteria simply refers to the womb, no more, no less; like all those other lovely hy- words, it comes from the Greeks, and specifically from their word hysterikos – hystera (= yes, ‘womb’. Think ‘hysterectomy’). There may be little trace of its origin in modern usage, but its ‘female’ signification is perfectly in line with the word’s association with legions of Anna Os, Doras and Victorian virgins, eyes rolling, bodies attractively prone.

Henry Fuseli - The Nightmare

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, c. 1781

But here we must pause, and take an exciting medical-historical diversion. The Latin equivalent of hysterikos is the homonymic ancestor of our modern term ‘uterus’, and means ‘womb’ or ‘belly’; and this last strangely ambiguous definition seems less odd when you realise that ‘womb’ itself, in its Old English form, refers not to the generative organ but to a ‘belly’ or ‘paunch’ and that history is full of scientists arguing that this now-feminized organ was gender-neutral, with the ‘female’ womb simply some kind of equivalent to the ‘male’ stomach. Well? It does have some kind of logic: both are cavernous places where you, er, store stuff, but the female of the species may be more creative than the male.

Oh, Mother.

So, grasping this information in our sweaty little palms, to Shakespeare. When King Lear complains of ‘this mother’ he is referring to, as he says, ‘Passio Hysterica’, or ‘the suffocation of the mother’ – mother here used as a synonym for ‘womb’, as in Edward Jorden’s Treatise on the subject. Contemporary medical belief held that there were circumstances (Jorden specifies ‘of a wind in the bottom of the belly’, but refuses to elaborate on whether this is indigestion or some meterological force) in which this sexless womb-stomach could physically wander round the body, where ‘it causeth a very painfull collicke in the stomack, and an extraordinary giddiness in the head’. Uh, yeah: ouch. Or, in Lear’s terms: ‘O me, my heart! My rising heart! But down!’

She’s Lost Control.

The development of  the female-specific womb may be a topic for another day, but hysteria meaning what we would understand by the term, ‘hysteric fits or convulsions, a convulsive fit of laughter or weeping’ was in use as early as 1727. In 1791, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote what is arguably the first attempt to put hysteria into musical form – with The Magic Flute‘s Queen of the Night, also a ‘mother’ – spectacular as the music is (and her arias in particular), its driving purpose is to contrast the hysterical irrationality of women with the enlightened forces of Men and Freemasonry (gendering hysteria explicitly female in the process).

Aids that every woman appreciates

One to be taken each night with a mug of cocoa

There is then a gap in the word’s lexical development until the medical issue resurfaces: hysteria as a diagnosable condition was first officially used in 1801, where, as the dictionary points out, it was in reference to a seeming epidemic of women Going Crazy – or, specifically, experiencing ‘a functional disturbance of the nervous system, characterized by anaesthesia, hyperaesthesia, convulsions, etc., and usually attended with emotional disturbances or perversion of the moral and intellectual faculties’. Covering all its bases, you could either have no sensation at all, or hyper-sensation. Brilliant. That’s exactly what today needed.

It’s Not Easy Being Green.

One explanation for its seeming explosion during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is its use as a catch-all term for Generic Women’s Troubles (hence calling it, essentially, ‘womb-problem’), and indeed, it does seem to have been partially conflated with chlorosis (a type of anaemia), which is perhaps better known to Renaissance drama fans as ‘green sickness’. Thus, in John Ford’s play ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore (you’d think you couldn’t top that title, wouldn’t you?) Annabella is thought to be suffering from ‘an overflux of youth’, in which case ‘there is no such present remedy as present marriage’. Translation: get a willy in her, quick.

Something along these lines, dubbed ‘pelvic massage’, was indeed considered to be a helpful course of action for hysterical women of later years, and this, bizarrely, is where the vibrator makes its entrance on the historical stage. Helped along in its retail life by widespread use of electricity in the home, this particular modern gadget was originally a time-saving device for hard-pressed, fee-jealous doctors with hundreds of hysterical women to bring to ‘hysterical paroxysm’ before lunch. It was a young medical man named Sigmund Freud who decided that the ‘talking cure’ might be more helpful, and his early work in hysteria underscored much of his subsequent work on psychoanalysis.

Pervert Doc Caged

In its post-medical life (unsurprisingly, it is no longer considered a valid diagnosis), hysteria continues to rejoice in its second definition, a figurative use, meaning ‘unhealthy emotion or excitement’ (1839). Its most common modern usage would probably be in reference to media hysteria, which does, alas, tend to be aimed at women: the Daily Mail, the archetypal screeching tabloid, was, from its initiation in 1896, a newspaper aimed at women, and to this day its readership is over 50% female. As such, it tends to focus on condemning threats to ‘traditional family values’ – primarily immigrants and those on benefits, but it also simmers with barely suppressed homophobia (‘Abortion hope after “gay genes” finding’ was a headline from 1993, and Jan Moir’s article on Stephen Gately more recently attracted justified ire from all corners).

This, sadly, does tend to suggest that in the eyes of People Trying To Sell Us Stuff, women are still very much the hysterical creatures they were considered in the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, this does not stop legions of women actually buying what they sell.

Freud examines a hysteric patient

NEXT WEEK: I is for Infant.

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Simon permalink
    November 24, 2010

    I love the idea of The Magic Flute as the apogee of Enlightenment rationality – it’s so patently the product of a borderline insane mind.

    I think there has to be a case made for the institutionalisation of hysteria as a product of the Enlightenment’s recurring dichotomy between rational and responsible middle-class white civilised man vs emotional and unstable woman/savage/child/working-class/anyone else. ‘Green sickness’ and pre-Enlightenment perception of women’s health centres around physical ailments, around the time hysteria kicks off it all becomes about delicate nervous systems and the like.

    Just my vague ideas anyway…

  2. Pet Jeffery permalink
    November 29, 2010

    I wonder whether the shape (in the region of her belly) of the woman in the picture has some connection with 19th/early 20th century hysteria. Women’s disorders of that period were (surely) all too often connected with the constriction imposed by corsets.

  3. Pet Jeffery permalink
    November 29, 2010

    Your quotation ‘O me, my heart! My rising heart! But down!’ reminded me of Spell 30B of the Egyptian Book of the Dead:

    O heart of my mother,
    O heart of my mother,
    O heart of my transformations:

    Do not rise up against me as a witness,
    Do not oppose me in the tribunal,
    Do not be hostile to me before the guardian of the scales

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