Campus & Community

Medical texts and other fictions:

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Janet Beizer looks closely at hysteria in its cultural context

Janet Beizer

Hysteria is no longer accepted as a valid medical diagnosis. You won’t find it in the American Psychiatric Association’s “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” nor are any of the major pharmaceutical firms producing drugs to alleviate its symptoms.

If people use the word today, they usually do so in a nonmedical, nonspecific sense: “That movie was hysterically funny,” or “He was so upset, he became hysterical.”

In the 19th century, however, hysteria was considered one of the most common disorders afflicting women. Doctors advised parents to keep their daughters from riding horseback, eating vanilla, or reading novels, for fear they might develop the condition.

Janet Beizer, a scholar of 19th century French literature, was so struck by the pervasiveness of this theme that she decided to study the literary and cultural significance of the phenomenon. What she discovered surprised her.

“I thought it was going to be about how novelists used the medical idea of hysteria, but I realized that the medical texts were just as literary as the novels. It seemed that the focus on hysteria was part of a larger cultural phenomenon.”

Beizer, who joined the Faculty of Arts and Sciences as professor of Romance Languages and Literatures in 2001, is regarded as one of today’s foremost critics of 19th French fiction. She has written on such figures as Balzac, Flaubert, George Sand, Zola, and others, producing articles and books whose insight and breadth of vision have favorably impressed her colleagues.

“Janet Beizer has added an exciting historical dimension from the French 19th century to our department. Her superb research shows the strong relationship of literature to social and cultural forces. She is also a wonderful mentor and colleague,” said department chair Christie McDonald, Smith Professor of the French Language and Literature.

“Janet Beizer is the most astute reader of her generation in 19th century French studies,” said Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures Tom Conley. “She writes with elegance and force on a panoply of authors – all great – who range from Balzac to Colette. I admire especially the fact that she writes out of a need to draw her field of interest into a welter of issues that bear on us and our time. She is of an independence everyone admires, and she is a colleague’s colleague. We feel very fortunate to have her with us.”

Beizer discovered that hysteria (which, according to the ancient Greeks, occurred when a woman’s womb wandered around her body seeking its proper place) was seen by 19th century French physicians as a condition characterized by a woman’s inability to find her proper place in the world.

“Women who became hysterical were women who strove for positions that were not considered right for them – too intellectual, too sexually indulgent, or too abstemious.”

In her book, “Ventriloquized Bodies: Narratives of Hysteria in Nineteenth Century France” (Cornell University Press, 1994), Beizer suggests that this concern over female hysteria was related to larger social concerns – anxiety about convulsive social and political changes in French society and about altered gender roles.

Another characteristic of female hysterics was that they were unable to express their problem verbally (although they did express themselves in other ways-convulsions, fits, acting out, etc.). Novelists and medical writers took it upon themselves to fill the silence by explaining what those problems were, functioning as ventriloquists for the inarticulate women who suffered from the condition.

Hysteria thus became a metaphor for everything that couldn’t be expressed, prompting some avant-garde French writers – notably Gustave Flaubert and the poet Charles Baudelaire – to identify themselves as hysterics.

“It was really an act of daring at the time for a male to see himself as having a feminine side, to identify hysteria as characteristic of the male artist,” Beizer said.

This identification of hysteria with silence, with the inability to express one’s inmost thoughts in language, led Beizer to undertake her next project, a study of recent attempts by feminist writers to resurrect the lives of neglected foremothers and in the process forge a new genre of feminine biography. The book, whose working title is “Vicarious Lives,” is under contract with Cornell University Press.

Sometimes referred to as resurrection or salvation biography, the genre is typified by “Alias Olympia” by Eunice Lipton, a semi-fictional work which chronicles an attempt to write a biography of Victorine Meurent, the woman who posed nude for Edouard Manet’s painting “Olympia.” In the book, Lipton explores Meurent’s own career as an aspiring artist whose progress was stymied perhaps by her struggle with alcoholism or perhaps by the male-dominated art world. The paucity of evidence about Meurent’s life leads Lipton into imaginative speculation about her subject paralleled by a journey of exploration into her own life and identity.

In her study, Beizer considers the idea that women who write biographies of women are often at a loss for a satisfactory framework on which to hang their narratives. As many feminist critics have pointed out, the models that have guided biographers of male subjects don’t work for women. Some, like the psychoanalytic critic Shoshana Felman, contend that feminine autobiography is culturally impossible.

Building on Felman’s work, Beizer suggests that the linear narrative structure so often employed in male biographies may need to be altered to accommodate women’s lives. She proposes that writers of feminine biography may need to invent a new non-linear structure that allows the silences to speak.

Beizer plans to bring some of her recent scholarly concerns into her teaching. In the fall of 2003, she will teach a seminar on the role of hysteria in French literature. She is also planning a seminar on the literary significance of silence.

Growing up in Queens, N.Y., Beizer began studying French in seventh grade and soon became enraptured with the romance of French culture.

That early love affair with France led her to earn a B.A. in French from Cornell University in 1974 and a Ph.D. from Yale in 1981. Before coming to Harvard, she was professor of French at the University of Virginia.

“I suppose my coming to French literature was based on a fantasy, an image of an exotic world. But it was a lucky fantasy, one that I was able to build on,” she said.