Few topics have intrigued historians of late nineteenth-century cultural and intellectual history as much as what Robert Nye termed ‘the medical concept of national decline’—the medical and social scientific theories advanced by experts in new fields such as psychiatry, criminology and the like that linked individual deviance, biological anomaly and socio-cultural anxiety. Studies of quintessentially fin-de-siècle diseases such as neurasthenia and hysteria, of the obsessively read novels and newspaper articles about crimes and criminals and of newly defined sexual and gender identities abound. In ‘Misfits’ in Fin-de-Siècle France and Italy, Susan A. Ashley refreshes this well-trodden ground with a broad scope and transnational and comparative approach. Ashley’s choice of term to describe people with mental or nervous disorders, with excessive or deficient intelligence, who engaged in vagabondage or criminal activity, and whose sexual identities and activities diverged from normative heterosexuality—‘misfits’—is provocative but apt; as she explains, these individuals did not fit into their expected place within the matrix of society as identified in the painstaking classificatory work carried out by doctors, jurists, social scientists and the like. Misfits, these experts concluded, suffered from physical or physiological anomalies caused by heredity, disease or external traumas. The results were imbalances in the delicately calibrated integration of bodily systems that affected crucial processes such as willpower, moral sensibility and sexual development and hindered—or, in the most severe cases, prevented—the afflicted individual from fitting into mainstream society. For fin-de-siècle observers, the growing number of misfits threatened the normal functioning of society and cast doubt on the triumphal narrative of liberal civilization central to French and Italian self-perception. Experts sought to classify these misfits, to trace the causes of their abnormality, and to offer solutions ranging from treatment to confinement. Drawing upon empirical techniques and new theories of heredity, evolution and degeneration, they argued that the anomalies that produced misfits were less frequently inborn than they were circumstantial, caused by traumatic events or simply the nature and pace of modern life. A railway accident could cause neurasthenia, whereas economic pressures could drive men and women to vagrancy, crime or prostitution. This distinction between ‘innate’ and ‘accidental’ misfits, Ashley argues, neutralized some of the socio-cultural dread evoked by misfits while engendering new fears that any reversal of fortune could bring madness along with material ruination. Misfits spans two countries and six categories of deviance: ‘mental misfits’ including geniuses, lunatics and neurotics, and ‘social misfits’ such as vagabonds, criminals and sexual deviants. In embracing such a broad scope, Ashley not only reveals the transnational networks of influence, collaboration and sociability enjoyed by medical and social scientific experts, but echoes these experts’ own boundary-crossing work. In the second half of the nineteenth century, disciplinary boundaries were, in Ashley’s words, ‘fluid and permeable’ and medical and social scientists ‘singularly versatile in their own research and catholic in their collaborations’. To focus solely on one disorder or type of deviance is to erect a modern silo on a decidedly interdisciplinary field. This broad scope is one of Misfits’ great strengths, as it allows Ashley to tease out the profound interrelations between mental and social disorder as theorized in the nineteenth century. The case of epilepsy is illuminating in this respect. Though the disease had been known since the ancient world, in the nineteenth century doctors and scientists expanded it, positing the existence of a ‘psychic epilepsy’ that was both subtler and more common than its physical analogue. Psychic epileptics, plagued by a weakened nervous system, were prone to trances, fugue states and impulsive behaviour, which in turn made them susceptible to vagabondage, criminality and sexual deviance, as well as other mental and nervous disorders. Ashley’s comparative approach highlights connectivities of this nature and, even more, the common patterns of analysis and remedy experts brought to these intertwined and analogously imagined diseases and disorders. The transnational and comparative nature of Misfits makes the work remarkably rich, dense and detailed. Even so, there are some surprising lacunae. Particularly jarring is the lack of any sustained discussion of hysteria, identified by Ashley as one of the ‘three illnesses [that] stormed through Europe at the end of the nineteenth century’, alongside neurasthenia and epilepsy. Associated with women and members of ethnic minorities (particularly Jews), hysteria was also strongly linked to criminality—especially female criminality—and non-normative sexual activity, making its relative absence in the work perplexing and regrettable. Indeed, though Ashley engages with issues of class in the diagramming and diagnosis of deviance, she spends less time considering the weight of the gender, racial and ethnic identities of both misfits and experts. In light of the ways in which these disorders were used to uphold systems of advantage and domination, this seems like a missed opportunity in an otherwise far-reaching work. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of French History. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
French History – Oxford University Press
Published: May 3, 2018
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