Popular Science Monthly/Volume 17/May 1880/Hysteria and Demonism I

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PROBABLY very few persons who have been in Paris have visited the Salpêtrière. A home for old age, an asylum for the insane, are not tempting spectacles, and it pleases us rather than otherwise to be unmindful of the fact that within the great city of Paris is included another city of aged women and mad people, which contains nearly five thousand inhabitants. The Salpêtrière is designed primarily as an abode for infirm old women, and would afford materials for a very curious study of psychology in the observation of the feelings and passions of its inmates to any one desirous of analyzing the effects of age on human intelligence. This study may be attempted some day, but our present purpose is different. Among the insane who are confined in the Salpêtrière are patients who would formerly have been burned, whose disease would have passed for a crime three centuries ago. The study of the malady under which these unfortunates suffer, in its present and past aspects, affords a new and instructive chapter in the history of human thought.

In pursuing the present inquiry, we shall endeavor first to describe the psychological symptoms of hysteria. The knowledge of this disease has received a remarkable development under the careful investigations of the physicians of the Salpêtrière, and it may be that some of the facts they have discovered will interest persons who are not acquainted with medical science. We shall next inquire into the character of the demoniacal affections which were described in former centuries, and examine the strange succession of errors by which men were led to affirm that the devil took up his lodging in human bodies, and that it was necessary to burn him, to destroy those poor bodies which had become the receptacles and accomplices of malevolent spirits. Lastly, we shall review the history of the great trials for witchcraft in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A chronological order would require that we should begin with the notice of demonism in the past, and close with the study of the corresponding affections of the present, but the reverse is the logical order. We shall follow with more interest the relation of the superstitions which led our ancestors astray, after we have become better acquainted with the facts that have been elucidated by contemporary investigators. In order to be able to judge error aright, we must first be acquainted with the truth.

An erroneous opinion prevails as to the causes and nature of hysteria. Romancers, particularly those who call themselves naturalists, have not neglected to propagate the doctrine that hysteria is an erotic disease. This is far from being exact. There is no relation of cause and effect between hysteria and celibacy; and we can speak of hysteria, study its causes, and describe its symptoms without infringing upon delicacy. It is a nervous disease, which has no more to do with sexual passion than other nervous diseases, and, notwithstanding the dread which it excites in half-instructed persons, we can say boldly that that dread is not justified. The facts that prove this point will appear shortly.

The asylum for the insane at the Salpêtrière is behind the buildings which are inhabited by the aged women. The hysterical patients are confined here. They are collected together in one part of the hospital, and have been for several years under the care of M. Professor Charcot. This learned physician, being desirous of applying to the nervous affections the exact methods which are employed in physiology, has established near the halls reserved for the patients a laboratory where precise studies of the most delicate phenomena of the pathology of the nervous system may be carried on. A photographic room is attached to the laboratory, in which exact representations of the principal phases of the attacks of hysteria, epilepsy, and somnambulism, have been obtained.[2] In this manner we have succeeded in securing minute descriptions of a class of psychological phenomena so strange and fantastic that, hardly more than three centuries ago, men saw in them the breath of the devil and of all the demons of hell.

Some persons may be surprised to learn that hysterical patients are confined in the Salpêtrière, for it has not been usual to regard hysteria as a grave disease necessitating or justifying seclusion. It is not always so grave. The disease manifests itself in every degree. Just as we may suffer a burn that is so superficial that we can hardly feel it, while there are other burns so deep and extended that they lead to death; just as there are light fevers and also fevers that are speedily mortal—so there are light hysteriæ, almost imperceptible, constituting a disposition of the organization rather than a disease, and besides them there are grave hysteriæ, so grave that they are confounded with insanity, with general paralysis, and with epilepsy. At the Salpêtrière, there are hardly any other hysterical cases than those of grave hysteria; as to light hysteria, it may be found everywhere. When the doctors speak of a nervous woman, they say an hysterical woman; and this language, though it may sound unpleasantly in a conversation or a romance, is not out of place in a psychological study, for what is commonly called nervousness in a young woman is simply hysteria.

I imagine that every one is more or less acquainted with the oddities of character exhibited by nervous women. All their feelings are carried to an extreme. The most trifling event is enough to provoke enthusiasm or despair in them. Nobody can cry so easily. It even seems to me that they control the fountain-key of tears, at least so as to make them flow, for to put a stop to them is another affair. To say that hysterical persons will cry for a small matter is saying too little, for they will cry for nothing; they will be all of a sudden possessed of an indefinable grief, an incomprehensible, vague sorrow, which it is not possible to resist. It is like a ball that rises from the chest to the throat, hinders respiration, and causes suffocation. They must retire, hide themselves in the most obscure corner, and there, where they are not seen or heard, sob for hours; then, suddenly, the fit of sorrow will cease and give place to a surprising gayety.

All that it has been customary to attribute to the nervous temperament of woman enters into the domain of hysteria. The appetite is capricious, fantastic: to-day, for example, everything displeases, and it is impossible to accept a particle of nourishment; to-morrow, all will be changed and nothing will suffice to appease the hunger. Generally, hysterical persons have a marked taste for vinegar and green fruits—a diet certainly not favorable to health. Such irregular and deficient alimentation impedes general nutrition and impoverishes the blood, and, by a kind of circular connection of disorders which is very common in pathology, the anæmia thus induced augments the hysteria which is the occasion of it; and young women suffering from it are more subject to hysteria than others.

As every one knows, the character of hysterical persons is very strange. We might say, borrowing an expression from the painters, that it is very picturesque, and presents points of view varied and always unforeseen. A young woman, for example, who yesterday had a charming disposition, was docile and amiable, is wholly changed to-day. She will not endure the least observation, is discontented with everything, has a bad look for everybody, breaks all rules, and is quite ungovernable. Her indocility is the more surprising, because it arises suddenly without cause, and disappears in the same manner. Self-love is always extravagantly developed. The most trifling pleasantry often becomes a cruel offense, to be borne with indignation, which tears enough can not be shed to protest against. Everything becomes the subject of a drama. Existence appears like a scene in a theatre. The regular, quiet life of every-day routine is transformed by the hysterical woman into a series of grave events, adapted to all sorts of dramatic developments. The hysterical sufferers continually play with an equal success at tragedy and comedy amid the flat scenes of reality. They can not comprehend simplicity in life, but make life a complication. Terror, jealousy, joy, anger, love, everything is exaggerated out of proportion with the just and measured feelings which are becoming.

Every human being, I believe, is moved by two opposing forces, sentiment and will. With the will we succeed (or think we succeed, which amounts to the same thing) in taming the feelings, in silencing the instinctive and passionate exuberance of the brute nature, we become masters of ourselves, compos sui, as the ancients said. We know that it is good to tell this, to conceal that, that there are noble sentiments and base passions, that we ought to obey the former and crush the latter. Hysterical persons do not know this, they do not comprehend what is meant by the power of ruling the passions. Passion leads them, and they suffer themselves to be carried where passion takes them. If the wind of anger or jealousy blows, they give themselves up, without opposition, to anger or jealousy; if it is the wind of charity or obedience, they are charitable or obedient. If the fancy to say what is impertinent or incongruous crosses their brain, the impertinent or incongruous saying is uttered. They are somewhat like persons who have taken hasheesh, and float off on the waves of fancy or enthusiasm.

We can never know how to depend on the feelings of an hysterical person. Any attempt to forecast them would be rash, and we may have equally good reasons to expect to find her well disposed or discontented. Her feelings will be likewise of the most fleeting character, and she will not imagine that it is necessary to establish transitions between laughing and tears, anger and satisfaction. Her bad humor will last while you turn an hour-glass, and she will behave like children who burst out in laughing while the tears they have just shed are still rolling down their cheeks.

Notwithstanding this mobility, this irresistible spontaneity, the victims of hysteria are wholly wanting in sincerity. They are all more or less liars; not so much, perhaps, that they are ready to tell selfish lies as that they indulge themselves in forging useless ones. They seem to have a love for lying, or rather for imposture. Nothing pleases them better than to lead those who question them into error; to relate stories that are absolutely false, which have not a shadow of probability; to give an account of all that they have not done and all that they have done, with an incredible luxury of details. These wanton lies are told boldly, bluntly, with a coolness that disconcerts. The physician who examines hysterical patients has always to bear in mind that they intend to deceive him, to hide the truth, and feign things that do not exist, as well as to disguise things that do exist.

Let us see now how hysteria differs from insanity. In insanity the intelligence is deeply affected, while hysteria is rather a form of disposition than a disease of the intellect. Hence the psychological interest of the hysterical condition. The apprehension is brilliant, the memory sure, the imagination lively. The defective side of the mind is revealed only by the impotency of the will to restrain passion. The will seems, in fact, to be the most delicate mechanism in the mental organization; and, when a poisonous substance enters the system to trouble the intellectual faculties, it always begins by suppressing the influence of the will over the passions.

Hysteria in its light form is of frequent occurrence. The causes that determine it ought then to be very common. One of the principal ones is heredity. If the father or mother has a nervous temperament, the daughter will probably be predisposed to hysteria. The sense of the word "heredity" as used here should be rightly understood. It is not necessary that the same form of affection shall appear in the parents and the children. A nervous derangement in the parents may be reproduced in the children under different aspects. For example, an epileptic father may have an idiotic son, an insane son, and an hysterical daughter. The law of hereditary liability is equally true when, instead of a nervous malady as grave as epilepsy or insanity, we have to do simply with a nervous temperament. Just as the color of the hair, the shape of the nose, and the voice are similar in parents and children, so the temperament is transmitted from one generation to another. The results of the medical observations of several centuries agree with the common opinion. In the times of witchcraft, the daughter of a witch—that is to say, of a person afflicted with hysteria—was inevitably regarded as a witch, and there was no need of seeking other motives for an accusation.

Other accessory causes supplement the preponderant influence of heredity. A girl, brought up with a certain degree of culture, who sees around her persons that were her companions in other days in a better situation than she has been able to reach, will become hysterical because fortune has not given her the enjoyments she craves. Dreams that have been dispelled, illusions that have vanished, hopes that have proved to be chimerical, afford motives almost sufficient to give rise to the affection. Thus hysteria is common in Paris and other large cities where girls of the lower and middle classes receive an education superior to their social condition. Such girls seldom find the ideal husband of whom they have dreamed. Marriage affords them no relief from the sordid difficulties that occur daily, and the narrow ' cares of the household afford an insufficient satisfaction to the vast aspirations of a disordered imagination. Misery, want, grief, etc., often cause the symptoms of hysteria to appear in girls and young women who have only a slight predisposition to it. To sum it all up, hysteria has a physiological cause—heredity; and a social cause—the inferiority of the reality to the dream.

Light hysteria is not a true disease. It is one of the varieties of the female character. We might say that hysterical persons are women more than other women. They have lively and transient feelings, brilliant and variable fancies, and, withal, inability to bring their feelings and fancies under the rule of reason and judgment. The novelists have appreciated the advantage which they could derive from the study of this form of character, and have given us numerous pictures of attacks of hysteria, and of women who were subject to them. Their efforts have not always been fortunate, but occasionally they furnish exact descriptions which complement what we have just said respecting the psychical state of nervous women.

M. Octave Feuillet makes the husband of a woman who suffers from hysteria speak in a manner that, without pronouncing the word, projects the symptoms of the affection so plainly that there can be no mistake in the diagnosis. Thus: "That woman of the world," said M. de Marsan, "has suddenly borrowed from the prisoners a set of bitter, curt, desperate phrases, like those we may read on the walls of the cells. That woman of sense has all at once given herself up to the reading of the least reserved poets and novelists. . . . I inspire with terror from her elocution, formerly so sober, some insipid poetic perfume. At other times we might say she had fallen back into childhood, so nice and finical has become the turn of her conversation. She adds to it the movements of a little girl; then all at once her language, just now modest almost to puerility, breaks out into the most indelicate flashes, into curiously improper expressions. She passes without transition from the style Rambouillet and the Byronic paraphrase to the coarse language of the fish-woman, and this without preparation, provocation, or excuse. At the same time, the woman, the wife, the mother, is transformed. The husband has assumed the proportions of a tyrant, and the children seem to have become a burden."

The last observation is true to the life. Nothing is more common than to see a nervous woman, till now tender to her husband and children, take a sudden disaffection or even a hatred against them. The aversion manifested in such cases may be provoked by the most futile causes, as, any insignificant external object, the shape of the beard, the watch-charms, a drawl in the tone of the voice, a habit of repeating the same word. It would be hard to invent deliberately such whimsical reasons as hysterical women are capable of imagining to explain the aversion they conceive for certain persons. The unfortunate person thus detested is most likely to be the husband.

M. A. France says of one of his heroines, that "she was pleasant, indolent, fastidious, subject to gushes of affection, and of quick sympathies. They had trouble in the refectory in making her eat anything but salads and bread with salt. She made a friend with whom she went on the days-out. This friend, who was rich, took Helen into the tapestried room, where she crunched bonbons. Helen lingered in this nest of goods. When she came out, all seemed dull, hard, repellent. She had lost courage; she dreamed of having a blue chamber, and of reading romances in it lying in an easy-chair. Pains of the stomach came on and cast her down completely. . . . She gave up, indifferent to everything around her, dreaming of jewels, dresses, horses, sailing, and going into tears at the mere thought of her father."

MM. E. and J. de Goncourt have related the touching, sad story of poor Germinie Lacerteux. She was indeed a victim of hysteria; of an untaught nature, passionate, ardent in devotion as in infamy; of weak intelligence besides, the blind plaything of passions of which she was hardly conscious, and which moved her as the winds turn a vane. "Germinie had not a consciousness that could escape suffering by brutishness and that dense stupidity in which a woman may vegetate in simple inanity. A sickly sensitiveness, a head always busy, cherishing grief, inquietude, discontent with herself, a moral sense which seemed to rise in her again after each of her faults, all the gifts of delicacy, and the capacity of suffering were united in her to torture her." To feel, to think, to have no will, these are the three miseries with which the poor sufferers from hysteria have to struggle.

M. Albert Delpit has thus depicted the symptoms of hysteria in his "Mariage d'Odette": "She was seized with a fit of melancholy, to which succeeded violent spasms of crying and immoderate bursts of laughter; sometimes she would shake with tremors from head to foot; then she grew pale and felt an oppression at her chest. Her temper underwent an entire change. They had to give up taking her into society, its too free manners were so startling to her."

The most life-like hysterical character delineated by the novelists, the truest, the most passionate, is Madame de Bovary. Brought up in a convent, among girls richer than herself, she married a country doctor—a poor, weak youth, whose rusticity and poverty disheartened her. M. Flaubert has described her hysteria in a few lines with scientific precision and artistic distinctness: "Emma became hard to please, capricious; she ordered dishes for herself and would not touch them; one day she would drink nothing but pure milk, and the next coffee by the dozen cups. Sometimes she would persist in refusing to go out, then would think she was suffocating, would open the windows and put on a light dress. . . . She ceased to conceal her contempt for any thing or any person, and frequently assumed to express singular opinions—condemning what is approved, and approving wrong or immoral things. Must this misery last always? Will she never escape it? Yet she was worth as much as those who lived happily, and she execrated the injustice of God. She rested her head on the walls to cry. She envied those who led tumultuous existences, and longed for nights of masking and insolent pleasures with all the distractions she knew nothing of and which they could give. . . . She grew pale and had beatings of the heart. . . . On some days she would indulge in a feverish profusion of boasting. . . . To these indulgences succeeded immediately spells of torpor in which she would rest without speaking, without stirring. She bought a Gothic prie-Dieu, and spent fourteen francs in one month for lemons to clean her nails. She selected the handsomest of his scarfs from Lheureux's, tied it over her wrapper, and, having closed the shutters, lay in this garb upon the sofa with a book in her hand. She thought she would learn Italian, and bought dictionaries, a grammar, and white paper. She tried serious reading, history, philosophy. . . . She had fits when she could be readily pushed to extravagances. She insisted one day to her husband that she could drink half a glass of brandy, and, when Charles was foolish enough to challenge her to do it, she swallowed the brandy to the last drop."

We seem to be far away from the demoniacs, but we are not. We can observe all the transitions between light hysteria like that of Madame Bovary and grave hysteria like that of the patients in the Salpêtrière. All the symptoms of the light form exist likewise in the grave form, but they are stronger and more durable. We need not return to them. Other symptoms, special to grave hysteria and serving to characterize it, are anæsthesia, total or partial, convulsive attacks, and delirium.

  1. Translated from the "Revue des Deux Mondes" by W. H. Larrabee.
  2. These photographs, which are very instructive in the study of nervous diseases, form the publication of MM. Bourneville and Regnard, entitled "Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière."