1. What is the most remarkable feature of Mark Micale’s work that makes it a valuable supplementation to existing literature on the subject?
The most notable feature of the book is its thesis, namely, an affirmation of the concept of Male Hysteria. The short and provocative title of the book is a grand statement in itself. The concept of male hysteria had ebbed and flowed in medical and popular culture over the centuries. But Micale’s work seeks to bring constancy to this phenomenon by citing examples across ages. By way of assembling copious examples of hysteria suffered by men, the author removes all speculation surrounding the veracity of such a condition. More importantly, although the title concerns with one gender, the broader objective of the book is to showcase hysteria as a gender-neutral mental malady. The author meets this objective with élan.
2. What are the strengths and weaknesses of Micale’s approach to scholarship?
Mark Micale brings rigor and objectivity to bear on the writing. Various theoretical approaches are adopted in providing evidence for the theses. Prominent among them are those of medical and cultural theoretical frameworks. One can see how the fashions and consensus among the medical community has had evolved across the centuries. For example, hysteria as pathology was long considered to be a uterine abnormality, thereby establishing its gendered identity. But upon the onset of the Age of the Enlightenment, this belief was questioned by leading intellectuals. Consequently, the medical community arrived at a more accurate understanding of the disorder. But this refined understanding were not to last long and the reactionary political forces in much of 18th century Europe brought back the uterine-model into vogue. It wasn’t until the application of psychiatric diagnostic models to hysteria’s origins that its neurological, gender-neutral designation came about. It is this manner of substantiating claims with concrete facts that Micale excels.
Further, Micale does a stellar job of tracking these changes across both medical and cultural histories of modern age Europe. While professional consensus was the product of available technology and analytical tools at the time the cultural trends were tied into the the political orthodoxy of the day. These correlations were logically and lucidly illustrated by Micale’s scholarship. As for weaknesses in the work, the lack of rigorous treatment of the social histories of modern Europe is conspicuous by its absence.
3. What is the overall significance of the work to the contemporary reader?
The attentive reader will take away two key insights from the book. Firstly, it repeatedly demonstrates how flimsy much of the theoretical underpinnings of psychiatric illnesses are. The shuffling of the origins of hysteria from the uterus to the brain to individual psychology is as divergent as it is confused.
Secondly, the patriarchal moorings in civilization ancient and modern are brought up for criticism. This points to a fundamental bias found across all cultures towards male supremacy. Flawed as this formulation of gender relations might be, it has not been successfully challenged and overthrown. The equal rights movement that sprung in the wake of the French Revolution achieved only symbolic success. Later, the various feminist movements of the twentieth century were not able to satisfactorily divorce hysteria from its strong feminine identification. However, by presenting numerous instances of contrarian fact and argument, Mark Micale’s work turns into a substantial polemic – a veritable revisionist version of the history of hysteria.
Micale, Mark. Hysterical Men: The Hidden History of Male Nervous Illness. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008.