flesh into word

In July 1792, a young philosophy student named Gauteron wrote a letter to Samuel Auguste Tissot apologising for having missed his appointment due to a scheduled exam. Over the next four months, he wrote three more times hoping for a response from the great doctor. A few months earlier, on May 15, 1792 at 2 o’clock, a young Englishman wrote a letter describing the melancholia that resulted from his ‘want of symptoms of virility’. Another letter, meanwhile, details the sufferings of Mlle Sirvin, whose complaints appear to arise from her early menstruation. Yet another offers a detailed reproductive history of Madame de Launay, whose temperament changed completely at the time of her marriage and who was subject to numerous miscarriages and finally, a horrific 60 hour labour, complete with forceps and c-section.

Thanks to Tissot’s extensive publications and his fame, we know quite a lot about him as a doctor. We know relatively little, however, about his patients, and about how they understood their bodies. The letters cited above, only a tiny sampling of the 1200 consultation letters housed in the Bibliotheque cantonale et universitaire de Lausanne, offer windows into their thought worlds. Micro-autobiographies, these letters reveal selves grappling with mysterious ailments, troubling bodily workings and the difficulties of translating the flesh into word.

What stories do these letters tell? What might they reveal? And how do these narratives relate to the stories we tell about our own bodies today….and from there, to the larger social, cultural and political contexts in which those stories are performed, narrated, and lived?

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