Monthly Archives: February 2012

Citizenship, for some of Tissot’s correspondents, is not just a birthright, but a responsibility. This would accord with Tissot’s own views on the matter: he argued those who were, by birth, in a position to lead, had a responsibility to ensure that they were in the best position to fulfil their ‘natural’ roles.

It’s obvious, however, that numerous patients didn’t heed this advice. That decision – to ignore the dictates of nature [and of the leading medical professionals of the day] in favour of a hedonistic life of pleasure and excess – was the very reason that so many sought out Tissot’s care.

Consider, for example, the case of an anonymous young man, about twenty years of age. This young man enjoyed the double privilege of birth and brains. In his person, and through his studies, he embodied the promise and potential of citizenship; indeed, the correspondent mentions specifically that he could have taken up a leading position in the judiciary.

But this promise came to naught.

Soon after defending this thesis, things started going downhill:

“il se relachoit sur ses exercices de pieté et de religion, … il lisoit jour et nuit des mauvais livres, … il ne frequentoit que des jeunes gens dont les moeurs etoient suspectes.”
Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire de Lausanne, Fonds Tissot, IS3784/II/

Now, it is true that he suffered from health concerns as a child. But it is clear that the correspondent places the burden of blame on irresponsible behaviours of the young man.

The effects of this were soon obvious. Docility gave way to imperiousness and then to independence, and then he began to engage in onanism. [interestingly, this word isn’t used in the letter; rather, the correspondent skirts the subject, making mention of a ‘fatal habit’ about which Tissot has written].

The outcome of this debauched behaviour is perhaps unsurprising: our young man has descended into a deep melancholia from which he cannot seem to rouse himself. What follows is a lengthy letter that provides further details about the manifestation of melancholia and the various attempts that have been made to cure this young man of his suffering [and, indeed, the shared sufferings of family members who are witness to this decline]

Underlying the letter as a whole is the plaintive cry of the correspondent: How could such promise come to this?



I went to a fabulous talk last night: Memorial’s own Canada Research Chair in ethnomusicology, Bev Diamond, sharing with her audience her research into the role of the arts within aboriginal resistance (and currently, as part of the Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission). One of the things I found fascinating was the role of sound in the experience of residential schooling. Dr. Diamond demonstrated, through excerpts from numerous published memoirs, the ways in which the harshness of clanging bells, the hymn singing and prayers, and the foreign sound of the English language all served to actively oppress aboriginal people. [For a revelatory look at how non-aboriginal Canadians might have viewed the residential school system in the 1950s, check out this CBC piece)

I don’t know why I hadn’t considered this before. I have, of course, considerable knowledge about the use of music to sustain absolutist ideologies: the opéra-ballets of Lully, for instance, were expressly designed to glorify not only Louis XIV, but also the French nation (here, for example, the opening to the 1653 Ballet de la nuit, with Louis XIV  – Le Roi Soleil – as imagined in the film Le Roi danse). We know, too, of the role that music has played, both in support of and in opposition to, repressive regimes – for example, the Stalinist regime. Thanks to a former doctoral flute student,  Dr. Suzanne Snizek, I even know of the role that music has played in fostering hope, community, and identity in otherwise desperate situations: the expanding area of suppressed music is bringing back to life the music composed, produced and performed in work camps and concentration camps. Within the category of suppressed music, we might consider Olivier Messiaen’s famous Quartet for the End of Time, composed while he was a prisoner of war in 1941, but also pieces that are almost unknown to us today, such as Hans Gál’s Huyton Suite, and What a Life! , both written during his time in a British internment camp (and the focus of Suzanne’s research). Music, too, is that which bonded slaves together, a shared tradition on which they were able to draw on in times of need.

Is it then, so surprising, that aboriginal peoples, too, have drawn on music in the service of healing, resistance, and revival? Is it then, so surprising, that music is not just a bonbon we savour on a Sunday afternoon (though, indeed, it might be), but a form of creative activity – and activism – that helps us to make sense of the political world that has shaped (and continues to shape) us as individuals, as communities, as citizens?

Dr Diamond shared with us some work by an incredible group of musicians. I don’t remember all of their names, but I won’t forget the Residential School Song, which begins with the clanging bell, and I won’t soon forget Lucie Idlout’s E5-770: My Mother’s Name, an angry critique on the Canadian government’s practice of reducing aboriginal and Inuit children to mere numbers: E5-770. Music, for these musicians, is a political practice, not only a way of working through the horrific legacy of the residential schools, but of making those scars publicly visible. Music – sound – transforms the clanging bell from oppression into resistance. Music – sound – challenges the harsh reality of the number – E5-770 – in the process, reclaiming the name in a new voice, with a new sound, in a new interpretation. What struck me most about these works is the way that the musicians brought different musical traditions, different practices into conversation with one another – pastiche, collage, play, commentary, critique, all embedded in the fabric of single songs and brought to life through performance for both aboriginal and non-aboriginal audiences.

Music, for these singers, lies at the heart of questions of citizenship, belonging, and story. Music tells the story of lives lived, it tells of belonging, it tells of struggle. It tells of community. It promises hope, even as it expresses anger. It is intricately – and integrally – woven into narratives of resistance.

As I listened to Dr. Diamond last night, my mind strayed over to a written work  that some of my students will begin working on this week – Lorena Gale’s dramatic monologue Je me souviens: memoirs of an expatriate anglophone montréalaise québécoise exiled in Canada. Lorena’s is a tale of growing up black and English speaking in Montréal during the time of Charles de Gaulle’s now infamous 1967 speech and of her struggle over the intervening decades to claim her right to speak to her love – her national identity – as  québécoise. It’s a beautiful lament to the nation, and the role that language plays in the construction of national identity. It is a work filled with longing and desperate desire – it is, indeed, as stated in the introduction, a “love poem” to Québec (13).

Why do I mention Lorena Gale’s work here, of all places? Here, where the discussion’s been about music, about resistance and about questions of citizenship?

Two reasons.

The first is related to performance: Gale notes that she started out wanting to write a strongly worded rebuttal to Jacques Parizeau’s exclusionary and divisive politics of Quebec nationalism (12). What emerged from the tip of her pen was something quite different: a haunting, intimate portrait of personal experience, an evocation of home, as troubled as it was. And this portrait is not static. No. Like the aboriginal singers whose songs come to life in and through performance, so too, does Lorena Gale’s narrative come to life, too, through performance. It lives for us on the stage. It was meant to be spoken, to be shared out loud, in communion.

The second reason is more directly related to questions of music, citizenship and oppression. Gale’s stage directions reference the work of Gilles Vigneault, that quintessential québécois chansonnier. More specifically, she references Vigneault’s signature song, Mon pays, a 1964 song originally commissioned for a National Film Board production but quickly assimilated into the québécois sovereigntist movement.

“Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver
Mon jardin ce n’est pas un jardin, c’est la plaine
Mon chemin ce n’est pas un chemin, c’est la neige
Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver….”

According to The Canadian Encyclopedia:

“The weather of northern Quebec can be viewed as a metaphor for its cultural isolation. But “in this land of snowstorms” the author still vows to remain faithful and hospitable like his father before him, who built a home there: “the guestroom will be such that people from the other seasons will come and build next door to it.” He also evokes in the second verse the solitude of wide open spaces and the ideal of brotherhood. Vigneault then ends with these words: “My country is not a country, it’s the reverse of a country that was neither country nor homeland. My song is not a song, it’s my life. It is for you that I want to possess my winters.””

Lorena Gale was 6 years old when the song was penned, and 9 when de Gaulle made his speech. In 1995, at the time of the second Québec Referendum, she was in her mid-30s, exiled in Canada. Gale grew up under the shadow of Québec nationalism. For Gale, Vigneault’s song takes on a double meaning. Snow represents not only her own cultural isolation in the midst of this identity space marked as francophone, but it also represents the whiteness of the québécois pure laine, a whiteness to which she can never aspire, a whiteness that marks her as irrevocably other, and foreign. A whiteness that denies her the right to speak to her love for her nation.

Gale works through her linguistic and racial alterity in a series of tableaux delivered in French, the French of an anglophone montréalaise québécoise exiled in Canada. These tableaux draw directly on Vigneault’s anthem:

“Je me souviens d’un rêve que j’avais souvent depuis mon enfance. Dans le rêve c’est l’hiver. Et je suis toute seule dans une plaine. Une grande plaine de neige … Je veux rentrer chez moi, mais je ne sais pas où je suis….Je suis perdue.” (24)

“Je commence à croire que je vais mourir llà. Mon coeur et mon corps – complètement congelés …. Non. Je ne veux pas mourir comme ça. Il faut que je trouve un moyen de sortir d’ici. Il faut que je bouge.” (52)

“Au loin, très loin, il y a quelques chose à peine perceptible. Un tout petit point noir ou le ciel et la neige s’embrassent à l’horizon….Pas à pas je marche vers ce point ….Il me semble que plus je marche, plus loin est la destination. Que je ne vais jamais y arriver….” 70

“Je retrouve l’espoir. … Et je trouve que ce point à l’horizon blanc n’est pas une roche ni un tronc d’arbre. Mais une femme, noire et toute nue dans la neige …. Elle a l’air complètement chez elle, indifférent à cet environnement hostile. Qui est cette femme…. Je m’approche lentement et pose la main sur son épaule. Ma main tremble. J’ai peur. Elle s’est tourné vers moi et je réalise alors qu’elle est moi.” (92-93)

[All excerpts from Lorena Gale, Je me souviens (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2001)]

Ultimately, it is through this blinding snow – the whiteness of québécois nationalism – that Gale finds her way. In the process, she changes the meanings of Vigneault’s song. She transforms the sounds of her nation, and finds her voice within it.

All of this sound – all of this music – all of these melodies, noises, scratchings, hummings, and chants –  tell stories of belonging differently. They say: “We are here.” And they say: “Listen.” And they say: “if you can’t hear us, you need open your ears… listen differently, hear our thinking.”  And they say: “We are citizens. We always were. We’ve been singing to you, with you, for you. It is you who weren’t listening.”

Dr. Diamond ended her talk with a call to ethical listening, to a new way of engaging our hearts, our minds and our ears in the service of reconciliation. Are we able to talk up the call?

where better to consider the politics of citizenship, letters and bodies than in an 1858 letter written to The Times newspaper by a prostitute that didn’t want saving?

It’s an amazing read… here’s but a small sampling:

Hurling big figures at us, it is said that there are 80,000 of us in London alone—which is a monstrous falsehood—and of those 80,000, poor hardworking sewing girls, sewing women, are numbered in by thousands, and called indiscriminately prostitutes; writing, preaching, speechifying, that they have lost their virtue too.
It is a cruel calumny to call them in mass prostitutes; and, as for their virtue, they lose it as one loses his watch who is robbed by the highway thief. Their virtue is the watch, and society is the thief. These poor women toiling on starvation wages, while penury, misery, and famine clutch them by the throat and say, ‘Render up your body or die’.

Maybe it’s time to read, once more, the “fallen women” poems of Augusta Webster, Mathilde Blind, Dora Greenwell and Christina Rossetti.

Tissot reminds me that even if I manage to kick the chocolate and cream habit, I’ve still got another, much more dangerous habit to break: novel reading.

“Of all the things that have ruined women’s health, perhaps the greatest has been the infinite multiplication of novels over the past century. From bassinet to old age, women read them with such great passion that they fear being distracted, even for a moment. Nor do they engage in physical exercise and often they go too bed very late in order to satisfy their passion; all of this absolutely ruins their health (without even mentioning those who are, themselves, authors and this number is also growing daily). A ten year old girl who reads instead of running will, at the age of twenty find herself a nervous woman and poor nurse [to her infants].” (Tissot, De la santé des gens de lettres. Lausanne, François Grasset, 1770, pp. 153-4, note 1; translation mine).


(and if you really want proof of the wanton excess caused by overactive imaginations, head over to the Art Institute of Chicago for a look at Greuze’s Bernard d’Agesci’s Lady Reading the Letters of Heloise and Abelard, c. 1780)

Tissot, as some may know, wrote many books designed for “mass” consumption (well, for the minority mass that could read, that is). These books, ranging from his well-known treatise on onanism and influential Avis au peuple sur sa santé to works on the diseases particular to people of fashion and intellectuals (and an unpublished treatise on women’s health), all promoted similar moral values. Health, according to Tissot, could be more simply understood as a state of equilibrium, or balance. The healthy body was the balanced body. It was a body shaped by a balanced diet (he specifically mentions concerns about excessive consumption of coffee, chocolate, cream, wine, rich meats and sweets) and balanced behaviour. Health, he counseled, was the state that conformed most closely to “nature” (in the Rousseauist sense).

The ill person challenged nature at every turn. Driven by lust, ambition, luxury, desire, jealousy and fear, he suffered from irregularity and excessive sensibility. His internal systems were fundamentally disordered, corrupted, confused, and deprived. Tissot paints this image vividly in the following excerpt:

The man of fashion, disturbed by business, projects, pleasures, disappointments, and the regrets of the day, heated by food and drinks, goes to bed with trembled nerves, agitated pulse, a stomach laboring with the load and acrimony of his food, the vessels full, or juices which inflame them, indisposition, anxiety, the fever accompanies him to bed, and for al ong time keeps him waking; if he closes his eyes, his slumbers are short, uneasy, agitating, troubled with frightful dreams, and sudden startings; instead of the labourer’s morning briskness, he wakes with palpitations, feverish, languid, dry, his mouth out of order, his urine hot, low spirited heavy, ill tempered, his strength impaired, his nerves irritated and lax, his blood thick and inflamed; every night reduces his health and fortifies the seed of some disease. (Samuel-Auguste Tissot, On the Disorders of People of Fashion, 38)

Looking at the admonitions of doctors today, we might say, ruefully (while nursing an extra large espresso, eyeing a delectable creamy treat and planning a dinner of roast lamb, buttery potatoes, flourless chocolate cake and a new Australian wine), that not much has changed.

Drinking Chocolate

A lovely announcement today: the love letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning have been digitized and are freely accessible to all. What a treat!

For me, it’s also an opportunity to muse about love, passion, desire and how we put all of that into words (and more specifically, into letters), and further, it’s a chance for me to think through the materiality of letter writing and about the meanings that reside in the extra textual spaces of the letter… I can’t promise it’s entirely coherent, but it is, nonetheless, a rumination on expression and reception, gifts given and gifts received.

The letters I’ve been spending time with are about as far removed from love letters as you can possibly get, though I suppose it is true that the extent of the correspondents’ admiration for Tissot sometimes seems to verge on adoration and love.

That’s not to say that love isn’t present in the letters. It absolutely is. But it is not something that shapes the relationship between the writer and the recipient. Rather, love emerges in the spaces between the words. Love, as an emotion, directs the pens of many correspondents as they seek cures for the sufferings of their spouses, their children, their parents. Love emerges, too, in medical observations, as doctors explain family situations to Tissot. Love, in these letters, is something that binds spouses together, that links parents with children. It is the glue that underpins many letters.

But love, in these letters, is not the full blown passion of romantic relationships.

My aunt has the love letters sent to my grandmother by my grandfather. I haven’t  read them, but I remember being awestruck by the sheer length of a poem that he wrote her early in the 1930s. The paper was rolled up, still held together with its original ribbon…and the poem went on and on and on.

I suppose one never thinks of one’s own family members as passionate romantics. Grandparents are simply that, grandparents. As a grandchild, I never spent much time considering their passions and desires.

But what might we learn about love, passion, and desire by looking to those who came before us? How do such emotions shape us as individuals? How do they shape the way we see and interact with our world?

And where does love exist in our bodies? How do we articulate it? Where do we find a language for that which touches us at the very heart of our beings? What does that language look like? What does it sound like? Can we touch it?

The letters exchanged by Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning have long been counted among the great exemplars of the art of epistolarity. Liz and Bob (if I may) shared an extraordinary love, an illicit, intense and enduring passion that has been captured in just under 600 letters written in under two years.

There are modern editions of these letters, careful transcriptions that put handwritten word into print. But this is not the same as touching the paper, smelling it, feeling the ink.

Reading a handwritten letter requires a process of embodiment. If there’s anything I learned from my work with the letters of Suzanne Curchod Necker, it is that relationships between absent correspondents are strengthened by the bond of shared touch, of paper and ink exchanging hands.

I know you, I think. Not only because your words are dear to me, but because this paper allows me to touch you. Because we have touched this paper together. I can feel where you folded it. In the blurred out word I can make out the hint of a tear. Here and there, between the words, I can catch traces of you. If I breathe deeply, I imagine that I can smell you. My fingerprints join with yours, blending together, mixing, mingling….

Through this paper, I touch you just as you, in writing, have touched me.

A typewritten transcription, no matter how well done, will never capture the immediacy of the physical artifact. Nor (and here I think as a scholar working with letters..) can it stand in for the power of archival experience. The wonder of touching the private letter. The awe and responsibility that shake you to your very core.

“I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett; and this is no offhand complimentary letter that I shall write….”

So begins the very first letter written by Robert Browning. It’s not the same, here, on this computer, in a conventional font. The typeface distances. Depersonalizes. Liz and Bob just become anonymous humans seeking out love in challenging circumstances.

But go and visit the newly digitized collection. While you still can’t physically touch the letter, it’s there for you – in Bob’s handwriting, on paper of his choosing. And we know, too, that Liz read this letter. And that they kept these letters close, travelling with them to Italy and back. Through the digitization process, Liz and Bob become, once again, Miss Barrett and the very faithful Robert Browning, flesh and blood souls who lived and who loved with passion.

Love is not only about words; it is about what lies behind, between, around and inside those words. It is about hidden touch. It is about illicit passion. It is knowing that the letter you wrote will physically touch another, and knowing that your inks will bleed and that your fingerprints, now joined together, can never be ‘rent asunder.’

Love, for Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, is indeed a many splendoured thing.