Monthly Archives: May 2012

I’ve been spending considerable time thinking about the logic of the body; that is, how is it that we, as individuals and communities and societies, make sense of the stories that our bodies tell us?

What do we do with the information we receive when we enter into conversation with our bodies? You know, the toothaches, or the sinuses, or the headaches? Or the blood? The pus? The sudden rashes? The aches? The pains?

How do we make sense of these stories? How do we respond to them? What logics govern our engagements with our bodies? How do we ensure that all of this makes sense to us?

It’s a question that came up last year while I was teaching a special topics course on “the body” as a critical concept. We were reading parts of Barbara Duden’s still foundational work, The Woman Beneath the Skin: A Doctor’s Patients in Eighteenth-Century Germany. The students were, for the most part, fascinated. But they were also baffled. The bodily logics that governed the thinking of this doctor and his patients were completely alien to them. How could they think this way? And what on earth might that way of thinking have to do with our ways of thinking? For some students (and certainly not all), these eighteenth-century patients (and doctor) were hopelessly naïve, unschooled, primitive….

Ah, the grand metanarrative of progress rears its ugly head….

But then…. serendipity….in the form of a news story from British Columbia: a woman, Rachel Suttie, had gone into labour along the West Coast Trail. Sensational enough as that was, the story was even more remarkable: the woman in question – already a mother of one – didn’t even know that she was pregnant.

It was a perfect opportunity to think about body logic, a perfect window into examining how it is that we make sense of the stories our bodies tell us, and a perfect bridge linking the lives and experiences of those women in eighteenth-century Eisenach with those of my students in twenty-first century St. John’s.

Reading the news more closely, it was quickly apparent that the story was much more complex than the sensational headlines would have had us believe. The woman in question had been pregnant. But at a certain point relatively early in her pregnancy, she miscarried. Her doctor did an internal exam and said things were fine, but referred her to further care should she experience cramping or bleeding. But she felt fine so she didn’t take up the referral.

As far as she was concerned, she wasn’t pregnant anymore.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Shouldn’t she have experienced other symptoms of pregnancy? Especially since she’d had a child before?

Well, yes.

Sure, her period didn’t return, but that can happen after a miscarriage and her period, even prior to her pregnancy, appears to have been somewhat erratic. And sure, she gained some weight, but it wasn’t huge (15 pounds), and she knew from her own experience that her body weight fluctuated. And yes, she was tired, but that, too could be attributed to other causes; namely, the depression that followed the miscarriage (a depression that contributed to her decision to work out and plan for the West Coast Trail hike with her dad). And she hadn’t had any sex since the miscarriage, so why would she be pregnant?

But what about the other bits? You know, food cravings? Needing to pee? Well, even those could be explained away: food cravings could be entirely psychological. Needing to pee could be a side effect of a medication.

Suttie’s body was telling many stories. These stories could be interpreted as pregnancy. But, in the aftermath of a miscarriage, these stories were interpreted and lived very differently: they were experienced as depression and the vagaries of an already relatively “irregular” body.

Our bodies have many, many stories to tell. They are, in fact, always telling us stories. But the way that we interpret those stories is shaped by the world in which we live: by social conventions, cultural practices, histories, politics, religious belief systems, and so much more. And our bodily stories are also shaped by our own lived experiences. My headache may mean something very different if experienced in your body.

And because of this, our sometimes very similar bodily stories have very different – even oppositional – meanings.

It’s this logic that I’m trying to tease out as I return to the eighteenth century. How did individuals interpret the stories their bodies were telling them? How did they make meaning out of their corporeal experiences? And what might any of this have to do with how we live, understand and respond to the stories our bodies tell us today?


There’s a bunch percolating right now and none of it is really ready to come out in any coherent fashion, but I do want to put out the idea of fear. I’m wondering about the role of fear in the construction of the bodily self – and in particular, of the suffering bodily self. Some patients, through fear, appear to begin to manifest the very physical sufferings they fear. Fear is something that resides not only in the psyche, but something that also has a somatic quality. To what extent might Tissot’s works have created a culture of bodily surveillance? Yes, patients were absolutely not docile. But their bodies become, in the language of medicine, contested spaces wide open to the possibility of contagion…. some writers describe their bodies as battlefields: bodies are attacked by external forces and subject to disarray and confusion.

Hmmm. there is more there. I just haven’t unpacked it yet.

Going through a remarkable batch of letters today, from a woman who suffers from excessive perspiration (according to her husband she drenched 1000 tops in the course of the winter), to a man who didn’t eat vegetables because he thought this would lead to flatulence. My favourite, however, is the sad tale of Rossary, a young onanist: sent off to a poor wetnurse, he developed a weak stomach. Things got worse after he was sent to a pension where he was (once again) poorly fed. How this all relates to his current affliction – a propensity for masturbation – is not quite clearly laid out. But he is remarkable detailed in his description. He was introduced to masturbation by school friends, but it was only after continued practice that he experienced what he refers to as “un chatouillement voluptueux mais sans émission de semence” (Fonds Tissot, IS3784/II/

My goodness! I’m almost starting to feel a bit warm myself, she said, winking…

Farts, sweat, and the solitary emissions that resulted from onanism. All “secret” bodily secretions now necessarily public as they enter into the realm of epistolary commerce….

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to bring you this announcement: my research is, for the next two weeks at least, profoundly corporeal as I return to the praxis realms of eighteenth-century studies. My letters are giving way to music, the gloriously yummy music of the French baroque. Hotteterre, Blavet, Caix d’Hervelois, Leclair, Boismortier…

It’s a veritable musical feast and through it, I taste, I feel, I touch…. no, I devour, with every part of my being.

This music fills every pore of my being, it resides in my soul, and through performance, I can catch glimpses of that elite world that remains, even with all our hard work (and here I use “our” to refer not only to my research, but also to that of all the scholars working in this area), so very unknowable. But for a few glorious weeks, I am entranced. The letters that so fascinate me now press themselves in my very being, pouring out of me through my flute, my breath, my musical gestures, my passions, my body.

Yes, dear Mr. Rousseau, you’re right: music can be a dangerous business.

I’m been enjoying the time that I now have to really sit and reflect not only on the content of the letters in the Fonds Tissot, but also on the way that they are written. The letters written by doctors and health professionals don’t interest me nearly as much in this regard as the letters from individual patients, many of whom have read (or say they have read) Tissot’s work, but very few of whom appear ever to have considered what it means to try and capture bodily workings in text.

Just this morning, I read a letter written by an unidentified woman in 1792. Her name is illegible and partly ripped away, but I know that she was writing from a place called Trévelin and that she had been in contact with Tissot previously.

Madame XX begins her letter by pointing to the improvements in her health since her last epistolary exchange with Tissot. She is stronger and experiences less weakness before eating. Nevertheless, all is not entirely well. Madame refers to agitation, worries, and generalized malaise.

Most interesting, to me, is the way she chooses to describe her sufferings:

“I still sometimes experience agitation and worries at night or in the morning,” she writes. “It seems as though there is something in my stomach or my chest that causes this …. I sometimes have an emotion in the stomach as though someone was hitting me, for a while after this, I experience unease, worry…” [Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire de Lausanne, Fonds Tissot, IS3784/II/]

I wonder about the use of the word “emotion” here. It’s certainly not the way that I would choose to describe the feeling of being punched in the stomach. I would likely have turned to the more common “sensation” to describe my experiences….

And so I looked for other clues: was this, perhaps, the case of a woman writing in a second language and thus choosing the ‘wrong’ word to convey the notion of ‘feeling’ (this is something I used to regularly do in Dutch, much to the amusement of my cousins…). But there is no evidence of this.  Madame’s French is exemplary, particularly in relation to some of the other women-authored French language letters in this collection. She is clearly aware of the formal conventions of the letter, offers her reader a clear structure, and her spelling is not nearly as phonetic as that of many other correspondents (as an aside, Dena Goodman has written a really fascinating article about the politics of women and spelling in eighteenth-century France).

Given this, I have to take her use of “émotion” at face value; this must be seen as a conscious, rather than accidental, choice.

This makes, then, for an intriguing read. By choosing a different form of “feeling,” she relates her gastric suffering much more directly to her other symptoms: worry, unease, agitation. For Madame, it appears as if the stomach is not just a physical thing, but also an emotional, psychic entity, whose pains are linked to other psychic distresses….And this, then, also brings to mind the thinking stomach explored by Elizabeth A. Williams.

Language, here consciously chosen, shapes our understandings of what our bodies do and how they do it. Where might thinking and feeling stomachs lead us?

…that’s what’s on the agenda this week. I’m off to Toronto to present some of my Tissot research. This paper looks at the role that wetnursing – and wetnursed milk – play in the life writings of the patients who wrote to Tissot. For some patients, lactation leaves bodily memories, affecting their health for many years. Human milk, for these individuals, is a conduit for all that is morally suspect in eighteenth-century society. It’s also, however, a convenient way to deflect any possible moral blame away from the patient and onto the often unsuspecting wetnurse….