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/144.05.05.24]
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?