Monthly Archives: June 2012

A short quote from Oliver Sacks’ 1985 book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat:

If we wish to know a man, we ask ‘what is his story, his real, inmost story?’, for each of us is a biography, a story. Each of us is a singular narrative, which is constructed continually and unconsciously by, through, and in us – through our perceptions, our feelings, our thoughts, our actions; and, not least, through our discourse, our spoken narrations. Biologically, physically, we are not so different from each other; historically, as narratives, we are each of us unique. (12)

Perhaps it was out of sheer exhaustion, or perhaps it was something else. But for a few days in Switzerland, I suddenly found myself fascinated by the side of the letter that I don’t normally even give a second glance: the back side, with its address, seal and sometimes, for those sent through the mail, a stamp from the post office.

And so, in honour of M. Gauteron and his troubles, I’ve affixed his seal (or a part of it) to the header of this blog. Actually, it was quite a beautiful seal and, luckily for me, it’s also survived more than two centuries….

Here’s to you, Louis!

Every now and then a voice from the archives starts pulling at you, tugging at you, insistent, desperate to be heard. Such was the case (for me, anyway) with Madame Necker. Her story had been told numerous times over the past two centuries, but from my perspective, it didn’t seem as if anyone was actually listening to what she was trying to say. And so, when her voice tugged at me, beseeched me, pulled me in…. I followed.

And what a grand adventure that turned out to be.

The voices in the Fonds Tissot are all jostling for my attention. Some are louder than others. Some plead. Some pontificate. Some are belligerent. Some are imperious. Some are querelous. Many are impatient. And some, it must be said, don’t really jostle at all; rather, they appear content to play dead and as a result, they are nothing more than words on a page.

But since I first started playing in this archival space, one voice has kept rising to the surface. It’s the voice of F. L. Gauteron, a student in Yverdon. He wrote Tissot 5 letters in 1792 and 1793, five pathetic, desperate, yearning, hopeless letters seeking Tissot’s assistance in curing him of his onanytic habits.

I’m not entirely sure why Gauteron’s voice is so very insistent. Could it be his condition that fascinates? It hardly seems enough, as there are so many who suffer from the cruel after effects of onanism. Perhaps, then, it’s his tone, his sense of hopeless inevitability and his sensibility, a sensibility so excessive that Tissot apparently took young Gauteron to task in one of his replies. Perhaps it’s that heady mix of psyche and soma, that tangly relationship between what the body seems to want to do and what the mind and the soul so desperately want it not to do. Perhaps, in this sense, it’s the fact that they remind me, in curious ways, of the missives penned by Madame Necker. Moral despair, somatic disruption, chaos.

Whatever the case may be, these letters continue to fascinate me, so much so, in fact, that I dedicated a whole Saturday to exploring Yverdon-les-Bains in an attempt to retrace some of this man’s tortured steps. The public library couldn’t help me (though they do have a manuscript collection) and so I resorted to feel, to touch, to movement.

I wandered the tiny streets behind the Château. I walked the halls of the Château itself, considering its role as a seat of power. I pondered the eighteenth-century reformed church, a building almost as impressive in stature as the castle next to which it stands. I visited the Roman ruins. And I considered this town’s history of what is called, today, thermalisme. Yverdon-les-Bain’s natural hot springs, flowing at ca. 29 degrees Celsius, have drawn visitors for centuries, each of them hoping for a cure for whatever ailed them.

And as I walked through this site of healing, health and wellbeing, I wondered about Gauteron’s understandings and experiences of moral and physical health. Wretch that he felt he was, the baths couldn’t possibly have helped him as he awaited what he felt was certain death.

What would it be like, to be Gauteron, at the mercy of his horrific nightmares and his hellish visions? Where might his steps have taken him? How did he pass his days? And what happened to him afterwards? Did he survive this moral crisis? What did he do?

It’s rare to find traces of these individuals beyond their encounters with Tissot. While members of the aristocracy, like the Comtesse d’Egmont, may live forever in portraits or family trees, many others fall by the wayside, essentially lost to history, their voices only present in the letters to Tissot.

But I reasoned that students, like Gauteron, enjoying a certain amount of privilege, might live on in the form of other letters, or even, perhaps, in published works. It was certainly worth a try.

Because the archives were closed on the weekend, I decided to go exploring with my friends, Google, WorldCat and GALE. This fishing expedition netted a few possibilities. A publication in which Gauteron is described as someone who was fascinated by the English spleen and travelling for his health (that sounded right), and a second, published in 1808, by Gauteron himself describing the agricultural fair at Hofwyl. With this second book’s emphasis on education, productive labour and moral goodness, I thought it might be a strong contender as well. Add to this the fact that Yverdon-les-Bains was an intellectual centre during this period (it saw the publication, for example, of the Encyclopedie d’Yverdon in the years following the project initiated by Diderot and d’Alembert). Both spleen and agriculture drew me fully into the 19th century, suggesting that Gauteron had, somehow, recovered from his troubles and moved on.

But what might the archives reveal? It was certainly worth a shot.

Who needs online catalogues when there’s a perfectly good old fashioned card catalogue? That is where I found him, right after someone whose name started with GAT and right before LAV.

Two letters! Imagine that. And both written to the same person, one Philippe-Sirice Bridel, in 1795 and 1807. I had no idea what they’d reveal but I was more than certainly going to find out!

At this point, it’s probably worth mentioning something about Bridel. Bridel was a French pastor living in Basel when Gauteron first wrote. By 1807 he was responsible for the reformed souls of those living in the Montreux region. But he is, posthumously at last, known less for his ministry, interestingly, than he is for his commitment to Swiss national identity. The author of a number of publications, he advocated Swiss indigenous culture, championing what might be understood as bouregois values: propreity, order, hard work and frugality. The Swiss, he argued, were a rural people, and this should be reflected in their national identity (perhaps unsurprisingly, these attitudes are also central to Gauteronès 1808 description of the agricultural fair at Hofwyl).

Looking through the selection of letters addressed to Bridel in the 1790s, I quickly found the first letter. Gauteron’s distinctive handwriting was immediately recognizable. Also familiar was his style. Steeped in sensibility, his style in this letter was very similar to that in the letters to Tissot. But in content there were some differences.

It was because of his ‘spleen’ (interestingly enough) that Gauteron first contacted Bridel in 1795 in relation to the moral torment he was experiencing.

In the letters to Tissot, Gauteron reveals that he is no stranger to moral panic, but he is looking for a physical cure to his onanism. The word onanism, interestingly, doesn’t appear at all in the first letter to Bridel. It does, however, lurk just under the surface, showing its morally reprehensible face in such words as “malheur,” “horreur,” “crainte,” “destruction,” and “mort.” This letter is about moral disorder. It is a letter of extreme moral disarray, revealing a young man experiencing almost suicidal thoughts and brought back only through the grace of a god who wants him to live.

Here’s a sample to whet your archival tastebuds:

“je l’ai vu cette mort inexorable d’aussi près qu’on peut la voir sans être sa victime, et comme une coquette elle n’a pas voulu de moi tandis que chaque jour elle talonne ceux qui lui disent attendez. Longtems j’ai langui dans un abîme d’infortune, et on m’a culomnié, on a dit que je cherchoit a fair parler de moi, que je voulois jouir le heros du roman, on a vomi contre moi mille sottises….”

Now imagine this going on and on for another few thousand words. Well, to be fair, he does go into a discussion about where he should move: Lausanne, Paris or Grenoble.

It’s this overweeningly dramatic tone that likely annoyed Tissot. But if we give Gauteron more latitude, we can see that he is genuinely morally distressed and desperate for a cure of some sort for his sufferings. The fact that he wrote both Tissot and Bridel during the same troubled year suggests that he was casting a wide net, cognizant of the fact that there might be more than mere bodily disorder at work. Well, either that, or he was just, quite simply, desperate.

Fast forward 12 years. By this time, Tissot has been dead for 10. And Bridel, born in 1757, is getting on in years.

And Gauteron? He’s now 29. And he’s a pastor at a church in Tavanne, near Bienne.

The handwriting is the same. The word count is similar (though spread across 8 pages rather than cramped into 4). But the tone and content are very different.

This letter is not a letter of supplication, like the previous one. Rather, it’s a letter of profound appreciation.

You may not remember me, Gauteron writes, but I want you to know what a profound impact you have had on my life. I still read and reread the letter that you wrote to me. And I blush when I think of what I dared to write to you and I blush, too, when I think of the other “actes inconsidérés de ma vie.”

It turns out that Bridel has, in no small way, transformed his life.

“Vous avés été conjointement avec M. Tissot au quel j’avois eu la hardiesse d’écrire dans le même temps, pour le même objet, & sur un ton je pense a peu près le même, vous avés été dans le main de Dieu l’instrument qui m’a empeché de prendre la carrière des sciences ou j’eusse promtement abimé les foibles debris échappés au naufrage de mes facultés intellectuelles & m’a mis sur cette voye ou je devois trouver mon bonheur en m’attachant a CELUI qui se sert pour publier sa gloire & ses bienfaits même des moindres vases de l’argile que ses puissantes mains on façonnée.”

Ok, so I lied. It is filled with sensibility…. but not nearly as much as the first (if you can imagine that).

Looking back on his early years of excess, Gauteron now muses philosophically that it was good that he was so afflicted for it taught him the lessons of unhappiness. From his current perspective, he is able to accept both his past and the uncertainty of the future by placing his trust entirely in god. “La religion,” he states, “est le seul fondement de bonheur.”

Gone is the torment. Gone are the struggles. Gone is the almost suicidal rhetoric. In its place is the peace of a true believer who puts his trust entirely in the hands of a supreme being. Health, in this sense, was not a physical state. Rather, Gauteron found healing in the grace of god, something the warm waters of Yverdon-les-Bains were unable to offer.

Imagine menstruating for 18 weeks.

I can’t.

But that’s what the Mademoiselle la Comtesse de Wedel, dame de cour at the Palais de Roschild close to Copenhagen, experienced. She had been treated by the best doctors around. And finally, it stopped, only to be followed by two subsequent heavy and long – 4 to 5 weeks! – periods.

And now, having left the court to live a more restful existence in the hope that this might cure her, she finds herself attacked by yet another concern, observing that:

“la maladie est d’autant plus terrible que la tranquilité ou je dois me tenir me rend hipocondre a l’excés.” (BCUL, Fonds Tissot, IS3784/II/

Shades of The Yellow Wallpaper…..

Add to this a family history of heavy blood loss – both her mother and her sister experienced this, with her sister dying of “epuisement” after a year of menstruation, and it’s no wonder that she’s in distress.

She sums up her situation succinctly in a second letter (written a month later after having been “deux doigts de la mort”):

“je ne suis pas si malade que les fois passé …mais je ne suis pas sure d’un moment a autre a le devenir.” [BCUL, Fonds Tissot, IS3784/II/

Menstruation — too little, too much, too frequent, too rarely, too red, not red enough — is a pretty common topic in these letters. It was also a question that Tissot wanted his correspondents to be able to answer. But this is the first time I’ve seen bleeding to this extent….

Allow me to introduce you to two colleagues. Perhaps they are close friends. Perhaps they only know one another socially. Whatever the case might be, they do know one another, and they draw on this shared ‘intimacy’ in their respective letters to Tissot, both written during the summer of 1774.

Marquis #1, let’s call him Jim [for kicks] writes concerning some apparently minor health problems. He notes that he has asked his local family doctor to write a consultation for him, because this doctor has known him for the past seventeen years. Jim’s letter is matter of fact and to the point. It includes the usual honorifics to Tissot, but certainly not to the extent to which they are taken in some letters. Jim is respectful, but not ingratiatingly so.

His doctor’s letter, meanwhile, is full of praise and laudatory adulation. Jim has lived an exemplary life, according to the doctor. His has been a life governed by moderation and reason in all things, “n’ayant jamais fait d’excés dans aucun genre.” He has exercised his passions in moderation, and regulated his life well. He eats healthily, avoiding foods that are too spicy or too salty and he drinks in moderation, taking a burgundy “coupé avec de l’eau” with his dinner, and sometimes a Malaga wine after dinner. [BCUL, Fonds Tissot, IS3784/II/]

In short, Jim is living a perfectly virtuous corporeal life.

Now let’s meet Marquis #2, whom we’ll call Fred [for kicks]. Fred’s letter is very different from Jim’s. Fred is worried. Tissot has told him that his illness is neither dangerous nor incurable, but Fred just can’t get it out of his head. In contrast with the easy confidence that characterizes Jim’s letter, Fred’s is doubtful, hopeful, concerned, worried…. in a word, agitated. He desperately wants to trust Tissot – and who wouldn’t? he was the pre-eminent Enlightenment physician, after all – but he doesn’t trust what his body is doing. As he writes in his letter, he hasn’t been a single minute without suffering.

Fred, too, includes a letter from his doctor. Fred’s doctor is not nearly as full of praise as Jim’s. He does suggest that the cause of Fred’s ailment might be found in the living conditions he experienced last winter: cold, drafty and humid at night, and overheated and dry during the day, but he also considers Fred’s longer history.

Unlike Jim, Fred has not lived a blameless life: “il s’est abandonné a son appetit, aux vins etrangers et liqueurs, les passions de l’ame, les veilles agissoient encore sur les liquides et les solides….” Excess appears to have been the order of the day. [BCUL, Fonds Tissot, IS3784/II/]

We don’t, of course, know why Fred and Jim approached their situations so differently. It could be just a simple case of individual temperament. But given the kinds of concerns that figure in some of the other letters, and, indeed, in Tissot’s own writings, I can’t help but wonder if Fred’s youthful indiscretions might form a troubling backdrop on which he now must try to make sense of current ailments. In short, might this commitment to excess be contributing to his current ailments? And is this history influencing Fred’s worries, concerns and fears?

oh, to be a fly on those eighteenth-century walls…..

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve been thinking a lot about language in the past week. Language is my only window into the letters that I’m reading and I need to understand, somehow, what words mean.

Douleur, souffrance, chagrin, crainte…. all of these appear regularly in the letters and if I want to get inside them, I need to figure out what they mean, not today, but what they meant to eighteenth-century folks.

Words mean different things in different contexts. Words have histories, geographies, politics. Douleur today may be well removed from douleur ca. 1765, and that matters. It matters a lot. Luckily for me, I have easy access to early French dictionaries, through the ARTFL’s “Dictionnaires d’autrefois” database. This allows me to trace the trajectory of a word from the 1600s right through to the late 1800s. It’s a fascinating journey, sometimes [and just as much fun as poking through the Oxford English Dictionary Online, another of my favourite ports of call].

But language also matters at another level. During the eighteenth century, French was the language of choice among Europe’s elite. French was spoken at the Russian court, and at the Dutch court. It was also spoken in Denmark. Indeed, French was a requirement of elite social life, a mark of belonging among the “people of quality.”

But for so many of these individuals, French was a second language, a language they hadn’t “suckled at their mother’s breast” (to draw, once again, on the venerable Madame Necker), but something they learned and used through the lens of their fist languages: English, Dutch, Danish, Russian, etc. Adept as they were in French (and it’s abundantly clear that many were more than adept in French), they were still, essentially, thinking and seeing the world through their own languages, and in this I am reminded of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, whose short speech in Japanese, given sometime in the early half of the 1990s, was grammatically perfect (or at least, that is my assumption), but sounded curiously…. English. In tone, inflecion, timing, her speech was an English speech. But I didn’t understand a word of it.

What does it mean, then, to occupy the space of bilingualism, a functional bilingualism to be sure, but bilingualism nonetheless? And what might it mean to write from that position and to articulate your bodily self from that location?

An intriguing insight into this can be found in a series of three letters concerning the health of a Dutch woman living in Venlo. The first two letters function as “cartes de visites” of sorts, calling cards meant to establish our patient’s credibility and her social position. Both are in French, though both are obviously written by non-native speakers…how else to account for the word “guéé”? Sometimes, sounding out the letters is much more revelatory than reading them to myself….

More interesting, however, is the patient’s own letter. It’s clear from the outset that she has a strong command of the French language and its forms and conventions. She writes with confidence and is clearly comfortable not only with vocabulary, but also with the formal conventions of the letter genre.

Imagine my surprise, then, when the letter suddenly, and in the middle of a sentence, switched into Dutch. I looked again.

And again.

And again.

And there was no mistaking it. It was most definitely Dutch. By the next sentence, she was back in French. And two paragraphs later, there was another smattering of Dutch. And it happened a few more times.

The letter, as a whole, sat on the borderlands between French and Dutch, sliding seamlessly between the two as her needs changed.

Later in the letter, she offers the following explanation:

“Comme je suppose que vous savez toutes les langues, ce que je n’ai pu dire en francais, je l’ai mit en hollandais.” [BCUL, Fonds Tissot, IS3784/II/]

So very simple, really.

Of course she’d think that Tissot would speak all languages; after all, she was fluent in at least two (and likely a few more). And had she looked in his mailbag, she’d have seen letters in French, English, German, Italian and Latin. Why not Dutch?

Why not Dutch, indeed?

Think of how much better we’d all be able to understand one another if we each spoke numerous languages.