moderation and excess

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/144.02.05.02]

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/144.02.05.06]

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…..

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3 comments
  1. jlmag said:

    Or, it is possible that the prevalent medical discourse that privileges balance over excess has created Fred’s illness? BECAUSE he has lived a lIfe of excess, he MUST be I’ll and also beyond the help of a physician —- even one as brilliant as Tissot. To what degree, I guess, could we understand these two (material) experiences of body as created by prevailing medical discourse?

  2. Sonja Boon said:

    I think you’re absolutely right, and that’s where I would head with it (and with the vantage point of 250 years of history and thought). I guess I was trying to get into Fred’s head, and from Fred’s vantage point it would seem as though he was suffering the ill after effects of living a life of debauchery and excess… But I also wonder if, for some of those who wrote to Tissot, illness was something they created in order to be able to engage in a virtuous journey towards health, the ultimate moral value…..

  3. Sonja Boon said:

    Im also really starting to consider the role of fear and horror in the construction of bodily selves….

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