Suffering Scholars focuses on the medical and literary dimensions of the cult of celebrity that developed around intellectuals during the French Enlightenment. Anne C. Vila shows how the "suffering scholar" syndrome deeply influenced debates about the consequences of book-learning on both the individual body and the body politic.
2018 | 280 pages | Cloth $65.00
Literature | History
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Table of Contents
List of Abbreviations
Chapter 1. Medicine and the Cult of the Thinker, 1750-89
Chapter 2. The Ardor for Study: Inwardness and the Zealous Cerebralist
Chapter 3. Passions and the Philosophe
Chapter 4. Corporality and the Life of the Mind in Voltaire and Diderot
Chapter 5. Melancholy, Genius, and Intellectual Identity: The Cases of Rousseau and Staël
Chapter 6. Refashioning Intellectual Pathologies in the Wake of the Revolution
Epilogue. Not So Singular, After All?
Bibliography of Primary Sources
A Strange Idea: The Singularity of the "Poetically" Organized
Few characters embody the myth of the suffering scholar more dramatically than the mysterious protagonist of Honoré de Balzac's novel Louis Lambert (1832), "that poor poet who was so nervously constituted, often as vaporous as a woman, dominated by a chronic melancholy, entirely sick from his genius as a girl is sick from the love for which she yearns without knowing it." Lambert is certainly a striking figure, endowed with a brilliance that is both dazzling and strangely pathogenic, and his creator is arguably the modern writer who did the most to popularize the idea that intellectual endeavor could be dangerous to your health. Balzac was, in fact, the author who first got me thinking about one of the central notions underlying this book: the idea that sustained mental effort comes at the cost of the body. Where, I wondered, did he get the idea of "thought killing the thinker," which determines the fate of various characters in the Études philosophiques cycle, including the brilliant but doomed Louis Lambert? And what factors were at play in this conception of thought as capable of sapping the life force of the person who engaged in it too intensely?
Balzac did not invent the strange condition of being sick from one's genius. Concern about infirmities tied to study dates back to Aristotle's famous problem XXX, which linked intellectual superiority to melancholy. The topic was also discussed by early modern writers like Marsilio Ficino (De triplici vita; Three books on life ), Robert Burton (The Anatomy of Melancholy [first ed., 1621]), and Daniello Bartoli (Dell'huomo di lettere difeso et emendato; English trans., The Learned Man Defended and Reformed ). However, it was during the century directly preceding Louis Lambert's creation that the persona of the ailing scholar really took hold in the French vernacular, a phenomenon illustrated by the popularity of works like Samuel-Auguste Tissot's De la santé des gens de lettres, first published in French in 1768. Though hardly limited to French-speaking Europe, the link between mental endeavor and disorder was embraced with particular vigor in that context—as was the tendency to imbue cerebralists with an aura of otherness and detachment from the world. Oddly perhaps, an important strand of French Enlightenment thought portrayed intellectuals as peculiarly susceptible to altered states of health as well as psyche.
That situation looks less odd if we recall that the eighteenth century was also an age of great anxieties, many of which revolved around health. Compared with the centuries that preceded it, this one was relatively healthy: mortality rates declined in France and longevity rose, due to factors that included a reduction in famine, fewer wars on French soil, and the declining frequency of the waves of massive epidemics like the plague, which had been a regular fact of life. However, people still lived in fear of falling victim to other diseases recognized as transmissible, like smallpox, dysentery, and syphilis. They also faced such potentially grave conditions as consumption; excretory obstructions (the term sometimes applied to cancer); apoplexy, gout, and gastric disorders (more prevalent at the high end of the social spectrum); fevers and other sorts of pathological heat; and the dangers of pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding. Last but not least, they were exposed to various "manufactured" diseases, an expression that Dr. Théodore Tronchin used to describe the vapors, but which could also be applied to onanism (the century's most notorious invented pathology) and to the maladies des gens de lettres, the disease syndrome explored in this book.
Viewed against the backdrop of the period's health anxieties, the Balzacian-style cerebralist comes more fully into focus: although obviously a reflection of Balzac's own vision of the life of the mind, this figure also had roots in eighteenth-century ways of thinking about thinkers. In the eyes of numerous Enlightenment-era commentators, the passions and pathologies of intellectuals and artists made them singular—not simply as individuals like the original genius (a new type of being, born during this period) but also as a group of people bound together by their working habits and their devotion to the life of the mind. Much of the discourse written in this vein was medical, but just as much belonged to the realms of moral philosophy and imaginative literature, like moralist accounts of the passion known as the love of learning, autobiographical reflections on mental application, and fictional portrayals of meditators in the grips of cogitation.
Singularity, we should note, carried both positive and pejorative meanings at the time, an ambivalence illustrated by the entry for singulier in the 1694 Dictionnaire de l'Académie française: "Unique, particular, that which has no peer, rare, excellent. . . . It is sometimes used negatively, and signifies 'bizarre, capricious, affecting personal distinction.'" That ambivalence was apparent in the celebrity culture that took shape around the mid-eighteenth century, when, as Antoine Lilti has shown, a particular set of factors converged to make certain people a focus of intense public curiosity. Fame was, of course, bestowed upon many types besides intellectuals: some of the greatest stars were actors, opera singers, courtesans, and political figures. However, the mantle of singularity was particularly associated with those who distinguished themselves through their ideas, as Charles Secondat, baron de Montesquieu, emphasized in "Mes pensées": "As soon as a man thinks, and he has a personality, people say 'he's a singular man.' . . . It must be that singularity consists in a refined way of thinking that escapes other people; because a man who can only distinguish himself by wearing a particular sort of shoe would be deemed an idiot anywhere."
Montesquieu's larger point was that people who actually thought for themselves were in the minority in the conformist milieu of polite society: "Most people resemble each other in the sense that they don't think: they are eternal echoes, who have never said anything [new] and always repeated." That remark brings to mind various critiques he made in his novel Les Lettres persanes (1721), like the character Rica's wry comments on the French nation's slavish devotion to the latest sartorial fashions, and the tale he recounts of the two aspiring beaux esprits who take turns uttering empty witticisms they've practiced in advance. However, like many contemporaries, Montesquieu attributed the uniqueness of genuine thinkers to more than just their social comportment: he held superior minds to be exceptional in physical organization as well.
This period's blanket term for intellectuals, gens de lettres, encompassed many sorts of knowledge seekers, but it was commonly evoked to single them out as a group in terms of their habits and temperament. Thanks to the rise of the maladies des gens de lettres, the singularity of intellectuals and artists came to entail more than their unique ways of thinking or behaving: it also derived from the special constitution they supposedly possessed. This book is designed to tell the story of how the bodily as well as moral exceptionalness of the learned was represented and debated from the early eighteenth century to the era of Balzac. It also explores the complex web of interconnections created between the life sciences and literature around that idea.
Background Currents: Sensibility, Psychology, and the Mind/Body Relation
Obviously, French culture has long given privileged status to intellectuals. Even today, the mythology of Frenchness endows thinkers with a "marvelous singularity" more glamorous than that which most other nations bestow upon them. Just as obviously, the perceived connection between high intelligence and illness is not unique to the period studied in this book, which runs from the 1720s into the 1840s. However, something happened during this era to endow cerebration with unprecedented pathogenic powers, powers that both worried and fascinated authors throughout Europe. The shadow of disorder that loomed over intellectuals also had a moral component: gens de lettres were considered prone not simply to bodily sickness, but also to reclusiveness. Although such views might seem difficult to reconcile with the promotion of reason and social engagement for which the Enlightenment is best known, they were nonetheless pervasive; and they had the effect of complicating the persona of the knowledge seeker in intriguing ways. They also played a significant role in the so-called cult that surrounded great intellectuals: the mental intensity and somatic frailty of gens de lettres proved both the privileges and the perils of knowledge seeking and creative endeavor.
Various aspects of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century French culture contributed to the perception of the intelligentsia as diseased in a figurative or literal sense. One factor was the struggle for control over public opinion between the philosophes and the anti-philosophes: both sides delighted in throwing verbal bombs at the enemy camp, sometimes denouncing its beliefs as poisonous bile or the product of deranged minds. Pathological rhetoric was commonly used in debates over the state of the Republic of Letters. Whereas Rousseau tied book learning to physical and moral degeneration in the Discours sur les sciences et les arts (1750), Elie Harel branded "la nouvelle philosophie" a disease in his counter-Enlightenment tract La vraie philosophie (1783). Another factor was the belief that sustained mental work really was dangerous to one's well-being, for reasons that included its physiologically taxing effects, the stale and overheated air of the scholarly workplace, the delicate stomachs to which scholars seemed prone, and their excessive attachment to their studies. The notion that intellectual activity could imperil health was, in short, commonplace, so much so that it would be impossible to document every instance in which it occurred. A more fruitful approach is to ask what, in the philosophical, ideological, and social currents of the period, made sustained mental application a possible way to be or to become sick.
Chief among those currents was sensibility, a concept widely perceived as the key to understanding both the workings of the living organism and the interactions of the physical, moral, and social aspects of human life. Medical vitalism, the doctrine of holistic vitality that Théophile de Bordeu and other Montpellier physicians promoted from the 1750s on, provided an important framework for theorizing sensibility in French-speaking Europe. Whereas German and Scottish theorists made sensibility nerve- and brain-centered, French and Francophone Swiss biomedical investigators located it diffusely throughout the body. Their diffuse perspective suited the ways in which laypersons typically thought and talked about their bodies: even after the old humoralist psychology of fixed characters had been largely abandoned, a loose brand of humoralism persisted, both in the rhetoric of "flows" and "evacuations" that was used by patients to report pain and other symptoms to their doctors, and in the vitalist notion that local body parts had their own passions or modes of sensibility.
Another important current was the idea of "the physical and the moral," a conceptual pair established well before Dr. Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis featured it in the title of his Rapports du physique et du moral de l'homme (1802). The notion of an essential linkage between the physical and the moral (the latter understood as a notion encompassing the mental as well as the passional) was crucial to the biomedical theory of holistic vitality, which influenced the emerging fields of anthropology and psychiatry. The resulting "science" of man treated mind and body as fundamentally interrelated, a point stressed by Elizabeth A. Williams: "The science of man did not generally reduce the psychic domain to the physical, and thus was neither 'monist' nor 'materialist.' Most physicians who worked within the tradition accepted some kind of distinction between the mind and body and between willed and unwilled action. But they taught nonetheless that these realms of existence and experience were closely interdependent."
A similar emphasis on the interdependence of mind and body pervaded eighteenth-century French literature. Many libertine novelists staged the physically arousing effects of erotic art and storytelling, whereas more proper writers like Mme de Graffigny (Lettres d'une Péruvienne ) employed morally induced diseases to shape the fate of their protagonists. In the Confessions, Jean-Jacques Rousseau sketched a plan for what he called a "morale sensitive, ou le matérialisme du sage," that is, a program for controlling all of the impressions made upon the sensitive system, physical as well as moral, in order to put or maintain the soul "in the state the most favorable to virtue." More mischievously, Denis Diderot had his sleeping d'Alembert character undergo a philosophically inspired wet dream in the fictional dialogue Le Rêve de d'Alembert (written around 1769). What connected all of those examples was the conviction that the mind or soul was not an entity separate from the body: it was holistically attached to it, operating through a complex play of actions and reactions that involved the world outside the mind as well as the inner, organic world.
As Vladimir Janković emphasizes, the conception of the human being as a reactive organism, acutely vulnerable to its surroundings, had a profound effect on both medicine and moral theory: it reoriented the quest for the causes of illness toward the environment around the individual; and it tapped into the larger idea that contemporary European society was itself pathogenic, an argument that particularly targeted city life. In some ways, the supposed sickliness of gens de lettres was a subset of the more general syndrome of pathogenic nervousness, which Michel Foucault has aptly characterized as "falling ill from feeling too much." Heightened feeling was integral to this era's sense of its own modernity, a condition that was both exciting and perturbing. Theorists in a range of fields undertook to explain sensibility's moral as well as physical mechanisms, producing a number of fine-tuned distinctions among different sorts of sensing and feeling. Those efforts contributed to the fashioning or refashioning of some of the period's iconic personae: the philosophe, the man of feeling, the libertine, the vaporous lady, and—as I emphasize here—the superior mind.
Of course, transcendently rational, dispassionate representations of the thinker can be found in certain eighteenth-century European sources, like Immanuel Kant; both Cartesian substance dualism and Christian apologetic approaches to the soul persisted. However, voluntary rationalism competed with very different representations of those who devoted themselves to knowledge seeking. Notions of what constituted an intellectual were many and varied, as were the methods used to investigate nature and human nature—not to mention the genres used to disseminate the ideas that came out of those investigations. Also crucially, the models of mental operations that held sway for much of the period I am considering gave considerable weight to the mind's physical underpinnings—and to the interactions of the physical and the moral.
This is particularly apparent in the field of psychology, which was at the time a form of natural history, a science that included "manifold programs for adopting an empirical approach to mind and its relation to body." Psychological naturalism had a strong purchase among prominent French-speaking mind theorists, who included the Lockean-inspired sensationalist philosopher Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, the Swiss naturalist Charles Bonnet, and (more notoriously) Julien Offray de la Mettrie. Moreover, those who studied mental phenomena often conducted their investigations in the context of medical physiology and anatomy, which also oriented attention toward the body. In a typical physiological adaption of the sensualist philosophical tradition, the famous biomedical investigator Albrecht von Haller described mental operations as a chain of events that began with the impression of a body upon the "organ of the sensory" and built up from there, through the elemental processes of association, memory, and so forth, all of which thrust further impressions on the mind. While usually taking pains to steer clear of materialism, mind theorists commonly invoked a simple "impressment" model to explain both the reception of bodily sensations and the generation of ideas. The presumption of a causal connection between the mind and its underlying physical substrate allowed them to use the same vocabulary of impressions or affections to talk about both. The mind/body relation, on this account, involved a network or economy of communicating parts.
As Tobias Cheung notes, the main operative building block at the heart of this networking model was the fiber, which around 1750 became "the first unifying principle of function-structure complexes of organic bodies"; according to its proponents, "plants feed through fibres, animals move and sense through fibres, and humans think through fibres." The designated "thinking" fiber was often the nerve, widely considered at the time to be the main intermediary between soul and body, but mind theorists sometimes spoke vaguely of brain fibers without describing them as neural. Take, for example, Bonnet, who first coined the term "psychology" in his Essai de psychologie (published anonymously in 1754) to refer to the study of how ideas are formed in the human understanding—and who declared in the preface to his Essai analytique sur les facultés de l'âme (1760) that the best way to reason about the way ideas combine and interact was to assume that "ideas are attached to the play of certain fibers." Bonnet described the seat of the soul as a "prodigiously composed little machine, yet simple in its composition. . . . One can envision this admirable instrument of the operations of our mind/ soul [âme] through the image of a harpsichord, an organ, a clock, or some other more complex machine. . . . The mind/soul is the musician that performs various airs on this machine, or who judges those that are performed, and repeats them. Every fiber is a kind of key, or hammer destined to render a certain tone."
In addition to showing the variety of instrument analogies that mind theorists used to model mental operations, Bonnet's description illustrates their emphasis on complexity and dynamic interplay—an idea often conveyed via comparisons between idea formation and music. The musical metaphor that envisioned the human being as a sonorous body became ubiquitous in several fields around 1750, under the influence of a number of factors: the musical controversies of the period; interest in vibratory phenomena in both medicine and acoustics; and the idea of fibers that oscillate, shake, and resonate—a notion embraced by theorists of aesthetics and epistemology as well as by biomedical investigators. Another heuristic model envisioned the mind as dwelling in the body like a spider in its web. Although best known today for its appearance in Diderot's Rêve de d'Alembert, that analogy stemmed from a long philosophical tradition and was used by French authors earlier in the century. It was also related to the weaving or tissue-producing analogies that anatomists had employed since the sixteenth century to describe how organic bodies develop, subsist, and reproduce.
Montesquieu used such an analogy in the "Essai sur les causes qui peuvent affecter les esprits et les caractères," which he wrote around 1734-36 while preparing his magnum opus De l'esprit des lois (1748): "The soul/mind [âme] is in our body like a spider in its web, which cannot move without shaking one of the threads that are stretched out in the distance; and by the same token, you can't move one of those threads without triggering a response in another thread. The more these threads are stretched, the more the spider is alerted; and if there are some that are slack, the communication will be lessened between that thread and the spider or between that thread and another thread; and the providence of the spider will be almost suspended within its very web." According to this scenario, the tautness or slackness of the spider's threads (its body parts) directly affects the movements of the soul/mind, and a motion in one part triggers motion in another. The state of our esprit thus depends not simply on the brain but on the entire body: "It is hard to believe how many things affect the state of our mind. It is not simply the disposition of our brain that modifies it: the entire machine, sometimes all the parts of the machine, contribute to it, and often those that one would not suspect." Montesquieu also argued that there was a constitutional difference between the two types of people called hommes d'esprit, those in the social world versus "the intelligent man among philosophers": whereas worldly wits regarded esprit as the art of weaving together disparate ideas, scholarly sorts engaged in fine-tuned distinctions. Real thinking, as he defined it, was a mode of sensing or feeling that involved subtle, spontaneous discernment; this capacity arose from education, but it also depended on the condition of the material parts or fibers of the individual mind. Extending that logic, he concluded that thinking was carried out most "finely" by those who possessed the most developed, best-exercised nerves and brain fibers.
This emphasis on the tight interrelation between the moral and the physical clearly informed the approach Montesquieu took to social bodies in De l'esprit des lois, a work that inspired some later theorists to devise constitutionally grounded scales for judging qualitative differences in sensory acuity and mental aptitude among different groups of people. Some echoed his premise that those who advanced the furthest in intellectual development (that is, Europeans, especially men of letters) had the liveliest, most responsive brain/nerve fibers, an advantage they gained both through physical circumstances—a favorable external climate, the right temperament, and so on—and through moral causes like education. They also echoed his idea that there was an essential tension between the kind of esprit that was valued in the world and the sort required to excel in serious intellectual application or artistic endeavor.
Medicine and Culture in the French Enlightenment
Paradoxically, perhaps, at the very moment when the Enlightenment movement was disseminating hopeful new ideas about human progress and perfectibility, doctors began issuing grave warnings about the dire health effects of sustained intellectual effort—and continued to do so for a good part of the nineteenth century. Equally striking is that so many gens de lettres embraced this anxious-making perspective on their work. I am not the first person to take note of this: historians interested in the persona of the eighteenth-century intellectual have discussed its medical aspect, at least in passing; so, too, have specialists of the period's most famous sickly writers, Voltaire and Rousseau. However, existing assessments of the disease syndrome known as maladies des gens de lettres tend not to look beyond Tissot, and literary-critical treatments of a particular writer's health concerns generally don't venture beyond that writer's corpus. My study takes a more synthetic approach by considering the broad range of discourses in which the pathologizing vision of thinkers took shape.
It is worth noting here the special prominence of medicine in the culture of French-speaking eighteenth-century Europe. Whereas earlier writers tended to satirize doctors—Molière, for example, in Le Malade imaginaire (1673)—eighteenth-century literary depictions were generally respectful. This may have been due to the heroic aura that surrounded physicians who took up controversial causes like smallpox inoculation. Another factor was the active presence of physicians in the institutions and networks that structured polite society and the Republic of Letters, including courtly life, salons, academies, and epistolary correspondence. Medicine also flourished in print culture: portable self-help manuals were widely available, and the rapidly proliferating Paris and provincial press publicized the latest ideas on health and hygiene (a mission also carried out in the pages of the Encyclopédie). Some doctors even wrote novels and fictional dialogues to promote specific therapies.
Physicians were particularly present in the lives of the affluent, some of whom were preoccupied with health for reasons that had less to do with disease than with "unwellness"—a state that was popular precisely because it was indeterminate: "Feeling out of sorts was an excuse to avoid social contact, refrain from exercise, elicit pity, or obtain professional help." For those who dwelled in the eighteenth century's cultural climate of delicacy, nervous sensitivity taken to the point of infirmity was not just prevalent but chic, a marker of rank and refinement. The nervous body was a "type of corporeality attuned to the new cultural values of the social elite."
In this secular-tending, pre-Freudian era, plumbing the depths of one's interiority often meant pondering one's nervous palpitations, visceral murmurings, odd rashes, or worrisome secretions. Popular health manuals fed those anxieties by dispensing detailed advice on all sorts of topics, including domestic medicine, profession-specific dietary regimens, mineral-water cures, and bold new therapeutic methods. Patients were not passive recipients of the practices and remedies promoted through the eighteenth-century medical marketplace. There was a strong demand for medical goods and services, which strengthened in the century's final decades through mediums like advertisements in provincial affiches (posters). Moreover, the soliciting and delivery of health care involved a dynamic, complex network of practitioners and caregivers.
There was, however, more at play than health anxiety in this culture's receptiveness to medical warnings about excessive intellectual effort. As E. C. Spary has underscored, people living in the eighteenth century were "fascinated with new knowledge," and those who catered to that fascination drew on print, commerce, and their connections within polite society to establish credibility. That point is useful for thinking about Enlightenment-era health claims: new biomedical ideas and therapies were publicly constituted, promoted, and contested in a very particular entanglement of science and society that depended heavily on writing in its various forms. In the case of medicine, this included not only published treatises but also a good deal of letter writing. Prominent physicians were, in other words, known as writers as well as practitioners—a double identity well illustrated by Tissot, who had both an extensive professional correspondence and a long string of medical bestsellers.
The doctors who wrote about maladies des gens de lettres were often strikingly literary in tone: they strove to display their humanistic culture by citing poets as well as fellow physicians. Literature, as they depicted it, was more than the brilliant outcome of the hours that gens de lettres spent huddled over their desks ardently communing with their muses. It was also a valuable source of information and corroborating evidence on the diseases that they were trying to define and classify. At the same time, these physicians engaged with literature for reasons that went beyond the desire to find famous examples of illness induced by overstudy or scholarly temperament: they also regarded it as a source of knowledge about human nature and, in some cases, as an antidote to melancholy.
The discourse on maladies des gens de lettres thus reflected developments both within and beyond medicine. It was an outgrowth of the expansion of the "medicable" into areas like hygiene, which underwent a marked rise in France after 1700 and triggered the growth of occupational medicine. It was also tied to the popularity of individual or collective biographies of illustrious thinkers, which doctors tapped as a source of illness narratives. Finally, it emerged in tandem with a new, more individually embodied notion of genius: physicians were just as intent as moral philosophers on pinning down the attributes that gave rise to great intellectual and/or creative capacity.
Gender and the Pathological Fashioning of the Intellectual
Although doctors who wrote about the ills of overstudy tended to employ the gender-neutral term gens de lettres to describe their subjects, they also reflected the period's larger, generally masculinist assumptions regarding the pursuit and production of knowledge. Those assumptions were, of course, vigorously challenged by the many women who strove to practice enlightenment overtly (like defending women's right to literary or scientific fame) or in less conspicuous ways such as conversations, reading, and pedagogy. French women moralists widely championed the singularity of scholarly endeavor and the unique passion that drove it. Echoing predecessors like Madeleine de Scudéry, Emilie Du Châtelet declared in her Discours sur le bonheur (written around 1746-47) that "it is quite certain that the love of study is much less necessary to the happiness of men than it is to that of women," because women were generally forbidden from striving for achievement in other public realms like government, the military, and commerce. Châtelet earned recognition and respect as a geometer, physicist, and philosopher; however, her life story illustrates the power of gender to complicate and magnify the competing demands of worldly versus scholarly esprit during this period. Female intellectuals who did not hide their learning were sometimes exposed to biting ridicule, a fate to which Châtelet herself was subject, despite her Promethean image. Women were often blamed for civilization's ills in the wake of the late seventeenth-century quarrel of the "Ancients against the Moderns," and the ancien régime imposed a particular social stigma upon women who published openly. Moreover attributing the term philosophe to a woman was just as likely to be an insult as a compliment.
Gender was, in short, a vexed question in the Age of Enlightenment: the movement that championed critical reason, service to humanity, and moral-intellectual improvement had a deep ambivalence toward women who made thinking, writing, and creative production central to their existence. Indeed, that ambivalence deepened in the final decades of the eighteenth century, when women's intellect was "naturalized" in newly limiting, biologically deterministic ways. Gender was also an ambiguous element in the medical discourse on illnesses tied to overstudy. Although this discourse did not exclude women—Tissot, for one, cited cases of women scholars who made themselves ill from excessive reading or mental application—it was primarily concerned with restoring male intellectuals to health and active participation in society. Thus, when the nineteenth-century doctor Joseph-Henri Réveillé-Parise referred to scholars as humanity's most "heroic souls" because they labored in the field of ideas (thus straining every fiber of their "poetic organizations"), he mostly meant men; but he also included a few exceptional women, like Germaine de Staël, in this pantheon.
Overt responses by scholarly laypersons to the maladies des gens de lettres syndrome also diverged, sometimes, along gender lines: whereas some male intellectuals—Voltaire and Bonnet, for instance—enthusiastically endorsed the link doctors made between serious mental application and ill health, their female counterparts either remained silent about that connection or, like Isabelle de Charrière, resisted it. Women moralists and novelists were more concerned with such questions as marriage, education, happiness, social prejudice, men's authority over women, and the "inverse relationship between amour-propre and true learning." Like their British Bluestocking counterparts, French women intellectuals struggled with "women's expected roles in the political, social, and sexual-emotional economy of the social elites." Moreover, they had to put up with both old and new clichés about learned ladies. One reason was the enduring popularity of Molière's Les Femmes savantes (1672): the Marquise de Lambert, a prominent moralist and salonnière of the 1720s, began her Réflexions nouvelles sur les femmes by bemoaning the "shame" that this play had attached to women's scholarly endeavors. Yet Molière's satire still cast a long shadow, particularly after its plot was repurposed by playwrights like Jacques Teisserenc (La Femme philosophe ), Charles Palissot de Montenoy (Les Philosophes ), and Jean-Jacques Rutlidge (Le Bureau d'esprit ) to poke fun at philosophically minded salonnières as well as the philosophes. It may be that women aspiring to acceptance in the eighteenth-century world of letters and learning could not identify overtly with the pathological fashioning of the scholar: shaping a public identity as a woman thinker in this cultural climate was already complicated.
That said, issues of sex and gender were integral to the unfolding debate about the consequences of studious work on both the individual body and the body politic. For example, expected gender roles infused Rousseau's polemic against the contemporary fad for learning, which he described as "denaturing" for both sexes. Norms of femininity and masculinity also underpinned the tension that many commentators perceived between the demands of sociability and the scholarly drive toward retreat, toward communion with one's muses (and with oneself). Toward the end of the century, essentialist notions of the sexes became crucial to medical efforts to draw clear distinctions between three diseases often attributed to intellectuals: hypochondria, melancholy, and hysteria. All of those factors were part of the complex conceptual landscape that surrounded intellectual pursuit from 1720 to 1840.
Structure of Suffering Scholars
This book offers a six-chapter exploration of the ways in which the intellectual evolved as a medical, social, and literary figure in French-speaking culture over more than a century—starting in the 1720s and running to about 1840, the date after which doctors generally lost interest in the supposed special nature and health needs of scholars. It highlights three main themes in this period's representations of learned endeavor: an insistence on the complex interplay between mind and body, the belief that the solitary nature of intellectual production conflicted with family and civic duties, and concern over the pathogenic powers of mental application.
Chapter 1, "Medicine and the Cult of the Thinker, 1750-89," provides an overview of how les maladies des gens de lettres emerged and developed up to the Revolution. It pays particular attention to two of the syndrome's fundamental ideas: the view of thinking as a form of physical as well as mental labor, and the notion of "literary intemperance" or excessive zeal for learning. It also analyzes the logic and literary strategies underlying Tissot's De la santé des gens de lettres, the book that did more than any to popularize the image of the ailing scholar among eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European readers. By setting Tissot's book in a broader framework, this chapter shows that the discursive construction of diseases proper to the learned was very much a collective, interdisciplinary undertaking.
Chapter 2, "The Ardor for Study: Inwardness and the Zealous Cerebralist," builds from Chapter 1 by considering how intellectual zeal was represented by moral philosophers and literary writers. It surveys the themes and tropes used to talk about "ardor" for study, including the voluptuous language sometimes applied to learned endeavor, the widespread topos of contemplative detachment from the social realm, and the evocation of Archimedes to illustrate the condition of total meditative absorption. This chapter also explores the longing for solitude expressed by some of the most famously gregarious writers of the day, like Voltaire and Diderot. It ends with a short analysis of Montesquieu's musings in Les Lettres persanes on the fate of hommes d'esprit in contemporary European society.
Chapter 3, "Passions and the Philosophe," examines the role of the passions in texts that drew or redrew the social portrait of the iconic intellectual figure of the day: the philosophe. I start with a consideration of how the figure was portrayed in plays like Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux's Le Triomphe de l'amour (1732) and Philippe-Néricault Destouches's Le Philosophe marié, ou Le Mari honteux de l'être (1727). I then turn to the different "manias" that were imputed to learning or the pursuit of intellectual celebrity, before examining the problem of envy, which many saw as the defining moral pathology of the contemporary Republic of Letters. That theme took on particularly complex resonances in Diderot's dark (and posthumously published) social satire, Le Neveu de Rameau, which also offers intriguing reflections on the ambiguities of genius and the philosophe persona.
Chapter 4, "Corporality and the Life of the Mind in Voltaire and Diderot," looks at the ways that two leading philosophes used notions of corporality to construct intellectual personae. As his correspondence shows, Voltaire crafted part of his own identity around his "bad stomach," linking dyspepsia in complex ways to wit and clearness of mind. He also put the stomach to creative use in satirical writings like Les Oreilles du comte de Chesterfield (1775), a tale that comically interweaves lower bodily functions, melancholy, and the destiny of both individuals and states. Diderot, for his part, emphasized the bodily side of thinking for reasons connected to the particular brand of philosophical materialism he espoused. He had a lifelong fascination with the inner workings of the mind, particularly the mind of geniuses—evident in texts like the Rêve de d'Alembert, the Salon de 1767, and the lesser-known "Sur la Vie et les ouvrages de Boulanger" (1765), written to pay posthumous homage to Nicolas-Antoine Boulanger, whom Diderot considered one of the unsung philosophical masterminds of the century.
Chapter 5, "Melancholy, Genius, and Intellectual Identity: The Cases of Rousseau and Staël," places in tandem two literary writers who were central to this period's refashioning of melancholy, a condition increasingly tied to genius at the turn of the eighteenth century to the nineteenth. Rousseau was an immensely popular clinical subject, particularly among doctors intent on fixing the precise medical meaning of melancholy. Although the pathographies they produced are sometimes dismissed by Rousseau specialists as simplistic, they are worth analyzing. First, they illuminate the framework within which physicians theorized melancholy and related disorders; second, they draw attention to specific episodes in Rousseau's writings in which he, too, ventured theories on such conditions. One such episode is the Charmettes idyll recounted in the Confessions (Geneva ed., 1782-89), which interweaves the vapors with morbidity, frenetic mental application, and amorous bliss. Chapter 5 also considers Staël, who exemplified the peculiar tensions surrounding the intellectually superior woman—and who was regarded in her day as an authority on the connections between genius and melancholy. Key works here are Staël's reflections on the character of Rousseau (her literary idol) and her novel Corinne, ou l'Italie (1807).
Chapter 6, "Refashioning Intellectual Pathologies in the Wake of the Revolution," follows the story of the maladies des gens de lettres syndrome from the 1790s to 1830s. It analyzes how early French psychiatrists used the scholarly patient group to underpin nosographic distinctions between hypochondria, melancholy, and hysteria. It also explores how the body type deemed peculiar to male intellectuals was involved in emerging theories of human perfectibility and sexual dimorphism (or the belief that men and women had radically different moral and physical constitutions). Finally, it examines the hygiene treatises that two imitators of Tissot wrote for the intelligentsia of their era: Étienne Brunaud's De l'hygiène des gens de lettres (1819) and Réveillé-Parise's Physiologie et hygiène des hommes livrés aux travaux de l'esprit (first edition, 1834).
From the 1840s on, physicians stopped focusing on the supposed exceptionalness of gens de lettres as a unique patient group—even though writers and artists continued to enjoy a privileged aura of singularity in the cultural realm. The book's epilogue sketches the factors involved in both developments, along with the new ideas and tensions that were invested in the persona of the cerebralist.
Some Methodological Considerations
One of the missions of Suffering Scholars is (to quote the historian Christopher Forth) to "put intellectuals back in their bodies." My effort to re-corporealize the figure of the Enlightenment-era thinker goes against the grain of some historical narratives: for example, those that see sociability as the defining quality of eighteenth-century French intellectual life. It also departs somewhat from constructivist approaches to the body, which emphasize the body's function as a text, a sign system, a symbolic and constructed object. Such approaches unquestionably open up new ways of thinking about embodiment—and resistance to embodiment—as modes of selfhood; and they shed light on the creative powers of language, literature, and art to create substance that transcends the physical. They can, however, be difficult to reconcile with more biologically grounded perspectives on the body understood as a living, feeling, laboring, sometimes suffering entity—which are, in part, what I seek to recover in this book.
Much has been written about sex organs in historiographical studies of the body, and sex was unquestionably a factor in the construction of the intellectual during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The "sexual fix" does not, however, suffice to explain the carnal identity of gens de lettres during the period examined in this study. Sex was only one way—and not always the most prominent one—by which thinkers were depicted as flesh-and-blood creatures: they were also bodies that felt, ate, moved about in space (or failed to do so), got older, fell ill, and eventually died. To recuperate the ways in which gens de lettres thought about bodies, including their own, we need to contextualize their views in relation to the period's dominant philosophical and medico-philosophical frameworks. Again, although the philosophical theories of this period included certain forms of dualism, the prevailing view of human nature was holistic: it assumed a good deal of mutual dependence between the two terms featured in the oft-cited couple "the physical and the moral." We also need to keep in mind the historical specificity of models of body consciousness. Bodies, as I argue, mattered in multiple ways—not simply because they provided rich possibilities for creative discursive or conceptual construction, but also because, as flesh-and-blood machines, they were seen as simultaneously supporting and disrupting the intellectual (and other) activities of real human beings.
At the same time, I am keenly attuned to the properly discursive aspect of the scholarly body as represented in the works I study here. An implicit question underlying my project is why the bodies of intellectuals became an object of concern, inquiry, and regulation at this particular point in the history of French culture (as they did elsewhere in Europe). To borrow the language of Foucault, one might say that the suffering-prone corporeal side of intellectual identity came to "exist" as a widely visible phenomenon through the combination of a distinct set of practices, discursive as well as therapeutic. The cultural phenomenon known as maladies des gens de lettres owed a great deal to particular modes of textual circulation: these included not just works of medical popularization that specifically targeted intellectuals, but also the practice of epistolary medical consultation. Particular discursive practices were also central to the making of the maladies des gens de lettres as a disease syndrome: its medical proponents used copious intertextual referencing and storytelling to support their claims. Dictionary writers and library catalogers of the next century further shaped the genre through the classificatory systems by which they grouped the illnesses supposedly prevalent among intellectuals. It is worth pointing out here that the government-commissioned Catalogue des sciences médicales, published between 1859 and 1889 by the Bibliothèque Impériale de France and then the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, must have been a gold mine for Foucault when he was doing his research for Naissance de la clinique and Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique: certain sections of both of those books proceed systematically through particular headings in this catalog, whose classifications were largely designed by the psychiatrist E. Frédéric Dubois d'Amiens (whom I discuss in Chapter 5). Patients, too, played a part in the construction of "intellectual" pathologies. This is made amply clear by the consultation letters sent to Tissot by recognized or aspiring gens de lettres who believed they were afflicted with one or another of those illnesses.
These are not, of course, the only sources that one could consider for a study of the ways in which knowledge seeking was conceptualized or experienced by individuals during this period. One could, for example, explore instead religious works like François Lamy's Traité de la connaissance de soi-même (1694-98) or Louis-Antoine de Caraccioli's La jouissance de soi-mÉme (1759) and end up with a different story, one emphasizing mystical interiority and dualistic mind/body models. The texts I study offer a window onto another, more physical sort of interiority: namely, the awareness of the body's inner workings, which many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French thinkers viewed as a necessary part of self-knowledge.
A corporeal approach to the image and identity of gens de lettres sheds light on several aspects of European (particularly French) intellectual culture in the years leading up to and following the Revolution. These include the intertwining of invalidism and intellectual fame in the celebrity culture of the day; the physical etiologies that were assigned to diseases that we now view as largely psychological, like hypochondria and melancholy; and the corporeal quality that was commonly given to the emotions, including the cognitive emotions associated with sustained mental application. Restoring the somatic aspect of the scholarly person allows us to grasp with greater precision the ways in which nervous sensibility was held to operate in those who possessed it in the most refined forms. It illuminates the place of cerebralists in debates over the figurative health of the nation and the Republic of Letters—and the place of health, in the literal sense, among the preoccupations of the major players in those debates. Finally, it opens a new window onto psychology, a field that, as Fernando Vidal stresses, served as a key site for "the emergence of new ways of thinking about the relation between persons and bodies"—ways of thinking that differed from those that have held sway since the emergence of the "cerebral self," a perspective in which personhood is located in the brain alone.
In that sense, this book is tied to the brand of intellectual biography that focuses on how knowledge and knowledge seeking have been incarnated by a particular writer, scientist, or philosopher. Although I delve only occasionally into biography proper, I do cross the author/work barrier once held to be impermeable by theorists writing in the wake of Marcel Proust's essay "Contre Sainte-Beuve" or Foucault's "What Is an Author?" Biography was central to the body-based views of intellectual and creative endeavor I study here. It was also central to the literary criticism done by Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve and his disciples, back when the term "physiology" enjoyed a semantic plasticity that allowed it to be conjoined with a number of surprising qualifiers, from "intellectual" to "literary." Although now largely forgotten, physiological literary criticism played a significant role in crafting both the French literary canon and illustrious French writers as national icons—individuals held to embody, through their persons as well as their writings, something essential about the spirit of the place and time in which they lived. As I shall argue in these pages, medicine had more than a little to do with all of those developments.