Bernadette Höfer, Psychosomatic Disorders in Seventeenth-Century French Literature

Bernadette Höfer, Psychosomatic Disorders in Seventeenth-Century French Literature (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009). 245 pp. £55 hb. ISBN 978-0-7546-6621-9

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In her fascinating book Psychosomatic Disorders, Höfer explores the ‘dialogue’ between the seventeenth and twenty-first centuries on the subject of the relationship of mind and body (7). Neurobiologists, among others, regularly read seventeenth-century thinkers such as Descartes or Spinoza to understand the mind-body split, which has been so predominant in modern medicine until recently. Today, Höfer notes, we are in an ‘affect revolution’, when the ‘Cartesian notion of the primacy of reason’ is being replaced by ‘the idea of the “emotional brain”’ – a process that has much in common with seventeenth-century debates about the mind-body relationship (55). She effectively applies modern concepts of psychosomatic illnesses and conversion disorder (neurological symptoms with no physical explanation) to her analysis of melancholy in seventeenth-century writings, showing that several writers saw physical suffering and emotional disturbance as being inseparable.

The study is carefully framed within the cultural and political context of an increasingly centralised and regulated French court, which stripped nobles of their individuality and power and emphasised bodily and emotional self-control. The writers that Höfer examines – Surin, Molière, Lafayette and Racine – responded to this subjugation by depicting physical disorders that had resulted from individuals’ internal struggles with social constraints. The first chapter considers the parallels between early modern and modern ideas about the relationship between mind and body, establishing Höfer’s theoretical approach to the sources. Höfer then turns to Father Jean-Joseph Surin’s (1600-1665) writings, which she situates against the backdrop of debates about possession, exorcism and madness. Surin is today most famous for his role of exorcist at the convent in Loudun, where several nuns were possessed in 1634. For nearly twenty years after, Surin suffered from what he believed to be possession and others saw as insanity. Surin, however, insisted that he had never once lost his reason and was able to remember everything during his illness. Höfer reads Surin’s struggle with demons as more than a simple contamination from having exorcised the nuns, suggesting that his illness revealed an internal conflict with his superiors, their attempts to treat him, and the code of obedience.

Höfer next considers melancholy as a form of subversion against absolutism in Molière’s plays, Le misanthrope (1666) and Le malade imaginaire (1673). She argues that the illnesses were intended to represent ‘the profound anxiety and sense of purposelessness’ of nobles (and playwrights) under absolutism that had resulted from their dependence on the royal court (96). Moreover, in an age of tight artistic censorship, the excessively flowing bodies of Alceste and Argan functioned to convey Molière’s disapproval of the ideal of self-control and the negation of individual bodies, both within the play and court society.

The next chapter focuses on the inability of women to freely act or speak within a patriarchal world, as depicted by Madame de Lafayette. For Lafayette’s characters, inner turmoil could manifest itself through a variety of feverish symptoms, highlighting an individual’s response to social pressures. In her examination of La princesse de Clèves, Höfer considers ‘how the body speaks for and in place of the subject in a “ventriloquism” that externalizes the inner distress’ (142).

The final chapter on Jean Racine’s Phèdre (1677) looks at the conflict between love and duty in cases of forbidden passion. Racine used melancholy as a language spoken through the body, ‘mapping’ repressed desires (178) and revealing the divided nature of characters’ minds. The body and mind acted at once to express individually the internal split; Phaedra, for example, repeatedly did and undid physical acts spontaneously. Wavering between submission to and violation of the king’s law, the bodies of Racine’s characters also served to emphasise the emasculation of the nobility and tenuous unity occurring under Louis XIV.

Considering her interdisciplinary approach, it is surprising that Höfer made so little reference to work by historians of medicine, which would have helped to strengthen a weak section on seventeenth-century medicine. It also would have been helpful if she had provided some discussion of the rationale behind her choices of seventeenth-century medical writers and explicitly defined melancholy. Throughout the book, Höfer refers to gender: the gendering of melancholy, women’s reaction to patriarchy, and the castration of the nobility. However, she omits any theoretical framework for her discussions of gender, patriarchy and patriarchal structures. Clearer definitions would have strengthened her historical context of the period.

Criticisms aside, this ambitious book is a thought-provoking and long-overdue consideration of the Cartesian mind-body split and seventeenth-century literary reactions. Despite our modern recognition that Descartes split the mind and body, there has been relatively little discussion of what that actually meant for people’s understanding of the body in the seventeenth century. As Höfer shows, Descartes’ philosophy was not straightforward, even to himself, and there were many competing ideas about the mind-body relationship. This book will contribute significantly to scholarship on the history of the body, which has long neglected to explore subjective bodily experience – itself perhaps a function of the longstanding mind-body division.

Höfer’s use of psychoanalysis and neurobiology to read seventeenth-century literary bodies is also valuable; she applies the modern tools judiciously and aptly, careful not to assume the existence of a historically stable concept of the mind or body. Psychosomatic Disorders will be of great interest to those neurobiologists and psychoanalysts exploring similar questions, even presenting new ones: why does the question of mind-body relationship resonate in each period? What could a reintegration of mind and body mean for modern sufferers? If modern science can offer analytical tools for the past, what can the seventeenth-century understanding offer modern medicine? Let us hope that Höfer is as successful in her aim of promoting dialogue between the present and the past as she has been in her own interdisciplinary approach: such a discussion would prove fruitful indeed for scholars in humanities and science alike.

Lisa Wynne Smith, University of Saskatchewan