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Monthly Archives: March 2015

Jean-Martin Charcot and the pathologisation of ecstasy

Extase_Iconographie-e1369328952903One of the things I want to argue in my next book is that ecstatic experiences have been pathologised in the secular west, to our detriment. People still experience ecstasy – by which I mean moments where we go beyond the self and feel connected to something bigger than us, usually a spirit but also sometimes another individual or group – but we lack the framework to make sense of such experiences. And, as Aldous Huxley said, ‘if you have these experiences, you keep your mouth shut for fear of being told to go to a psychoanalyst’ – or, in our day, a psychiatrist.

The medicalisation and pathologisation of ecstasy happened slowly over the last four centuries – it is a key shift in the emergence of secular society. Before the 17th century, if you had an ecstatic experience, you might either be canonized or demonized. Either way your experience was carefully defined and controlled by the Church, which has always been wary of unbridled ecstasy, particularly in women (see Monsignor Ronald Knox’s misogynistic Enthusiasm (1950) for a recent example – Knox writes ‘the history of enthusiasm is largely the history of female emancipation…and it is not a reassuring one’).

Then, from the 17th century on, cases of both ecstasy and possession were viewed not as spiritual encounters but as disorders of our mechanical body, the product of diseased nerves, or an over-heated brain, or ‘animal spirits’, or ‘the vapours’. In the 19th century, unstable women were increasingly diagnosed with ‘hysteria’, a disease which Egyptians suggested, back in 1900 BC, was caused by a ‘wandering womb’ (supposedly the womb could be lured back to its proper position by holding scented objects near the affected woman’s vagina).

220px-Jean-Martin_CharcotThe understanding of hysteria didn’t advance much in the 4000 years to 1856, when Charcot was made head of the Salpetriere hospital in Paris. Salpetriere was the biggest hospital for women in Europe, and a ‘grand asylum of human misery’, as Charcot put it. He and his team carried out ground-breaking research into several neurological conditions – Parkinson’s, Tourette’s, Multiple Sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s syndrome – but it was his work on hysteria that made Charcot globally famous.

Hysteria was a notoriously loose and imprecise diagnosis, so Charcot attempted to classify it, and discover the physical cause of it. He insisted that hysterical fits followed four clearly-defined stages – 1) epileptoid fits, 2) ‘the period of contortions and grand movements’, 3) ‘passionate attitudes’, and 4) final delirium.

He claimed that, although hysteria was a physical disease caused by a lesion on the brain, one could artificially induce these four stages through hypnosis. To prove this, he used photography to capture the four stages of hysteria, and circulated the evidence through the Iconographie Photographique de la Salpetriere. Photography was still a new, somewhat magical science – rather like neuro-imaging today – and these photos ‘did much to fix the image of hysteria in the public mind’, according to the medical historian Andrew Scull.

Augustine vogue-ing in the Iconographie
Augustine vogue-ing in the Iconographie

Charcot also put on public displays, every Thursday, where he hypnotized female patients and provoked hysterical fits for the fascinated male public, which included everyone from Sigmund Freud to Emile Durkheim. Both in the photographs and in the public displays, Charcot had ‘star patients’ who were particularly good at performing the four stages of hysteria, including a pretty teenager called Augustine, and a devout woman called Genevieve.


These ladies expertly performed religious poses which Charcot’s team defined as ‘ecstasy’. And the team insisted that their work proved that all the religious ecstatics and demoniacs of yesteryear were suffering from hysteria. Joan of Arc, St Theresa, St Paul, Jesus himself were all evidently hysterics. By a happy coincidence, Genevieve – who suffered from particularly violent fits – came from Loudun, the scene of a mass demonic possession of nuns in the 17th century. Charcot had an extensive gallery of religious art, and displayed the drawings and photos of his hysterics next to this art – were they not one and the same condition?

An illustration of a fit of Genevieve's (right) next to an illustration by Rubens
An illustration of a fit of Genevieve’s (right) next to an illustration by Rubens

This equation of ecstasy with degenerative hysteria served a political purpose. Charcot and his disciples (particularly his main disciple, Desire-Magloire Bourneville) were closely affiliated with the Third Republic, which was virulently anti-monarchist and anti-clerical. Charcot and Bourneville were involved in the campaign to secularize medicine, and to replace nun-nurses with secular nurses. Each proof of the hysterical pathology of religious ecstasy was a broadside in this wider war.

Yet the irony, as several historians of hysteria have noted, is that in many ways the secular diagnosis of hysteria recalled the medieval Inquisition. Of course, none of the hysterics were burned – although they could be subject to physical punishments including mustard baths and ‘ovarian compression’. But they were made to follow and perform a cultural script defined and directed by a male power system, for the prurient consumption of a fascinated male public.

Again and again, the women would be made to perform hysteria, just as the poor nuns of Loudun were wheeled out, over and over, to go through their demonic antics. They would literally be fixed into poses, like ‘automatons’ or ‘statues’ as Charcot’s disciples put it, and then the poses were used as evidence for the pathology of ecstasy. This script advanced the career ambitions and political agenda of the men in charge, as it did in the Inquisition.

As with the Inquisition, it sounds like a form of pornographic cabaret masquerading as a public service. The Iconographie looks like a porn catalogue, with the photos of the sexy teenager Augustine interspersed with accounts of her sexual reveries. And the Thursday shows sound like something from the Moulin Rouge – the women are hypnotized by a gong or a tom-tom drum, the approach of the hysterical fit announced by the shaking of the feathers in their hats, before they fall to the floor clutching their vaginas as the male audience applaud.

Jane_Avril_by_Toulouse-LautrecIndeed, one of the star-hysterics of the Salpetriere went on to become Jane Avril, a lead-dancer at the Moulin Rouge who was painted by Toulouse-Latrec. She claimed she was cured when she learned to dance, which goes back to the ancient Greek idea that the best cure for anxiety and phobia, particularly in women, is the ‘Dionysiac cure’ of dancing. Augustine, meanwhile, finally escaped from Salpetriere, dressed as a man, while Genevieve was offended one day by Charcot and refused to be hypnotized anymore.

Was this the diagnosis of hysteria or, as Charcot’s critics insisted, its cultivation? Was this merely an ‘absurd farce’? It didn’t help that something like 500 hypnosis vaudeville shows sprang up around Paris in the 1880s, some featuring women fresh from their debut at the Salpetriere.

Charcot’s search for a materialist cause for hysteria ultimately failed, and the consensus grew that his fantastic shows were merely the result of suggestion. But a few in the audience – including Sigmund Freud and Frederick Myers – still thought he had hit on something important.

If nothing else, Charcot’s use of hypnosis showed the profound connection between mind and body – his hypnotized patients felt no pain, and their physical symptoms could sometimes be cured by hypnosis and suggestion. His work suggested the existence of what Myers called a ‘subliminal self’, which could be brought to the surface under hypnosis. And it suggested a connection between spirituality, sexuality and subliminal or hypnotic states.

However, Charcot – and, later, Freud – defined hysteria purely as a symptom of female sexual disorder, when it could be argued it was just as much a product of male sexual disorder. Many of the hysterics had been raped as children or teenagers, and were struggling in a society dominated by men with few opportunities for female liberty. Performing sexual hysteria for a titillated male public was one opportunity for approval, expression and a sort of fame.

Frederick Myers, founder of the Society of Psychical Research and gifted writer on psychology (alas all his works are now out-of-print)
Frederick Myers, founder of the Society of Psychical Research and gifted writer on psychology (alas all his works are now out-of-print)

Frederick Myers and William James, meanwhile, accepted the idea that spirituality might be connected to sexuality, to hypnotic or subliminal states, and to nervous instability. But they insisted it wasn’t necessarily pathological or degenerative – many of the geniuses of human culture were ecstatics, much of our culture is the product of ecstasy. Perhaps, wrote Myers, ‘ecstasy is to hysteria somewhat as genius is to insanity’.

In fact, as Asti Hustvedt argues in her excellent Medical Muses: Hysteria in 19th Century Paris, in seeking to pathologize ecstasy, Charcot ended up spiritualizing medicine. He used the language of religion – ecstasy, stigmata, possession – and also some of the ritual and performance of religion. He and his disciples explored how hypnotized women seemed to exhibit miraculous powers of telepathy (a word Myers later coined).

By the end of his career, Charcot, like William James, came to recognize that religious ritual could be powerfully healing, even if the mechanism that healed was really ‘just’ suggestion. His last work, an article on ‘the faith cure’, suggests the miracle cures at Lourdes and elsewhere are real, but simply the result of suggestion. James and Myers went further, speculating that the hypnotized self might also be more open to spiritual forces.

We still don’t know. Hustvedt notes that, while ‘the hysterics of yesteryear’ have disappeared, a new batch of poorly-understood and possibly psychosomatic illnesses have proliferated – chronic fatigue syndrome, ME, post-viral fatigue, cutting, anorexia, conversion disorder, depression, psychogenic non-epileptic seizures, mass psychogenic illness – the prevalence of which is higher, sometimes much higher, in women than in men.

Are these real or invented? Physical or mental? Pathological or spiritual or both? We still don’t know. We don’t yet understand the relationship between mind and body, between mind and gender, between your mind and my mind, and between our minds and nature / God / Super-consciousness.

One last item in this bizarre and fascinating history: the vibrator was invented in the late 19th century as a result of the ancient theory that female orgasm (or ‘paroxysms’) helped to cure hysteria. Doctors would bring patients to paroxysm by manipulation, but complained their hands got cramp, so one bright spark invented an electric dildo. Meanwhile the first electrically-vibrating bed was actually developed as part of an 18th-century sexual-religious-health show called the Temple of Health and Hymen – where the star-performer was the delectable Emma Hamilton.

Don’t you think this would all make a brilliant musical?

Can governments stimulate ‘collective effervscence’ in their citizens?

The physicist Lawrence Krauss recently argued that education should teach all children the central tenet of science – ‘nothing is sacred’. Not God, not human rights, not democracy, not the environment. Nothing.

Emile Durkheim, one of the founding fathers of sociology, would disagree. Durkheim argued in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) that, though no one should dispute ‘the authority of science’, we still need religion to bind us together and to renew our moral and social consciousness through what he called ‘collective effervescence’.

fritz-goro-australian-aborigines-filled-with-the-spirit-of-the-kangaroo-dancing-to-honor-the-sacred-marsupialHe used Aboriginal society as an example of religion in its purest and earliest form. Aboriginals would periodically gather together for festivals, and a sort of electricity arises between them. They eat together, dance together, cry, chant, intoxicate, perhaps even swap wives, and whip themselves into such a state of delirium that they are transported beyond their individual selves, and feel filled with the spirit of the tribe. The rituals and totemic symbols of their tribe reminds them of this exalted state of collective consciousness, and connects them back to it in the calmer periods in between the festivals.

We might call this state of consciousness ecstasy, but that has supernatural connotations. Durkheim is at pains to show that this ‘collective effervescence’ (or group fizz, if you prefer) is actually perfectly rational, natural, and necessary to tribal functioning. What is really happening in such rituals is that man is transported from the individual into the social and tribal. Religions celebrate and perpetuate society – ‘the idea of society is the soul of religion’.

We may have lost touch with Jehovah, but we still need these periodic orgies of collective effervescence to rejuvenate our collective moral and tribal consciousness. Durkheim was a lapsed Jew and a devout citizen of France, and thought the French Revolution was a great example of secular effervescence. He wrote:

Society’s capacity to set itself up as a god, or to create gods, was nowhere more visible than in the first years of the Revolution. In the general enthusiasm of that period, things that were purely secular were transformed by public opinion into sacred things: homeland, liberty, and reason.

The Tennis Court Oath during the French Revolution
The Tennis Court Oath during the French Revolution

The Elementary Forms was published a few years after William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, and the two books approach religious ecstasy from opposite poles. For James, religious experience is the individual soul in commune with the divine – he has no interest in collective ecstasy. For Durkheim, religious experience is always social and tribal – he has no interest in individual ecstasy. The truth must be somewhere in between.

But both share the idea that in ecstatic moments, we somehow transcend ordinary reality and access what Durkheim calls the Ideal, from which we draw power and inspiration down into material reality. So ecstasy is a bridge between two worlds – the material-empirical, and the ideal or spiritual.

James is prepared to suggest that this ‘other world’ of the spiritual genuinely exists. Durkheim is more wary – he puts forward a sort of emergence theory of collective consciousness.

Every other species, he says, are biologically determined, and confined to the material realm. Only humans have the capacity to transcend this realm and to access the Ideal. We have this capacity through the chemical fusion of ‘collective effervescence – all our consciousnesses come together and create such an electrical charge, such a fizz of effervescent bubbles, that we can leap into the Ideal, and bring back ideas and symbols from there which become actualized in the material world. This is all entirely natural and human – gods are just ideas, as real as any other idea, as long as we believe in them.

This is an interesting idea, and could be compatible with Giulio Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory of consciousness. But humans aren’t the only animals to gather together – why don’t bees or wildebeest also achieve transcendent consciousness when gathered together? Why do most great religious visions or scientific discoveries happen to individuals when they’re on their own? And why does collective effervescence sometimes lead not to moral advance but moral regression?

Durkheim thought Europe in 1912 was in a state of ‘moral mediocrity’ – ‘the ancient gods grow old or die, and others are not yet born’, he wrote, sounding like JRR Tolkien. But ‘a day will come when our societies will once again experience times of creative effervescence and new ideas will surge up’, new festivals, new symbols, new gods.

Be careful what you wish for. He noted in passing that effervescence can lead to barbarism, bloodshed and attacks on ‘scapegoats’, as in the Crusades, and this is just what happened a few decades later with the Nazis, an ecstatic new cult of the state, led by a man who was the embodiment of Durkheim’s description of the demagogue: ‘He is no longer a simple individual speaking, he is a group incarnate and personified’.


Since then, western thinkers have been understandably wary of looking for ways to ferment ‘collective effervescence’ for political means. But there has been a return to Durkheim’s ideas in the last few years, notably in philosophers like Martha Nussbaum and Simon Critchley, and the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, whose TED talk on ‘ecstasy and the hive-mind’ is a contemporary riff on Durkheim.

Durkheim’s ideas are a useful way of understanding some contemporary political problems. You can see the Charlie Hebdo attack as a clash of sacred narratives, for example. Muslim radicals see the cartoons of the Prophet as taboo, and therefore punishable, and they think the democratic state is a false god. For French Republicans, the Republic is sacred, and any attack on free speech is taboo.

Durkheim’s work also helps us understand the United States’ continued inability to control gun sales. The Constitution is sacred, the United States is sacred, its origins in private armed militia are sacred – therefore any pragmatic attempt to control arms sales in order to save lives is taboo.

More positively, Durkheim recognized that ‘games and major art forms have emerged from religion and long preserved a religious character’. Certainly, football is a collective ritual – the fans join together, chant the same songs, tattoo the sacred signs of the collective onto their bodies, applaud the players when they kiss the badge, and even, in some inarticulate way, see the team as transcending death. Individuals rise and fall, but as part of Liverpool FC, you’ll never walk alone.

Rock and roll is another modern ritual, a modern means to collective effervescence which arose from religious roots, and ‘every festival, even ones that are purely secular in origin, have certain features of the religious ceremony…Man is transported outside of himself.’ Rock n’ roll is a much less toxic form of collective effervescence than, say, fascism.

I’d suggest that the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony brought together all these modern rituals – the celebration of the state, the sacredness of the NHS and the monarchy, the sacredness of sport, and the sacredness of British rock and roll, all orchstrated with rare skill by Danny Boyle and Underworld. But the 2012 Olympics was a one-off for England. A genuine ‘new ritual’ needs to be repeated every few years. Is that possible, in a multicultural megapolis like London or the UK? Have we become too skeptical and rational to let ourselves be carried away en masse? And should politicians be dabbling in the Dionysiac, or is that playing with fire?

More broadly, is society sufficiently transcendent to satisfy our longing for transcendence? I’m not sure it is. I think human consciousness longs for something bigger than just the tribe, and I find Durkheim’s political conception of religion claustrophobic and potentially toxic.

When we immanentize our longing for expanded consciousness, project it onto the state, and yearn for a revolution to heal our pain and boredom, we risk making a false idol of the state. We then make blood-sacrifices to that false god, to try and perpetuate our state of ecstasy. That’s what the Crusades did, it’s what the Nazis did, and it’s what radical Muslims are doing with Islamic State. I’m all for fizz and effervescence, but that moonshine will kill you.


In other news:

Here’s an interview I did with Gus O’Donnell, former head of the civil service, about the politics of well-being.

Erik Davis, psychedelic journalist, considers ‘psychedelic culture at the crossroads’ – is there a renaissance of psychedelics, or something more complex?

Another trial of a resilience-programme in schools – this one in Holland. No real results, alas.

The Department of Health has launched a new plan for children’s mental health. Doesn’t look like it has any significant new policy proposals to me, I might be wrong.  Meanwhile, education secretary Nicky Morgan seems to be taking Personal, Social and Health Education more seriously than Michael Gove, at least.

Here’s a good debate on ‘teaching character’ in schools, featuring Anthony Seldon versus Toby Young.

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas considers the extraordinary work of Jean Vanier, the philosopher and lover of humanity.

Great Martha Nussbaum essay on her hero Bernard Williams.

Ernest Shackleton’s experience of the ‘fourth man’, and the science of ‘felt presences’.

OK, that’s all, have a wonderful weekend, hope England win the rugby!