12.17.2007

American nervousness

If the Eskimos, as the old saw goes, have a hundred words for "snow," I must have nearly as many for "tired." I'm weary, enervated, blah. So it was no coincidence that I finally got around to reading American Nervousness 1903 which had been stalled in my mental books-to-read cue for quite a while. An exploration of neurasthenia, an affliction that took on epidemic proportions at the end of the 19th and turn of the 20th centuries, the book inspired my visual collection of ennui, above.

Neurasthenia was a nebulous mental and physical diagnosis that covered a lot of territory from hysteria, anhedonia, and "brain collapse" to premature baldness, fatigue and hot flashes. There was a whole constellation of debilitating symptoms for which fainting couches, air baths, nerve tonics, electric trusses and the like purported to relieve. The concept of nerve disease was introduced as a medical condition in 1869 but became more prevalent as the 19th century drew to a close. George M Beard published one of first full-length studies of neurasthenia in 1881 and called it “American Nervousness.” He and other neurologists of the time developed theories of health and disease which were based on folk beliefs of bodily energy, and were expressed 'economic' terms.
“The idea of “dissipation” thus is based on a notion of dispersed rather then directed nerve force, spent without any possible return on the investment. Dissipation eventually led to “decadence,” the death and decay of nerve centers in the individual, and the death and decay of civilization at the social level.” The end result of processes of dissipation, or of any unwise nervous investment, was disease.
Conversely if patients were sensitive and refined enough to begin with, neurasthenia could be brought on by simple exposure to the hectic pace and excessive stimuli of modern life. Paradoxically, the disease could thus be a sign of moral laxity–or extreme moral sensitivity. It was seen as a particularly American syndrome, made manifest in this country as it roared into the 20th century-- straining at the continental frontiers, overrun by waves of immigration, stretched by imperialist expansion and bristling with industrial might. But certainly any thinking man (or woman) of the Mauve Decade could be struck by taedium vitae or acedie. I always saw it as the purview of European aristocratic families in decline, or Europeans anyway– from the relative vigor of Wilde's jaded drawing room wits, through Huysmans' languid decadents, to Egon Scheile's stricken husks...

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Some saw it as practically the natural given state for women. Charlotte Perkins Gilman's famous short story, The Yellow Wallpaper, portrays the worsening mental state of the narrator as she endures the "rest cure," enforced inactivity and seclusion based on real-life prescriptions of the well-known 19th century physician, S. Weir Mitchell. Gilman theorized that a proscribed daily existence made women feel their own backwardness–cramped and useless. "Confined to the home," Gilman says, "she begins to fill and overfill it with the effort of individual expression... and overfilling the house, like the overspending of energy is unhealthy." Hmmm. Interior decorating as neurotic displacement...
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Next up in my mental book cue:
the intriguingly titled "Philosophy of Disenchantment" by decadent wit and aesthete, Edgar Saltus.

Images: Ennui, 1914 Walter Sickert; The Lute, 1903 Thomas Wilmer Dewing; CMS Reading by Gaslight, 1879 William Stott; Woman in Plaid Shawl, 1872 Susan MacDowell Eakins; Yellow Scale, 1907 FrantiĊĦek Kupka; Tree of Nervous Illness, 1881 George Beard.

4 comments:

Flor said...

In thanks for this lovely post, i offer you the German "Lesewut" or "reading rage" for your word collection. There's a brief English wiki on the term. I firmly believe that Lesewut and its close relative "Lesesucht," or "reading addiction," are proximate ancestors to the nervous maladies of the nineteenth century.
I also wanted to thank you here for "peevishness" as i also did here:
http://redridinghoodandthewolf.blogspot.com/2007/12/standing-on-corner-waiting-for-private.html

Carol said...

in my (unpublished) book, neurasthenia is a symptom of this sick society. It's been sick for centuries, and it's getting sicker. As long as our reaction is to develop a new pill to get us thru the days and nights, the prognosis is predictably grim.

Curmudgeon in Venice

angela said...

oh? Do tell me more. Sounds like a book I'd want to read!

Anonymous said...

Sorry I misled you. I should have explained that it's unpublished because it's unwritten.

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