The term ‘Hysteria’ is now recognised as a diagnosis stemming from pseudo-science, intrinsically linked to misogyny and man’s dominance. Symptoms eventually attributed to ‘Hysteria’ have been common throughout history. In ancient Greece, they were attributed to uterine movement.
In 19th century Europe, psychiatrists sought a term to describe this malady among them Uterine Suffocation, Uterine Fury, Female Asthma, and Melancholy of Virgins were considered. Ultimately, the term Hysteria would be chosen as the catch-all diagnosis for women suffering from many ailments of no visible root.
One front-runner in Hysteria science was Jean-Martin Charcot he was charged with Hysteria treatment at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, Charcot was notoriously fixated on a particular patient. Admitted to the Salpêtrière when she was only sixteen, her name was Augustine. A traumatic rape episode in her childhood led to her Hysteria diagnosis. When in reality what she was suffering was PTSD combined with schizophrenic episodes.
Once at Salpêtrière, she quickly became Charcot’s muse. Each Tuesday, when he conducted ‘Grand Rounds’. Hysterical women were put on display for audiences consisting of medical contemporaries, students and members of the general public. Armed with a camera, Charcot used photography as a machine to capture patients’ attack symptoms for later analysis. These pictures would then be published, used as ‘evidence’.
‘Melancholia of Virgins’ explores this imagery, focusing primarily on Augustine in the Salpêtrière, and redefining visual representation through digital technology. Handmade collages sliced, stitched and inverted, quickly evolved to animations – transforming this once static archive into one now dynamic and contemporary. These experimental pieces seek to increase awareness of a time when the field of medicine subjected women to abhorrent treatment.
Through collaboration with a writer, Augustine’s story is explored through poetry as a fictional re-imagining of her perspective.
Poems by: Ben McEvoy
Am I still somebody when I’m alone, or
Just when his eyes creep over me?
Unflinching, always curious, bold and relentless
Probing and searching; seeking out truth
The absence of reality is no obstruction
For a man who creates the very thing he discovers
Am I performing for him as I perform for them?
Is their applause his, mine or ours?
Only through observation can I be classified
How can so many eyes look and not see
The relentless dual purpose of neglected uteri
To bring forth life and to drive it insane
This ugly stain; this blight
Poking holes in society’s sinister cloak
Hidden beneath, ruined women cry
For what and for whom, has no scientific relevance
We’re just Jezebel falling. We’re Eve in the Garden, and
We are Joan at her stake, being cleansed of existence
Only the love of a man can cure such madness
May God have mercy on our wandering wombs
A bustling beehive of furrowed brows and open mouths
Just another Tuesday at the Salpêtrière
The coldest touch shivers along my skin; it is time
For the Grand Rounds to go round and round, and so
I prance and I pose, I dance and forget, that
Once I was a woman
Now I’m just a tool; his ladder to greatness
Now I’m just paint adorning his canvas
The audience adores him, but his masterpiece is a fraud
Though which one of us is lying, I can never be sure
The darkness devours me, but there in the gloom
His contraption is waiting to capture my truth
Here in the dark where my thoughts float in nothing
I am almost myself, I am almost something
Though I know it is coming. Soon
The light overwhelms, the light consumes
A light of self-fulfilling prophecy, and
The cause of my catalepsy. But
In the pursuit of greatness, does it matter what’s true?
He has his camera. He has his proof
They were supposed to help us, but
They can’t even hear us. We’re just
Pathological specimens and scientific inquiries
Our identities removed like an old pair of boots
Tossed in the cupboard, gathering dust
Never to be worn again
I would speak out if I could, I would shout. But
Our words are just noise to them
The mindless drone of chattering women
What a terrible burden it is to be a man
Soon a day will come; an afternoon
The hypnotic veil will lift. Amidst the lights
I will see the light that will guide me to an epiphany
And his legacy will tremble beneath my foot
I could crush him with but a thought
No more will he coax my symptoms for show
No more will he hypnotise his favourite creation
No more will he parade this unbroken woman
I will find a way, the future has told
Somehow I’ll survive. Somehow, I just know