George Beard.  This image is in the public domain

I’m testing out some ideas about neurasthenia, my favourite nineteenth-century nervous complaint. Mark Micale and Elaine Showalter have argued quite convincingly that neurasthenia was polite metonym for male hysteria. I, however, am interested in the ways that it differs from hysteria – the particulars that made it non-feminizing. The following are some of my musings to that end. Yet again I am sucked into the American context (“really,” the lady protests, “when I’m not splashing about with humanities computing, 98% of my research is on the British, not that you can tell from this blog”): the term neurasthenia was coined by American nerve specialist, George M. Beard, and popularized by his two books Nervous Exhaustion (Neurasthenia) (1880) and American Nervousness: Its Causes and the Consequences (1881).

The central distinctions between Nervous Exhaustion (Neurasthenia) and American Nervousness arise from the books’ tone and audience. While Nervous Exhaustion (Neurasthenia) was written for the medical community, and excerpted and summarized in the periodical press, American Nervousness was, in Beard’s own words, “of a more distinctly philosophical and popular character than [Nervous Exhaustion (Neurasthenia)] which was specially addressed to the professional and scientific reader” (iiv-iv). The monograph is of particular interest to me because it was written for lay readers rather than scientific professionals. I am curious about the need to parade the cause of neurasthenia before a general audience who, I suspect are being encouraged to ignore their doctors and self-diagnose as neurasthenics – an interesting act of masculine self-determination, no?

In American Nervousness Beard offered the following explanation to his readers:

The chief and primary cause of this development and very rapid increase of nervousness is modern civilization, which is distinguished from the ancient by these five characteristics: steam-power, the periodical press, the telegraph, the sciences, and the mental activity of women. (Beard iv)

He added the caveat that the outbreak of neurasthenia was particularly acute in the northern and eastern United States, as opposed to Europe, Great Britain or the colonies, on account of dry air, extreme temperatures, and, in an odd juxtaposition, American’s “civil and religious liberty” and the mental activity required in a new country where such liberties were enshrined (vii).

If modern civilization is causing neurasthenic attacks, it is worth considering how Beard defines modernity. Beard’s examples suggest that increased speed in the production and dissemination of knowledge might be an apt synonym for Beard’s definition of “modern civilization.” The periodical press, the telegraph and the travel enabled by steam-power revolutionized the spread of information, and with it the pressure to amass a working knowledge on many fronts. In the 1870s and 1880s the proliferation of periodicals dedicated to reviews suggests that average readers could not possibly keep abreast of all information they were supposed to know about current literature, art, science, and politics, without periodicals to abridge that knowledge for them.

Paradoxically, Beard blamed the periodical press’ very existence for the spread of neurasthenia, even while he used the press (notably the Virginia Medical Journal, North American Review, Atlantic Monthly, and Yale College Courant) to popularize this new disease and disseminate a list of its various symptoms.

Science, or rather the shift in science’s dominant paradigm from natural theology to scientific naturalism, which corresponded with science’s increased prestige and authority to make truth claims, appears to make Beard’s list precisely because it had changed so much over the nineteenth century.

“The mental activity of women” is also a telling index on which Beard has pegged modern civilization. There were numerous minority groups fighting for social equality in the United States at the time, but Beard only chooses women’s increased mental activity, from which we can infer women’s struggle for access to education, for special comment. There is something particular about women’s relation to neurasthenia that makes them central to the conception of modern civilization as a toxic force. The mental activity of women in this case is an almost tangible force with the power to alter men’s bodies. Although Beard was not working with “stress” as a concept, the mental activity of women is definitely framed as a stressor to men. Beard is making a clever rhetorical move: better for his theory that women be a stressor to men, than the alternative: women engaging in intellectual activity without any regard for men would mean that modern women were opting out of the social model in which they were perpetually oriented towards men, existing only as a foil for normative masculinity.

If the rapid and destabilizing dissemination of knowledge was the marker of modern civilization, then “the ancient” in this case represents stability and status. Ancient civilization, for this American doctor, has quite a different meaning than it did for middle- and upper-middle class Britons, who, Frank Turner argues, imagined themselves in teleological continuity with ancient Greeks. This helps to explain in part why the Britons blamed the disease on the pace of modern life, they did not contrast it to their intellectual progenitors, the ancients… I’ll be back when I’ve parsed the particularities of British men’s nervous (dare I say it?) hysteria.


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