Fiction - Autumn 2017

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

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A woman diagnosed with "hystero-epilepsy" at the Salpêtrière hospital (Courtesy of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh)

By Maud Casey

September 5, 2017


 

We, Surrealists, insist on celebrating here, in 1928, the 50th anniversary of hysteria, the greatest poetic discovery of the 19th century. 

André Breton and Louis Aragon’s homage to the anniversary of the diagnosis in La Révolution surréaliste is accompanied by reproductions of the original series of photographs, titled “The Passionate Attitudes, 1878.” Plate I, “The Call”: propped on an elbow, thick hair hanging down her back. Plate II, “Eroticism”: arms hugged to her chest, as though she is sleeping. Plate III, “Contracture”: head tilted, lips pursed, she sits up in bed wearing only a sheet. Follow the slope of her bare shoulder down her arm to find the paralysis, clenched fist camouflaged in bunched bedding. Plate IV, “Mockery”: tsking someone no one else can see. Plate V, “The Cry”: tongue stuck out of a twisted face.

Her clever escape from the Salpêtrière dressed as a man has always been the end of the story, but lives have a way of exceeding their narratives.

We, Surrealists, who love nothing so much as those young hysterics, the perfect example of whom is supplied to us by the study concerning the delicious Augustine—admitted to the Salpêtrière in Dr. Charcot’s care not yet 15.

Was she still delicious, 50 years later? Oh yes. The man on the street was handing the journals out to everyone who passed, but she likes to think her deliciousness is why, when he put one directly into her hands, his lingered.

“You cannot claim to have really seen something until it is photographed,” she remembers the great doctor saying to the men gathered all around her in the amphitheater. “Listen to the photographs. They will tell you all you need to know.”

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Maud Casey is the author of three novels, most recently The Man Who Walked Away, and a collection of stories, Drastic. She is the recipient of the Calvino Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the St. Francis College Literary Prize.


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