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Over the course of several centuries, Western masculinity has successfully established itself as the voice of reason, knowledge and sanity – the basis for patriarchal rule – in the face of massive testimony to the contrary. In a new book, “Hysterical Men: The Hidden History of Male Nervous Illness” (Harvard University Press, 2008), Mark S. Micale challenges this vision of the stable and secure male by examining the central role played by modern science and medicine in constructing and sustaining it.
Micale, a UI professor of history, reveals the hidden side of this vision – that is, the innumerable cases of disturbed and deranged men who passed under the eyes of male medical and scientific elites from the 17th century onward. Since ancient times, physicians and philosophers had closely observed and extravagantly theorized female weakness, emotionality and madness. What these male experts failed to see – or saw but did not acknowledge – was masculine nervous and mental illness among all classes and in diverse guises. While cultural and literary intellectuals pioneered new languages of male emotional distress, European science was invested in cultivating and protecting the image of male, middle-class detachment, objectivity and rationality despite rampant counter-evidence in the clinic, in the laboratory and on battlefields.
The reasons for suppressing male neurosis from the official discourses of science and medicine as well as from popular view range from the personal and psychological to the professional and the political. They make for a history full of profound silences, omissions and amnesias. Now, however, under the greatly altered circumstances of today’s gender revolution, Micale’s work allows this story to be heard.
Writing about the book, Julia Keller of the Chicago Tribune said: “As he has done in previous books on the history of psychiatry, Micale traces the ways that the medical profession reinforced the dominant paradigm of stout-hearted men and helpless, fluttering females. Only in the 20th century did physicians and scientists challenge those stereotypes.”
“Popular culture today is going through a comprehensive reassessment of what masculinity is,” Micale wrote. “To explore the possibility that hysteria has been not a woman-only disorder, risked uncovering the elements of mental and emotional ‘femininity’ in the ‘male’ psyche itself.”
In a recent interview with Smithsonian Magazine, Micale was asked if writing this book involved assessing any hysterical tendencies of his own. “I joke with my colleagues that, despite the title, this book is not my autobiography. But it does help to be somewhat self-aware psychologically. For me it’s a fascination with a behavior pattern that is opposite my own. Obsession and over-control are my chosen pathologies, my neuroses of choice, and for that reason I’ve been interested in those who negotiate the world through hysterical outbursts.”
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