The Nervous Origins of the American Western

Notes, Thesis Research

Barbara Will, “The Nervous Origins of the American Western,” American Literature 20, no. 2 (1998): 293-316.

Will looks at the role that neurasthenia played in the development of the idea of the American West, specifically in its literary iteration.

Neurasthenia, as defined by George Beard and Silas Mitchell, was a disease brought on (specifically in men) by the strains of capitalism, political freedom, and technological superiority. These are good things. Modern men needed to maintain a balance, though, and engage in the kind of “struggle” that characterized his ancestors’ experiences on occasion — and they should write about it, according to Mitchell (it’s these writings that the author spends a lot of time analyzing in the second half of the article).

The disease needn’t be cured by a rejection of modernity, capitalism, etc., but rather “through a temporary and repeated entry of the urban into the rural, into a space in which the ‘sturdy contest of nature’ could be waged and these ‘stores of capital vitality’ could be replenished through the simulation of the life of ‘country men.'” (300)

Intimate Climates

Notes, Summaries & Reviews, Thesis Research

Vladimir Jankovic, “Intimate Climates: From Skins to Streets, Soirees to Societies,” in Intimate Universality: Local and Global Themes in the History of Weather and Climate eds. James Fleming, Vladimir Jankovic, and Deborah Coen, 1-34 (Sagamore Beach: Science History Publications, 2006).

In this chapter, Jankovic is interested in the dichotomy of the indoor/outdoor and in understandings (from literary and medical sources) of weather before the mass quantitative study of it really took off. He is particularly interested in indoor environments, an understudied aspect of weather — “intimate meteorologies.”

Foucault: Madness and Civilization

Notes, Summaries & Reviews

This book read a lot like Orientalism to me. It is a history of The Other and how it has been defined in relation to what is normal, what is reasonable. In Said’s work, the opposing ideas were Western and Oriental. In Foucault’s, they are reason and folly. I think the two overlap a lot, however; the Oriental was often associated with emotion, spiritual ways of understanding the world, and unreason. Equally parallel in both works is how one of the opposing binaries — the Oriental and the Mad — is made to embody all that is undesirable and the operative results of being understood that way. I understand why this book would probably be important for anyone in colonial and post-colonial studies to read.

It’s a very deep history that definitely falls firmly in the camp of constructionism. Like The Birth of the Clinic, Madness & Civilization is looking at how the discourse (knowledge-base) around something informs how it is viewed and dealt with in society.

Posits that madness was handled via confinement starting the 17th century, “the moment when madness was perceived on the social horizon of poverty, of incapacity for work, of inability to integrate with the group; the moment when madness began to rank among the problems of the city.”  (64)

“The new meanings assigned to poverty, the importance given to the obligation to work, and all the ethical values that are linked to labor, ultimately determined the experience of madness and inflected its course.” (64)

Interesting for my research is the change in conceptions of madness Foucault outlines in “The Great Fear,” summarized well in the following excerpt:

“In the second half of the eighteenth century, madness was no longer recognized in what brings man closer to an immemorial fall or an indefinitely present animality; it was, on the contrary, situated in those distances man takes in regard to himself, to his world, to all that is offered by the immediacy of nature; madness became possible in the milieu where man’s relations with his feelings, with time, with others, are altered; madness was possible because of everything which, in man’s life and development, is a break with the immediate.” (220)

This reminds me of neurasthenia and makes sense given contemporaneous therapeutic recommendations — a return to nature, to the natural state of man. Modernity, it was believed, was overexciting and led to mental problems.