more thoughts on women and doctors

Another story, another tale of substitutions.

Amie’s citing of Sylvia Plath’s Lady Lazarus in the comments of my last post made me think about the difficulty of trying to “frame” my description of Herzen’s Consolatio when the frame is bigger than the picture. But this is not an unusual situation – indeed, though we speak of frames with the image in our mind of those ornamental strips of wood which form a square in which a picture is placed, the analogy rarely works like that when dealing with concepts and themes. For the frame is the world itself, and we must take ‘frame’ in a different, older sense: as the OED puts it, rather diffusely, “The manner or method of framing; construction, structure; constitution, nature…” Etymologically, the word is related to “from” – a root meaning advancement. The unstoppable growth of frames is, indeed, a kind of demented advancement – what begins as a boundary becomes an endless frontier.

If, as I am going to imagine it, there is a vibe in Herzen that comes from therapeutic nihilism, and a likeness of his doctor to one of France’s most prominent radicals, Raspail, there is also a vibe in that struggling dyad, the woman and the doctor. A very nineteenth century vibe, indeed. Modern historians – Angus McLaren and Thomas Laquer, for instance – in telling the story of the medicalization of the female body in the nineteenth century re-use a substitution trope that comes from the nineteenth century: the doctor replaces the priest. McLaren writes:

“when nineteenth-century observers declared “the doctor is replacing the priest” they were almost always referring to the new role assumed by medicine on the terrain previously dominated by the dictates of religion – the area of sex and the family.” (McLaren 1975:39) Now how exactly a replacement like that works – what the area is that is replaced, this hole inside the frame – is relevant not just to the politics of projection which we have been following, but to the interior of the human limit – the defining traits of the Other – that has served as one of our parameter for defining the rise of the material culture. The other within, the patient within, the invalid within the house, the bed, the nation, was becoming, archetypally, the Woman. Michelet, with whom Herzen was friendly, proclaimed, famously, in L’amour that “la femme est une malade.” “She seems destined to pain; thus suffering to be formed, suffering every month, suffering to be a woman…” Thomas Laqueur noted that it was in the 1840s that obstetricians developed a better sense of the menstrual cycle (there had been a medical theory that menses was caused by lasciviousness), building on von Baer’s demonstration of an egg in the fallopian tube of a dog:

“In the novelistic style that characterizes so much early nineteenth-century scientific reporting, Theodor L.W. Bischoff tells his reader that on 18 and 19 December 1843 he noted tat a large bitch in his possession had begun to go into heat. On the 19th he allowed her contact with a male dog, but she refused its attentions. He kept her securely imprisoned for two more days and then brought on the male dog again; this time she was interested but the animals were separated before coition could take place. At ten o’clock two days later, i.e., on the morning of the 23rd, he cut out her left ovary and fallopian tubes and carefully closed the wood. The Graafian follicles in the excised ovary were swollen but not yet burst. Five days later he killed the dog and found in the remaining ovary four developing corpus lutei.

Laquer points out that F.A. Pouchet, a famous doctor (and friend of Michelet) considered the discover that ovulation occurs independently of coition so important that “he formulated it as his “fifth and critical law of reproductive biology.” (Laqueur 1987: 26) As Laqueur points out, this shifted the medical identity of women from the vagina to the ovaries. And Emily Martin has pointed to the persistence of feminine and masculine cultural archetypes in the representation of the egg and the sperm up to the present day.

The thematic of alienation in the liberal and radical marginals begins with a turn in the interpretation of the structure of the relationship between the governors and the governed. The enlightenment notion that the bond between the people and the state consists in some relationship to collective happiness was not a direct hit on the old order – rather, a conservative view of this notion is that happiness is the equivalent of the stability given by a fixed order of dependence. Georg Foster had compared this to an order that kept the people in the stage of larvae – arrested in their development. This metaphoric of development is, of course, a biologic metaphoric. It is taken, ultimately, from embryology. Just as the embryo develops into a human in the womb, the people would develop into perfected humans in the womb of the revolutionary state – or, in the liberal version, in a state that allowed for a culture of the liberated imagination. The oddity of this metaphoric is that, although it is taken from the woman’s body, the woman in the story seems to be backed further and further away from the center. In this, she becomes a frame, a bracket, a support.

I'll return to this in another post