- La Fibre littéraire: le discours médical sur la lecture au XVIIIesiècle
In the summer of 2007, thousands of eighteenth-century scholars from various countries descended on the city of Montpellier for the International Enlightenment Congress. From the flurry of ideas, one especially prominent trend emerged: the history of medicine. This was hardly an accident, considering the importance of Montpellier’s school of medicine during the eighteenth century and the organizers’ wish to highlight this aspect of the city’s history. Nevertheless, it was good to be reminded that the history of medicine has provided fertile soil for scholars of eighteenth-century studies in the last few years. Not only have critics returned medical and scientific treatises to their rightful place in the realm of literature, where they were situated in the Early Modern era, but they have shed new light on familiar texts by explaining influential theories of vapors, nerves, fibers, and animal spirits. A number of works have augmented our knowledge of the medical discipline, notably those by Roy Porter and Jean Starobinski, as well as Anne Vila’s study of sensibility as a physiological phenomenon and Michel Delon’s examination [End Page 963] of energy as a quality of the character and of the body. In short, scholars have rediscovered the scientific discourses that underlie eighteenth-century ideas about how humans beings function.
Alexandre Wenger contributes to the history of medicine and joins it to another strain of research that concerns the role of the reader. His Fibre littéraire concerns the moral and physiological effects of novels on the vulnerable reader. Rather than just focusing on the moralizing warnings about the dangers of novels, for example, from a religious point of view, Wenger brings a fresh perspective on the topic by looking at the secular medical discourse that justified a strong distrust of reading.
La Fibre littéraire begins in two ways, first by teasing our prurient curiosity and then by signaling some clearly-marked paths that our intellect could follow. In the sexually provocative aspect of his introduction, the author recounts the contents of La Nymphomanie, ou traité de la fureur uterine, a treatise by the physician J. D. T. de Bienville. To summarize the illness of nymphomania as it appears in Bienville’s treatise: reading novels fires up the imagination, which leads to obsessive masturbation, and if sexual desires are not satisfied by marriage, the patient is likely to die. The phenomenon is made especially vivid by Bienville’s fictional, even novelistic, narrative of a young woman who undergoes this exact type of death-by-reading. Wenger connects this ambiguously piquant or fright-inducing scenario to the discourse against masturbation, which has been studied by other scholars, and he proceeds to reflect on the problems that emerge from this text. He proposes a series of questions, nine in total, which will structure his considerations on the link between reading and medicine in texts such as La Nymphomanie.
The first question involves the two disciplines of medicine and literature, which seem hopelessly disparate to most modern readers. How can the activity of reading be an object of medical study, and conversely, how are medical treatises part of literature (and, I would add, how does Wenger justify his interest in them as a literary scholar)? This section provides a quick historical overview of the medical field in the eighteenth century, very useful for non-specialists, which leads us step by step towards an answer to his question.
As the author explains, the fiber of his title refers to the material that the body was thought to be composed of, and which was conceptualized differently according to successive medical theories. In the early eighteenth century, the mechanistic view expounded by Albrecht von Haller concentrated on the irritable and sensible fibers which either reflexively contracted from the stimulus or transmitted a feeling to the mind. This theory grew in ways Haller never intended when it was exploited by materialists...