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  • “Deep deep into the river of her mind”:“Meneseteung” and the Archival Hysteric
  • Katrine Raymond (bio)

While the diagnosis may be officially defunct, the language of hysteria is still rampant in popular, cultural, literary, and scientific discourses. A search on the term “hysteria” in PubMed returns over five hundred hits from the year 2000 to date. As one of the slipperiest illnesses of the mind, hysteria continues to invoke fear, curiosity, and the desire for interpretive mastery.1 Studied by a range of scholars including historians, feminists, psychiatrists, sociologists, and ethnologists, hysteria has been defined primarily by its protean and varied symptoms such as headaches, dysmenorrhea, alterations in mood, pain, non-organic paralysis, and general weakness that resemble symptoms of other, more fully understood diseases. According to Canadian historian Wendy Mitchinson, nineteenth-century hysterics suffered from the nebulous symptoms of violent emotions [End Page 95] and attention-seeking behaviour (285). All of these symptoms could be explained by hysteria’s defining characteristic: a “lack of control over the emotions,” which most doctors perceived as a predominantly female problem (Mitchinson 280). Seeing hysteria as a dysfunction of the mind and body, many nineteenth-century hysterical sufferers and their families turned to the medical profession for help (Mitchinson 281).

While hysteria’s cultural significations changed over the centuries, the figure of the hysteric was largely feminized in the nineteenth century.2 What can we learn from the nineteenth century’s hysterical legacy? In particular, how does the body—the self-regulating, respirating, digesting, thinking, eliminating human body—figure into this feminized and protean illness of the mind? In many ways, contemporary literature has been able to go further than medical science in exploring the causes and healing of hysteria. While the medical field eschews the speculative, anecdotal, and liminal, fiction embraces multiple ways of knowing. Bestselling fictions including Jane Urquhart’s Away (1993) and Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace (1996) turn to the archives of nineteenth-century Ontario to explore how and why the hysterical mindbody acts as an archive of past emotional traumas and how this might suggest a model of recovery.

In particular, I would like to explore how Alice Munro’s “Meneseteung” (1990) uses the archive as a literal and figurative structure to tell the story of a hysterical nineteenth-century Ontario poetess. In both the story and nineteenth-century medical discourses, the hysterical body interacts with its environment in complex and unexpected ways. “Meneseteung” was written at a critical point in the history of mental illness. While the psychopharmacological revolution started in the 1950s, the emergence of Prozac in 1987 changed the contemporary psychiatric landscape, with family doctors in addition to psychiatrists prescribing the pills.3 Elizabeth [End Page 96] Wilson notes a change in the 1990s with a “transition from feminist politics under the influence of anti-psychiatry to feminist politics after Prozac” (“Organic Empathy” 376). In the medicalized context of the 1990s, a sufferer may see herself as a victim of a medical condition: “The medications make it easier for someone who is afflicted by such a mental illness to think of it as something ‘other,’ a thing, almost an agent that acts upon one” (Hacking 113). In the nineteenth century, however, hysteria was seen less as an agent in itself but rather as a potential—and even “natural”—part of female subjectivity. As hysteria was treated by wide-ranging therapies including surgery, blistering, botanical remedies, marriage, talk therapy, cold douches, firm pressure applied to the ovaries, clitoridectomy, and rest (Mitchinson 286-88), the nineteenth-century conception of the condition rooted it in the social, biological, and cultural life of the sufferer.

In “Meneseteung,” Munro depicts her hysterical heroine as both a sufferer and a resistant subject; hysteria is impacted by social and familial trauma, and it springs from the complexities of the mind-body connection. In terms of understanding hysteria, the story shows us that there is much to learn from our predecessors; contemporary Western science is slowly returning to considerations of an eccentric, non-hierarchical mindbody.4 The term mindbody becomes particularly provocative because it refuses to consider each component as a discretely functioning entity. As Elizabeth A. Wilson argues in her analysis...