- Telling the Flesh: Life Writing, Citizenship, and the Body in the Letters to Samuel Auguste Tissot by Sonja Boon
Sonja Boon’s valuable study on medical sociability contributes to several academic fields at once: the history of medicine, gender studies, and research into epistolary culture as well as life writing. At its center is the famous Swiss physician Samuel Auguste Tissot (1728–1797), author of the best-selling Avis au peuple sur sa sainté (1761), a practical guide to health, which invited patients seeking medical advice to go for epistolary consultation. The 1,300 surviving patient letters in the Fonds Tissot archive in Lausanne document the Europe-wide response that the doctor elicited from individuals, many of them from the upper echelons of society. As a body of material open to academic consultation, the archive posits an unusual situation for scholars of eighteenth-century epistolary culture: the letters, though written by about a thousand individuals, all have the same recipient. This “body of stories” (4), of autobiographies, these constructions of self, are at the center of Boon’s work on the Tissot archive as a specimen of Enlightenment epistolary culture. She shows how the letters and their authors link corporeal practice and citizenship, perform family and kinship, display physical pleasure and disorder, and stage health as a citizen’s duty. Patients addressed Tissot with manifold queries: “You would accomplish a great work if you could bring to health a respectable mother who is very useful to those who surround her” (85); “The seizure was preceded by an abuse of sweet pastries” (114); “. . . there is something strange about my situation, but of what are hypochondriacs not capable?” (220).
Chapter 1 sets the framework for a study that is throughout strongly founded on an array of well-explained theories. It introduces the reader to the Tissot archive in terms of both textual and material criticism, including recent debates about genre conventions of the letter and its liminal nature as well as concepts of autobiography. Thus the tone is set for the subsequent chapters, which look at [End Page 543] various aspects of this “collective autobiography of embodiment” (49). Widening the concern with epistolary culture, chapter 2 starts with the question of how the corporeal self imagined him- or herself in letters at a time when bodily suffering was an inevitable part of life. Five different types of narrating selves are found: the quantifiable, the storytelling, the emotional, the confessional, and the resistant self, all “ideal” types that can overlap with or contradict one another. What is so convincing about this typology is that it is applicable to other epistolary exchanges about bodily reactions and illness, from the confessing Pamela to the moaning Horace Walpole.
Chapter 3 focuses on “corporeal virtue” and “embodied citizenship,” describing citizenship as a performance that aims to provide strength for the homeland [patrie]. Thus, in the Tissot correspondence, the healthy male body, for example, is sometimes cast as a virtuous body, one that fulfills its duty. Health becomes a marker of good citizenship, whereas illness caused by overindulgences in luxuries can be read as a visible sign of “failed” citizenship, as posited by Samantha Murray in “(Un/Be)Coming Out? Rethinking Fat Politics” (2005) (93). Unruly bodies, damaged by excess (irregular diet, illicit sexual activities) but also by circumstances such as upsetting events, may fail to be useful not just to the individual but also to the community. Through his medical advice, Tissot rendered service both to his patients and to society at large, as many of his correspondents claimed.
Chapters 4–6 concentrate on three major fields in which the corporeal identities brought forward in the letters manifest themselves: kinship and reproduction, pleasure, and nervous disorder. It is in these three latter chapters that the concepts developed in the first half of the book find their full application. Chapter 4 highlights how health-seeking individuals linked discourses of health to matters of lineage and inheritance. Mothers who wrote to Tissot...