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  • 'Misfits' in Fin-de-siècle France and Italy: Anatomies of Difference by Susan A. Ashley
  • Guy Austin
'Misfits' in Fin-de-siècle France and Italy: Anatomies of Difference. By Susan A. Ashley. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017. 300 pp.

From the criminalizing of vagabondage to the pathologizing of homosexuality via the identification of 'modern' psychological phenomena such as neurasthenia, this substantial study explores the attempts to explain and contain social, medical, and sexual 'misfits' in France and Italy between 1870 and 1914. The mass of material is both a strength and a weakness. The research is impressively thorough, but in a field where opinions were so diverse, and theories competed relentlessly with each other, the result can tend towards the anecdotal with little room for an overview. As Susan A. Ashley herself notes of definitions of epilepsy, '[c]onsensus came hard' (p. 97). Throughout, though, Ashley's style remains readable and clear, her account fuelled by references ranging from scientific journals of the day to celebrated court cases. These include the French serial killer Jean Vacher, apparently an embodiment of the way that aberrant social and medical behaviours strengthened each other, and of Giuseppe Musolino, an Italian brigand whose crimes were variously explained as a consequence of epilepsy, a thirst for revenge, or a combination of the two whereby 'Musolino's unhealthy psyche operated in the context of the ethnic and social structures of Calabria, [which] promoted the local ethic of vendetta' (p. 162). It would be fascinating to connect these fin-de-siècle phenomena with work on social norms during the century that followed. Georges Bataille, Jean Genet, the New Right myth of the culture of dependency, and the celebration of equality in The Spirit Level (by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (London: Allen Lane, 2009)) all came to mind as I read about the whirl of debates around productivity, crime, poverty, and education. A present-day connection seems particularly poignant for neurasthenia, a condition no longer spoken of, but which evokes current concerns such as 'burn-out'. In this regard, Paolo Mantegazza's observation in 1907 that overwork 'burns us alive', or Laurent Mathieu's comment in 1892 that '[w]e overexert ourselves on the pretext of enjoying ourselves' (p. 86) could be fruitfully compared to Alain Ehrenberg's work on the modern-day culture of performance in France (see Le Culte de la performance (Paris: Pluriel, 2010)) and its negative impact on mental health. That said, the chapter on neurasthenia is one of the best in the book, informed not just by revealing details but by a central irony whereby '[t]he more actively people tried to meet society's expectations, the greater the likelihood of becoming neurasthenic' (p. 94). The final chapter notes that linear models provided by evolution and history consistently informed the various definitions of 'misfits'. Hence, '[p]rimitive people occupied one end of the line, civilized men the other, with women trailing along behind males in each phase' (p. 200). The profusion of scientific and pseudo-scientific theories, explains Ashley, dethroned the soul and installed the brain (and nervous system) as the arbiter of human behaviour. Ultimately, she contends, the First World War challenged many fin-de-siècle models. So, in part, did Freud. Only mentioned once, Freud stands not as an end-point but as a partial continuation of the work of those, such as Jean-Martin Charcot, whom Ashley so meticulously observes. [End Page 461]

Guy Austin
Newcastle University


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