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  • "Misfits" in Fin-de-Siècle France and Italy. Anatomies of Difference by Susan A. Ashley
  • Toby Gelfand
"Misfits" in Fin-de-Siècle France and Italy. Anatomies of Difference. By Susan A. Ashley (London and New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017. ix plus 327 pp. £76.50).

Susan Ashley states the goal of her study of conceptions of human behavioral abnormalities at the end of the 19th century to be "examining what scientists and social theorists said in order to identify patterns and to excavate the structures supporting them" (7). She acknowledges that this is by no means "uncharted [scholarly] territory," citing the foundational work of Michel Foucault and subsequent contributions by Robert Nye, Jan Goldstein, Ian Hacking, and numerous others in an extensive bibliography.

Ashley's range of subjects is impressive. Besides dealing with Italian sources along with better-known French material, she offers a unifying framework for what appear to be and are usually studied as diverse manifestations of deviance. "Misfits" is her chosen unifying rubric. This she divides into "Mental misfits" and "Social Misfits", each of which is subdivided into three chapters as follows: "Geniuses," "Lunatics," "Neurotics," and "Vagabonds," "Criminals," "Sexual Deviants."

This is a tall order for a compact if lucidly written book which moves systematically and briskly through each theoretical discourse. Little is said about social context or the investigators. The survey does identify certain shared characteristics, for example the assumption that fixed inborn causes were much more important than environmental factors. Vagrants and criminals constituted overlapping categories; mental misfits could also be social misfits. "Epilepsy" (a much broader, more pervasive disorder than the modern entity) was invoked as a cause for many misfits, including geniuses.

Investigators also tended to cross over categories. Medical professionals, mostly psychiatrists and neurologists, the latter group a progressive new specialty, not surprisingly dominated the literature on mental misfits. But they also tended to loom large with respect to the discourse on social misfits. The outstanding example here was the Italian physician, Cesare Lombroso, the acknowledged founder of criminal anthropology, whose published contributions dealt with all categories.

However, in the absence of further context, the relative importance and positioning of many experts remains problematic. For example, Ashley briefly mentions published contributions by various Paris medical men. She seems unaware [End Page 1417] that at least half a dozen belonged to Jean-Martin Charcot's inner circle of students. As such their collective work should be seen as issuing from a hospitalbased network under the leadership of a major figure. At the other extreme, one of the most frequently cited sources in the "Sexual Deviants" chapter is L'Inversion sexuelle (1893). Its author, a certain Julien Chevalier, is left without further identification. (Chevalier in fact studied medicine in Lyon under Alexandre Lacassagne, an important figure.)

Ashley's text is enlivened by the presentation of case histories. She makes the point that such records often serve as unique sources for the lived experience of patients filtered through the examining expert. Several of Charcot's clinical case histories are reviewed in detail, including that of "Men…s," a 37-year-old delivery man who experienced unconscious periods of walking that lasted hours or even days. On one occasion the last thing he remembered was jumping into the Seine and not regaining consciousness until 48 hours later on the far shore. Charcot diagnosed the case as ambulatory automatism, due to a form of epilepsy. Bordeaux physicians labeled such cases fugue states. But secular authorities might have conflated the mental misfit with a wandering vagrant, as does Ashley.

The most fully developed case history concerns a flamboyantly violent Italian outlaw, Giuseppe Musolino, who came to trial in 1901 for multiple murders he claimed were acts of justifiable revenge. Both the prosecution and the defense teams included distinguished psychiatrists and other forensic experts who employed the same tests and interviews and each published reports on the case. Further publicity in the popular press brought the medical criminological issues at stake in the trial to broad social attention. The defense's argument that Musolino suffered from epilepsy, making him a degenerate or an evolutionary throwback not responsible for his actions, did not prevail over...


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