Monthly Archives: September 2013

Hysterical Men


Lerner, Paul.  Hysterical Men: War, Psychiatry, and the Politics of Trauma in Germany, 1890-1930.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003.

Lerner’s book centers on a German debate over how to interpret the “debilitating shakes, stutters, tics and tremors, and dramatic disorders of sight, hearing and gait” that were plaguing the nation’s veterans of the Great War (1).  Throughout his book, he traces the shift from describing such ailments as the result of “trauma” to being the outward symptoms of a deeper, inner “hysteria.”  This shift represented a growing power of psychiatrists in Germany, and Lerner shows that it also had ramifications on Germany’s laws, economy, and notions of masculinity.

The work of psychiatrist Hermann Oppenheim in the 1870s and 1880s demonstrated that the stutters, tics, and tremors that some men were experiencing were symptomatic of “trauma,” which was caused by external shocks and accidents.  Oppenheim’s work was successful enough that Bismarck included trauma as a legitimate reason for claiming insurance pensions in 1889 (pg 9).  The discourse was quickly replaced by a newer generation of psychiatrists and policy makers, though, who claimed that such a connection would “pension neurosis,” or a debilitating addiction to pensions (33).  In other words, a diagnosis of “trauma” would cast the men as victims and allow them to feel entitled to pension payment from the state.  Instead, a new diagnosis emerged:  men’s tics and tremors were manifestations of “hysteria”, a deeply rooted flaw of the person’s character.

When the Great War broke out in 1914, the nationalistic, conservative psychiatrists saw the conflict as a chance to harden up Germany’s weak and hysterical men.  But, by the time that hundreds of thousands of men were complaining of trauma during WWI, the situation became more serious, particularly as the state faced paying out insurance claims to all of its veterans.  The psychiatrists used their superior social stances to launch another “war on hysteria,” which included new therapies like “suggestive preparation” (103) and other “active treatments” like electro-shock therapy.  Lerner asserts that by claiming that these hysterical men were themselves flawed, psychiatrists absolving the state of any responsibility since these men’s ailments were not caused by any traumatic event of the war.  More importantly than saving the state any moral responsibility, a diagnosis of “hysteria” (versus “trauma”) would save the state money since it no longer had to pay out insurance pensions.  So, in imperial Germany, economic concerns overlapped with scientific changes, and economics always remained intertwined with the debate (85).  Once the men were deemed “cured” they were sent to support the war effort not on the front line, but in the labor force on the home front.

But Lerner reveals that much more was a stake here than money.  “Psychiatry was at once a product of modernity and a forum for critiquing modernity” (15).  In other words, while psychiatry was itself a modern science, psychiatrists saw themselves as trying to cure the weaknesses caused by modernity.  “Curing male hysterics meant medically manufacturing proper German subjects” (7).  They attempted to define a renewed German masculinity centered on patriotism, self-sacrifice, and economic productivity.  “The specter of the male hysteric, then, haunted the German imagination as the nation progressed along the path to modernity…To the conservative, stridently nationalistic psychiatric profession, male hysterics symbolized Germany’s social, political, and economic catastrophe” (250).  Psychiatrists then attempted to shape the national memory of the war and its conclusion in clinical terms.  The loss of 1918 was then portrayed as the result of Germany’s exhausted nerves, and the November revolutions were depicted as outbursts of mass insanity.

For more books on modern German history, see my list of book reviews here. 

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Summer’s Over

Summer’s over and it feels weird because I’m not headed back to class.  In fact, it’s the first time since Kindergarten (so, the first time in 19 years) that I’m not heading back to school in the fall.  {side story: it’s really depressing when your little brother, who’s nine, asks you what grade you’re in, and you have to actually count the number of years you’ve been in school, only to tell him: Well, I’m going into the 20th grade!} Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t yet reached that glorious day when I’ve graduated for the last time, but I’ve finally reached that point in grad school that I’m done with coursework.  I passed my doctoral qualifying exams with distinction in Modern German History, Modern European History, and the History of Sexuality in the Western World (for a list of books on the subjects, along with book reviews, see my post, here) – and man, was that the most stressful year of my life.  I think that I’m only now recovering from the trauma of exams so that I can finally get my brain back into academic mode long enough to focus on the next big hurdle: my research year.

This summer was a busy one.  On the first of June, my partner took an awesome job offer, and we moved from Buffalo to Boston.  This city is the most fantastic place I’ve ever lived, even though we’re far away from family and friends.  I think it’s a historians dream city!  Then, I spent the last two weeks of June in Germany, participating in the German Historical Institute’s annual Summer Archival Seminar, a nationally competitive program that trains advanced graduate students of German historical studies how to read old German script and maneuver German research institutions.

July and August were spent settling into our new home, and reading, reading, reading.  I had a lot of work to do to get my dissertation proposal (or, “prospectus”) up to snuff.  So, I quit reading about the Holocaust and the Nazi persecution of homosexuals, and started digging through books and articles on social activism and the relationship between protestors and national governments.  My advisor told me I needed to find a way to answer the So What? question – why should anyone care about my topic?  So, I got to thinking:  We’ve seen a wave of protestors overthrow regimes in the Middle East recently in the Arab Spring, as well as networks of people try to check governmental authority by revealing to everyone some of our government’s darker secrets.  So, instead of just focusing on how activists have remembered, presented, and used history, my project will now study how governments have interacted with protestors and their representations of history.

In the first week of September, I flew back to Buffalo to defend my prospectus, tentatively titled:  Homosexuals after the Holocaust:  Gay Rights Activism and Identity Politics in West Germany & the United States, 1949-1990.  My dissertation will focus on how a variety of actors, including gay rights activists, professional historians, and state authorities in America and West Germany, formed transnational collective memories of the Nazi persecution of homosexuals through communicating on a transatlantic – and transnational – public sphere that developed in the atmosphere of the 1968 cultural revolutions.  The existence of simultaneous, competing narratives of the past highlights a central point of my dissertation, which is that the politics of memory is a form of the politics of power.  By studying how different actors remembered (or did not remember) the heritage of Nazi persecution to achieve a variety of ends, we may gain insights into the relationship between activism, political power, identity politics, and our understands of the past.

Defending my prospectus was the last hurdle to A.B.D status (“all but dissertation”), which means that I am no longer a Ph.D. student, but promoted to Ph.D. candidate (I checked and there’s no pay raise with that promotion).  All of that simply means that I’ve done everything to qualify for a Ph.D. except produce a dissertation (what a small detail).  That’s why I could move away from Buffalo and not have to go back to campus.  Classes started four weeks ago, and I’m still in Boston.  I took the last three weeks off to visit with family and have some fun, because next week my dissertation research officially begins.  I’ll be doing some work in the archives of Boston’s The History Project, an organization with the goal of documenting Boston’s LGBT history. And then, come November 1st, I’ll be on a plane, on my way to spend five months in Germany visiting archives in different cities.  In April 2014, I’ll return to the US and spend three more months visiting archives here.  Tack on another year, and hopefully by then, I’ll be Dr. History Nerd.

I really needed the break from Academia and, more specifically, my own project, that the last three weeks provided.  At the beginning of the month, my mom, brother, and grandparents (affectionally known as Mama’rn’em) came and spent a week with us in Boston.  That was an experience Boston will never forget, I’m sure.  Whereas I’ve had some years to get used to the whole “don’t talk to strangers in cities, they don’t care about you” thing, Mama, Nanny, and Papa are still in the Southern mindset of “let me hear your life story while we’re in the grocery store line.”  We did all of the touristy stuff, but we also had a few days of just staying home, laying around, and watching movies.  It was a good dose of family time.  The day after that, I flew to Buffalo and defended my prospectus.  The next day, I flew to Florida to spend a week on my dad’s ranch.  It was back to waking up before the sun rises, mowing grass, working cows, and fixing fences before crawling into bed and doing it again the next day.

Luckily, my next stop on the trip was San Francisco for my partner’s birthday.  We crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, ate fresh seafood at the Fisherman’s Wharf, had $2 beers in the Castro, got free chocolate at Ghiradelli Square, and got carsick going up and down all of San Francisco’s hilly streets.  The rest of the week, we spent in Santa Clara, spent a day at the beach (it was my first time on the West Coast and seeing the Pacific), wine tasting in Napa Valley, and hanging out at the boardwalk in Santa Cruz.

And thankfully, I’d been hoarding all of my Delta frequent flier miles for years and years, so all of my trips this summer were free!  My grad student bank account was sure glad that I signed up for the flier miles all those years ago!

But now I’m back, and it feels great to be home, but summer’s over.  My partner’s back at work, and I’m back to reading works of history and sending a bajillion emails, prepping for my research year.  So, while I’m not on campus, I’m definitely not done with school yet…

I’ve neglected A Curious Wanderer the past month or so (part of being in grad school is this never-ending feeling of guilt associated with unproductivity when you do anything except school work), but I’ve got plans for it:

  • I’ll be traveling a lot in the next year, so I can get back to the site’s roots and do posts about the cities I’ll be working in.
  • I want to continue to post reviews of the books I read for my qualifying exams.  Hell, I spent a lot of time writing them, I might as well share them, right?
  • Now that I’m back home, I want to start cooking again, so I’ll share any good recipes that I come across.
  • One idea that I’m toying with (If I can bring myself to quit Facebooking in the morning with my coffee and spend that time writing):  As my family traded tall tales these past three weeks, I realized that, told the right way, my old family stories could be really entertaining for readers…I think.  So, I want to pick a few of my favorites and share them with y’all and see what you think.

But, I’ll never get to any of that, if I don’t quit blabbing and rambling now.  I’ve pushed my procrastination to its end, and I guess I’ve got to go be a productive member of society and interact with people.



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Summer’s Over by W.J. Newsome is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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Desire: a History of European Sexuality


Clark, Anna.  Desire:  A History of European Sexuality.  New York:  Routledge, 2008. 

Subject:  Clark’s book traces the different concepts of desire that have been expressed throughout European history.  She specifically focuses on two competing conceptualizations of desire:  1) Desire as polluting (and later under Christianity as sinful), and 2) Desire as transcendent and creative.

Research Questions:  What is sexuality?  How has sexual desire been expressed in European history – from the ancient Greeks to the nations of the 20th century?  Were there any larger correlations between sexual desire and other cultural realms (politics, family life, religion, etc.)?  Why is sexual desire sometimes seen as dangerous, and sometimes as transcendent?  

Author’s Arguments: Clark begins her endeavor by trying to define “sexuality” and “sexual desire.”  She follows Foucault in that she states that sexuality is not a “natural force” that is expressed or harnessed differently in different times, but is instead socially constructed.  She then attempts in each chapter – each of which is based on particular time frames – to give a general picture of how peoples in that time conceived sexuality.  Throughout the book she shows how there was never a consensus on the “nature” of sexuality; in each society there were those who viewed sexual desire as polluting (whether because it degraded one’s masculinity, distracted one from philosophical thoughts, or represented the Original Sin), while at the same time, there were those who viewed sexuality as a creative, spiritual, or even a revolutionary force.

Like Foucault, Clark asserts that the understanding of sexuality generally had/has to do with power relations.  As such there have always been “normal” sexual practices and even identities and genders – and regulations that governed what “normal” was.  At the same time, there were always those that “deviated” from the norms.  Also, she describes “twilight moments” in which individuals who otherwise fit into the “norm” would partake in deviant sexual acts.  However, these twilight moments were seen as fleeting, a momentary misstep taken by an otherwise “normal” and “moral” person.  During times of political, social, or economic strife, sexual deviants and those who took part in twilight moments were often pushed into the fore, and often blamed for particular calamities; thus, Clark argues that “twilight moments” had the loaded possibility of acting as “flash points” for (or caused by) larger historical actions.

Context: Clark’s book would make a great one for an introductory history of sexuality class.  It provides concrete examples from throughout European history, but also provides enough theoretical background to act as a starting point for exploring more complex theoretical discussions (such as those led by Foucault, David Halperin, Eve Sedgwick, among others) 

Methodology: Desire is mainly meant to be a synthesis of the other major works on the history of sexuality, and it is most certainly meant to be a beginning resource.  The book itself is full of useful information and theoretical tools, but Clark goes the extra step and provides “Further Reading” sections at the end of each temporally-themed chapter, providing a helpful spring-board for further research. 

Final Remarks:  In general, I enjoyed Clark’s book and found it incredibly helpful.  It is definitely a must read for anyone wishing to begin studying the history of European sexuality.  However the term “European” may prove to be a little problematic, because it suggests a convergence of understanding of what “sexuality” is by all “Europeans” that did not/does not exist.

I think Clark’s strongest point was showing the different ways in which different societies in the past categorized or conceptualized sexuality – and showing what was “normal” for them.  However – I think more should have been done in the Intro (and perhaps added or emphasized again in a afterword or an additional final chapter) to combat the present-day reader’s (including mine) tendency to view these different “desires” as simply “homosexuality” or “heterosexuality” in different words – or thought of slightly differently.

David Halperin argues (and asserts that Foucault argues) that the different “expressions” of sexual desire that are showcased in Clark’s book are not simply different, culturally specific expressions of, or interpretations of, “sexuality.”  And that indeed, the concept of “sexuality” is a culturally specific phenomenon/discourse of the modern period.  In other words, there are not different discourses describing sexuality, sexuality itself is a specifically modern discourse.

Also – getting back to Clark’s book:  While her concept of “twilight moments” was extremely helpful in showing that any “sexual regime” had its flexibility and allowed for some deviance (without completely defining that person ) I was not thoroughly convinced by such twilight moments (and sexual deviance)  as “flash points” for larger events. 

For more books on the history of sexuality, see my list of book reviews HERE.

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