This is the first of six posts constituting a single essay in six chapters, one per post. References are written according to the following scheme: §2.4 is the fourth section of chapter 2; footnotes are numbered afresh with each chapter, so within chapter 2, n. 5 refers to the fifth footnote of that chapter, while n. 3.5 refers to the fifth footnote of chapter 3.


Necessity and Hysteria: Ancient Light on Baudelaire

 τέχνη δ’ ἀνάγκης ἀσθενεστέρα μακρῶι.
Art is far weaker than necessity.
Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound

Beholding a poor old saltimbanque at a street fair, the narrator of Baudelaire’s prose poem “Le Vieux Saltimbanque” perceives contrast and is moved to hysteria:[1]

     Partout la joie, le gain, la débauche; partout la certitude du pain pour les lendemains; partout l’explosion frénétique de la vitalité. Ici la misère absolue, la misère affublée, pour comble d’horreur, de haillons comiques, où la nécessité, bien plus que l’art, avait introduit le contraste. Il ne riait pas, le misérable! Il ne pleurait pas, il ne dansait pas, il ne gesticulait pas, il ne criait pas; il ne chantait aucune chanson, ni gaie ni lamentable, il n’implorait pas. Il était muet et immobile. Il avait renoncé, il avait abdiqué. Sa destinée était faite.
     Mais quel regard profond, inoubliable, il promenait sur la foule et les lumières, dont le flot mouvant s’arrêtait à quelques pas de sa répulsive misère! Je sentis ma gorge serrée par la main terrible de l’hystérie, et il me sembla que mes regards étaient offusqués par ces larmes rebelles qui ne veulent pas tomber.

     Everywhere joy, winning, debauchery; everywhere the certainty of bread for the days to come; every­where the frenzied explosion of vitality. Here absolute misery, misery rigged out, to top off the horror, with comical rags, in which necessity, much more than art, had introduced the contrast. He wasn’t laughing, the miserable creature! He wasn’t weeping, he wasn’t dancing, he wasn’t gesticulating, he wasn’t shouting; he sang no song, neither gay nor woeful, he did not implore. He was mute and motionless. He had renounced, he had abdicated. His fate was settled.
     But what a gaze, deep, unforgettable, he was passing over the crowd and the lights, whose moving flood stopped a few steps from his repulsive misery! I felt my throat gripped by the terrible hand of hysteria, and my gaze seemed obscured by those rebellious tears that do not want to fall. [2]

The present essay considers the connection between necessity, which crowns the height of horror in the figure of the saltimbanque, and hysteria, which the sight of him brings about. The first three chapters offer evidence to support a certain view of that connection, the fourth relates it to a modern theory of the poet as actor, the fifth examines a Homeric analogue, and the last finds in sophistry the poet’s downfall. The argument is laid out in the introductions to the several chapters. My chief aim is to bring some classical (Greek and Roman) writings to bear on this subject; there is no attempt to trace Baudelaire’s sources. For readers of Baudelaire who may be unfamiliar with the ancients, I have provided full citations to classical works.[3]

Part I

Hysteria and Necessity

Chapter 1

Hysteria as a Product of Conflict and Transgression

After a brief description of hysteria, it is explained in this chapter that the disorder can be characterized as the product of conflict resulting from the actual or potential transgression of a boundary—between life and death, speaking most generally.

§1.1 Hysteria and its manifestations; experience of Baudelaire

When Baudelaire’s poem was published (1861), and indeed long before, the notion of hysteria was rather indefinite.[4] The Encyclopédie had called the hysterical “passion or affection … one of the most complicated illnesses that there are as regards its causes and symptoms.”[5] The disorder certainly involved undue excitement, possibly manifested as laughter, crying, or singing; and it was chiefly an ailment of women. One specific symptom was a sense of suffocation or strangulation, described by Dr. Copland in the 1830s as commonly occurring at an early stage of a hysterical paroxysm or fit: from abdominal discomfort “a ball, the globus hystericus, seems to move … to the stomach, and thence to the throat or pharynx, where it remains for some time, and gives rise to a feeling of impending suffocation.”[6] This recalls Lear’s outcry,

O! how this mother swells up toward my heart;
Hysterica passio! down, thou climbing sorrow!
Thy element’s below.

Here “mother,” if not a contraction of “smother,” is the womb, or would be in a woman; and the “element” is its proper place.[7] Another symptom was pain as of a nail being driven into the forehead or the vertex (crown) of the head. But it was said that “hysteria possesses … a truly proteiform character, simulating almost every disease to which the female constitution is ever exposed.”[8] Epilepsy, asthma, paralysis, peculiarities of gait, abdominal pain—hysteria could perform them all.

The name hysteria is recent, first recorded in French in the eighteenth century; but it was the ancients who introduced the adjective corresponding to hysterical, formed from the word for womb, Greek ὑστέρα (hustera, usually plural). Thus the noun signifies something like “wombiness,” and in fact the womb was thought responsible for the condition, one way or another, as the words of Lear may indicate. More generally, hysteria was a disorder of the female reproductive system. Then its frequent (if disputed) occurrence in male writers and other artists may have to do with their production of offspring in the form of works, an analogy recognized by Plato and Aristotle among others.[9] In his review of Madame Bovary Baudelaire proposed that Flaubert, undertaking with an “actor’s zeal” to “make himself woman,” had created a “bizarre androgyne,” at once “man of action” and “hysterical poet,” then continued: “Hysteria! Why should this physiological mystery not form the base and foundation of a literary work, this mystery which the Academy of Medicine has not yet resolved, and which, being expressed in women by the sensation of a rising and asphyxiating ball (I speak only of the principal symptom), is manifested in nervous men by every kind of impotence and also by the aptitude for every kind of excess?”[10] Besides explaining Mme. Bovary, hysteria is said to account for surprisingly original behavior in less extraordinary individuals, as Baudelaire notes in another prose poem, writing of “that humor, hysterical according to the doctors, satanic according to those who think a little better than the doctors, which urges us without resistance toward a crowd of dangerous or unsuitable actions.”[11] For himself, it is associated with the gouffre, the gulf, the abyss, which always haunted him:

     Au moral comme au physique, j’ai toujours eu la sensation du gouffre, non seulement du gouffre du sommeil, mais du gouffre de l’action, du rêve, du souvenir, du désir, du regret, du remords, du beau, du nombre, etc.
     J’ai cultivé mon hystérie avec jouissance et terreur. Maintenant j’ai toujours le vertige….

     Mentally as well as physically, I have always had the sensation of the gulf, not only the gulf of sleep, but the gulf of action, of dream, of memory, of desire, of regret, of remorse, of beauty, of number, etc.
     I have cultivated my hysteria with enjoyment and terror. Now I always have vertigo….[12]

And toward the end of his life he was diagnosed with the disease: “Another [doctor] tells me as the whole of my consolation that I am hysterical. Do you marvel as I do at the elastic usage of these big words well chosen for veiling our ignorance of all things?” Three weeks later, “The illness persists. And the doctor has pronounced the big word: hysteria. In good French: I’m stumped (je jette ma langue aux chiens [lit. I throw my tongue to the dogs]).”[13] Of course, in its mystery, variety, and paralyzing effect hysteria is not unlike that spleen which was a specialty of the poet; indeed, the Encyclopédie had declared a century before that “the soundest among the modern authors do not distinguish the hysterical passion from the hypochondriac passion.”[14]

§1.2 Hysteria the product and symbol of conflict of impulses

Vague as it was, hysteria was understood to result from a conflict of impulses. Dr. Copland believed that in young women a number of influences, among them “the various means by which the feelings are awakened and acute sensibility is promoted, while every manifestation of either is carefully concealed; and studied endeavours to dissemble desires which struggle to be expressed, all serve, especially at a period when the powers of mind and the conformation of the body are approaching development, to produce that state of the nervous system of which hysteria is one of the most frequent indications.”[15] Dickens in 1839 described a lady’s reception of moving news as follows: “With that, the good soul fell to crying afresh, and, endeavouring to recover herself, tried to laugh. The laugh and the cry meeting each other thus abruptly, had a struggle for the mastery; the result was, that it was a drawn battle, and Miss La Creevy went into hysterics.”[16] Sixty years later Freud explained that “a hysterical symptom develops only where the fulfilments of two opposing wishes, arising each from a different psychical system, are able to converge in a single expression.” Something looks for expression, for fulfillment, something else reacts against it. Of a hysterical phobia he observes that “the symptom has been constructed in order to avoid an outbreak of anxiety; the phobia is erected like a frontier fortification against the anxiety.” Then for artists and intellectuals the struggle between the creative drive and what blocks it can appear as hysteria: “[I]f anyone is inclined to call [Hamlet] a hysteric, I can only accept the fact as one that is implied by my interpretation.”[17] As with letters, so with arms: in the First World War “shell shock” was recognized as the same or a kindred disorder, suffered by soldiers trapped in a terrible confinement. In this connection we may remember that all his mature life Baudelaire was squeezed by a poverty he felt intolerable, while at the same time he felt stifled by the society of his day; and he wrote, “Even as a child (Tout enfant) I felt in my heart two contradictory feelings, the horror of life and the ecstasy of life.”[18] —Hysteria’s modern name, “conversion disorder,” expresses the old idea that in it a psychical conflict is converted into bodily symptoms.[19]

The root of the hysterical condition in conflict was recognized from earliest times. In the beginning there were men, says Plato’s Timaeus, and then those who were cowardly and did wrong were transformed into women, whereupon the gods “contrived the love of sexual intercourse by constructing an ensouled animal of one kind in us men, and of another kind in women.” They made an outlet for the lively marrow or seed, which produces desire for emission and thereby love of generating.

Wherefore in men the nature of the genital organs is disobedient and self-willed, like an animal that is deaf to reason, and it attempts to dominate all because of its frenzied lusts. And in women again, owing to the same causes, whenever the matrix, or womb, as it is called,—which is an indwelling animal desirous of child-bearing,—remains without fruit long beyond the due season, it is vexed and takes it ill; and by straying all ways through the body and blocking up the passages of the breath and preventing respiration it casts the body into the uttermost distress [ἀπορίας, aporias, blockages, impasses], and causes, moreover, all kinds of maladies; until the desire and eros of the two sexes unite them.[20]

Aristotle too has the womb move, though not on its own, and stop the breath: “In the case of women, if they draw up the uterus at the time of parturition by yawning or by doing something of the sort, difficulty in delivery is the result. Even when empty the uterus produces a stifling sensation if pushed upwards.”[21] Likewise, the hysterical state was explained in Hellenistic times as the effect of a blockage, either of the womb, which menstrual blood or female “seed” was prevented from leaving, or else by it, as it wandered from its proper place through the body.[22]

These ancient notions of wandering and causing “all kinds of maladies” fit well the modern description of the disease as protean, as the universal mimic. In character it has always resembled Odysseus and the sophists, figures to be considered presently. Further, in ancient times as in modern a sympathy between “lower” and “higher” functions is recognized: blockage of organs corresponds to choking and suffocation, and thereby to anxiety; reproduction gone amiss, to a misdirected or unsatisfied emotion of love and desire. Thus the disorder is symbolic, representing one conflict by another. Ultimately the conflict is of life and death; but in Timaeus’s account what threatens one’s health is itself an active living part of its victim, so that death as it were breaks in upon life with a life of its own.

§1.3 Hysteria in epic: compulsion, conflict, transgression

Something of this can be seen in the portrayal of hysterical symptoms in two classical epics. Consider first the hysteria of the suitors in Book 20 of the Odyssey.[23] Telemachus has denied that he is delaying Penelope’s remarriage, saying that she may marry whom she will, and he will provide gifts. “But I am ashamed,” he tells them, “to drive her forth from the hall against her will by a word of compulsion (or necessity). May the god never bring this to pass.” Whereupon they laugh, and why? Perhaps from happiness at hearing that Penelope can marry at last; but it is likelier that they find amusing the picture of force, compulsion, necessity, driving her out.[24] They laughed when Odysseus threw out Irus the beggar, and will laugh for the last time when Telemachus, feigning to threaten the swineherd (as he carries the bow to Odysseus), expresses the wish that he could drive out the suitors themselves.[25] Now they laugh “with jaws that belonged to others”—they lose control of the apparatus of speech—and their eyes fill with tears, while their spirits are full of the thought of weeping. There are portents of destruction and death, and the prophet Theoclymenus sees and declares to them a vision of ghosts (doubtless their own) going down to Erebus. The whole scene unites necessity, hysteria, and a vision of one’s own death, in which the dead appear in the living world.

In the Aeneid the hero himself repeatedly experiences strong feeling verging on hysteria. During the fall of Troy he is horrified to see the shade (umbra) and form (imago) of his neglected wife Creusa, “larger than her wont,” and later he reports, “obstipui, steteruntque comae et vox faucibus haesit” [I was appalled, my hair stood on end, and the voice stuck in my throat]. In his subsequent journey he comes upon a thicket of saplings that bleed when torn up. Terrified, he hears the voice of Polydorus, son of Priam, slain for gold, and reacts in the same way: “tum vero ancipiti mentem formidine pressus / obstipui, steteruntque comae et vox faucibus haesit” [Then, indeed, with mind borne down by perplexing dread, I was appalled, my hair stood on end, and the voice stuck in my throat]. This time horror takes monstrous form and weight in the “dread,” which is literally “two-headed,” anceps—for ambiguity paralyzes.[26] After these terrible instances of betrayal, death, and unhappy ghosts, he comes to rising Carthage, where on a new temple he beholds a depiction of the Trojan war. Weeping, he exclaims, “Here, too, … there are tears for the things that happen,” and “feasts his soul on the unsubstantial picture”: “stupet obtutuque haeret defixus in uno” [he is amazed and stuck to it, fixed in a single gazing], a phrase similar in sound and sense to the others. While he is again beholding the images of dead friends, there appears Dido, queenly and tall, as if ready to step into Creusa’s role—which she will do, only to become a ghost in her turn through abandonment by Aeneas. And when he learns that he must leave her, he suffers an attack as before: “At vero Aeneas aspectu obmutuit amens, / arrectaeque horrore comae et vox faucibus haesit” [But in truth Aeneas, stupefied by the sight {of messenger Mercury and his vanishing} became dumb, his hair stood up in horror and the voice stuck in his throat]. At the same moment he experiences the sharp conflict of a divided mind under divine commandment.[27]

In each of these cases compulsion is perceived or felt—driving out, uncontrollable laughter or tears, paralysis, edict of Jove—the body behaving without volition. The conflict between life and death is present to the senses. The dead break into the world of the living, the living pass into the world of the dead; visions compel recognition of the final form which death imposes.


[1] A saltimbanque (the word will not be italicized after this) is an itinerant street entertainer, who may be primarily a poor clown or fool, performing feats of skill or strength, contortions, or acrobatics, or primarily a mountebank or charlatan, selling medicines and like goods. Baudelaire’s conception seems to embrace both aspects. As for the narrator, he will be referred to as a poet, in the first place as the ostensible maker of the prose poem, and also as a figure similar in some ways to his creator.

[2] Charles Baudelaire, Œuvres complètes, ed. Claude Pichois, 2 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, Pléiade, 1975–76), 1:295–297 (the quoted passage is on p. 296). Cited below as “Œuvres.” The poem was published in 1861, and with minor corrections (not affecting this passage) in 1862 and 1869.

[3] In the following notes, volumes of the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press) are designated LCL, the Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek-English Lexicon (New York: Oxford University Press, 1940, supplement 1996) is cited as LSJ, and Pierre Chantraine, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque, histoire des mots, new ed. with supplement (Paris: Éditions Klincksieck, 1999), is cited as Chantraine. OED2 is the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. (1989). Other abbreviations of references are given in nn. 2, 5, 6, 24, 2.1, 2.25, 2.35, 2.36, and 2.38. Translators (other than the present writer) are identified when works are first cited; in some cases translations have been modified.

[4] “In this period hysteria refers to numerous nervous diseases as yet ill defined”: Œuvres 1:1104 (editor’s note). “In the nineteenth century, hysteria was a heterogeneous term. In addition to dissociative and somatoform disorders, hysteria included diverse entities such as hypochondriasis, anxiety, and mild depression—disorders that were subsequently classified independently”: Kasia Kozlowska, “Healing the Disembodied Mind: Contemporary Models of Conversion Disorder,” Harvard Review of Psychiatry 13 (2005): 2.

[5] Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert, eds., Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (Paris: 1751–72), s.v. “hystérique.” Cited below as “Encyclopédie.”

[6] James Copland, M.D., F.R.S., A Dictionary of Practical Medicine, ed. Charles A. Lee, vol. 2 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1860), s.v. “hysteric affections,” §4. This is the edition I have seen, but the article “hysteric affections,” which will be cited below as “Dictionary of Practical Medicine,” was originally published in the 1830s: it is relied on and quoted by The Penny Cyclopædia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, vol. 12 (London: Charles Knight and Co., 1839), s.v. “hysteria.” Copland’s account of the ailment is quite detailed. Other sources can be found in Mark S. Micale, Approaching Hysteria: Disease and Its Interpretations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

[7] King Lear 2.4.54–56, with notes in the Arden Shakespeare edition, ed. Kenneth Muir (London: Methuen, 1972).

[8] Forehead: Dictionary of Practical Medicine §§14, 15; vertex: Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th ed. (Cambridge, 1910), s.v. “hysteria”; proteiform: Dictionary of Practical Medicine, Dr. Lee’s addition to §47; cf. the description as a “polymorphic and ungraspable Proteus” in Jacqueline Carroy-Thirard, “Hystérie, théâtre, littérature au dix-neuvième siècle,” Psychanalyse à l’université 7, no. 26 (mars 1982): 301. Quacks are similarly described in the Encyclopédie, s.v. “charlatan”: “Les faux empyriques sont des protées qui prennent mille formes différentes” [Deceitful empirics are Proteuses that take a thousand different shapes].

[9] Plato, Symposium 208e–209d; Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1167b33–1168a3; Dictionary of Practical Medicine §§40, 48. On the subject of male hysteria see Mark S. Micale, Hysterical Men: The Hidden History of Male Nervous Illness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).

[10] Œuvres 2:81–83. In Le Peintre de la vie moderne, vii, the “hysterical and convulsive gestures” of Turkish baladins (akin to saltimbanques) are among the signs which conceal their virility, 2:704.

[11] “Le Mauvais Vitrier,” Œuvres 1:286.

[12] Journaux intimes, “[Hygiène],” Œuvres 1:668. See also the poem “Le Gouffre.”

[13] À Sainte-Beuve (15 janvier 1866), in Charles Baudelaire, Correspondance, ed. Claude Pichois, 2 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, Pléiade, 1973), 2:583; à Charles Asselineau [5 février 1866], 2:587. At the end of the following month a stroke rendered the poet mute: “je jette ma langue aux chiens” indeed.

[14] Encyclopédie, s.v. “hystérique.”

[15] A Dictionary of Practical Medicine §49.

[16] Nicholas Nickleby, chap. 61.

[17] Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. James Strachey (New York: Avon Books, 1967), VII(C), 608 (the original passage is in italics); (D), 621;V(D), 299.

[18] Mon cœur mis à nu, Œuvres 1:703.

[19] For a survey of historical and contemporary models of conversion disorder see Kozlowska (above, n. 4), 1–13.

[20] Plato, Timaeus 90e–91d, trans. after R. G. Bury, LCL (1929).

[21] Aristotle, Generation of Animals 719a18–21, trans. A. L. Peck, LCL (1953). Similar opinions of other ancient writers are reported in the Dictionary of Practical Medicine, Dr. Lee’s addition to §56.

[22] The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), s.v. “hysteria.” In Middlemarch (1871–72, rev. 1874), chap. 45, George Eliot employs internal wandering as a folk explanation, in the incident of a woman’s cramp misdiagnosed as a large hard “tumour” which upon treatment “wandered to another region”—an “amazing case of tumour, not clearly distinguished from cancer, and considered the more awful for being of the wandering sort.”

[23] Odyssey 20.338–358, trans. after A. T. Murray, rev. George E. Dimock, LCL (1998).

[24] The former view is taken in The Odyssey of Homer, ed. W. B. Stanford, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (Houndmills: Macmillan Education, 1974), note to 20.345ff. Cited below as “Stanford, Odyssey.”

[25] Odyssey 18.95–115, 21.369–378.

[26] Aeneid, trans. after H. Rushton Fairclough, LCL (1978), 2.771–774, 3.24–57.

[27] Aeneid 1.453–504, 4.279–287. As to sound, compare stupet obtutuque and obstipui steteruntque; obstipui, from obstupesco, has the variant form obstupui. Likewise vox faucibus haesit resembles haeret defixus in uno reversed (especially as v = u—see n. 2.28 below). There are further echoes in the lines quoted from Book 4. It may be mentioned that the oak to which Aeneas is compared clings (haeret) to its crag (4.441–449), and also that near the end of the epic his enemy Turnus is afflicted as he was (12.867–868). The divided mind of Aeneas derives from Homer’s διάνδιχα μερμήριξεν (first at Iliad 1.189): R. D. Williams, ed., The Aeneid of Virgil (St. Martin’s Press, 1972), note to 4.285–286. See text below at n. 2.29.