On the Black and White Paroxysms of Augustine Gleizes, Celebrity Patient
Emily Wells Considers Chronic Illness, Femininity, and the Male Medical Gaze
Framed from a close distance, in aged monochrome: a woman, petrified in paroxysm, seated upright upon an iron hospital bed, etched against a black background. Her face is angled to catch the light, her back is arched, and hands are raised. She is dressed in a timeless white hospital gown, which has slipped off one shoulder and rests on her breast. She is otherwise unadorned.
The photograph is labeled “Ecstasy,” but the woman’s euphoria is spiritual, not libidinous; something is absolving her of great pain, if only momentarily. She gazes upward, beaming, like a woman who only has eyes for God. Either she is indifferent to being watched or she takes pleasure in it: she has to be captured.
The phantoms of the image are not shown: just outside the frame is Doctor Charcot, with whom all healing starts. Perhaps her semiconscious gestures are borrowed, and if she is sensual, it is because she has been made so under his watchful eye.
It may be that Charcot is instructing her in her bodily adjustments, rehearsing the physical manifestations of hysteria, the name he has given her symptoms, organic and provoked. Her virtuousness fissures slightly—a little thrill of self-importance, an oversight—as she, his favorite case, presents her body to him, to medicine.
Charcot gives the signal—a snap of his fingers or a wave of his hand—and the woman loses hold of something. She sits up, confused. Everything is slipping away, everything that the photograph will later contain escapes her, and she is only a frightened girl, hair and arms in disarray, sitting in a hospital bed. It is as if she has abruptly realized she has been living an incorrect life. Charcot wants to cure the woman of her sickness, but it is already too late. The picture of a symptom, a medical riddle, is the form her life has taken.
Her name was Augustine Gleizes. She was the most performative, photogenic patient treated for hysteria at the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in late 1800s Paris, and thus the most famous. I discovered the images of her during one of my trips to the downtown Los Angeles library, where I like to write under the rotundas emblazoned with murals of scenes from California-history-as-stage-pageant. The artificial intention of going through the motions, blended with real intention and choices—even the absentminded choices of being about town—seemed decisive, so much so that a walk through the neighborhood could deliver purpose and, if I was lucky, the peace of mind that comes from true distraction.
When my joints didn’t hurt too badly, I would select the appropriate combination of Schedule II pills from a small brass box; button my blouse as high as it would go; wrap myself in a large charmeuse silk scarf—the kind of carré you can’t get at Hermès anymore, only at the estate sales of the old ladies dropping like flies around Wilshire—put on a wide-brimmed straw hat, heavy somehow, substantial, with an adjuster inside so it wouldn’t blow away in the Santa Anas; and saunter the few blocks down Santa Monica Boulevard to the Metro station—driving while prone to fainting spells would have been a more dubious choice. The Metro would drop me off a short walk from the downtown library, an Art Deco building that, like most beautiful old buildings in Los Angeles, now seems pastiche, preserved in its celebration of public function.
Though I loved the walk, pain still seemed to come from everywhere—the air, the light—but I was foggily rooted on a cocktail of opiates and amphetamines. I didn’t look sick; I looked like a young woman you’d expect to see in LA, one dressed in a way that suggested she didn’t want to be looked at because of how often she was. People think that style is about enthusiasms, but like most matters of aesthetic consequence, it is actually a discipline of renunciations.Women like myself, promiscuous pattern-seekers, go looking for ourselves in Augustine, that we might find in her a model for how we too can turn the landscape of mind and body into a black-and-white object from which we are detached.
Wandering the stacks, I found Augustine Gleizes in a book of photographs of late-nineteenth-century hysteria patients who were treated by the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris. She arrived there in 1875, just after turning 14. The discovery felt luminous, brightened by an idea. While the book offered little additional information about Augustine, I could tell immediately that the photographs of her were weighty in the manner of an allegory. Simultaneously, I felt the photographs taken during her tenure at the hospital might carry her imprint—the mark of her living, breathing body on the world.
After my library trips, walking back to the Metro under a tomato bisque sky, I would stop for an enormous coffee with real cream and perhaps sit for a bit with one of the other library frequenters, former academics too sick or too old or too homeless to continue working, writers who did not write. I would calculate my level of pain while I sipped, to see if I would be able to go out that evening.
More than once, I had noticed that my pain was causing me to clench my teeth—a reaction I became aware of only when people at parties asked me for some of whatever drug they assumed I was on. But the day I found Augustine, I couldn’t think of anything else and, instead, went straight home to spend more time poring over the book of her photographs.
Perhaps women like myself, promiscuous pattern-seekers, go looking for ourselves in Augustine, that we might find in her a model for how we too can turn the landscape of mind and body into a black-and-white object from which we are detached, free to be posed and prodded without bother. Maybe we seek to connect our present with the past of another person, as if by venerating her, we grant dignity to our own suffering.
It is tempting to reinterpret Augustine’s illness and suffering as the political gestures of a feminist struggle or to ascribe her control over the photographic gaze—to look at her images and see power in her vulnerability—as a way to lessen the pain of bearing witness.
While I hesitate to say Augustine’s images invite projection, they are staggering, erupting with feminine excess. Somehow, Augustine’s lack of composure defies the masculine logic of the images’ documentary purpose.
“But in truth I am only there as a photographer; I inscribe what I see,” Charcot said of his confidence in the ability of the photographs to illustrate scientific problems. His photography director, Albert Londe, called the photographic plate “the true retina of the scientist.” As if empiricism could ever be an entirely dispassionate act of looking and reporting. No, it is impossible to decipher Augustine’s photos from that clinical distance.
As for the story of Augustine’s illness, her life: like my own, it is about that which is unseen, that which cannot be extracted through images or medical measurements. Nevertheless, for some time, I have documented my symptoms, their ebbs and flows, their progressions, how ability trickles away.
Always: nerve pain, inflamed joints, nausea, fatigue, oral ulcerations, general susceptibility to infection. Often: swollen lymph nodes, rashes, fever, dizziness, pins and needles, difficulty standing, muscle spasms, sensitivity to light, inability to digest food. Sometimes: hair loss, migraines, fainting. Symptoms are accompanied by correlating mental states (flashes of rage, confusion, despair, insomnia, dissociation) intermittently punctuated by brief euphoria when symptoms ease.
To describe my body in terms of symptoms: it is as if it were not a body at all, but a broken-down, useless machine that cannot be restarted or repaired.
It is difficult to decide where to begin, because the story of the illness is not yet a story. To treat it as one seems to be the only way to gain the necessary vantage to know the secret I keep from myself, which is whether or not I can live with my pain. Perhaps, like Augustine, I will not be able to do so. But the sick person examining only her own suffering does so without a sense of history. My fundamental task is not to claim the tragic for myself, but to acknowledge those who make up the world of the sick; to create a space out of words for us to convalesce in together, to fight the ambient sameness of illness and the suspicion it brings with it: that what I write can only amount to the private dialectic of a frantic woman careening through life.
Augustine and her fellow hysterics have warned me of so much. Passion comes from the Latin root word patior, which, historically, refers to the time between the Last Supper and Good Friday, when Christ knew that one of the apostles would hand him over to be killed. Suffering is knowing what happens next.
From the prologue of A Matter of Appearance by Emily Wells, available from Seven Stories Press and Seven Stories Press UK.