19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, No 15 (2012)

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Anaesthetic Bodies and the Absence of Feeling: Pain and Self-Mutilation in Later Nineteenth-Century Psychiatry

Sarah Chaney


This paper addresses the overlapping ways in which self-inflicted injury was understood in relation to an absence of pain during the long nineteenth century, arguing that a clear distinction between bodily and mental suffering cannot be made in this period. The medical view that self-infliction of injury must necessarily be pathological is shown to have emerged from earlier philosophical approaches to pain. This was cemented by the formation of a somatic model of self-mutilation, based on the concept of cutaneous anaesthesia, particularly in the work of Wilhelm Griesinger in Germany. In contrast, the words of asylum patients provide a much broader spectrum of ways in which injuries might have been understood. Nonetheless, the meanings attributed generally emphasize self-mutilation as a response to physical, rather than emotional, pain, indicating the widespread nature of physical aetiologies of insanity. Such a somatic approach also permeated psychological models of self-inflicted injury in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as shown through examination of Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s concept of 'sexual anaesthesia', William James’s association of anaesthesia with the absence of emotion, and self-mutilation and fixed ideas in the work of Pierre Janet. The study of self-mutilation thus provides an interesting angle from which to explore the complexity of notions of body and mind, in relation to concepts of pain.

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