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QMCECS Seminar: Anne Vila, 22 May

May 2, 2017

Monday May 22 2017

Anne Vila (University of Wisconsin)

‘Solitude and [Dis]order: Perspectives from Eighteenth-Century French Literature and Medicine’

“Solitude is the infirmary of the mind”: so declared the French Benedictine monk François Lamy in his influential work De la connaissance de soi-même (1694). The therapeutic mental benefits of solitude continued to be championed by many authors (both religious and secular) in eighteenth-century France. However, solitude was also increasingly tied to mental disorder, for reasons that included the widespread emphasis on sociability and social engagement, alarm over self-secluding pathologies like masturbation and overstudy, and suspicion towards claustral institutions like the convent. The psycho-physical ailments imputed to solitude extended well beyond the well-studied ‘disease’ of onanism: they included hypochondriasis in gens de lettres and religious melancholy in the fanatically devout.

After considering the topos of studious and non-studious retreat in selected literary works of the French Enlightenment (by Voltaire, Graffigny, Diderot, and Rousseau), I will examine how solitude was medicalized–a development tied to the growing importance of the passions as an area of hygiene and disease theory. This part of my talk will focus on the writings of the Francophone Swiss physician Samuel-Auguste Tissot, an influential medical writer who acted as the main conduit for the dissemination in French of the ideas of Dr. Johann-Georg Zimmermann, the Enlightenment’s most famous theoretician of the benefits and dangers of solitude for the psyche. Reading Tissot in tandem with Zimmermann, I will analyze the curious analogies they proposed between two pathologically contemplative types: the overly zealous scholar and the cloistered nun.

Anne Vila is Professor in the Department of French & Italian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of A Cultural History of the Senses in the Age of Enlightenment (2014) and Enlightenment and Pathology: Sensibility in the Literature and Medicine of Eighteenth-Century France (1998). She is working on a project exploring the cultural and medical construction of gens de lettres during the French Enlightenment, entitled Singular Beings: Passions and Pathologies of the Scholar in France, 1720-1840.

Chair: Barbara Taylor

All welcome

Time: 5.00-7.00pm.

Venue: Seminar Room, Lock-Keeper’s Cottage Graduate Centre, Queen Mary University of London, Mile End, London, E1 4NS.

Convenors: Prof Markman Ellis, English (; Prof Colin Jones, History (; Prof Miles Ogborn, Geography (; Prof Amanda Vickery, History (, Prof Barbara Taylor, English and History (

[Travel instructions: take the Central Line or District Line to Mile End. Exit the tube station, turn left down Mile End Road, crossing the Burdett Road/Grove Road intersection, passing under the Mile End Green Bridge and over the canal, to the campus entrance at Westfield Way. The Lock-Keeper’s Cottage is the third building on the right].


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