City of Incurable Women and Artifacts

Reading Like a Writer with Allison Wyss


City of Incurable Women by Maud Casey is a book about the psychiatric patients of Paris's Salpêtrière Hospital in the 19th century. It's about women diagnosed as hysterical. It is both historical and fictional, and it contains photographs and artifacts, case notes from physicians, and stories of different women. It's a book concerned with pain and ecstasy and the elusive borders of identity. 

I'm interested in how the inclusion of photographs and other artifacts, as well as allusions to outside texts, can deepen the experience of reading a book while gesturing to something beyond it. 

Prose can be so tyrannical. The writer says "you must read these words in the sequence I present." But when a story really takes off for me is when I forget about the sequence, when it doesn't feel like I'm reading one word at a time but living inside the moment that the words evoke. 

A book with images, on the other hand, gives a reader multiple entry points. I can choose to examine an image before I read the surrounding text or afterward. I can then go back and look at the words and images in a different order. I can even read the words as the image is floating inside my brain. The layering of word and image necessarily creates a certain type of complexity.

In City of Incurable Women, the first two images are of the same building but from different angles and different distances. That beginning gestures toward a thing we can't truly get inside of but that we can look at in different ways to get a sense of its shape. This idea presents a way to approach the book as a whole.

Throughout the book, the curation of artifacts is spare. They are pinned down, and thus tangible, but there's an implied question in the spaces between them and in their sequencing. Pictures don't always seem to be near their corresponding text, if there is any. Sometimes the French is untranslated. These choices give us the sense the artifacts are unmediated and invite us to interpret them independently. When I do this, I'm conscious that my idea of their meaning might be different from that of the writer, of other readers, and especially of the characters inside the book. And so those imagined other interpretations layer with my own. 

The interplay of different texts is illustrated in a particular way through an allusion to a book that is not excerpted or included but simply referenced and interpreted by a character. The former patient, Augustine, talks about the book, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The reader may know this book or may just know about it through cultural references. And I suppose the reader may also agree with the character's ideas about it. 

But I find the character's feelings rather strange. While a different reader might be frightened by the attack of a sea monster, it is Augustine's favorite scene. And look how seductively she talks about it:

In her own one-person submersible, she sinks into the ocean, black as the night in those pictures where she floated, but here there is no frame; the liquid world goes on forever. There, in the expansive underwater night, she meets the giant squid. It presses its eye to the window of the submersible. It looks directly at her, the way she looked into the camera. Unashamed, the doctor had said. An accusation, but admiration, too. Unashamed, the giant squid reaches out its tentacles to her. It takes the submersible in its many arms. Augustine, delicious Augustine, its giant eye says to her, the rest of life is in the sea.

It's in the disconnect of my own feelings about, say, being attacked by a monster, that I find a new way of understanding what is otherwise unknowable about this character's mind. 

I think it's important that the book Augustine discusses is a real text in the world, because it gives us something to hold. We might not fully understand her particular experience, but we can still grasp the book she's reading. Holding our own idea of that book, we can reach further for what Augustine's might be. Triangulating, then, between her interpretation, my interpretation, and that solid point of the book itself, I can sense her particular and strange, even unknowable, way of understanding things. It can't be spelled out, but it can be gestured to in this fascinating way.

Of course the passage also hinges on Augustine's experiences and sensibility. She's comparing the floating of a monster to the pictures taken of her at the hospital. She's remembering doctors there and how they interacted. The reader also has access to some of this as artifact or otherwise unmediated by Augustine. But comparing them to a sea monster attack—and coming up with this lyrical and sexy description—that's a thing that only Augustine's mind would do. 

And then the layering of her monster and my monster, her take on the hospital against my take on it, creates something deeper than any bit of that on its own. 

What I think emerges is a desire to be seen, to be understood, and also to be consumed. She seeks a communion with the world, a sort of living in disappearance that fights with another desire for her own special identity. In another place in the book, she looks at the other girls in the hospital but can't determine which one she is. That's not a bad thing to her. It's a particular and living connection. But Augustine's desires are not precisely any of these things. I'm trying (and necessarily failing) to put into words what can't be stated, not quite. Still, I feel it. And that's where the magic is.

Similarly to how a reader grapples with Augustine's interpretation of a novel, we try to understand what the case notes can tell us about her, layering different questions and perspectives and watching for the shape that emerges between them. We try to understand the physician who took the notes and who administered the drugs. We also take a modern look at the drugs and are quite alarmed. We note the way the physician tried to link her attacks to her menstruation even as we might try to link the attacks to the drugs. Also, what precisely are the attacks? We're probably not quite sure, and yet they are the place we can locate Augustine in the notes. There is a lot to hold onto but not very much that is certain. And yet again, Augustine will tell us what she makes of the notes, but not what she makes of herself, not precisely. Still, in pulling together and experiencing these questions, a sense of her emerges.

Casey has stressed in interviews that she is not giving us the voices of these women—that their voices are truly gone and lost. Rather she's gesturing to what is lost, what is unknowable, and making the reader's imagination try to get there anyway. The mystery in that is intense and wonderful.