In her 1895 novel, Professor Hieronimus, Amalie Skram describes the struggle of Else Kant, a young mother and artist, against a tyrannical and apparently unfeeling doctor who keeps her at a Copenhagen asylum for more than a month against her will. Else feels terrorized by the constant surveillance to which she is subjected. This voyeuristic tendency in psychiatry is not only a reflection of Amalie Skram's own experience at a Copenhagen asylum, but is also indicative of a new psychiatric epistemology that understood visual observation as the key to ascertaining objective truth. Skram's novel is thus read against the backdrop of Jean-Martin Charcot's intensely visual treatment practices at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, with a specific focus on the photographs of hysterical women Charcot commissioned and published. This voyeuristic/exhibitionistic dynamic between doctor and patient is also cast in semiotic terms, showing how arguments made as early as Lessing's Laokoon provide a useful way of understanding the essential differences between verbal and visual art, and for understanding the tensions between doctor and the patient. W.J.T. Mitchell's notion of "ekphrastic fear" proves a useful concept for demonstrating how anxieties about the breaking down of the strict boundaries between visual and verbal art correspond neatly to similar anxieties that the doctor had about the transgressive potential of a patient who takes up language and describes her condition. These tensions between word and image also highlight the particular historical context in which Skram's novel appeared. Professor Hieronimus was published the same year as Freud and Breuer's Studies on Hysteria, which many consider the founding document of Freudian psychoanalysis. Although writing for completely different audiences, both Freud and Skram argue for the value of the patient's verbal utterances at a time when the patient was seen as little more than a visual specimen whose disorders could only be accurately ascertained by the acute vision of a doctor. In his promotion of the "talking cure," Freud diverged sharply with his mentor, Charcot, and this turning point in psychiatric history from a visual to a verbal epistemological model highlights the timeliness and importance of Skram's novel.
College and Department
Humanities; Humanities, Classics, and Comparative Literature
BYU ScholarsArchive Citation
Bigelow, Benjamin A., "Tensions Between Word and Image in Amalie Skram's Professor Hieronimus" (2010). Theses and Dissertations. 2136.
Amalie Skram, Professor Hieronimus, Jean-Martin Charcot, Sigmund Freud, ekphrasis