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nervousness is an early modern concept, although it has correlatives from the time of the Greeks in allied concepts of stress, debility, appetitive, and saturnine behaviour. Up to the late eighteenth century the word was imbued with mechanical meaning as the body's physical condition derived from its anatomical nerves. It gathered terrific significance in the mid seventeenth century under the weight of Descartes' physiological revolution and, even more emphatically, in Thomas Willis' system of neuroanatomy. Willis, an Oxford physiologist and practising physician who possessed profound clinical and empirical skills, wrote treatises on the nerves and brains of living creatures. He maintained that the body's degree of nervousness influenced human health more than had been appreciated and therefore merited as much clinical attention as the blood, lymph, or individual organs. Time has proved Willis right. Even in his own era his authority carried much weight, especially among disciples including Sydenham, Locke, and other early members of the Royal Society, and subsequent generations were impressed by his neurological theories, believing that more research was necessary. The result was the notion that living creatures could be measured according to the degree to which they partook of ‘nervousness’. Therefore, whatever nervousness may have been historically, it came into its own approximately at the end of the seventeenth century.

Nervousness, as a social phenomenon rather than a physical state, underwent rapid proliferation in the mid eighteenth century: among individuals, in towns and cities under urban sprawl, and even among the branches of government; the earliest social scientists were thus enabled to configure the first models of nervous societies along lines of the old body politic and mind–body dualism.

After Willis, doctors continued to explain nervousness, especially when writing didactically rather than when presenting case studies, but they had little sense of the ways nervousness pervaded particular social groups or societies at large. For example, Dr James Makktrick Adair, one of the most fashionable ‘nerve doctors’ of Georgian England, whose patients sought him out to treat their nervousness, wrote that Dr Robert Whytt's 1764 treatise on the nerves (Observations on the nature, causes, and cure of those disorders which have been commonly called nervous) had such influence on the public that ‘before the publication of this book, people of fashion had not the least idea that they had nerves.’ Afterwards, everyone fashionable was pronounced nervous: a word resounding through the boroughs but not as yet gendered as it would become among women in the next century. The dissemination, according to Adair, was as if, almost with a magic wand, a single word possessed transformative power. Hence the rise of authoritative ‘nerve doctors’ both in Britain and Europe. Their ranks were equalled by marginal figures, if not blatant quacks, who also meddled in nerves through mesmerism, hypnotism, and erotic life therapies.

After this late-eighteenth-century development it was inevitable that nerves would become the most fashionable of upper-crust insignia: for the rich and famous, the glamorous and glittering, rather than the working-class poor. There emerged the profile of a languishing and delicate creature, male as well as female, too refined for ordinary work, too sensitive to cope with mundane matters. By the time Thomas Trotter published his View of the Nervous Temperament in 1807 or Jane Austen her novels a decade later — embodying nervous heroines like Marianne Dashwood and Fanny Price — this nervous type had become recognizable to the reading public. Its popularity grew with theories of physiognomy, craniology, and, later, phrenology. A century later, D. H. Lawrence firmly established his famous dichotomy between ‘nervous’ and ‘sexual’ loves, infinitely elevating the latter at the expense of the former. In these and many other paradigms of nervousness, the term became a catchall for all human states extending beyond the ordinarily perceptible. It designated some higher, sensual, almost physiological utopia in which the nerves, like violin strings, would be tuned to a pitch that maximized higher understanding. Down through the nineteenth century, doctors diagnosed one condition after another as diseases of damaged nerves, and critics claimed that creative geniuses suffered from them as well. Therapies and cures varied, but pre-eminent were addictive drugs and potions such as opium, laudanum, and numerous herbal preparations, as well as the panaceas of rest, recreation, solitude, travel, and a change of climate and scenery.

Nervous exhaustion

‘Nervous exhaustion’ (also called by other names) had been a topic of constant concern, since c.1740, especially for the health of women. It was the prospect of imminent collapse owing to the taut state of the nerves, and almost every doctor, and even philosophers as diverse as Carlyle and William James, harboured an explanation. The main line was a defect in the nervous constitution itself — its fibres and tissues: what we would designate as genetic make-up. In France, Lamarck's evolutionary theories also supported the belief that nervousness had evolved just as all other physical characteristics, and in 1859 this argument was reinforced by Darwin's Origin of Species. Concurrently a new myth flourished about the degeneracy of the nerves along hereditary lines, as in Bénedict Auguste Morel's Traité des dégénérescences (1857). A parallel myth about hysteria's nervousness had also developed, implicating the anatomical nerves. Its nineteenth-century legacy was a strengthening of the hereditary theory, as in Charcot's famous Lectures on the Diseases of the Nervous System (1879), which argued that hysteria and heredity were inextricably linked.

Meanwhile, theories of degeneracy and sexuality proliferated, almost always implicating nervousness as a sign, so that when Cesare Lombroso, the Italian jurist, adumbrated his theory of criminal degeneracy in L'uomo delinquente (1876), he could not omit the nerves as the veritable prime movers of pathology. Likewise, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, a leading German sexologist, claimed in his Pyschopathia Sexualis (1882) that synapses in both men and women were the most important clue in sexual deviation and linked heredity to virtually all the sexual disorders, especially inversion or homosexuality. Many of these works aimed to identify the physical basis of neurasthenia, despite the Victorian suppression of explicit discussions of the body, including its taut or flaccid nerves.

Female nervousness

As a result, neurasthenia was underdeveloped as a concept until late in the nineteenth century. A private discourse of nerves had arisen — partly behind bedroom doors in view of its delicate topics; all this while late Enlightenment classifications of neurosis (still meaning nervous, rather than deviant in Freud's sense) were being used for narrative purposes by all manner of novelists, despite the lack of research into nervousness. But as taboos about the body gradually lifted and the human sciences advanced, the knowledge of nervousness slowly changed. The American physician Dr Weir Mitchell's prescribed ‘rest cure’ ironically resulted in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper, a literary account documenting her reversal of her doctor's orders not to do anything. At stake was the female's nervous deterioration, subsequent neurasthenia, and eventual dysfunction. Gilman landed upon a ‘writing cure’ as the only road to recovery.

Allegedly at fault was an inferior female nervous system, prone to such chronic neurasthenia. Doctors tried everything possible to strengthen it, including exercise and diet, but resorted especially to superior education, as Sir James Paget advocated in his 1867 Clinical Lectures. George M. Beard, a prominent New York physician, popularized neurasthenia as the hallmark of the woman, and was followed by dozens of doctors on both sides of the Atlantic by the time Freud published his Studies on Hysteria in 1895. Lists of excessively nervous patients included almost half the literate of England, and such American notables as Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Adams, Edith Wharton, and Emily Dickinson. Leaders were particularly vulnerable. Beard's group consisted mostly of ‘brain workers’: persons sedentary, creative, educated, professional, devoid of strenuous physical exercise, and tainted with creative feminine psychologies and responses. Prescribed paramedical panaceas of electrotherapy, massage, and isolation foreshadowed our contemporary treatments that range from aromatherapy to stress reductions.

Creative nervousness

Meanwhile, social conditions were altering and creating new mass stress. Writers and artists displayed an interest in these subjects and even took sides in the debates over the effects of excessive strain, and the rest cure, as did Henry James in The Ambassadors and Eugene Wister in The Virginian, both in 1903. Theodore Dreiser made the case for creativity as explicitly ‘nervous’ in The Genius (1915): the story of Eugene, who is artistic, feminine, creative, eugenically unfit to survive in the modern world; who suffers breakdown and finds cure in the opposites of rest and exertion. Virginia Woolf reflected on her own neurophysiology in the act of writing, claiming in her diary that ‘it calls upon every nerve to hold itself taut.’

But twentieth-century nervousness has been construed even more ambiguously than these extremes suggest and has given rise to new paradigms — genetic, biochemical, neuroanatomic, synaptic. The debates in our generation encompass healthy and pathological stress and anxiety, and they now extend to the creative acts themselves: to the condition of the nerves at every stage of the creative process. It is debated, for example, whether a different set of synapses permits concert artists to perform. Of concern is the degree to which the capability lies in predetermined neuroanatomical and neurochemical structures, enabling certain physiological processes. These issues now extend to virtually every aspect of neuronal and brain function, including image formation and production of impressions and ideas, as well as short and long term memory. The subject is so complex and immense that it would be hard to identify any more influential concept in describing human motive and human behaviour than ‘nervousness’.

George Rousseau


Lawrence, C. (1979). The nervous system and Society in the Scottish Enlightenment. In Natural Order: historical studies of scientific Enlightenment, (ed. B. Barnes and S. Shapin). Sage Publications, Beverly Hills.
Lutz, T. (1991). American nervousness, 1903: an anecdotal history. Cornell University Press, lthaca.
Rousseau, G. S. (1989). Discourses of the Nerve. In Literature and science as modes of expression, (ed. F. Amrine). Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht.

See also anxiety; hysteria; psychological disorders; stress.