Geneviève knows every phase of this ritual. First, the pendulum set slowly swinging before Louise's face, her motionless blue eyes, a tuning fork struck once, the girl falling backwards, her limp body caught just in time by two interns. Eyes closed now, Louise responds to the slightest request, at first executing simple movements, raising her arm, turning around, bending a leg, an obedient tin soldier. Then she poses as she is bidden: folds her hands in prayer,
lifts her face to beseech heaven, adopts the attitude of crucifixion. Gradually, what seemed to be a simple demonstration of hypnosis evolves into a grand spectacle, 'the phase of great movement', Charcot announces. Louise now lies on the ground; there are no further instructions. Alone, she judders, twists her arms, her legs, pitches her body to left and right, turns on to her back, on to her belly, her hands and feet contract and become utterly still, the expressions on her face veer from ecstasy to pain, her contortions punctuated by guttural breaths. Those of a superstitious bent might think her possessed by some demon; indeed, some of the men in the audience discreetly make the sign of the cross. One last spasm leaves her sprawled on her back. Pressing her head and her bare feet against the floor, she arches her body, creating a perfect arc that extends from throat to knee. Her dark hair brushes the dust of the stage, her vaulted back creaks with the strain. At length, having suffered this paroxysm imposed on her, she collapses with a dull thud before the dumbstruck spectators.
It is thanks to patients like Louise that medicine and science can progress.
Beyond the walls of the Salpêtrière, in fashionable salons and cafés, people speculate about what Professor Charcot's 'clinic for hysterics' might entail. They imagine naked women running through the corridors, banging their heads against tiled walls, spreading their legs to welcome some imaginary lover, howling at the top of their lungs from dawn until dusk. They picture lunatic bodies convulsing under starched white sheets, faces grimacing beneath a
tangle of hair, the wizened countenances of old women, obese women, ugly women, women who are best kept confined, even if no one can say precisely why, since the women have committed no sin, no crime. For those troubled by the slightest eccentricity, whether bourgeois or proletarian, the very thought of these 'hysterics' kindles their desire and feeds their fear. Madwomen fascinate and horrify. Were these people to visit the asylum for the late-morning rounds, they would surely be disappointed.
In the vast dormitory, the daily chores are quietly being performed. Women are mopping the floor beneath and between the metal bedsteads; others attend to their perfunctory ablutions with a flannel over basins of cold water; some lie on their beds, overcome by tiredness or their own thoughts, not wanting to engage in conversation; some are brushing their hair, murmuring to themselves in low voices, staring through the window at the sunlight falling on the last traces of snow in the hospital grounds. They range in age from thirteen to sixty-five; they are dark-haired, blonde or redheads, slender or stout; they are dressed, and wear their hair, in the same way they would in town. They move with modest grace. Far from the scenes of debauchery envisaged by those from outside, the dormitory looks more like a rest home than a ward for hysterical women. It is only by looking more closely that the signs of their distress become evident: the taut, twisted hand, an arm held tightly against the chest, the eyelids that open and close like the fluttering of a butterfly's wings; some eyelids remain closed on one side and a lone eye stares out. All sounds made by brass or by a tuning fork have been forbidden, otherwise many of these women would instantly fall into a cataleptic state. One woman yawns continually; another is racked by uncontrollable tics; their expressions are weary, vacant or steeped in a profound melancholy. Then, from time to time, the temporary calm of the dormitory is shaken by one of those infamous 'fits of hysteria': on a bed or on the floor, the body of a woman writhes, thrashes, struggles against some unseen force; she squirms, she arches, she twists, she attempts in vain to elude her fate. And so, people press around her, a doctor presses two fingers against her ovaries and eventually the pressure calms the madwoman. In the
most severe cases, a cloth soaked in ether is held against her nose: the eyelids close and the fit abates.
Far from the image of hysterical women dancing barefoot through the icy corridors, the atmosphere that prevails is the silent, day-to-day struggle for normality.