Posted by: whipplelib | November 11, 2011

Lost in (phrenological) translation

Title page of On the Functions of the Cerebellum

Title page of On the Functions of the Cerebellum

How energetic is your ‘instinct to reproduction’? To find out, just feel behind your head to where your neck meets your skull. If this area is bulging then you’re in luck. Your faculty of ‘amativeness’ (as nineteenth-century phrenologists referred to it) is particular well developed. (Note, these phrenologists would also be keen to warn you that such sexual drive may deflect from the kind of intellectual endeavour encouraged by this blog.)

On the Functions of the Cerebellum, by Drs Gall, Vimont and Broussais, translated from the French by George Combe (1838) (STORE PH:W.194) treats this subject in detail. Early nineteenth-century phrenologists held that the cerebellum was the seat of the faculty concerned with reproductive drive (the aforementioned ‘amativeness’). Famously, the phrenologists also believed that the contours of the skull mirrored that of the brain and, therefore, anyone could read off individual characteristics by feeling for bumps. (The cerebellum is located towards the rear base of the skull, hence why I had you feeling behind your head.)

For historians of science, this text is exciting for two reasons: first, its racy and, second, its in translation.

With respect to explicit content, On the Functions of the Cerebellum is much more forward than many other texts published by Edinburgh phrenologists at the time. In fact, its editor George Combe acknowledges this in his preface, stating that the work contains details “which in some respects are not suited to general perusal”. However, he makes the case that a select audience, particularly medical men, should not be restricted from developing their knowledge of phrenology just because (in Edinburgh at least) it was part of a popular movement intended for “both sexes, and of persons of all ages and conditions”. With this warning in place, Combe doesn’t hold back. We hear of the spread of masturbation in school, the loss of libido in injured soldiers and, most controversially of all, a twelve-year-old girl suffering from “Nymphomania”. So, On the Functions of the Cerebellum is clearly an important text for those charting the genealogy of sexual theory pre-psychoanalysis. It also presents the historian with a fantastic opportunity to investigate the ways in which different types of knowledge were carved up and negotiated as socially acceptable.

Related to this point, and something I am working on, is the fact that On the Functions of the Cerebellum imports many works from French and provides them in translation for an audience in Edinburgh. We have leading French phrenologist François-Joseph-Victor Broussais’s Cours de phrénologie as well as Franz Joseph Gall’s Petition and Remonstrance to the Emperor of Germany (a response to having his lectures banned). All this affords the historian an opportunity to chart the interactions and connections phrenology made beyond particular localities such as Edinburgh or Paris.

In short, On the Functions of the Cerebellum is recommended reading for two (very occasionally overlapping) groups of historians: those interested in the history of sexual theory before Freud, and those interested in how knowledge traverses national boundaries.

By James Poskett

Illustration showing the base of the brain and cerebellum (p.xx)

Illustration showing the base of the brain and cerebellum (p.xx)


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