Aude Fauvel, History of Psychiatry, Institut universitaire d’histoire de la médecine et de la santé publique, University of Lausanne, Switzerland
“Alcoholic Beasts: Alienists and the Problem of Animal Drunkenness in Nineteenth-century France”
Presented to the conference:
Alcohol, Psychiatry and Society
St Anne’s College, Oxford, 29-30 June 2017
Abstract: Can animals be alcoholic? At the end of the nineteenth century this question, which might seem asinine, came to the forefront of several works written by specialists of the mind, notably in France. French alienists considered that so much alcohol flooded the streets of their country in this diseased fin de siècle that even domestic animals were now affected by the plague of alcoholism. Specialists described cases of horses that quenched their thirst with beer, of dogs dying of delirium tremens, of 'degenerated' cats that spent entire days in a drunken stupor.
My paper will present this figure hitherto unknown in the psychiatric realm—the inebriated beast—by examining the various roles it played in medical, but also political and lay discourses on alcoholism in France. By summoning images of drunken pets, or, in the same vein, of intoxicated babies, alienists firstly intended to shock. The alcoholic animal was a spectacular character, a perfect addition to a larger alarmist medical discourse that urged authorities to fight alcohol overconsumption with hygienic measures. In this sense, it was mostly a rhetoric device, which psychiatrists used as a pretext to talk about the real problem: human alcoholism.
But since this image suggested that animals could exhibit addictive behaviours, it also paved the way for new visions of both animal and human psyches. Some alienists, such as Dr Charles Féré, took drunken animals very seriously. Indeed for Féré, the existence of animal alcoholism not only demonstrated that there was a consubstantial link between the progress of degeneracy and that of the trade of spirits. It also proved that psychiatry could conquer a new field: treating ‘mad’ animals. As it pervaded the medical and social imaginaries, the figure of the alcoholic beast thus contributed to changing the conceptions of what separates—and unites—human and non-human minds.
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