Monsters, medical oddities and changing mindsets – Attending the “Odd Bodies” conference

Image INCS confThe timing couldn’t have been better: as she was finishing the syllabus of her French literature course, “Circus Freaks and Bad Mothers,” centering on depictions of monsters in the 19th-century, Visiting Assistant Professor Julie Hugonny received a call for papers for the 2017 Institute of Nineteenth-Century Studies conference titled Odd bodies. “When I saw the subject of the conference, I just knew I had to take my students there,” she recalls. It was a match made in heaven.

After securing funding from the Charles Center and the Office of the Dean of Arts and Sciences and coordinating her group’s arrival with the organizers of the INCS conference, she advertised the weekend-long trip to her students, and set to take nine of them on this particular adventure.

IMG_2114The FREN 392 literature course she taught featured classic works of literature such as La Belle et la Bête by Jeanne Marie Leprince de Beaumont, La Mère au Monstres by Guy de Maupassant, L’Homme qui rit by Victor Hugo’s, Les Diaboliques by Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, as well as theoretic articles on disability, perception and exclusion. The students were thus well prepared for attending a conference that boasted subjects like “ugly bodies”, “queer bodies”, “prosthetics”, “circus and freak show bodies”, as well as the more ominous “bodies behaving badly” and “dead bodies.”

Armed with fresh knowledge and a boundless curiosity, the students attended panels of their choosing and eagerly participated in the follow-up discussions. Each had taken the class for different reasons, some of them simply loved literature, some others came from a disability studies viewpoint or a background of postcolonial studies. At the conference, the range of panels addressed a multitude of subjects and amply rewarded all those penchants. In fact, the students’ only complaint at the end of the day was that, since the panels were simultaneous, they couldn’t attend them all and had to make tough choices.

Since the conference was taking place in Philadelphia, a visit to the Mütter Museum of medical oddities seemed a necessary step. This cabinet of curiosities, housed in the college of Physicians, features among other wonders, a life-size molding of Cheng and Eng, the original Siamese twins, the skeleton of a woman’s whose corset had reduced her ribcage to a life-threatening degree, and a wall of skulls, each labeled with the origin, gender and cause of death of its owner. Beyond its obvious entertainment value, the Museum presented the dominant discourse of the time and vividly illustrated the pathologization of deviancy from the norm, the very approach to bodily difference the conference endeavored to question.

Philly bridge 1The trip to Philadelphia was a success: the students went back to their readings (homework doesn’t wait for William & Mary students!) with a keener understanding of the historical and cultural context of the 19th-century as well as on the view of monstrosity prevailing at the time. More importantly, they acquired the literary strategies to examine, analyze and challenge this normative discourse.

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