Friday, March 10, 2017


Goethe Girl is going to stick her neck out here.

The word "hysterizieren" (I am guessing that is the correct spelling) came up in an interview on German radio with the writer Joachim Lottman, who discussed his new novel, Alles Lüge (All a Lie). (See here for the publisher's English description.) The action of the novel takes place in 2016 during the "year of the refugee crisis." In the interview, Lottman used the term "hysterizieren" to characterize not simply the reaction to the crisis but the dominant psychological feature of our time. Listening to the interview, I thought that Lottman had invented the term. (He also said that "ISIS represents the only authentic youth movement of the present.")

Searching the internet, I discovered that the term is associated with Foucault, as in "the hysterization of women's bodies." That is not what Lottman was talking about. However, I did find a discussion of a "hystericized society" on a somewhat conspiratorially minded website, which discussed cycles of "society's hysterical condition." The author of the post, quoting the Polish psychiatrist Andrzej Lobaczewski, asserts that this condition, producing despondency and confusion, is an affliction of "ostensibly happy times." According to Lobaczewski (as per Wikipedia), "During happy times, societies enjoy prosperity and suppress advanced psychological knowledge of psychopathological influence in the corridors of power." Lobaczewski's background -- he was a member of the Polish resistance during World War II -- probably contributed to his interest in regimes presided over by rulers with personality disorders. Hitler and Stalin no doubt fit the bill, but I am surprised that he would have considered the Soviet Union or even the Weimar Republic to have been happy times, ostensibly or otherwise.

And now here is where Goethe Girl sticks her neck out. We in the U.S. and in the West generally live in prosperous times. Even people whose daily life is dependent on government assistance live better than most of the world. Why otherwise would people from the Middle East risk their lives coming to Europe? There are probably many who would like to study, to work, to have a life like ordinary Westerners; but, if all else fails, there is government assistance. Who can blame them?

And, yet, happy we are not; we are decidedly "hysterical." No, I would go further and say that we are caught up in apocalyptic visions that, historically, have been associated with very bad times and that resulted in mass persecutions and a search for scapegoats. These visions presently concern the end of the world, which, it is claimed, are the result of our "eco-sins." Insight into this phenomenon can be found in a work by the German historian Wolfgang Behringer: Kulturgeschichte des Klimas: Von der Eiszeit bis zur globalen Erwarmung. (Cultural History of Climate: From the Ice Age to Global Warming. You can find it in English here.)

The Frozen Thames (1677), by Abraham Hondius (London Museum)
His chapters on the "Little Ice Age," which affected the earth from the 13th to the 19th century, are worth reading, because of the social unrest produced by global cooling. It was in this period that the glaciers of the Alps, Scandinavia, and North America advanced. While the climate's cooling produced irregular rainfall in those regions and thus agricultural loss, drought was a problem in parts of the Mediterranean. The climate zone in which agriculture could be pursued shrank. For instance, the Sahara desert moved several hundred kilometers south. Increased aridity meant, in Behringer's words, “Spain dried up.” Venetian officers reported long periods of drought between 1548 and 1648 on the island of Crete. Such was the effect on Europe: “In 25 percent of the years, not a drop of rain fell all winter or in spring. A fifth of all winters, on the other hand, were marked by exceptional falls of snow, protracted periods of abnormal cold, or rain so excessive that crops could not be sowed until late spring."

The worst years were from 1560 to 1660. In my next post I will discuss, relying on Behringer, the hysterization of society as a result of global cooling during these years, which included the rise in persecution of witches. The period also coincided with the invention of a new kind of landscape: the winter landscape.

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