Melvyn Bragg, hysteria and the indubitable flatness of the earth

Thursday 22 April 2004


IMAGINE THAT YOU INNOCENTLY
tune in to Radio 4 one Thursday morning and hear the familiar tones of Melvyn Bragg presenting an edition of In our time devoted to geography. He introduces his first guest, Professor Smith and asks her for her views on the shape of the earth. 'As all educated people know', she says, 'the earth is perfectly flat.' 'Remarkable, but quite evidently true,' says Bragg. He then introduces his second guest, the eminent geographer Professor Jones. 'Yes,' she says, 'there's really no doubt about it at all. The earth is as flat as flat can be.'  The third guest, the well-known historian of navigation Mr Black, is then invited to join the discussion. 'It certainly is as you maintain,' he says. 'During my research I've interviewed any number of sailors who simply sailed as far as they could go and then fell over the edge. Why, only last night BBC television showed a prime-time drama for which I was the consultant. It presented the case of the mariner who fell off the edge of the earth without any warning at all. Hundreds of geographers were there at the time and they all agree that this is what happened.'

'It's quite extraordinary,' says Bragg in his most measured tones, 'that the Greeks realised the earth was flat more than two thousand years ago. And, of course, they were right.'  'O they were, they were,' says Professor Smith. 'So absolutely wise and right,' says Dr Jones. 'So far-seeing, and so scientifically ahead of their time,' says Mr Black.

And so the discussion continues for another twenty-five minutes with barely a doubt expressed and never a suggestion that anyone has ever seriously proposed that the earth was not flat, let alone ventured the extraordinary idea that it might be round.

Were you to hear such a programme you might be forgiven for wondering whether Melvyn Bragg and his eminent studio guests had entirely taken leave of their senses, or their sanity, or both. Yet the edition of In our time about hysteria which was broadcast this morning was almost as remarkable as the fictional programme I describe. Every one of the three studio guests stood in relation to Freud scholarship and medical history rather as flat-earthers do to modern geographers.

The three credulous contributors were, in order of their appearance on the programme, Juliet Mitchell,  Professor of Psychoanalysis and Gender Studies at the University of Cambridge; Rachel Bowlby, Professor of English at the University of York, who has written the introduction to the new Penguin translation of Freud and Breuer’s Studies in Hysteria; and Brett Kahr, Senior Clinical Research Fellow in Psychotherapy and Mental Health at the Centre for Child Mental Health in London.

Given the beliefs and affiliations of these guests it was hardly surprising that they had so little difficulty in agreeing with one another. Brett Kahr was a particularly topical choice since he had acted as consultant for May 33rd, the drama documentary by Guy Hibbert, broadcast last night, which made an extraordinary (and highly dangerous) attempt to rehabilitate the idea of satanic ritual abuse, presenting it in the context of discredited 'syndromes' such as Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) and Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).

For those who seek an alternative to the flat-earth theories of hysteria promulgated by Bragg's guests, I have been moved to put two new, substantial extracts from my Freud books online. Both approach hysteria as a pseudo-diagnosis which functions principally, as the psychiatrist Eliot Slater once put it, as 'a disguise for ignorance and a fertile source of clinical error'. The two articles are: Freud, Charcot and hysteria: lost in the labyrinth, which is an extract from Freud (Weidenfeld 2003), and Hysteria, medicine and misdiagnosis, which is taken from Why Freud Was Wrong (Harper Collins, 1995).

Thursday 22 April 2004         


For a critique of the In our time programme by Freud scholar Allen Esterson, click here.


                               
© Richard Webster, 2004

www.richardwebster.net

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