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From blocked flows to suppressed emotions: the life of a trope

Abstract

Internal blockages and build-ups cause disease: traditionally, this principle seemed intuitive both to professionals and the laity, explained conditions as diverse as melancholy and scurvy (among many others), and justified the use of evacuative treatments to get rid of noxious matter. With the collapse of humoral medicine and the establishment of the concept of specific causation, one might have expected time-honoured tropes of obstruction to die off. They did not die off, but moved with the times and adapted to new conditions. Emphasis swung from the noxious character of retained substances to the harms of suppressed urges and emotions—harms including disabling maladjustments as a result of sexual inhibition, and cancer as a result of emotional inhibition. In both cases the causal mechanisms resemble traditional blockages. Theories of noxious inhibitions or psychological blocks, which have a familiar and perhaps even intuitive sound because they have so much history behind them, can easily lead patients into fanciful methods of prevention and treatment.

  • cultural history
  • medical humanities

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