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84. Olonism, So-Called Imitative Mania

On the perfectly reasonable supposition that we can operate with the generalization «hysteria» M. Czaplicka (The Aboriginal Siberia, p. 320) has pointed out that most of the symptoms of arctic hysteria are met with in Europe, except that of imitative mania [471] which distinguishes «hysteria arctica» from other forms. But the first question is what can we call hysteria in general, and whether this generalization really covers more than mere symptoms? Therefore, I am rather reluctant to use this very broad designation, but I will keep it as the title of a further section in which I shall treat undoubtedly different forms of psychomental troubles in various degrees affecting the social behaviour of the individuals, and which cannot be classed as «insanity», «idiocy», etc. However, imitative mania ought to be excluded as a «symptom» of hysteria, and as a special condition, which will be shown in the present section.

The «imitative mania» (chorea imitatoria) has been described by a great number of authors amongst the populations of Siberia and even amongst the Malays [472]. As to the geographic distribution of this condition we can now include Manchuria, where «imitative mania» is common amongst the Tungus and Manchus and is also known amongst the Dahurs.

There are two hypotheses as to the «imitative mania» namely, (1) it was ascribed as due to the arctic conditions in which the newcomers cannot adapt themselves and fall into a state of psychic instability; (2) it was connected with the «psycho-physiological nature of the Mongols». The first hypothesis was proposed by a great number of investigators in Siberia for whom the conditions of arctic regions seemed to be «abnormal». They were themselves persons born in different climatic conditions, the reaction on which could also have been «abnormal», and occurring especially during the dark season and during the periods of change of seasons, etc. [473] As to the last condition I have some doubt as to the statistical reliability of the observation, especially considering the fact that the troubles appear at any season when they may interest the people. I leave without explanation the last condition which will receive its full significance after my further description. M. Czaplicka has pointed out that in the presence of imitative mania among the Malays it is safer to define this condition as due to the extremes of the climate: «hysteria of climatic extremes» (op. cit. p. 323). This author is inclined to connect this condition with the «psycho-physiological nature of Mongols» (p. 324). However, it may naturally be remarked that «Mongol» is a hypothesis which has never been proved to be a fact; and it is now not permitted to speak of the «Ary an stock» as not being subject to this condition. I point out that in both hypotheses there may be some truth, viz. psychic instability in an unusual milieu and hereditary predispositions for certain physiological conditions, but actually both are different aspects of the same situation, and for the time being we cannot make a choice between the two hypotheses. We even cannot say whether we really need them for the understanding of the actual functioning of the psychomental complex.

I shall not describe here all cases which I have observed for a great number of them are a mere repetition of known patterns, and a great number of other cases are mere varieties, truly curious, owing to their unusual forms, but not interesting from the point of view of their analysis.

* * *

I begin with the most common case, namely, the repeating of the last world, the so-called «echolalia». It is commonly observed amongst the populations here discussed. It consists in the repetition of the last word, phrase, sentence. Evidently the affected person does not grasp the «meaning» of the complex of the starters, i.e. the person does not correctly respond to the conventional function of the starters, or this function is inhibited [474]. The «causes» of this condition may be different: (1) the authoritative requirement of the teacher or parents to repeat the question before giving an answer [475] which may turn into a habit; (2) the requirement of repetition of the last word in «religious» (e.g. shamanistic) performances, when the whole audience repeats after the shaman his last word which is needed, as will be shown, for bringing the shaman and the audience into the state of extasy, and which may also turn into a habit; (3) the repetition of «words» prohibited by social customs, but constituting an important element in the psychomental complex under the pretext that these words were already pronounced, e.g. in Tungus such ones are starters for genitalia, and sexual act; (4) the disfunction of the system of conditioned reflexes.

I now want to point out the difference between the two conditions; namely, unconscious repetition, — real echolalia — and violation of existing customs under the pretext that they have been already violated by other people, which permits expression of inhibited complex. This may lead us to the next step, namely, the occurrence of using «bad words» — coprolalia of Sir William Osier, — which may be started by a pronounced word. The reaction may be short or long, it may consist of a repeated word or a whole series of «bad words». In this case a good deal of growth of complexes depends on the individual imagination and the stock of prohibited «words». Since a great number of prohibited words are those concerning the sexual sphere, the coprolalism may take a sexual form, but actually it is not confined only to the sexual sphere. In fact, in complex cases meet with the combination of sexual and «religious» elements the common use of which is prohibited. A further complication may be seen when aesthetic terms are mixed with «vulgar» ones, and still more complex are the when sexual and religious prohibitions are violated by their association with aesthetic and even «scientific» complexes. Indeed, these are very complex forms of «coprolalism» in which the subjects are operating not only with «words» but also with conceptions, which does not make their nature and function different. The change of «coprolalism» depends on the change of the cultural complex, and on the amount of prohibited words and prohibited associations. These prohibitions and violations are often not understood at all. For these reasons I rather prefer to avoid such a term as «coprolalia», for the first component is nothing but the expression of a reaction [476].

From the above shown approach to the problem it may be seen that the essential condition is not the sexual element, but the fact of social prohibition which may be violated either by using words or by using prohibited association of conceptions and starters. It may be regarded as a social violation and thus meet with opposition on the part of the society, i.e. be considered as a form of «coprolalism», or it may be approved by the society as a «bright idea» which produces an unusual reaction. When the reaction becomes common the new association loses its effect of a starter of an unusual reaction and thus it loses its «coprolalic» function. A few instances may help us. The language of some professions, e.g. sailors, is very rich in prohibited terms and associations. Among the sailors these expressions and associations become a kind of seasoning to their language without which the language is no more a real «sailor's language», but that of common people of other professions. Gradually the coprolalic character of these words and associations in this way loses its acuteness. W. W. Radlov once told me that when a Kirgiz child is taking his mother's breast he repeats expressions which would make a sailor blush, but the Kirgiz mother only approvingly smiles, for she is not allowed to use the same words, while in the language of the Kirgiz men they are not at all prohibited. Some professional groups amongst the Russians (before the Great War) possessed a rather elaborate system of expressions in which there might be mentioned and associated e.g. genitalia, bread, God, etc. Within these professions this «coprolalism» has degenerated into a complete loss of «meaning», -some expressions have become a simple «seasoning» without which the speech could no more function [477], even used merely for filling up rhythmic omissions, while in other social groups they preserved their «coprolalic» character. «Coprolalism» of prohibited associations, more rarely words, is frequently met with in the writing of those authors who disagree with the existing complexes, by which they want to attract attention to themselves, or to abolish one of existing «superstitions», or to satisfy a desire of the self-expression of inhibited complexes. It should be noted that during the periods of social disequilibrium and ethnical disequilibrium these public manifestations are especially common [478]. My point is that coprolalism is a very broad phenomenon which is conditioned by the existing social systems, and it is relative, for it functions as such only when socially disapproved: the social disapproval affects either a social group, or a sexual group, or even an age group. The group of phenomena (words, conceptions, ideas, feelings, etc.) may be different. «Coprolalism» can be understood, cognized, and it may be taken for something else: e.g. originality, brightness of mind, will power, strong character, sexuality, etc. [479]

I deemed these remarks necessary before going into the analysis of the Tungus complex, for the Tungus and Manchu «coprolalia» is more complex than it appears at first. «Words» prohibited among young women, are not so among men who would use them without any shade of «bad» meaning, — they would be used as latin terms are used in a European hospital [480]. Children are not allowed to use these terms for they do not need them so much as adult people. Young women are also not allowed to pronounce them because of the association of these terms with sexual relations about which, owing to complex psycho-social conditions, the young woman must not «speak». However, the old women do use these words, even with a sexual allusion for they are not restricted in sexual respects and there is no power to check them up, for junior generations cannot interfere. Such bravery of old women and teasing of young women is quite common, not only amongst the Tungus, — to talk about sex may become for an old woman sufficient compensation of central nervous habits, even when physiologically she can no more function as a woman or she has no more suitable partners. Since amongst the Tungus the old women are not actually restricted from using these words, a great number of them seize any occasion for repeating them after another person. Their attitude in this case may be understood (1) as a manifestation of their own sexual complex, — a desire to revive in their minds their previous experience; (2) as an occasion for showing their superior social position, when they are not restricted: (3) to challenge the young women in order to see the reaction and to amuse themselves; and (4) a real case of echolalia. The case of an old woman reacting on a starter by producing a series of «indecent» words is more complex, but it is in the same line of phenomena in which the last case (4) is found and it ought to be interpreted as a responding chain of conditioned reflexes.

Indeed, from the observation of old women I could see or at least suspect, all four conditions of reactions which with the help of supplementary conversations and «deepening» could be often established, and sometimes understood, at least perceived, by the woman. In the first case they would turn their conversation to their previous experience (not all Tungus are «hypocritic!»); in the second case they would point out that nobody can interfere with them; in the third case they would frankly say that they wanted to tease the young women. Perhaps in the last case they would not recognize an automatic reaction, but these are usually associated with other conditions of «imitative mania» and can thus be checked up in the last complex. When taken separately they may be brought about by the above outlined conditions, which may not always be established with due certainty.

It is different when we have a case of a young woman who is socially restricted from using these words. No doubt, in a great number of cases coprolalia in young women is a mere expression of their sexuality, as a revival of experience or its future possibility. That such an attitude is possible, -I do not want to say: «a fact», — is proved by the fact of women's interest in sexual problems, especially in so far as the women themselves may experience in this field. In fact, the women talk about it. When they respond in a mixed society, when the latter consist of males and females (usually there must be several females together), the sexual response becomes especially evident, for a good deal of the success of the reaction depends on the men who are present. In this case we touch on a new side of the problem namely, sexual exhibitionism to which we shall proceed later. But, it will now be sufficient to point out that the presence of an audience greatly helps reaction. It is more likely that the woman would show no reaction if she is certain that other women will repeat the same prohibited word, or a series of words. However, in young women there is a great inhibitory condition; namely, they are not allowed to pronounce these words, and if there are present elderly men (much less if there are elderly women) the inhibition will be sometimes sufficient to prevent the production of a reaction. This is one of reasons why women are so free in their language in the presence of members of the Tungus clans, the marital relations with which are not restricted, as also with a foreigner whom they do not fear.

The case of breaking of these social restrictions is possible only if the woman is very «impertinent» and «does not care» about public opinion, when she manifests her «independence» (such cases do occur among the Tungus), or in the case when she cannot control herself because of pressing need of sexual satisfaction. Such cases may occur when the woman is left alone for a long time or when she is in disagreement with her husband. The question now is: how many cases of real echolalia and coprolalia, as phenomena which are not conditioned by the normal state of young women may be found in thousands of similar reactions observed in a great majority of Tungus young women? And another question arises: why do some ethnical groups consider all these cases as excusable ones under the justification of a «pathological conditions typical of the Tungus olong?. After a continuous observation and hundreds of experiments in various circumstances, I have come to the conclusion that in exceptionally rare cases there is really «pathological» condition of olong, «imitative mania», while the rest of the cases are all due to the possibility of a manifestation either of sexual complex or of a social «rebellion» under the cover of images of «olonism».

It is thus evident that this symptom of imitative mania is quite misleading in most of cases, and it may be considered as a real symptom only in the presence of a complex of other symptoms.

Here it is necessary to point out that not only sexual complex may be found under the prohibition, but also some other phenomena. Unfortunately, my observations in this respect are not very numerous. However, I may indicate that the words like s'irkul amongst the Tungus of Manchuria, and xutu amongst the Manchus may produce the same reaction not only amongst the females, but also among the males. When they were pronounced (e.g. by myself) they always produced an «echolalic» effect: s'irkul, s'irkul, s'irkul, etc., or even a «coprolalic» effect, — a long enumeration of various spirits. One of the conditions is that the people must not name them because they may really come, and the second condition is that some Tungus are not reluctant to challenge these spirits. Side by side with these «words», the observer may obtain a positive result with foreign words echolalically repeated, but the nature of the phenomenon is still more complex and after my experiments its simplified explanation does not satisfy me.

The inference which may be made from the above given facts is that at the basis of these phenomena we have not only inhibited sexual complex, but also other inhibited complexes, and therefore these reactions should be generalized over all socially prohibited phenomena, both in males and females, and only in rare cases we have a real psychopathological condition which is used by the Tungus as a justification of their violation of existing social prohibitions. Therefore, the investigator must not overestimate the significance of this «symptom». As to the real Tungus reaction I shall speak about it later.


471. Chorea imitatoria, of Dr. Kashin, cf. M. Czaplicka, op. cit. p. 321.

472. Beginning from the eighteenth century up to our days the travelers and medical doctors reported various cases in their modifications. Instead of repeating once more I make reference to M. Czaplicka's work (op. cit. pp. 309, et seq.).

473. The reaction on different conditions is summarised: «dark winter days, light summer nights, severe cold, the silence, the general monotony of the landscape, scarcity of food, etc.» (M. Czaplicka, op. cit. p. 321) which reflects rather reaction of observers than that of natives of these legions. Most of these observers are accustomed to sunshine, dark nights, moderate temperature (especially in the well built houses), city noise, variety of scenery in streets, theatres, rich food in restaurants and in families of well-to-do class (in old Russia).

474. My approach to the language as a system of conditioned reflexes is of a special importance for the understanding of the condition of «echolalia» as well as that of «coprolalia» discussed below. Vide my work Ethnological and Linguistical Aspects etc.» Chapter 2.

475. I have frequently observed it amongst the students of foreign languages who studied them with bad teachers.

476. By this remark I do not intend to discredit the symptomatic value of this condition for practical needs of psychiatrists who are supposed to be familiar with the complexes of their own ethnical unit and rarely meet with extra-ethnical cases. However for the needs of ethnography it can be used only with reserves.

477. In dealing with different social groups I have found that such a seasoning was necessary when one needed to be fully understood. Therefore the «coprolalic» expressions were indispensable when one dealt with the group that used them, or when one needed to show one's own belonging to a definite social group (which might also be «psychological»). There are very numerous stories (statement of facts) which are usually figuring as «anecdotes», but actually they are not so.

478. The Russian literature of the post-revolution period was saturated not only with coprolalism of associations, but a serious attempt was made there to introduce expressions (sometimes self-understood under the symbols of initial letters, as it is met with in other Western literatures), which were coprolalic for all social groups except some professionals. «Coprolalism» of associations and even of expressions is known among the fashionable writers of all epochs and peoples. I do not mean here «pornography» the function of which is different and very specialized being chiefly connected with the sexual complex. The «anarchistic», «socialistic» and other generally unrecognized writers who sometimes preserve anti-coprolalic outer forms, are particularly inclined to the «coprolalism» of associations.

479. Theoretically it may be supposed that with a further change of the European complex there will appear some new forms of coprolalism. They do appear but they are not recognized.

480. In connection with this it can be noted that the Tungus accept as substitutes terms borrowed from other ethnical groups, e.g. the Manchus, Mongols, etc.