The [Dis]appearance of Hysteria

Performance artist Professor Laura González on paying attention to the hysteric utterance

Hysteria is a condition that has been diagnosed since before Hippocrates’ time. In Ancient Egypt, a papyrus recorded an illness in which the womb wandered in the woman’s body (Veitz 1965). From the inception of disease classification manuals, however, it had begun to disappear from the medical vocabulary, consulting rooms and psychiatric papers, to be finally eliminated from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in the 1990s (Ávila and Terra 2012). While the disappearance of a disease is not unique (Micale 1993)—think of vapours or melancholia—what makes hysteria different is the fact that it is still present in the body, and some doctors work with it as a category (Stone et al. 2008). The disappearance of hysteria is illusory, enhanced by the ghostly quality of something which has vanished but returns, symptoms that should not be there but clearly are. This makes hysteria uncanny, homely and strange at the same time. Moreover, this disappearance is one of hysteria’s key traits, of which I define five. Let me take them in order (of appearance):

Trait 1: The body. Hysteria is defined as the manifestation of psychological trauma in a physical symptom without an underlying physiological condition. ‘Hysteria (…) involves the use of the patient’s body as a stage for the body of the other’ (Phelan 1995: 97). In hysteria, the body takes over. In the nineteenth century, it was common for these attacks to be public and to happen in a series of poses which were categorized into four phases, or périodes, by Jean-Martin Charcot. Preceded by auratic prodromes (often melancholia, overexcitement, vomit, lack of appetite), the four phases are:

  • période epileptoide, convulsions and stertorous movement, loss of breath and consciousness, paleness followed by redness.
  • période de clownisme, big contortions, exaggerated muscular strength, flexibility and agility. Spinal flexion and extension, often repeated. The arc of hysteria, an extreme backward bend, is characteristic of this phase.
  • période des attitudes passionelles, hallucinations both happy and sad, including eroticism, fires, war, revolutions, assassinations, religious tableaux.
  • période terminale or delirium, hallucinations and trouble with movement slowly give space to equilibrium.

These phases, predominantly manifested in the body, were recorded, in drawn and photographic form, in the archive known as the Iconographie Photographique de la Salpêtrière, overseen by Paul Richer, a professor of artistic anatomy at École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts.

Trait 2: Mimesis. As can be seen by the first phase, hysteria has a mimetic quality—‘a more creative imitation or copy of human behaviour and nature’ (Campbell 2005: 334)—which makes its symptoms mutate, from the well-known nineteenth century convulsions, to possessions by the devil or spirits, eating disorders, epileptic fits, delirium, the inability to speak or sexual voracity. How hysteria is made manifest changes with the times. According to Georges Didi-Huberman (2003), hysterics at the Salpêtrière took on epileptic symptoms, copying those with whom they shared a ward and whom they thought were taken seriously by doctors. This mimetic practice, coupled with a tendency to over-identify, is constitutive of the hysteric; the hysteric seeks to be (like), not to have (to enjoy): ‘mimesis of the other is a relation to someone we do not wish to have but to be’ (Campbell 2005: 335). Such mimetic ability earned hysterics a reputation of inventing their symptoms, of lying and malingering, of making it up.

Jean-Martin Charcot demonstrating hysteria in a patient at the Salpetriere. Lithograph after P.A.A. Brouillet, 1887. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Trait 3: Voice. Years after Charcot, Sigmund Freud, his pupil, popularized the writing format of the clinical case history, revealing not only conditions and treatments, but the profound relation between patient and analyst. Charcot’s inscriptions and Freud’s narrations, though, speak in the doctor’s voice. And yet the hysteric is miming something beyond what the images and words capture. The globus hystericus, or a loss of voice, is one of the most classic hysterical symptoms.  ‘[W]hen the hysteric presents her riddled body to the physician, even though mute, she poses her question’ (Wajcman, 2003).

Trait 4: Mystery. French analyst Jacques Lacan, Freud’s disciple, moved away from symptomatology and understood hysteria as a structure, one that asks a question concerning a position with respect to an other’s desire: Che Vuoi? What do you want from me?(Lacan 2007). This is addressed to her own idea of authority and the law, and reveals the issue of desire and what to do with it.  The hysteric is interested in enigmas that ‘do not have solutions’(Safouan 1980: 57). Lacanian analyst Gérard Wajcman explains how the history and condition of hysteria ushers talking about it. The history of hysteria: ‘would demonstrate the failure of knowledge to unveil the mystery, as can be seen from certain historicist interpretations. Still, this history describes the conditions under which a mystery triggers the production of knowledge’ (Wajcman, 2003).

Trait 5: [Dis]Appearance. Freud’s most famous case history, Ida Bauer, for whom he used the pseudonym Dora in ‘Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria; (2001 [1905]) is significant for two reasons: Dora abandoned Freud after three months of treatment and it is in this text that he began to conceptualise the concept of transference, the therapeutic relation between analyst and patient. Dora is the one who got away, a textual ruin, a fragment of an analysis (which Freud could only but acknowledge in the title), a synecdoche for hysteria. A failure to read Ida the patient (or Dora’s case) is a failure to read hysteria. Hysteria itself has often been termed as a theatrical condition (Bollas, 2000). This is part of what makes it a disappearing act: it scrambles its own code for decipherment, through mimesis.

The five traits of the hysteric are enmeshed, cross over each other in messy ways. Mimesis happens in a body that speaks without a voice, appearing and disappearing, making its manifestation ghostly, mysterious and performative.  The traits are the foundation for hysteria’s insistence, its ability to return time after time. Together, the traits form the outline of an emerging figure.

How does hysteria bring about the illusion of its disappearance by copying symptoms that allow hysterics to be taken more seriously? What does hysteria’s forced disappearance mean for the patients, often seen as ghostly? Why and how does hysteria haunt us? I will answer these questions in a forthcoming book but, for now, I will put forward the idea that hysteria has a relation to resistance and rebellion (Borossa, 2001). As a physical response to emotional conflict, it is a way for the self—mainly through the body—to rebel against what is perceived to be unreasonable demands. This resistance, this disruption, constitutes the [dis]appearance of hysteria, square brackets in the middle of words to make articulation awkward. After all, ‘wherever the hysteric goes, she brings war with her’ (Safouan 1980: 59).

Ida, one-to-one durational work by Laura González, performed at Buzzcut on Friday 8 April 2016 for 4 hours. Credit: Julia Bauer.

One of the realms in which hysteria is most visible is in cultural manifestations (films, sculptures, installations, novels). This is a rather curious phenomenon, not related to a potential nostalgia of the 19th century asylum, even if it might appear to be so. In my own work as a performance artist, I read Freud’s case histories of hysteria and re-write them as an embodied, performative, ficto-critical text, one that ‘uses fictional and poetic strategies to stage theoretical questions and which reads theoretical texts in any discipline in the light of their rhetorical strategies and figures’ (Gibbs, 2003). For Anna Gibbs, fictocriticism is a form of resistance, as well as a way to make and to critique. In the words of Jacques Lacan, I, in my performance work, and the other cultural manifestations tracing the hysteric, offer a  ‘hysterization of discourse . . . the structural introduction, under artificial conditions, of the hysteric’s discourse’. In this way, through the hysteric’s technical disappearance and its performative reappearance, the hysteric does what she came do: to produce knowledge.

When he refers to the knowledge produced by the hysteric, Lacan does not mean the French connaissance, imaginary knowledge or even self-knowledge. Instead, he relates it to savoir, a symbolic, intersubjective, supposed knowledge that is related to jouissance, enjoyment beyond the pleasure principle. It is a knowledge gained in relation to an other. This quest for savoir is also what animates psychoanalytic practice and performance research. We need to pay attention to the hysteric utterance, to what it is telling us, rather than ask her to convert her insight into something readily understandable. It is us who must do the work. In order to share the knowledge of the hysteric, hysterical language has to be used. This is the potential if performance research, a field of enquiry privileged in its position to hysterisize body and language.

Laura González is an artist, writer, yoga teacher and an Athenaeum Research Fellow at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. She creates performances for galleries and festivals. She is currently translating Freud’s case histories into performance.

Works mentioned

Ávila, Lazslo Antônio and João Ricardo Terra, ‘Hysteria and its metamorphoses’, Revista Latinoamericana de Psicopatología Fundamental, Vol. 15, No. 1, March 2012,  27–41

Bollas. Christopher. Hysteria. Routledge, 2000.

Borossa, Julia, Ideas in Psychoanalysis: Hysteria, Cambridge: Icon Books, 2001.

Campbell, Jan, ‘Hysteria, Mimesis and the Phenomenological Imaginary.’ Textual Practice, 19 (3): 331–351, 2005.

Didi-Huberman, Georges, Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière, tr. by Alisa Hartz, Cambridge, MA. and London: MIT Press, 2003.

Freud, Sigmund, “Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria.” In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume VII (1901–1905): A Case of Hysteria, Three Essays on Sexuality and Other Works. Translated under the general editorship of James Strachey in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson, 1–122. London: Vintage,  2001 [1905].

Gibbs, Anna,  ‘Writing and the Flesh of Others’, Australian Feminist Studies, Vol. 18, No. 42, 2003, 309–319

Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, translated by Russell Grigg, W. W. Norton, 2007.

Micale, ‘On the Disappearance of Hysteria: A Study in the Clinical Deconstruction of a Diagnosis’, Isis, 1993, 84: 496–526.

Phelan, Peggy,  ‘Dance and the History of Hysteria.’ Corporealities Dancing Knowledge, Culture and Power, edited by Susan Leigh Foster, Routledge, 1995: 90–105.

Safouan, Moustapha, ‘In Praise of Hysteria.’ In Returning to Freud: Clinical Psychoanalysis in the School of Lacan, edited and translated by Stuart Schneiderman, 55–60. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980.

Stone, Jon, Russell Hewett, Alan Carson, Charles Warlow, and Michael Sharpe, ‘The ‘disappearance’ of hysteria: historical mystery or illusion?’ Journal of the Royal Society of  Medicine, 101(1) Jan 2008: 12–18.

Veith, Ilza, Hysteria: The History of a Disease. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1965.

Wajcman, Gérard,  ‘The Hysteric’s Discourse.’ The Symptom 4 (Spring), viewed June 11, 2019., 2003.

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