Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Literature The History Of Hysteria - Essay

The History Of Hysteria

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Claire Kahane (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "History/Hysteria: A Glance Backward," in Passions of the Voice: Hysteria, Narrative, and the Figure of the Speaking Woman, 1850-1915, The John Hopkins University Press, 1995, pp. 1-13.

[In the excerpt that follows, Kahane contends that the second half of the nineteenth century was dominated by cultural, political, and economic upheaval, accompanied by a conservative reaction to this upheaval; this tension between radical change and static order, Kahane maintains, is reflected in the structure of the internal conflict expressed in hysteria.]

Wherever the hysteric goes, she brings war with her.

—Moustapha Safouan, "In Praise of Hysteria"

Change is the matter both of history and of narrative, but as historians have remarked, England in the second half of the nineteenth century seemed to experience its mutability with extraordinary intensity. The sense of cultural transformation that dominated both event and discourse in the Victorian era has been repeatedly chronicled; within one generation a technological revolution perhaps unparalleled until our own fin-de-siècle computer age gave rise to material transformations that radically altered the boundaries of the geosocial landscape. The rapid expansion of industrial capitalism and its promotion of shifts of population, the emergence of large urban centers with newly exploding populations and new social classes, the invention of telegraph and telephone, the expansion of railroads and steam power, created a vertiginous sense of social and economic acceleration to which Victorian discourse bore frequent witness.1

Clearly such swift change breeds anxiety as well as expectation, breeds a diffuse sense of being subject to forces beyond one's comprehension or control, a sense that went against the dominant Victorian ideal of progressive mastery and dominion in both politics and culture. Thus, for example, Walter Bagehot in Physics and Politics cannot quite remove the quasi-paranoid intimations of invisible presences in his voice even as he celebrates the new knowledge in physics: "One peculiarity of this age is the sudden acquisition of much physical knowledge. There is scarcely a department of science which is the same, or at all the same, as it was fifty years ago. A new world of inventions . . . has grown up around us which we cannot help seeing, a new world of ideas is in the air and affects us, though we do not see it."2 As Bagehot's text testifies, the very word new emerges as a frequent incantation in the discourse of the late nineteenth century—the New Hedonism, the New Fiction, the New Realism, the New Drama, the New Sciences, and, not least for my purposes, the New Woman—undermining the old certainties that subtended the cultural order.3

What especially characterized this nervous age was that a generalized anxiety about change became increasingly linked to a particular anxiety about the change in and by women, a change that, as Peter Gay points out, was brought about in great part by the very successes of the bourgeois culture that was nervous.4 If, for example, the speedy development of late-nineteenth-century capitalism called for a rapidly expanding work-force; women in ever greater number participated in that expansion. In the England of 1851 there had been almost no women clerks; in 1861 there were 2,000; and, by 1911, the number had mushroomed to 157,000. Moreover, the growth of crowded urban centers, inevitably attended by poverty, unemployment, illness, and crime, called for new social competencies and new professional qualifications. Although women remained a small minority in the professions—by 1897 there were only 87 women doctors in all of England—middle-class women took the lead as crusaders for social and spiritual reform. Precisely in the name of those female virtues conventionally attributed to them, women established reform societies, settlement houses, and educational alliances to address the needs of an expanding new mass population. Even religion, the conventional stronghold of patriarchal authority, was invaded by these newly public women, who, newly inspired, used the pulpit with millennial zeal to envision utopias in which women prevailed as arbiters of morality and the law. By the 1880s a new and increasingly vocal woman had emerged in both England and America, confident in her singularity, outspoken in the public arena, calling vociferously for suffrage and a legitimate voice in the affairs of state.

Much like the response of many conservatives to the second wave of feminism in the late 1960s, the social critics of the time responded to the emergence of this New Woman by predicting the end of Western civilization. Ann Ardis points to an anonymously authored article in the Westminster Review that claimed that the New Woman was "intimately connected" with "the stirrings and rumblings now perceivable in the social and industrial world, the 'Bitter Cries' of the disinherited classes, the 'Social Wreckage' which is becoming able to make itself unpleasantly prominent, 'the Problems of Great Cities,' the spread of Socialism and Nihilism" (1990, 1). Certainly this link between rebellion in the working class and the increasingly militant calls for women's liberation was not without precedent. In mid-nineteenth-century America Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin drew an analogy between black slavery and the economically servile position of bourgeois white women; similarly, in England Charlotte Brontë's Shirley, specifically structured as a double narrative of political struggle and individual domestic conflict, depicted both working-class men and middle-class women as oppressed by a powerful male gentry indifferent to their claims, each barely containing a resentment that had no legitimate outlet. Increasingly, British discourse of the late nineteenth century identified women and labor—the title of Olive Schreiner's pioneering study—as the two great problems of modern social life. Both were represented as cauldrons of unrest, twins sources of a Pandora's box just waiting to be opened.

Thomas Laqueur has remarked of the French Revolution that "wherever boundaries were threatened arguments for fundamental sexual differences were shoved into the breach" (1986, 14); both England and America in the mid-nineteenth century seemed to require that supplementation. As Mary Poovey points out, a binary model of sexual difference had begun to dominate European culture by the late eighteenth century, but it reached its zenith in the mid-nineteenth century. Significantly, it took the body as the natural site of social as well as sexual difference, and as Poovey notes, that meant reproduction: "Emphasizing the incommensurability of male and female bodies entailed foregrounding the role of the reproductive system, effacing other kinds of differences" (1988, 6). By midcentury woman's maternal function was ubiquitously taken as the foundation both of her social identity and of her sexual desire. Late-eighteenth-century medical treatises, for example, had unselfconsciously described women as having large sexual appetites, but by the second half of the nineteenth century, most doctors deemed frigidity more natural for women, whose sensual pleasure was assimilated to their maternal function, appearing as tenderness rather than lust.

Of course, such a conflation of woman's desire with maternity was not new; woman's role as mother had long been propounded as a religious ideal. With the increasing valorization of the sciences in the bourgeois century (Gay 1984), however, medical discourse, as if appropriating the social authority previously deemed divine, defined and prescribed what was "natural" as a biocultural imperative. Between 1875 and 1900 a considerable number of physicians claimed that female emancipation would inevitably cause gynecological disease (Sensibar 1991).5 Women were constantly warned by doctors about the horrendous physical consequences of the unnatural use of their minds: education would shrivel up women's reproductive organs; thinking robbed the ovaries of energy. Not surprisingly, hysteria, a pathology whose very name implicated women's reproductive system, was adduced as the inevitable consequence of this perverse intellectual and political transvestism.6 As one American medical expert wrote,

The nervous force, so necessary at puberty for the establishment of the menstrual function, is wasted on what may be compared as trifles to perfect health. . . . Bright eyes have been dulled by the brain-fag and sweet temper transformed into irritability, crossness and hysteria, while the womanhood of the land is deteriorating physically. (William Edgar Darnell, quoted in Smith-Rosenberg 1985, 259)

In the context of this pervasive medical legislation of woman's reproductive identity, the figure of the mother became not only an idealized trope of female nature and destiny but a site of psychic conflict as well.

It would be reductive to conclude that such arguments were universally accepted, however; certainly one can find dissenting opinions that encouraged the emancipatory project of young women, and even some conservative doctors relented in their pronouncements as more women entered institutions of higher education without ill effects.7 Women doctors especially, although few in number, were among the most vocal in countering the assertions of male physicians; they blamed not education for women's illness but the class hypocrisy of a medical establishment that could argue simultaneously both for the working woman's greater powers of endurance and for the natural frailty of women. Nevertheless, blatant contradictions in the representations of women continued to circulate in Victorian discourse. Thus, for example, as Smith-Rosenberg remarks, at the same time that "the True Woman was emotional, dependent, and gentle—a born follower . . . the Ideal Mother, then and now, was expected to be strong, self-reliant, protective, an efficient caretaker in relation to children and home" (1985, 199).

Both meanings were fused into what has been called "the Cult of True Womanhood" (Welter 1966). Widely promulgated in mid-nineteenth-century fiction and poetry, this cult, with its doctrinaire insistence on separate spheres of action for men and women, had spawned perhaps the most tendentiously feminine-maternal figure, the "Angel in the House" who circulated in Coventry Patmore's popular tract-poem of that name (1854). Thirty years later Charles Darwin's The Descent of Man gave this essentialist separatist doctrine a scientific history by arguing that women had evolved differently from men, that their nurturant capacities naturally fitted them for home and hearth, while men had evolved aggressive abilities that suited them for competition in the public arena. Like Patmore's versified representation, Darwinian law represented woman as both nurturant and self-sacrificing, and thus the natural conservator of Victorian morality and civilization.

What seems obvious in retrospect is that the Victorian scripture on gender difference was being urgently disseminated at the very time that socioeconomic conditions, historical forces, and cultural representations were increasingly undermining it. Nina Auerbach's reading of the contradictory meanings of the Victorian woman, who was old maid, fallen woman, and angel in the house rolled into one, captures the complicated effects of the era's attempt to control the representation of women's nature. As Auerbach points out, "woman's very aura of exclusion gave her imaginative centrality in a culture increasingly alienated from itself. Powerful images of oppression became images of barely suppressed power, all the more grandly haunting because, unlike the hungry workers, woman ruled both the palace and the home while hovering simultaneously in the darkness without" (1982, 188). By the 1880s the Angel in the House was challenged by the appearance of "Novissima" (Ardis 1990, 1), the New Woman who rejected marriage and motherhood and provocatively contested the boundaries of those separate spheres.8

Yet clearly the very term New Woman, appearing ubiquitously in the popular press, had stirred up the demons of uncertainty not only about women's proper place, but about men's proper place as well. Elaine Showalter remarks that the New Woman "threatened to turn the world upside down and to be on top in a wild carnival of social and sexual misrule" (1990, 38).9 Showalter's metaphor of sexual reversal, a common image for the cultural consequences of women's liberation in the popular iconography of the time, indicates the implicit challenge to heterosexual positioning that the New Woman conveyed, but nowhere more so than by mounting the platform and speaking, by putting herself actually on top. For it was particularly the feminist orators, who claimed an equal place in a fraternal order of culture, who took their political demands to the public platform, that most raised the hackles of the public about women's proper sexual place, if we can judge from the vehemence of popular critical reaction. From midcentury onward, antifeminist literature, cartoons, sermons, and caricatures increased in circulation. Typically, they took the form of questioning the gender identity of women who spoke in public; that is to say, they made the woman's public voice the primary signifier of her problematic sexual being. American feminist conventions like those at Seneca Falls (1848) and Rochester (1852) had provoked fierce denunciations in the popular press, which represented the feminist orator as an unsexed woman. The New York Herald denounced feminist orators as "mannish women, like hens that crow" (September 12, 1852). Similarly, in England, Punch joined with the House of Commons to caricature women who took the podium as masculine harridans. "My hair is dark chestnut; my moustachios are rather lighter," Punch quipped, mimicking the voice of a female candidate for office (21 [1851], 157).10 The mannish woman orator became an increasingly familiar figure in satiric novels; in The Rebel of the Family, the antifeminist writer Eliza Lynn Linton, who coined the phrase "shrieking sisterhood," referred to one "specimen of a female public orator" whose "case-hardened self sufficiency was as ugly as a physical deformity," and described another with suspiciously "close-cropped hair, a Tyrolese hat . . . a waistcoat and a short jacket" (quoted in Showalter 1990, 24).11

Paradoxically, feminist orators were portrayed not only as hermaphrodites but also as prostitutes, acting out a vulgar and suspect exhibitionism, which offended womanly proprieties. "There is something repugnant to the ordinary Englishman in the idea of a woman mounting the platform and facing the noisy, gaping, vulgar crowd of an election meeting," writes Mary Jeune in the 1890s ("English Women in Political Life," North American Review [1895]:453, quoted in Showalter 1990, 24). It is particularly ironic that not only does Jeune herself confound boundaries by speaking in the name of the English-man, but her "repugnance"—an affect associated with hysteria—itself suggests the hysterical ground of her response to the feminist orator. If these ubiquitous images of the woman orator pointed to the sexual anxieties of an aroused public, they also unveiled the cultural fantasy that provoked them: the freakish man-woman with a voice was the woman with a phallus, a vocal Medusa, to be suppressed for the sake of the social order, repressed for the sake of the psychological one.

It was no mere coincidence that at the same time that the woman orator became an increasingly audible and visible figure in the pulpit and on the podium, female hysteria, with its characteristic symptoms of aphonia and paralysis, swept across Europe and America in epidemic proportion.12 Neil Hertz (1983) describes male hysteria in the eighteenth century as a response to the image of the anarchist woman of the French Revolution and its arousal of male castration anxiety. The nineteenth-century woman orator was also a kind of woman warrior, and it is not surprising that she provoked similar fears of being unmanned in her male audience. What is remarkable, however, is that this figure of the speaking woman also provoked women's anxiety—about the propriety of possessing the power of the voice, about having the phallus rather than being it, an anxiety whose effects are still evident in women's continued ambivalence about public speaking. To approach that ambivalence and its relation to hysteria, I want first to note that while feminist critics often conflate the feminist and the hysteric, seeing them as two sides of a singular political heroine—the revolutionary feminist-hysteric13—there is a significant distinction to be drawn between them as historical figures. The feminist and the hysteric presented mirror images of women's relation to the public voice: the feminist orator claimed an active subject position and the power of the voice; the hysteric passively acted out through her body what her voice could not speak.

If this mirror relation serves to describe an essential antithesis between the feminist and the hysteric, it also figures a psychic split within the hysteric, an internal division between active speaking subject and passive spoken object that inhibited if not totally suppressed her public voice.14 Joan Rivière's well-known article "Womanliness as Masquerade" (1929; rpt. Burgin et al. 1986), although written in and about a later period, offers a useful point of entry into that division by its interrogation of a particular case of anxiety over the issue of public speaking. Rivière cites the case of a woman who seemed to have it all: a professional life that satisfied her ambitions, a family, a good sex life. As Rivière writes, "She had a high degree of adaptation to reality and managed to sustain good and appropriate relations with almost everyone with whom she came in contact" (36). There was a problem, however:

She was an American woman engaged in work of a propagandist nature which consisted principally in speaking and writing. All her life a certain degree of anxiety, sometimes very severe, was experienced after every public performance, such as speaking to an audience. . . . She would be excited and apprehensive all night after, with misgivings whether she had done anything inappropriate, and obsessed by a need for reassurance. This need .. . led her compulsively on any such occasion to seek some attention or complimentary notice from a man or men at the close of the proceedings in which she had taken part or been the principal figure. (36)

Noting the "incongruity of this attitude with her highly impersonal and objective attitude during her intellectual performance" (36), Rivière locates its source in a doubled conflict familiar also to the etiology of hysteria: identification and rivalry with her mother (which implies desire for the father) and identification and rivalry with her father (which implies desire for the mother).

It is her rivalry with her father for the phallus, as Rivière describes it, which seems especially relevant for understanding why the feminist orator would provoke hysteria in women. For Rivière's patient public speaking "signified an exhibition of herself in possession of the father's penis, having castrated him" (39); her retreat to feminine behavior, her "womanliness as masquerade," was thus meant to ward off a feared punishment for appropriating the father's power.15 The feminist orator could also be said to have stolen the father's phallus; but unlike the hysteric, she claimed her right to the phallus, her right to exceed the strictures of femininity, to compete with the father as an active, desiring subject. Circulating that claim in the expanding movement for women's suffrage, the feminist orator provoked a wishful identification among a good number of women auditors at the same time that she provoked an unconscious dread—an ambivalence that had mixed effects. While, as Judith Butler claims, the daughter's "rivalry with the father is not [necessarily] over the desire of the mother, but over the place of the father in public discourse as speaker" (1990, 51), it is virtually impossible to separate transgressive desire from rivalrous identification in this contestation with the father, which, at its worst, results in the kind of hysterical mutism that Henry James probes in The Bostonians. As with Rivière's early-twentieth-century patient, who was unable to either acknowledge the claim to the phallus and its oedipal ramifications or give it up, the hysterical woman of the nineteenth century kept silent her fantasmatic rivalry, and dissimulating by simulating femininity, spoke her divided desire in symptoms.

Hysteria has always been associated with femininity, from the Greek depiction of hysterics as lazy women with wandering wombs, through the demonically possessed women of the Middle Ages, to the nineteenth-century hysterics that fascinated Freud (Bernheimer 1990a). Moreover, as Ilza Veith (1965) points out in her extensive survey of the disease, historically "the symptoms were modified by the prevailing concept of the feminine ideal."16 The relation between hysteria and the feminine ideal in the nineteenth century is further elucidated by Alan Krohn's (1978) observation that passivity has been a consistently central component of hysteria. The hysteric, Krohn argues in his cross-cultural study, uses the dominant myth of passivity in her or his culture to represent internal conflict. Since passivity, and particularly passive desire, came to define a normative and ideal femininity in the nineteenth century, the Victorian feminine ideal itself became a privileged site of hysterical ambivalence. Freud's opinion that what is repudiated in both sexes is femininity (1937, SE 23:250), specifically defined as passive desire, foreshadows the conclusions of these historical and cross-cultural studies. All suggest that both female and male hysterics were—are—involved in conflictual feminine identifications that they both desire and abhor.17

Even before the nineteenth century, femininity and passivity had been joined in the medical discourse on hysteria. "This disease attacks women more than men," wrote a Dr. Sydenham in the seventeenth century, "because they have a more delicate, less firm constitution, because they lead a softer life, and because they are accustomed to the luxuries and commodities of life and not to suffering" (quoted in Bernheimer 1990a, 12). Sydenham is credited with promoting the modern liberation of hysteria from its biological basis as a female disorder (Rousseau 1993, 144).18 For Sydenham, hysteria was a common "affliction of the mind" induced by a passive lifestyle and thus a function of an increasingly affluent civilization. His female hysterics, all wealthy women, were especially suspect, however; leading "a softer life," they embodied more fully the social ills of the time. Sydenham's liberating definition of hysteria still cast the woman, "less firm" in constitution, as more "naturally" prone to hysteria.

Although men increasingly entered the ranks of hysterics throughout the eighteenth century, their susceptibility to hysteria was defined by their being "tender, nervous, brittle . . . either mentally or morally of feminine constitution" (Rousseau 1993, 170). Representations of male hysterics as "timid and fearful" or "coquettish and eccentric" (Showalter 1993, 289) reinforced the relation between hysteria and women, particularly women of a stereotypically fragile feminine constitution. Thus, although Enlightenment medicine continued to move away from the literalization of hysteria as a wandering womb to its being a more general signifier of a nervous disorder that afflicted both men and women, hysteria remained effectively tied to cultural definitions of a denigrated femininity. By the nineteenth century, hysteria had proliferated as a diagnosis. Covering a wide spectrum of physical disorders of uncertain origin, it remained doubly tainted both by its link to femininity and by a suspicion that it belonged to the realm of the imaginary.19

In the early nineteenth century the French physician Philippe Pinel, known as the "Liberator" for literally removing the chains from institutionalized patients, had proposed that some unacknowledged sexual transgression was part of the etiology of hysterical symptoms. Because hysteria resulted from deviant sexual conduct, Pinel recommended as a cure marriage and the family, a return to the sexual fix that was itself often an instigating factor in the etiology of the illness. If Pinel thus chained the hysteric to a suspect morality, he did make two significant contributions to the modern history of hysteria: (1) he empirically severed hysteria from biology, and therefore from an essential female nature, by demonstrating clinically that disorders associated with hysteria could not be traced to any organic changes in the brain or nervous system; (2) he used conversation to explore the source of his patients' disturbance, a method of treatment that antedated the talking cure of psychoanalysis (Bernheimer 1990a, 5).

Perhaps more than any nineteenth-century figure before Freud, Jean Charcot contributed to a change in the perception of hysterics by extensively studying hysteria in men as well as women and delineating it as an actual pathology with precise laws.20 Yet in spite of his categorization of hysteria as a non-gender-specific disorder, Charcot's most dramatic public representations of hysterics were of women. At his famous Leçons du Mardi, weekly lectures that took place in a hall beneath a picture of Pinel having the chains taken off the madmen in the Salpetrière, Charcot used hypnosis to produce, catalogue, and remove hysterical symptoms from women of different classes (Bernheimer 1990a, 6-7).

In composing the features of a mysterious behavior into a coherent, structured symptomatology, Charcot catalogued four phases in the hysterical attack that Freud records: (1) the epileptoid phase—convulsive attacks preceded by "aura sensations," especially the globus hystericus (spasms of the pharynx, "as though a lump were rising from the epigastrium to the throat"); (2) the grands movements phase—movements of wide compass, which Freud notes are elegantly performed; (3) the hallucinatory phase—the famous attitudes passionelles, "distinguished by attitudes and gestures which belong to scenes of passionate movement, which the patient hallucinates and often accompanies with the corresponding words"; during this attack consciousness is often lost; (4) the terminal delirium phase—the grand attaque (SE 1:42-43, 151). Although this description of the stages of intensification of a pathology has the structure of spectacle—indeed, Charcot made extensive use of photography in documenting and cataloguing hysterical symptoms21—its diachronic movement offers the rudiments of a sequenced story told through the hysterical body. That story moves from blocked orality to its liberation—from a lump coming up from within to an oral site of conflict at the throat, where it remains unexpressed; to the dissemination of that "lump" that blocks expression into a sexual scenario performed by body parts; and, finally, to orgiastic delirium. Charcot's ordering, which situates its initial conflict in the oral zone, would be elaborated by Freud, who gave the formal symptoms a particular content as the representation of an individual history, and joining temporality to meaning, foregrounded the importance of hysterical narration in finding a path to the cure.

In this regard, what proved most germane for the emergence of Freud's psychoanalysis was Charcot's demonstration through hypnosis that the hysteric's very consciousness was beyond her control, that she could speak and act from another place without being present as a subject of consciousness, that an erotic scenario unknown and unacknowledged was being articulated through her body and could be read. Writing of Charcot's patient and the attitude passionelle, Freud had remarked: "In many cases it is quite obvious that this phase comprises a memory from the patient's life. . . . Even when attitudes passionelles are lacking, hypnosis provides proof of psychical process such as is revealed in the phase passionelle, ie. a sexual scenario" (SE 1:151-52). Charcot's patients provided Freud with evidence of a disjunction among memory, sexuality, and consciousness, a disjunction in the very temporal reality of the subject that became the founding premise of his new science of the unconscious. Moreover, by reading the symptom as a linguistic representation of an unconscious conflict not available to the conscious subject, Freud challenged also the Enlightenment assumption of a unitary subject of language.

The move from Charcot to Freud, as Stephen Heath first remarked, is a move from the metaphorics of vision to voice, a move that subverted the distance between subject and object (1981, 202-4). If Charcot's careful visual charting had distanced and isolated the hysteric in the manner of objective science, Freud's method of listening to the speaking voice promoted proximity and the inevitable ambiguities associated with language. It also promoted a more permeable boundary between speaker and listener through the circulation of a disembodied voice. Indeed, the shift from vision to voice can also be seen as a shift in the aesthetics of narrative form, from a realism that makes extended use of objective description—those material details that so irritated Virginia Woolf in her critique of Arnold Bennett and John Galsworthy ("Modern Fiction" [1953])—to a modernism that insists on blurring the boundaries between the subject and object of representation through the permutations of an emphatically subjective narrative voice.22 The case history, Freud's own new narrative genre, exemplifies the problematic consequences of this shift.23


1 See Gay's extensive elaboration of the changes in Victorian life and their effects (1984).

2Physics and Politics (1872, 1; quoted in Gay 1984, 52-53).

3 This...

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