Hosting in the first person
I am an intimate durational performance maker. This means that I perform to a restricted number of audience members – often only one in turn – and time itself is a material of the encounter. My works are are based on Sigmund Freud’s written case histories of hysterical patients. In order to translate the work from text into performance, I created a method I call gHosting, in which I host the ghost of the patient in my own body. First, I read Freud’s writing with attention, carefully. On my second re-read, I re-write by hand the words I hear from the patient in the first person, erasing the voice of the doctor. I then record a reading of this new case history in my own voice and, instead of rehearsing the performance, I play it back to myself repeatedly, over several weeks. When I perform, I remember, rather than recite, what I hear, in the way the patients might have remembered occurrences or incidents when they told them to Freud. Thus, every one-to-one performance is different, an encounter created with the specific audience member in the room. My translation from case history to performance omits the doctor’s voice, and switches the patient’s words from third to first person – a powerful act of disguised writing. For this performative lecture, I will create a ficto-critical text, using poetic and / mimetic strategies to stage theoretical questions, through merging the voices of classic hysteric patients with the writing of psychoanalysis and my own experience of performing the work. Ficto-criticism is a form of resistance, as well as a way to make and to critique. This work will raise questions about the historical and contemporary medicalisation of hysteria and the role of the hysteric in resistance and revolt.
I am an intimate durational performance maker. This means that I perform to a restricted number of audience members – often only one in turn – and time itself is a material of the encounter. (Skjoldager-Nielsen 2009) My works are translations of Sigmund Freud’s written case histories of his five hysterical patients into a performance setting.
In order to do this, I created a method I call gHosting, with a small g and a big H. I host the ghost of the patient in my own body. (González 2019) So far, I have hosted Fanny Moser and Ida Bauer or, as Freud called them, Emmy von N. and Dora. I have also translated Sergei Pankejeff, an obsessional neurotic Freud called The Wolfman. (Freud 1955 ) The ghosts speak through me and tell each audience member the story they told Freud, in the first person. I do not offer an analysis or hint at Freud’s view of the cases. Only the patients’ words (although of course those recorded by Freud) are uttered. First, I read Freud’s writing with attention, carefully. On my second re-read, I re-write by hand the words I hear from the patient in the first person, erasing the voice of the doctor. I then record a reading of this new case history in my own voice and, instead of rehearsing the performance, I play it back to myself repeatedly, over several weeks. When I perform, I remember, rather than recite, what I hear, in the way the patients might have remembered occurrences or incidents when they told them to Freud. Thus, every one-to-one performance is different, an encounter created with the specific audience member in the room.
gHosting is a method of intersemiotic translation, between verbal and non-verbal sign systems. In This Little Art, Kate Briggs compares the act of translation to Robinson Crusoe making a table in his island. He is not inventing the concept of table, but has to make one, himself, for the first time, from trees. ‘When it comes to translation (…) there’s never a question of what to write (…) because the work has already been written. What matters is how to write it again’. (Briggs 2017, 252) This how involves staging, creating the one-to-one durational setting, omitting the doctor’s voice and switching the patients’ words from third to first person – a powerful act of disguised writing. In any act of translation questions of fidelity, equivalence and failure keep returning in relation to the source. In reading Freud, I am aware of reading James Strachey’s translation from German to English. (Freud 1955) Yet, when my translation is presented to an audience, it facilitates something, as a book translation facilitates a reading experience when the original language is not accessible to the reader. Once Robinson’s table is built, it provokes questions around the conversations it will bring about, who will sit on it, how it will change the island.
My performances have led me to identify five traits of the hysteric, which I am currently writing into a book that traces her figure in writing as one can trace around one’s hand with a finger. These are: body, mimesis, mystery, disappearance and voice. Here, I will weave together aspects of mimesis, disappearance and voice, components of my disguised writing. The role of the body and the mystery inherent in the hysteric will become apparent.
* * *
What would you say if we gave voice to hysteria, return the voice to the woman? If Charcot, Freud and the other doctors had not taken up the position of those who were supposed to know, the history of hysteria might have worked out differently. But we can’t change that.
* * *
In the 1997 film Hysteria by Sam Taylor Wood, (Taylor-Wood 1997) a woman’s state of mind develops from an image of laughing that moves to something between laughing and crying. Between laugh and laughing, cry and crying, the pose develops although, shuttling between the noun and the progressive aspect – the continuous form – is a little rotation – repli – a development of the pose that is quickly returned, folded back into position. The movement does not progress. It goes nowhere.
* * *
If Charcot, Freud and the other doctors had not taken up the position of those who were supposed to know, the history of hysteria might have worked out differently.
* * *
They had no vocabulary for it.
A mask forms before (or instead of) vocabulary.
A mask may be other than visual. It may be gesture or sound, skin disease, loss of voice or disease of breath itself.
Early in the evening the struggle for breath began again… It lasted nineteen hours – all through that night and through most of the next day… [she] never lost control… The final remedy (tincture of opium?) … sent her gently off to sleep soon after two o’clock, still sitting in the same position, her head resting on the table before her, as she had been all the weary hours since the evening before. She did not wake again. (Glendinning 1969, 102)
Winnie Seebohm, a student at Cambridge, died of asthma on 18 December 1885 aged twenty-two. Winnie’s biographer Victoria Glendinning portrays her as a ‘person of enormous potential, both of mind and heart’, teasing out the pressures that Winnie encountered in being a young woman of ‘high intelligence and an enquiring mind’. (Glendinning 1969, 6) Glendinning, writing in 1969, describes how Winnie was the ‘victim of a system’. (Ibid, 105) Nowhere in Winnie’s biography does Glendinning suggest that asthma is related to hysteria but, staying close to the narrative of contemporary documentation (letters and diaries), the image she presents is also one of suppression, and the voice of agency itself.
An attack of asthma has the significance of a suppressed cry. It has been found that if patients can be induced to indulge in unrestrained crying, they are often eased and the asthma abated… but Winnie aimed at self-control … the nearest she ever got to crying out and putting into words the conflicts which were, quite literally, choking her was in a letter to her friend Lina … yet she apologised for writing it. (Glendinning 1969, 107)
… you were quite right about my making myself worse those last days – I did – and when I got home I collapsed altogether. … I always want everything so frantically, and I’m always just the person that can’t have them! … Ought I to have … given up wanting things? … Forgive me for growling to you, dear Lina, but I can’t show it to any of them here. And if you know any solution to the problem, or any numbing influence, tell me.(Glendinning 1969, 93–94)
* * *
Hysteria has a mimetic quality which causes its symptoms to mutate. Well-known nineteenth century convulsions are unlike the symptoms of demon possession presented by earlier hysterics, and also different from eating disorders, epileptic fits, delirium, the inability to speak or sexual voracity. The ways in which hysteria manifests changes with the times. Georges Didi-Huberman recounts how, in the nineteenth century, hysterics at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris took on epileptic symptoms, copying those with whom they shared a ward, and whom they perceived as being taken seriously by doctors. (Didi-Huberman 2003) ‘Mimesis of the other is a relation to someone we do not wish to have but to be’. (Campbell 2005, 335) The mimetic tendency of the hysteric is both imitative behaviour and a retreat into ideal fantasies to protect her against a present that is affectively too fluid. It is infinitely adaptable. Mimesis could be thought of as contagion, double, doppelgänger and automaton, even citation, ‘a repeated enunciation and a repeating enunciation’ (Compagnon, as cited by Arnaud 2015, 67) which has the curious and uneven effect of ‘replacing the meaning of a word with the meaning of the repetition of that word’. (Arnaud 2015, 51) In the hysteric, mimesis overtakes the symptoms. They are paid less attention than their ability to mutate.
Nestor Braunstein (Braunstein 1995, 75–77) identifies four archetypes of hysteria, all showing malingering aspects of mimesis:
- The beautiful soul: ‘a plaintiff, a victim, an object of humiliation, of betrayal, of misunderstanding, of ingratitude, she is a beautiful soul, the storage place of unmerited cruelty and misfortunes’. (Ibid., 75)
- The sublime indifference (la belle indifférence) to keep her desire unsatisfied and, thus, demonstrate the futility of desire itself. This mirrors an insensibility, an anaesthesia in the body.
- The Sleeping Beauty, a mistress of deferral ‘who dreams of a future awakening in a paradise of delight, but who in the meantime calmly awaits the arrival of a suitor who will awaken her’. (Ibid., 76) In this waiting, she lends (rather than gives) herself to her life; she sleepwalks, spellbound.
- The beast, or ‘that which opposes itself to her alter ego’: (Ibid., 76) a hysteric who recounts the torments she is subjected to and who derives jouissance from the phantasy linked to her suffering.
Braunstein explains how the husband of a hysteric is a victim, akin to the wife of an alcoholic (Braunstein 1995, 77) and the archetypes are characters she learns to perform.
French psychoanalyst Étienne Trillat wrote ‘hysteria is dead, that’s for sure. It has carried its mysteries with it to the grave’ (Trillat 1986, 274). This death of hysteria alludes to the fact that, since 1952, it has not been used as an official diagnostic category. (Maines 1999, 2) It did not appear in the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). It was referred to as conversion hysteria. Terminology shifted again in the second DSM edition of 1968 to become hysterical neurosis and hysterical personality. In 1980, the third edition of the DSM further buried hysteria and only conversion and dissociative disorders remained, with hysterical personality transforming into histrionic personality disorder, which, as Johanna Braun notes, comes from the Latin histrio, actor/actress, diagnosing the hysteric as performer, and moving beyond the limits of medical discourse. (Braun 2020, 12) The fourth (1994) and fifth (2013) editions don’t even mention it in the index. The new categories for what we understand as hysteria are Somatic Symptom and Conversion Disorder. (American Psychiatric Association 2013, 310)
The language of diagnostic categories is partly guided by culture and it is uncertain, imprecise, haphazard and fraught. But, as neurologist Jon Stone writes, ‘it was not hysteria that disappeared, but rather medical interest in hysteria’. (Stone et al. 2008, 12) This ‘can be partly attributed to the understanding of its construction as a narrative’, (Showalter 1993, 24) and written up through the form of the case history. After all, for Freud, a central characteristic of the hysteric is their ‘incapacity to give an “ordered history of their life”’, (Showalter 1993, 25–26) narrative gone awry which shows up as mysterious symptoms forming a body language. The task of psychoanalysis is then to interpreted the body, translate it into words and create a coherent narrative of the patient’s story.
* * *
Reply/repli, a folding back, withdrawal or return – a folded process, like small waves, over and back. Without an image, I panic and wonder how to find a way forward. Seeking an image, I am reminded of The Waves, Virginia Woolf’s anti-novel which she envisaged as an image, setting off circular rhythms across the page like a little ship turning. (Woolf 1931) This is language sent out, not in a linear way, but circulating, making sense, a rhythm of words with which Woolf articulates the tacit knowledge she calls ecstatic. Taken out of the big picture, it is a language of relations.
Gilles Deleuze and his co-writer Felix Guattari discuss the case of becoming-woman in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, using Virginia Woolf as their example. (Deleuze & Guattari 1987) Jūratė Baranova points out that, throughout their writing, ‘Woolf is always in their mind’. (Baranova 2020, 3)
The peculiarities of women’s writing are the ability to move at molecular speed … the becoming-woman in writing means the intensity of the speed of movement between the lines, the lines of life and the line in-between life and the text, the ability to include personal experiences. Life is also felt as a very dangerous thing in itself … (Baranova 2020, 2)
Writing the hysteric is as problematic as curing her.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of the novel The Yellow Wallpaper (Perkins Gilman 1997) – one of the most famous literary portrayals of the hysteric – was diagnosed with hysteria. (Delchamps 2020, 105) As treatment, she was asked to lead a domestic life and leave her successful writing career. When following the doctor’s orders, she broke down, curing herself by doing completely the opposite. Being a writer threatens her position as being written about, something that doctors wanted to preserve. (Price Herndl 1988, 52–53) Yet, she wrote. ‘But writing is a poison as well as a remedy, because to cure the woman, it must kill the hysteric. Writing takes the place of the hysteric. And leaves the subject’. (Price Herndl 1988, 68) To become a woman in writing or in life means to have the ability to slice like a knife through everything. This ability of becoming-woman to become a master of simultaneous multiplicity makes a woman writer something of a clairvoyant. (Baranova 2020, 2)
The narrator in the first-person novel The Yellow Wallpaper is never named by anyone. She is always in relation to someone or something else: a wife, a sick person. Her wishes, to be in a nicer room, are not acquiesced and she is placed in a nursery, which is covered with a yellow wallpaper she finds hideous. Positioned outside. She has to take full rest, but the male characters – husband-doctor, brother – maintain there is nothing wrong with her other than a hysterical tendency. To become herself, she is not allowed to do any work, any writing, which, much like the author, she does, as we are reading her diary. But she is writing to no one, thus is no longer a speaking-subject (Price Herndl 1988, 71) and instead becomes an object. She begins to hallucinate, to see the wallpaper as prison bars, with a woman on the other side. At the unstable end of the story, she tears the wallpaper with her bare hands and merges with the woman behind. Both Gilman and the narrator wanted to get better. (Delchamps 2020, 110) They are not passive, or victims. They self-diagnose and attribute their lack of improvement to the doctors, thus they take their destiny in their own hands. A diary to no one was the beginning of the end of incarceration. Writing, inscribing a surface of her own choosing, she was energised to tear down the walls. Writing in the first person, like I do in my gHosting work, shows the mystery of the hysteric without demands for a release.
Didi-Huberman examines the photographs at the Salpêtrière, those ‘indisputable documents’ that Charcot used as proof. (Didi-Huberman 2003, 287) He detects a certain moment when the mutual benefits of staging hysteria – life for the women, information for researchers and stardom all round – produced a paradoxical situation. For the ‘more the hysteric delighted in reinventing and imaging herself … the more a kind of ill was exacerbated’ and ‘consent turned to hatred’. (Didi-Huberman 2003, xi–xii) In ‘The Cry’, Augustine is starting an attack, on her back, face upwards and mouth open in a perfect crescent – somebody has blacked in the shape. In other images, she is more specifically posed. At first, inmates were complicit mediums for the voracious researching gaze, happy to perform such subjects to camera, but there came a turning point. ‘The Cry’ shows something real. She is ‘… wailing, madly crossing her legs, ripping at her straitjacket … cutting herself off. A cry was the last place she could turn’. (Didi-Huberman 2003, 287) Diane Price Herndl tells us that ‘[h]ysteria can be understood as a woman’s response to a system in which she is expected to remain silent, a system in which her subjectivity is continually denied, kept invisible’. (Price Herndl 1988, 53) This is voice as a bargaining tool. You belong if you don’t speak. Your utterances cast you away.
Alongside the tussis nervosa, or nervous chronic cough, aphasia, or inability to use words, and aphonia, or loss of voice, (Showalter 1993, 28) the globus hystericus is a classic symptom of hysteria. A mysterious ball stuck in the throat… Consequently the hysteric experiences loss of voice without any particularly discernible physical cause. It is a scream without sound, ‘a bone stuck in the throat of the speaking being which makes it impossible to “tell everything”’. (Žižek 2008, 277) ‘What is stuck in the throat is precisely the voice as object, the voice that cannot burst out, unchain itself and thus enter the dimension of subjectivity […] a voice that remains silent, a voice that we do not hear. (Žižek 1991, 49) This scream vocalised with deferral is related to self-reflexivity, for it is only heard when perceived in silence. (Žižek 1991, 50) The globus hystericus is meaning formulated but never voiced, internalised, stuck halfway towards articulation. However, it is an image itself, a metaphor for the un-hearable. I often hear the hysteric’s voice, her cry, her call, even if they are not there.
* * *
I wish you had been more unkind.
If you had become truly wild you would have gathered strength.
If you had made yourself inhuman we would have been afraid.
You needed too much love. You were not unkind enough.
but the unlived life was held in the throat
in the breath and bending, folding,
the secretion erupted, more violently each time
An invisible globe is placed in her throat. The suppressed cry.
Where do words go when they cannot be uttered?
The repressed always returns, that is a certainty clearly articulated in the hysteric.
Perhaps it returns in the form of her insistent question: What do you want from me?
The secretion erupts from deeply embedded systemic pressures, removing life’s potential and its authentic voice, making it incomplete as the folds close over it.
* * *
‘My idea of heaven – a place where one need not breathe’, from a diary entry by Winnie Seebohm, October 26, 1895, 2:30am. (Glendinning 1969, 7)
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Laura González’s (Athenaeum Research Fellow, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) work falls between medical humanities, psychoanalysis, performance and Eastern thought, and investigates knowledge production and the body of the hysteric. She has published books on madness, seduction, intersemiotic translation and performance and is currently writing one on hysteria using a folding method with her collaborator Eleanor Bowen. She is also translating Freud’s case histories into intimate works and exploring the dramaturgical potential of a breath practice.