The History of Hysteria

16 Aug

Hysteria has long resisted classification within patriarchal discourse. As Georges Didi-Huberman states, it is ‘a great paradoxical blow dealt to medical intelligibility’[1], appearing to have no singular physiological locus and ‘persistently def[ying] any concept of a seat, any notion of monomania (local madness)’[2]. The qualitative instability of the condition is described in George Cheyne’s The English Malady in which he writes that ‘the disease maintains its unity only in an abstract manner’[3]. Therefore, without an established pathology hysteria is susceptible to interpretation. It has been described as:

“a manifestation of everything from divine poetic inspiration and satanic possession to female unreason, radical degeneration and unconscious psychosexual conflict…a physical disease, a mental disorder, a spiritual malady, a behavioural maladjustment, a sociological communication, and as no illness at all”.[4]

Delimiting the prejudices which inform hysteria’s construction within a particular historical context reveals an underlying tendency in patriarchal representations of the condition. Despite historical variation, interpretations of hysteria persistently return to a hegemonic obsession with what is lacking in male physiology, the womb. This unknown, alien space became characterised as a site of dangerous yet fascinating energies which remained permanently beyond masculine understanding. Fearing what they lacked, patriarchal society utilised medicalisation to control the unknown womb that ‘retained a secret in its possession’[5]. Through its association with the womb, hysterical behaviour was gendered explicitly female and was constructed as an ontological expression of the feminine subject.

The perpetual masculine interest with connotations of hysteria and the womb is verified by the Oxford English Dictionary which states that the word originated from the Greek ‘-, meaning belonging to the womb’[6]. Hysteria was first recorded in ‘two Egyptian medical papyri dating from about 1900 and 1500 B.C.’[7] yet in spite of this earlier reference it is the Greek medical authority Hippocrates who is credited with theorising that the condition arose from the uterus. Since in ‘Hippocratic gynaecology all diseases are hysterical because the uterus is regarded as the source of all women’s diseases’[8], hysteria was perceived as an inherent component of female existence.

By defining the female sex according to their capacity for reproduction, the hegemonic order reduced a woman from the status of subject to a wandering womb, ‘“a living creature within them with a desire for child-bearing”’[9]. This created the possibility that in the absence of conception, the womb would become ‘“vexed and aggrieved”’[10] and would consequently begin ‘“wandering throughout the body and blocking the channels of the breath, [and] by forbidding respiration [bring] the sufferer to extreme distress”’[11]. The amorphous quality of the condition meant that any ‘“disease of an unknown nature and hidden origin [which] appears in a woman in such a manner that its cause escapes us…[is] blame[d on] the mad influence of the uterus”’[12].

The establishment of this medical precedent reinforced the hysterical woman’s social status as being analogous to the position of her wandering womb, which had no definitive situation within the body. Deviation from the established mores was therefore dismissed as the hysterical product of reproductive deficiency. Even Greek theorists such as Plato, who rejected the notion of the womb’s motility, associated the condition with uterine incapacity, being ‘a moving psychological force which arises from the womb: sexual desire perverted by frustration.’[13]

In accordance with Plato, Christianity posited sexual deviation as central to the theory of hysteria. It was conceived that:

a supernatural manifestation of evil and an externalised and personalised agency, the demon[,] took the place of the womb in wandering about the female body[14].

According to this conjecture, responsibility for hysterical behaviour was attributed to the masculine devil, rather than to the female Other. The condition which was previously beyond the limits of the masculine order became integrated within contemporary patriarchal myths of a paternal figure and His masculine adversary. Consistent with contemporary theory:

mental illness became coterminous with spirit possession – the devil tricking humans by taking over the imagination rather than the body – and hysteria came to be understood as the illness par excellence of the soul.[15]

However, with the growing preference for the scientific rather than the mystical, theoretical speculation was increasingly rooted in physiological causes. During the seventeenth century Edward Jordan suggested that vapours arising from a disturbed uterus produced symptoms resulting from ‘the brain’s sympathetic involvement with the disturbed womb’[16]. This resulted ‘in hallucinations, impairment of intelligence, or mental alienation.’[17] By the following century the theory was established to the extent that for refined women:

having the vapours became synonymous with hysteria, so that although the basic source of the vapours was the brain, it was often argued that these emanated secondarily from the womb.[18]

Rather than suffering from demonic possession, the eighteenth century hysteric was the victim of a disordered nervous system, inextricably linked to gynaecological causes. The socio-economic stratification of the period resulted in hysteria being limited ‘to a certain part of the population, those well-born and idle, of delicate nervous constitution’[19], particularly affecting those suffering from sexual and social frustration.

By the nineteenth century, however, conceptions of ‘hysteria and femininity could be called coterminous precisely because both were constructed to represent emotional validity, exquisite sensitivity, emotional exhaustion’[20]. Hysteria became increasingly ambiguous due to changes in the masculine ideology of the female. In the Victorian era ‘the charm of femininity was, when forced to excess, indeed hysteria’[21] and there emerged a newly eroticised, sexual dimension to the hysterical figure, mirroring ambiguities in Victorian moral strictures. To the masculine subject such weakness was desirable in order to validate the male position, whilst also allowing the erotic potential resulting from masculine domination and inequalities of power.

The Victorian period also marked the beginning of a further profound change in the construction of hysteria as it was in this century that ‘[t]he modern medical history of hysterical epidemics beg[an] with Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893) and his clinic in the Paris hospital La Salpêtrière’[22]. It was Charcot who stated that hysteria did not result from sexual frustration and was not limited to women. This subversion of over three thousand years of phallocentric discourse was expounded upon by Sigmund Freud and Joseph Breuer who attributed hysteria to emotional trauma. Rather than being victims of their own wombs or of demonic possession ‘[h]ysterical patients were expressing fantasies based on their unconscious Oedipal desires.’[23] Through Freud’s treatment of female, hysterical patients, he came to define the condition as the ‘unconscious refusal to accept a single and defined subject position in the oedipal structuration of desire and identity’[24]. This resulted in ‘bodily symptoms, two sexual identities – masculine and feminine – which contended with each other for dominance.’[25] According to Freud, hysterics:

displace that site of conflict upward, playing out their sexualised contestation of identity in a more ambiguous register of the body, [and t]hus, hysteria is frequently marked by disturbances of voice, vision, hearing, and even breathing…[as h]ysteria records a conflict…a confusion between body and language.[26]

The language to which Freud refers is that of subject and object, what Julia Kristeva terms the ‘universal signifying order’[27]. While psychoanalysis has explored hysteria from a linguistic perspective, it has only done so within the confines of masculine discourse and the prevailing medicalised, patriarchal lexicon. Therefore, while the hegemonic order accepts the existence of a hysterical language rooted in the body, it is only willing to do so according to a limited interpretation which remains within patriarchal control, the province of the medical establishment. Hysterical language is thus perceived as physiological and psychological, expressing conflicts within the patriarchal order such as Oedipal or Electral urges, rather than as an attempt to communicate a fundamental aspect of female existence.

Consequently, while ‘throughout history, hysteria has served as a form of expression, a body language for people who otherwise might not be able to speak or even to admit what they feel’[28], psychoanalysis has attempted to co-opt such individual expression and reintegrate it within prevailing myths and structures of patriarchal discourse. However, if hysteria is a form of bodily communication it is not the product of the symbolic order but a language associated with the Kristevean chora. As such, hysteria is entrenched in bodily urges that civilised society attempts to constrain. While psychoanalysis may create a narrative in order to delimit hysteria, the chora’s amorphous nature places it beyond the symbolic order where it can never be truly contained. Thus, contrary to traditional belief, hysteria is not a failure to communicate, nor is it an expression of patriarchally conceived psychological phenomena. Instead it is an alternate, transgressive form of communication that attempts to convey ontological traits of female existence. The hegemonic order is both unable and unwilling to acknowledge such a form of expression. As will be discussed, by utilising the body as a site for communication, hysterical women became both subject and object. Accordingly, this undermined the Sartrian foundation of masculine/signifier, feminine/signified upon which the concept of the masculine subject is based.

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough


[1] G. Didi-Huberman, Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière, trans. by A. Hartz (London: The MIT Press, 2004), p.71

[2] ibid, p.74

[3] M. Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. by Richard Howard (London: Routledge, 1997), p.141

[4] E. Bronfen, The Knotted Subject: Hysteria and its Discontents (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998), in M.S. Micale, Approaching Hysteria: Disease and its Interpretations (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995), p.103

[5] Didi-Huberman, Invention of Hysteria, p.74

[7] C. Mazzoni, Saint Hysteria: Neurosis, Mysticism and Gender in European Culture (London: Cornell University Press, 1996), p.7

[8] ibid, p.7

[9] F.M. Cornford, Plato’s Cosmology, (New York, 1937), p.357 in, M.J. Adair, ‘Plato’s view of the “Wandering Uterus”’, in The Classical Journal, 91.2 (1995), pp.153-63 <http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0009-8353%28199512%2F199601%2991%3A2%3C153%3APVOT%27U%3E2.0.CO%3B2-%23> [accessed 11th May 2007]

[10] ibid, p.357

[11] ibid, p.357

[12] T. Willis, Opera Omnia (Lyons, 1681), II, p.242 in, M. Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. by R. Howard (London: Routledge, 1997), pp.137-8

[13] Adair, ‘Plato’s view of the “Wandering Uterus”’, p.357

[14] Mazzoni, Saint Hysteria, p.8

[15] Bronfen, The Knotted Subject, p.106

[16] ibid, p.108

[17] Bronfen, The Knotted Subject, p.108

[18] J. Mitchell, Mad Men and Medusas: Reclaiming Hysteria and the Effects of Sibling Relations on the Human Condition (London: The Penguin Group, 2000), p.11

[19] Bronfen, The Knotted Subject, p.111

[20] ibid, p.115

[21] Mitchell, Mad Men and Medusas, p.12

[22] E. Showalter, Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture (London, Picador, 1997), p.30

[23] ibid, p.40

[24] S. Freud, ‘Hysterical Phantasies and Their Relation to Bisexuality’ in, Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, 24 vols, trans. by James Strachey and others (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1959) in, C. Kahane, Hysteria, Narrative, and the Figure of the Speaking Woman 1850-1915 (London: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1995), p.xi

[25] ibid, p.xi

[26] ibid, p.xi

[27] J. Kristeva, ‘Revolution in Poetic Language’, in T. Moi, ed., The Kristeva Reader: Julia Kristeva (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p.113

[28] Showalter, Hystories, p.7

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