Fainting at the cinema

Recently I fainted at the cinema.

Watching a scene in the film The Piano Teacher, directed by Michael Haneke, I suddenly felt hot and clammy, dizzy, nauseous. A cold sweat set my skin tingling. I knew I was going to faint.

The scene which caused me to faint involved the depiction of female genital self-mutilation. The eponymous piano teacher, played by Isabelle Hupert, is a cold and controlling middle-aged woman living in a claustrophobic love-hate relationship with her querulous mother. In contrast to the probity of her professional life, teaching at the conservatory, she has a secret life of solitary sexual perversion which she conducts with the same precise control that she applies to her teaching.

In the scene in question she is in the bathroom at home. Her mother is about to call her for dinner. Naked, she unwraps a razor blade from a cloth, steps into the bath and sits on the rim of the bathtub. Taking a hand mirror to see more clearly between her legs she carefully cuts her genitals with the razor blade, and blood trickles down the side of the bath. The image is shot in profile so the audience do not actually see anything gruesome apart from the small trickle of blood.

Why should this cause me such alarm? You might think that’s a stupid question. But it is not so easy to say what is ‘traumatic’ in a trauma. It cannot be the blood – anyone who watches hospital dramas on T.V. will see more blood. Similarly we are regularly shown lurid images of scalpels cutting into naked flesh. Neither of these images make me feel giddy and nauseous. Even scenes of castration (as in Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses) or the threat of castration (as in Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning) do not produce such an effect. It must be something to do, not with the visual image, but the ‘idea’ of the scene.

Someone said that my reaction was like that of a torture victim. Some small incident in the present triggers a violent physical reaction because it is reinforced from the past experience. Freud would go along with this idea to a certain extent – it was the basis for his early theory of hysteria – but he would add that the past experience may be completely forgotten and unconscious. So something about this scene reanimated a frightening experience from the past. What might that be?

Given the theme of genital mutilation you will not be surprised if I say that it is the experience of castration anxiety that must have risen from the unconscious to overwhelm me that day. In my book Introducing Psychoanalysis I was keen to justify the concept of castration anxiety because it seemed to me of incontrovertible importance and yet one of those ‘weird’ concepts which students find so hard to comprehend. I pointed out that the penis was an object of intense interest for little boys, and it accrued meanings and cathexes from many sources as development proceeds; as an object of pleasure, of self esteem, of potential sexual congress, and future potency. Add to that the function of the phallus as a cultural symbol and is it any wonder that the way a boy deals with castration anxiety – the threat to that part of himself which seems so important – may have a determining effect on the direction of his development?

However the castration complex is also a constellation of beliefs; a theory about sexual difference and how it came about. Freud assumed that the awareness of sexual difference was not inborn but was acquired in the course of development. These are beliefs that carry an intense emotional charge for the child.

One of these beliefs is the idea that the mother has a penis. Most people find this idea so unbelievable that they forego the simple expedient of asking children themselves. It is precisely in the chasm between the child’s conception and the adult’s that Freud locates his concept of the unconscious. Freud contended (from his study of children’s sexual theories) that it is in relation to the supposed castration of the mother that the castration complex has its momentous effect on the little boy. He sees it, for instance, in the widespread phenomenon of fetishism:

When now I announce that the fetish is a substitute for the penis, I shall certainly create disappointment; so I hasten to add that it is not a substitute for any chance penis, but for a particular and quite special penis that had been extremely important in early childhood but had later been lost… To put it more plainly: the fetish is a substitute for the woman’s (the mother’s) penis that the little boy once believed in and – for reasons familiar to us – does not want to give up.

‘Fetishism’, 1927. SE 21

Now we see why this scene was so powerful. It was not what it showed but what was hidden that effected the trauma. The spectator sees ‘nothing’; the genitals and their mutilation are obscured by the woman’s thigh as she sits on the rim of the bath. But out of nothing is conjured up the archaic memory of the mother-with-a-penis, and the horrifying castration that she was once thought to have suffered. This is the horror of the castration complex in all its unbelievable absurdity lying deep in the unconscious.

Then out of the blue it stirs from its slumber.

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