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Hysteria

Julia Borossa

 In the nineteenth century, hysteria was a disorder that doctors - frustrated and titilated in equal measure - were unable to pin down. Its sufferers, principally but not exclusively women, exhibited outlandish, changeable symptoms which eluded any physical explanation. Young Sigmund Freud was inspired by this spectacle, and psychoanalysis itself became his response to the challange posed by his hysterical patients.

Puzzles, definitions
'What is hysteria?' It might seem logical and methodologically sound to begin our investigation with this simple question. Unfortunately, it is precisely the question that has baffled, enraged or excited generations of physicians; inspired, infuriated or challenged priests, psychotherapists, artists and social commentators. The term 'hysteria' has been in circulation for over two thousand years. It is commonly assumed that Hippocrates, the 'father of medicine', first used it as a general descriptive term for ailments of the womb, but an identifiable disease entity corresponding to that term predates this usage by several centuries, recorded in Egyptian manuscripts. Nevertheless, consensus has not been reached as to whether hysteria still exists today or whether it has ever existed as such, let alone what it is.

Hysteria, as a descriptive category, has been applied in a variety of ways, across historical periods and cultural contexts. Puzzlingly, its referent has been simultaneously an illness with strange symptoms and certain disturbing forms of behaviour. Attempts to account for 'hysteria' have included pointing to a particular affliction which causes the womb to 'wander', to patients' propensity to lie and manipulate, to lesions of the nerves, to ecstatic states, to demonic possession, to forms of protest, to inexplicable epidemics. Artistic expression, seductiveness, wanting things in excess, behaving in a socially inappropriate way, partaking in crazes - all these have attracted the epithet 'hysterical'. Whether malady or maladjustment, the possibility of meaning many things in many ways runs through both usages of the term, which roughly correspond to the clinical and the common usages. Indeed, as we shall see, the two inform and shape one another. While the word 'hysteria' remains in current use, the formal diagnosis of hysteria, with its particular symptomatology, has largely ceased to be deployed in the course of the 20th century. However, the very symptoms that comprised hysteria have by no means disappeared, but are merely discussed and described elsewhere and otherwise.

As an illness, hysteria has had a long-standing association with the feminine. Although male sufferers were, at times, identified and discussed, it has primarily been seen as a women's disorder. A key aspect of hysteria's manifestation was that it involved the sufferer's body, in a way that was changeable, and could not be put down to any tangible cause. Some of the classic symptoms of hysteria included: a feeling of suffocation, coughing, dramatic fits, paralysis of the limbs, fainting spells, but also sudden inability to speak, loss of hearing, forgetting one's mother tongue, being proficient in languages that one did not know one knew, persistent vomiting and inability to take in food. In sum, it was a disease which appeared irrational, untrustworthy, and difficult to control.

The 19th century was the period of hysteria's heyday, and it was then that the metaphorical slippage between symptom and behaviour, the illness and its sufferers, came to the fore. Its direct effect was to unveil the location of hysteria within the realm of sexual politics. Within a predominantly patriarchal world-view, the hysteric came to embody femininity itself, as problem and enigma. This is the position from which Sigmund Freud approached her. The question, 'What does woman want?', which he famously posed in one of his late papers, can be seen as a continuation of his fruitful confrontation with the puzzling illness he first studied as a young doctor. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to state that Freud's encounter with hysteria and the hysterical patient lies at the very origin of psychoanalysis. Among psychosomatic conditions, only hysteria, with its unique expressiveness and ability to symbolise conflict and distress in a kind of alternate language, would fit the bill and prove to be, along with dreams, 'the royal road to the unconscious'.

Reference
Freud, Sigmund (1932) 'Femininity' in New Introductory lectures in Psychoanalysis Standard edition Vol 22


Julia Bosossa is a writer and lecturer who is particularly interested in the histories, cultures and politics of psychoanalysis. She is the editor of Sandor Ferenczi: Selected Writings (Penguin 1999). This extract is from her book Hysteria, part of the Ideas In Psychoanalysis series, published by Icon Books.

Ideas In Psychoanalysis
edited by Ivan Ward Icon Books £3.99

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