The Freud Museum

Events Archive

5 February 1994

Hysteria Today

Conference Report

'Hysteria Today' was held at the Primrose Hill Community Centre on Saturday 5th February and organized in association with the British Journal of Psychotherapy and their new editor Jean Arundale. The Journal had in the previous year published an issue commemorating the hundredth anniversary of Freud and Breuer's 'preliminary communication' on hysteria in 1893.


The interest of the museum in hysteria was rekindled by the event we held some years ago with Sander Gilman and Elaine Showalter. Hysteria then was examined largely as a social construct and the focus was on the cultural purposes that the concept might serve. In this event we eschewed the cultural dimension in order to concentrate on hysteria as a possibly real and painful clinical condition. This may not, perhaps, be the fashionable approach to take. Jean Arundale made the telling point that the International Classification of Psychiatric Disorders now has no diagnostic label with the word 'hysteria' in it. Meanwhile, Susie Orbach, in her chairwoman's introduction, observed that what began as a critique by feminists and cultural theorists of the notion of hysteria has ironically led to a revision and rehabilitation of the meanings of hysterical symptoms and has began to refresh the notion as a useful clinical entity. This clinical emphasis was the basic premise of the conference, which each of the speakers took up in their own fashion.

Jean Arundale gave an introduction to the topic by considering something of the history of hysteria and its importance in the development of psychoanalysis. The concepts of the unconscious, psychic conflict, fantasy, fixation, repression, transference, 'the talking cure' and so on are all crucially linked to the perception and treatment of hysterical phenomena. She pointed out that Freud's theory of hysteria includes both conversion hysteria and 'anxiety hysteria' or phobias.

David Smith addressed the central issue of the relationship between the mind and the body. He showed that Freud was grappling with philosophical problems that were crucial in the development of his therapeutic work, and which still bedevil us today. David argued that Freud abandoned Cartesian dualism in favour of what is now called an 'identity theory' of the mind-brain relation. Taking up this theme to some extent, Ann Scott reminded us of Freud and Breuer's aphorism that 'hysterics suffer from reminiscences'. She asked whether these memories might be thought of as being somehow retained in the body, and illustrated her idea by reference to the Dora case history and the stage play Hysteria by Terry Johnson.

In a paper full of rich material and subtle insights, David Bell showed that the basic psychopathology and central preoccupations of many patients who come into analysis today is not greatly different from the patients studied by Freud and Breuer all those years ago. He described how it was that central to the hysterical patient's difficulties is the irruption into the mind of a primitive oedipal scenario, and explored this in detail using a Kleinian perspective.

David Bell's paper, along with David Smith's is published in the BJP Volume 9 n.2 (Winter 1992), as part of the anniversary edition mentioned earlier.

The last speaker, Estela Welldon, attempted to link up the theory of hysteria to her own well-known work on female perversion. She described the influence of anxiety and bodily sensation in the manifestation of perversion, and speculated on the pre-oedipal roots of hysteria. She explained how elements of sadistic or perverse sexuality can underlie hysterical anxiety and can enter into and distort womens relationships.

The afternoon session was introduced and expertly chaired by Susan Budd. She made the important point that a pejorative use of the phrase 'the hysteric' as a fixed identity does not accord with current psychoanalytic thinking which takes a more subtle and fluid approach to these issues.

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