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The Knotted SubjectReview - The Knotted Subject
Hysteria and Its Discontents
by Elisabeth Bronfen
Princeton University Press, 1998
Review by Naomi Gold
Jun 30th 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 26)

Elisabeth Bronfen is Professor of English and American Studies at the University of Zurich. The title of the book refers to the naval, a knotted "wound" common to both men and women. The naval’s "wound" aspect is elaborated upon in the book’s introduction, illustrated by a description of the work of Marie-Ange Guilleminot, who has made more than ninety plaster casts of navels (5). Of Guilleminot’s work Bronfen says, "The trajectory that Marie-Ange Guilleminot’s performance traces parallels, in a nutshell, what is at stake in my inquiry into the configurations of hysteria seen in western culture. Her point of departure is a perturbing and irresistible body detail, the somatic sign of nought...the naval is at once a worthless body part and a cipher for obscene fantasies of erotic or horrific nature involving penetration into the body interior or extracting something from this intimate, unknown site" (7). The purpose of her study of hysteria, Bronfen writes, is to "reinvestigate medical discourses and cultural performances relating to this elusive, protean, and enigmatic psychosomatic disorder as they were developed in diverse psychiatric and psychoanalytic writings; in fictional texts; and in operatic, cinematic, and visual representations from 1800 to the present" (xii).

Bronfen’s use of the term "psychosomatic" to describe hysteria, indicating its symbolic and psychological function rather than the presence of any actual physical condition or conditions, should be noted. It is also worth noting at the outset that a specifically psychoanalytic interpretation of hysteria is difficult to obtain because there is ambiguity about the very basic task of defining it. Charles Rycroft contends that Freud himself did not produce a definitive explanation of it, and that a "classical" theory of hysteria is elusive at best. Alan Krohn's 1978 monograph on the subject is Hysteria: The Elusive Neurosis. And Elaine Showalter’s 1997 book Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media [reviewed in Metapsychology July 1997], allots an entire chapter to the subject of defining hysteria, at the beginning of which she concedes that the term is a "designation for such a vast, shifting set of behaviors and symptoms...that doctors have despaired of finding a single diagnosis" (Showalter, 14). This was as true in the 19th century as it is now, as G.M. Beard's list of the broad array of neurasthenic symptoms in his 1880 text A Practical Treatise on Nervous Exhaustion shows:

tenderness of scalp; dilated pupils; sick headache; pressure pain in head; irritable eye (asthenopis); noises in ears; atonic voices; concentration inability; irritability; hopelessness; morbid fear; blushing; insomnia; tenderness of teeth; dyspepsia; sweating and dryness of mouth; spinal hyperesthesia; palpitations; spasms; exhaustion; neuralgias; sexual disabilities; yawning; impotence, etc. (Beard, cited in Walter Bromberg, M.D., The Mind of Man: A History of Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, 152).

And the remark of French physician Charles Lasègue in 1878 that "the definition of hysteria has never been given and never will be...the symptoms are not constant enough, nor sufficiently similar in form or equal in duration and intensity that one type, even descriptive, could comprise them all" (Charles Lasègue, "Des hystéries périphériques," Archives générales de médecine, I [June 1878]: 655; cited in Micale, Approaching Hysteria, 109 n.3) is echoed in the twentieth century by Edward Shorter: "Writing a history of something so amorphous, whose meaning and content keep changing, is like trying to write a history of dirt" (Showalter, 15, citing Shorter, "The Reinvention of Hysteria," Times Literary Supplement, June 17, 1994, 26).

Bronfen offers a detailed history of medical and cultural interpretations of the phenomenon called "hysteria" through an exposition of both the clinical descriptions of Freud, Charcot and Janet, and fictional depictions in the writings of Ann Radcliffe, Bram Stoker, and Anne Sexton, in opera (Mozart and Wagner), in cinema (Cronenberg, Hitchcock, and Woody Allen), and in visual art (Marie-Ange Guilleminot and Cindy Sherman). Bronfen describes these works as portraying a relationship between hysteria and "self-representation." Hysteria is the "language of discontent," functioning as "a strategy of self-representation and...[structuring] the subject in relation to knowledge" (40). Bronfen also emphasizes that hysteria is not gender-specific, that is, it is not the product of "dissatisfied feminine sexual desire." Her interpretation returns to Freud’s "initial interest in finding a traumatic rather than a sexual etiology of hysteria, [the] conversion of psychic anguish into a somatic symptom [that] can be interpreted as the enactment of a message in code" (xii-xiii). Thus, central to Bronfen’s thesis is her view of hysteria as "...a cultural construction rather than...a strictly clinical syndrome...interpretive narratives embedded within an existent repertoire of cultural images" (40). As part of her thesis she also argues that, "If hysteria is to be understood as the performance of a given historical moment, then the hysteric’s voicing discontent allows the critic to analyze what has gone awry in this particular cultural formation" (104). Bronfen’s wide-ranging exploration of the manifestations of hysteria will be of interest both to clinicians interested in a cultural exploration of hysteria and to students of the cultural products she elaborates upon: literature, the cinema, art, and opera.


 Naomi Gold is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Toronto School of Theology. Her dissertation discusses and critiques the way in which psychoanalytic object-relations theory has been used by theologically-committed analytic writers to validate theological belief systems. She has degrees in theology and religious studies, and has an active interest in the history and development of "New Age" religion, religious cults, and the psychology of religious belief.


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