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The Knotted Subject: Hysteria and Its Discontents

The Knotted Subject: Hysteria and Its Discontents

by Elisabeth Bronfen

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Surrealist writer Andre Breton praised hysteria for being the greatest poetic discovery of the nineteenth century, but many physicians have since viewed it as the "wastebasket of medicine," a psychosomatic state that defies attempts at definition and cure and that can be easily mistaken for other pathological conditions. In light of a resurgence of critical interest


Surrealist writer Andre Breton praised hysteria for being the greatest poetic discovery of the nineteenth century, but many physicians have since viewed it as the "wastebasket of medicine," a psychosomatic state that defies attempts at definition and cure and that can be easily mistaken for other pathological conditions. In light of a resurgence of critical interest in hysteria, leading feminist scholar Elisabeth Bronfen reinvestigates medical writings and cultural performance to reveal the continued relevance of a disorder widely thought to be a romantic formulation of the past. Through a critical rereading, she develops a new concept of hysteria, one that challenges traditional gender-based theories linking it to dissatisfied feminine sexual desire. Bronfen turns instead to hysteria's traumatic causes, particularly the fear of violation, and shows how the conversion of psychic anguish into somatic symptoms can be interpreted today as the enactment of personal and cultural discontent.Tracing the development of cultural formations of hysteria from the 1800s to the present, this book explores the writings of Freud, Charcot, and Janet together with fictional texts (Radcliffe, Stoker, Anne Sexton), opera (Mozart, Wagner), cinema (Cronenberg, Hitchcock, Woody Allen), and visual art (Marie-Ange Guilleminot, Cindy Sherman). Each of these creative works attests to a particular relationship between hysteria and self- fashioning, and enables us to read hysteria quite literally as a language of discontent. The message broadcasted by the hysteric is one of vulnerability: vulnerability of the symbolic, of identity, and of the human body itself.Throughout this work, Bronfen not only offers fresh approaches to understanding hysteria in our culture, but also introduces a new metaphor to serve as a theoretical tool. Whereas the phallus has long dominated psychoanalytical discourse, the image of the navel--a knotted originary wound common to both genders--facilitates discussion of topics relevant to hysteria, such as trauma, mortality, and infinity. Bronfen's insights make for a lively, innovative work sure to interest readers across the fields of art and literature, feminism, and psychology.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Bronfen (English and American studies, Univ. of Zurich) explores the medical and literary construct of hysteria from a post-Freudian feminist perspective. The "knotted" of the title refers to the navel, "a cultural image fraught with reticence," symbol of mortal connectedness, "an analeptic index of a bodily wound." The bulk of the book consists of studies from literature (Ann Radcliffe, Ann Sexton), psychology (Mesmer, Charcot, Freud, Jaspers, Janet), film (Hitchcock, Cronenberg), and art. Acknowledgment and denial of mortality structure the argument. An erudite, multilingual scholar, Bronfen brings new, if overwrought, ideas on hysteria to challenge historians of medicine and psychology, as well as critics of literature and art. Although Bronfen may be right that Sexton was incurable, she fails to discuss the bungled treatment, a psychiatric travesty that grimly illustrates the enigma of hysteric and healer. Recommended for specialized collections in humanities and social sciences.--E. James Lieberman, George Washington Univ. Sch. of Medicine, Washington, DC
From the Publisher
Honorable Mention for the 1999 Barbara Perkins and Geroge Perkins Award of the Society for the Study of Narrative Literature

Product Details

Princeton University Press
Publication date:
Princeton Legacy Library Series
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
6.03(w) x 9.14(h) x 1.17(d)

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The Knotted Subject

Hysteria and Its Discontents

By Elisabeth Bronfen


Copyright © 1998 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-01231-5


The Navel of Sigmund Freud's Inaugural Dream

I know of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged—the same house, the same people—and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence. He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture disturbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell. But what particularly frightened him was the sight of a brand-new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin; even that was empty, as if, in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated.

Vladimir Nabokov


Literary critics who use psychoanalysis justify the enmeshment of these two disciplines by pointing out that both explore the way we tell, write, and interpret the stories we are born into, stories that allow us to remember the past and stories we create so as to make sense of our world (L. R. Williams 1995, E. Wright 1984). Along these lines, Peter Brooks argues that psychoanalysis is necessarily a narratology, a study of how narratives work, given that the analyst seeks to help the patient redress the gaps in memory, the contradictions and inconsistencies in narrative chronology, and the lack of explanatory force with which a patient tells his or her story. "The work of the analyst," he claims "must in large measure be a recomposition of the narrative discourse to give a more coherent—and thus more therapeutic—representation of the patient's story, to reorder its events, to foreground its dominant themes, to understand the force of desire that speaks in and through it" (1993, 232).

A basic premise behind Freud's talking cure, after all, is that the hysteric, like all other neurotics, becomes a patient precisely because the story she tells is fragmentary and discontinuous. With an hysteric unable to tell the complete story of the origin and development of her symptoms—leaving out, distorting, and rearranging information—the analyst faces an elusive and enigmatic version and his responsibility becomes the reconstructing of a complete and logical narrative. However, as critics suspicious of Freud's self-assurance have counterintuitively noted (Showalter 1985, Mentzos 1980), the hysteric's inability to give a coherently ordered narrative of her life may not be a characteristic simply of this psychosomatic disorder, but rather of the very meaning of hysteria. Thus, Freud's belief that the analyst can reconstruct what remains intangible in the self-presentation of the hysteric is itself part of an analytic narrative, justifying and reassuring the very enterprise of psychoanalysis.

In this chapter I will address the incompatibility subtending the exchange between the hysteric and her interpellator. The analyst seeks a solution, in the sense of a conclusive narrative that will either disband the symptoms altogether or stabilize them into one livable symptom, whereas the hysteric resiliently resists closure, producing ever new conversions and ever changing narratives. Furthermore, far from allowing the analyst to use his interpellation to clearly delineate the abnormal from the normal and draw a clear boundary between himself and his so-called deviant object of analysis, the hysteric draws the analyst into the hysteric exchange, infecting him with her knowledge that any interpretive closure—therapeutic as it may be—is necessarily inadequate, inconsistent, and fallible.

I will explore the problem that the hysteric poses to the analyst in performing, as she does, the interface between narrative representation and its limitations, precisely because her stories revolve around the impact of traumatic woundings to the psychic apparatus. The navel is a critical metaphor, therefore, because both the hysteric and the analyst of hysteria keep harking to the question of origins. If the conversion of hysterical memory traces feeds endlessly on an originary traumatic impact without ever fully returning to the scene of origin for its psychic disturbance, so too does Freud's architecture of hysteria seek an infinitely receding point of origin, which constitutes precisely the vanishing point of his own structural schema. Freud's early work on hysteria marks the scene of his own analytic parturition. Identifying with the voice and the symptoms of the hysteric, indeed at times placing himself in her position, he discovers the meaning of dreams and gives birth to psychoanalysis in the same gesture in which he brings forth an autobiographical narrative, a self-representation that disturbingly conflates analyst and object of analysis.

I begin, therefore, by exploring Freud's dream of Irma's injection in his Interpretations of Dreams (1900–1901), and, more specifically, the moment he designates as the "navel of the dream." This first specimen dream, of which Didier Anzieu says, "Few dreams have been the subject of so much comment," (1975, 137) perfectly illustrates the way an interrogation of hysteria results in a hysterization of the interpretive process, not only by undercutting any desire for closure, but also, equally importantly, by eliciting explanations as protean as the hysteric symptom itself. Indeed, what Professor Blum claims for Zelig's chameleon act can just as easily be claimed for the vicissitudes of this "metadream" within the canon of psychoanalytic criticism: everyone acknowledges that its dream symbolism is significant, but no two intellectuals seem to agree about what it means. In the following discussion, I will begin, therefore, by tracing Freud's own interpretation and then turn to several critical interpretations of his reading, a selection not meant to be exclusive but rather illustrative. At stake, of course, in my own reading of these interventions is precisely what elisions are brought to the fore, what semantic encodings are privileged, and what is left unexplored in this ongoing narrative exchange in which no two critics seem to agree. To conclude I will turn to Roland Barthes's Camera Lucida, in which I suggest Freud's investigation into the universalities underlying his personal dream work is transposed into the collective image repertoire created by photography. While Freud directly invokes the navel as a seminal interpretive metaphor, Barthes does not explicitly use this term. His discussion, in contradistinction, directly addresses the issue of mutability, at the navel of the photographic representation. Through the photographic image Barthes delineates how the quest for a contact with death and mortality connects and disconnects with the loss and commemoration of the maternal body—in precisely the rhetorical gesture I am calling omphalic representation.

Freud, in seeking to establish his theory that dreams are always a form of wish fulfillment (not what a dream means but that it signifies is at stake), arrests his discussion by invoking the metaphorical "navel of the dream," where the intimacy of Irma's throat is conflated rhetorically with the extimacy marked by the navel. In this inaugural dream interpretation Freud has recourse to this pivotal metaphor to illuminate the moment of psychic self-representation that marks the absolute specificity of the dreamer—and with it what resists interpretation as well. Invoking a knot that is cut and severed, this impenetrable moment of connection would lead the analyst "far afield." Yet it is precisely this detail, unfathomable and fatefully inevitable, that suggests a story about individuation, enmeshing connectedness with vulnerability. That is to say, both Freud's self-representation and his critical technique are intimately linked with resistance to normative containment—thematically, his identification with hysteria and rhetorically, his invocation of the navel of a dream. In so doing Freud, at the outset of psychoanalysis at least, unfolds a different story of the individiual's acquisition of a self-representation marked by specificity, a narrative not limited to positioning the subject in relation to the phallus as the privileged signifier of the symbolic. Rather Freud's narrative conceives the subject in relation to the mutability of the body and encourages a responsibility toward its own fallibility. Analogously, Barthes, in seeking to prove that photographs are moments of facticity, arrests his discussion once he has found the seminal maternal photograph, for this, too, brings him to the point of his own mortal implenitude. In both cases, turning to images—to dream representations and photographs—is meant to illustrate and support the cons truction of a theory. Conversely, only the theoretical concern can illuminate the significance of the two images, of the intimate part of Irma's throat and of the five-year-old French girl. My own theoretical point is to explore how each text rhetorically invokes the concept of the navel to conceptualize how the subject is knotted. The individual's self-representation involves a counter movement that balances integration and dissolution, connection and negation, and coherence and difference, that points to the vulnerability inhabiting the particular and the traumatic impact inscribing any effort at sublimation and symbolization.

To flesh out this notion of a knotted subject I will borrow the critical categories developed by Roland Barthes in a much earlier text, his "Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives" (1966). Starting with the premise that any discourse is a long "sentence," Barthes argues that structural analysis involves distinguishing several levels or instances of description and placing them within a hierarchical (integrationary) perspective. To understand a narrative, he claims, "is not merely to follow the unfolding of the story, it is also to recognize its construction in 'storeys,' to project the horizontal concatenations of the narrative 'thread' onto an implicitly vertical axis" (1966, 87). The three levels he proposes—functions (irreducible units), actions, and narration—are bound together according to a mode of progressive integration, in a process of knotting. Similarly, one might say that the individual is constructed of storeys—genetic and cultural codes bound together through the language of the body—but has a knot over psychic wound.

Crossing a psychoanalytic with a structuralist discursive model, Barthes explains that the "essence of a function is, so to speak, the seed that it sows in the narrative, planting an element that will come to fruition later," a polyvalent detail whose final meaning is fixed only once the narrative is considered as a whole. But even at the most basic level, Barthes distinguishes two narrative forces. Units either have correlate units on the same level that belong to what he calls the distributional function, involving metonymic relata, or (their saturation requiring a change of level) belong to the class of integrational functions, forming metaphoric relata. In the act of interpreting, we treat each narrative element as a polysemous detail that spreads its meaning in seemingly unrestrained fashion on the selective level of each individual sequence—even as we try to integrate each individual narrative moment into a coherent meaning on the combinatory level of narration. That is to say, by virtue of an interpretive gesture, details on the distributional axis are knotted together on the higher level of narration so that the structural trajectory of each narrative analysis moves from an interpretation of the distributional form to the production of an integrated meaning. Integration joins what has been disjoined; it guides the understanding of discontinuous elements, simultaneously contiguous and heterogeneous. Narrative—and analogously any construction of identity employing narrative—works through the concourse of two movements. In a gesture of sublimation, it "recovers itself, pulls itself together"; in a counter gesture of desublimation "the structure ramifies, proliferates, uncovers itself" (1966, 122). What Barthes's enmeshment of the integrational and distributional axes affords my discussion of the language of hysteria is a recognition that a distributional free play of signification always calls also for both narrative integration and the vulnerability in such a knotting of the subject and its story into a coherent whole. His is an awareness that any narrative integration, any desire for coherence and wholeness, even as it is fundamentally necessary constructs itself over and out of a matrix informed by a traumatic jouissance whose traces can neither be fully excluded nor effaced.


Before turning to the dream representation Freud used as a specimen to exemplify his method of interpretation, it seems useful to recall how, from the start, he set an analogy up between dreams and symptoms. Freud credited his hysteric patients, with teaching him "that a dream can be inserted into the psychical chain that has to be traced backwards in the memory from a pathological idea. It was then only a short step to treating the dream itself as a symptom and to applying to dreams the method of interpretation that had been worked out for symptoms" (1900–1901, 101). In either case, To interpret means substituting one representation for another, assigning a meaning that recodes, restructures, and thus replaces the prior psychic formation "by something which fits into the chain of our mental acts as a link having a validity and importance equal to the rest" (96). The dream of Irma's injection proves to be so ingenious a specimen, therefore, because its content performs what is at stake in interpretation itself, namely the act of substitution. As a composite figure, Irma stands in for several women who were significant to Freud at this point in his life. The narrative plot of the dream, moreover, ultimately replaces Irma with a formula written on a wall and with a male friend.

This specimen dream comments self-reflexively as an interpretive representation. Like Freud's interpretation, which as a secondary rendition stands in for his nocturnal phantasy scenario and turns what is riddled with gaps and discontinuity into a coherent narrative, the dream itself is a representational structure, embodying in images (Vorstellungen) the desires, anxieties, and drives that would otherwise remain unarticulated. However, the dream representation introduces a protean, polysemantic, and heterogeneous matrix of images and sequences; like the hysteric symptom that disobeys the laws of anatomy, it jars precisely because it doesn't seem to follow the logic that the conscious subject has learned to live by. In contrast, the interpretive representation arrests endless semantic proliferation. It fashions a coherent narrative by excluding those stories/storeys that do not fit. In other words, Freud adds an interpretation to his own dream representation, not only demonstrating how drives, by being fixed onto an image, find entrance into the unconscious but in so doing also emerge as the stuff of symptom formations, be this hysterical conversions or dreams. His interpretation becomes a second kind of fixative, replacing the semantic heterogeneity of the dream representation with a critical representation that aims at an enclosure of meaning. At the same time, however, Freud exposes the cost of any interpretive substitution by obliquely articulating not only what falls from the unconscious representation but also what is purposefully excluded from his interpretation so that the solution can appear coherent. This fissure, this gap, this elision is what adjoins at the navel of the dream—as well as at the navel of each critical interpretation after Freud. Dark and impenetrable, the navel of each dream functions as the vulnerable point as the critic tries to integrate into his or her critical narrative what remains nonintegrated in Freud's own interpretation. But this dark spot is also the sign of parturition, as its impenetrability brings forth a plethora of critical rereadings.


Excerpted from The Knotted Subject by Elisabeth Bronfen. Copyright © 1998 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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