Where are the hysterics of yesteryear?


I’m reading a very good book, Richard Webster’s Why Freud Was Wrong, which I picked up in a great little bookstore in Hay-On-Wye this weekend, called the Addyman Annex, on Castle Street – well worth a visit if you’re ever in Hay, it’s full of great psychology books.

Anyway, the book is a treasure-trove, a very detailed account of the many errors, duplicities and rank speculations of Freud’s tempestuous career, and also an account of the incredible reverence in which he was held – in which he is still held – by the western intelligentsia, particularly by the literati and literary critics. Because, after all, that’s what he really was himself – a literary critic.

I’m still in the early chapters, with Freud studying under Charcot in Paris, and both of them building their theories of the unconscious based on the hysteric female inmates of the Salpetriere. These strange cases, of women who would go into fits, or somnambulist trances, or who would fix in strange poses for hours, were the founding data for the whole theory of psychoanalysis.

And yet where are they now? As Anthony Storr has written: ”the type of case on which early psychoanalytic theory was originally based, namely, severe conversion hysteria in women, is seldom seen today.” Jacques Lacan went so far as to exclaim, “where have they all gone, the hysterics of yesteryear?”

The answer which Webster, and several other writers on hysteria, put forward is that the many women, and some men, who were put forward by Freud and Charcot as suffering from the psychogenic disorder of ‘hysteria’ were actually suffering from a variety of neurological conditions, ranging from epilepsy to closed head injuries, multiple sclerosis and syphilis.

However, because of the crude state of neurology at the time, and because of Charcot’s fascination with hypnosis, Charcot was led to believe these conditions were psychological and not organic. Webster suggests that Charcot’s hypnotic movements may have triggered epileptic fits, just as many other types of movement would. But this, he suggests, had nothing to do with ‘the unconscious’ of the patients. It was merely an organic epileptic reaction to a certain type of movement.

The image of the hysteric convulsive woman still haunts our imagination. It appears in, of all places, the video for the Arctic Monkeys’ video, Brianstorm, where the dancers imitate their convulsions in between archive footage of hysterical women. What a strange idea for a video, in a film about an annoying music executive called Brian!

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=30w8DyEJ__0]

Comments:

  • Anonymous says:

    An alternative explanation is that the mental health problems we see today are not ahistorical. They exist within a social space and exposed to various cultural forces. Indeed one even sees cross cultural variations in the types of mental suffering present today. All this suggests that the expression of mental suffering is shaped to factors external to the individual. This hypothesis can explain some of the disparity in the number of hysterics of yesteryear and today; people nolonger express their mental suffering in this manner. I also see this as another interesting way that unconscious forces shape conscious experience. But, I would also imagine that in some cases there could have been a misdiagnosis of problems that had an organic aetiology.

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