Hysterical relations: a comparative study in selected nineteenth-century European narratives
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This study of hysteria is indebted to Freud, and it is equally indebted to certain authors who came before him: Balzac, Charlotte Brontë, Tolstoy, George Eliot, and Florence Nightingale. As particular works of these authors show, the hysteric was a touchstone in cultural and scientific research due to her exemplification, in striking ways, of unconscious internal forces. The interconnectedness of social and psychological issues in the work of Balzac in the 1830s and George Eliot in the 1870s is highlighted, with attention to the degree that all the authors treated inflect Freud's exploration of hysteria in the century's final decades. By moving between European cultural traditions and languages, both in French and in translation, I focus on the overlap between literature and psychology whenever the representation of interpersonal and sexual matters is foregrounded. I intend my use of psychoanalysis to complement a textual analysis in order to emphasize notions like character, choice, fate, and destiny. Within the textual analysis I make conceptual, social, and psychological links to animate that most topical and implicitly hysterical nineteenth-century question: the Woman Question. I assume that the extent to which hysteria can be understood is the extent to which it can be communicated and read, transcribed from without, in the narrative form which is its bent. Further that the hysteric cannot give expression to desires without the involvement of an intermediary and the provocations of plot. The hysterical question 'Who am I to become? ' (man or woman, father or mother, lover or sister) is formulated differently by each of the authors on whose works I draw, being modulated by aesthetic as well as intellectual shifts within the nineteenth century. In the earliest novel I treat, Balzac's Eugénie Grandet (1833), a brief blossoming and slow withering of Eugénie's desire for Charles indicates what happens when an implicitly forbidden relation, in this case fraternal love, suffers the blight of its betrayal. Once Charles, initiator and guide of Eugénie's desires, absents himself, Eugénie's love is transformed into a defence against erotic incursions such that youthful love results in resigned melancholy. Charlotte Brontë's protagonist and hysterically unreliable narrator in Villette (1853) complains of that curse, an over-heated imagination'; a creative malady which results in hallucination, resistance, denial, and evasion, all features of a scenario where accession to desire prompts an elaborate narrative that finally quells the desire which began it. Tolstoy's early pastoral works attest to the way hysteria, index to a suppressed relation to a primordial loved one, can spill over into consciousness and thence into literature. In his wily Childhood, Boyhood, Youth (1852-55) and nostalgic Family Happiness (1859) Tolstoy shows how deceptive imaginative powers can be when in thrall to hysterical impulses that fuel it, such that a promising image in fantasy is rendered not just fleeting but illusory. Gwendolen Harleth, a perpetual object of interpretation to Deronda, narrator, and subsequent critics alike, figures the still centre of George Eliot's Daniel Deronda (1876). The dynamic lure of Eliot's heroine soon dissipates alongside characters who bind themselves to symbolic values - to music, charity, and Judaism, and who thereby avoid the pull of hysterical attachments. Florence Nightingale's Cassandra (1860) prompts many more questions than it resolves, yet its significance is multiple, written by a woman who became a nineteenth-century hysteric par excellence her impassioned cry against those conditions - psychic, physiological, moral, and social - which circumscribed feminine potential remains a powerful testament to the possibilities and limits of literary discourse. For all these authors, and for Freud after them, the hysteric was together muse and sacrifice, unsung heroine and dejected sufferer, whose plaint, however encoded, was also a sign of deliverance. 'Words are the most important media by which one man seeks to bring his influence to bear on another; words are a good method of producing mental changes in the person to whom they are addressed' (SE 7, p. 292). Although these remarks by Freud date from 1890, its premise is shared by each author I evoke, bearing on a dynamism at the core of human relations. To empathize with the hysterical dilemma was not however to identify with it. rather it was to articulate it as a scenario in order to posit one's distance from it. It was this psychological feat, of identifying in order not to identify with the hysteric, which authors and scientists of the nineteenth century collaboratively brought off, thus cutting across divisions of culture and discipline. Above all, it was the ephemeral and fluid aspects of hysteria which provided ongoing stimulus to its representation, a stimulus which, in revised form, continues its pressure up to the present day.
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