Review of "Mad Men and Medusas"

By Juliet Mitchell
Basic Books, 2000
Review by Kathy Walker on Jul 18th 2002
Mad Men and Medusas

The hysteric, with limbs dragging or spasmodically twitching, paralyzed by a loss of speech, or trapped in an intricate web of lies, asthmatic, breathless, choking, convulsing and vomiting uncontrollably, a puzzle of strange symptoms and disturbing forms of behavior, was the very origin of psychoanalysis.  It was through his work with Breuer on the case of Dora, that Freud first began the development of his theory.   Juliet Mitchell in her latest book, Mad Men and Medusas proposes a radical reconceptualization of the mechanism of hysteria and in so doing offers a new take on psychoanalysis itself. 

Challenging much of twentieth century psychoanalytic theory, which argues hysteria has disappeared, Juliet Mitchell in Mad Men and Medusas argues that, not only does hysteria still exist but that in fact, like love or hate, it has always been a part of human emotional life.  "There is no way in which hysteria cannot exist: it is a particular response to particular aspects of the human condition of life and death."[p.317]

The term "hysteria" has been in circulation for over two thousand years and while the specific symptoms of hysteria may have varied over the centuries, the disorder itself has staked a persistent presence.  Despite the mutating nature of the disorder, hysteria has typically been associated with women, for the Greeks and Late Renaissance hysteria was linked to the womb, for the medieval Christians hysteria was understood as a seduction by the devil, in the 18thcentury with women and "vapors", and in the 19thcentury with women and "nerves".  The later part of the nineteenth century witnessed a decisive turn in theories of hysteria.  Jean Martin Charot at Salpetriere continued with the tradition analysis that since the18th century had understood hysteria as a neurological disorder, but his contemporary Hippolyte Bernheim offered an alternate conception.  Bernheim argued that hysteria is a psychological disorder and in so doing opened the way for Freud, and for the "disappearance" of hysteria itself. 

The Family Drama

In traditional psychoanalytic theory the hysteric has failed to negotiate the Oedipal complex.  According to this theory both boys and girls initially desire their mother, and in the resolution of the Oedipal complex this desire is accepted as taboo.  The Oedipal complex poses more challenges for women than for men.  Women not only have to accept the incest prohibition but must change both the object and zone of their sexuality: the girl child must change her sexual object from mother to father, and must change her sexual zone— from clitoral/phallic activity to vaginal receptivity—in accord with her secondary identification with her mother.  According to this traditional model women are more susceptible to hysteria because for women the resolution of the Oedipal complex is a more arduous task.   Thus we see that the Freudian model explains hysteria in terms of the normative gender roles of the heterosexual family and additionally roots hysteria in a vertical relationship between child and parent. 

Mitchell argues that where traditional psychoanalytic theory locates the source of hysteria in the failure to resolve the Oedipal complex, in fact a pre-Oedipal lateral, sibling relationship is operative.  There is a "displacement" that occurs when a sibling arrives and this displacement is threatening.  Mitchell re-interprets the case of Little Hans: When his sister Hanna is born, Little Hans is no longer his mother's baby.  He has been displaced from his position.  The question for Little Hans becomes, "where does he stand now his place has gone?"[p326].  Little Hans' relationship to his sister is highly ambivalent: she is like him, but not him, and he loves her but hates her.  To regain his sense of place and escape the chaos of the highly ambivalent emotions he feels towards the sister, Hans want to become his mother's baby again.  Hans is then beset with feelings of violence towards his rival sibling and towards his mother for her betrayal.  These violent tendencies bring the threat of punishment and it is not until this point that the father, with the castration complex, enters onto the scene. 

Hysteria Forgotten

While the hysteric was the very origin of psychoanalysis, in twentieth century replaced by versions of neurosis and psychosis, eating disorders, multiple personality disorder, psychosomatic illness, and borderline personality disorder, hysteria has all but disappeared from psychoanalysis.  Mitchell argues that this disappearance is based on 1. The changing nature of hysteria, 2. Psychoanalysis' omission of sibling relationships and, 3. The problem of male hysteria.

Hysteria, Mitchell notes, is characteristically mimetic.  The hysteric imitates the behavior of others, never involved genuinely but forever acting, engages in a world of make believe.  This mimetic character of hysteria renders the disorder itself highly mutatable.  Thus the hysteria that Freud first encountered in the late nineteenth century responded dialogically to the development of psychoanalytic theory and so by the early twentieth century, imitating the newly 'discovered' category of psychosis, had taken on an altered guise. 

Where traditional psychoanalytic theory understood hysteria as a strictly vertical—parent/child—relationship, Mitchell argues that to fully understand the mechanism of hysteria it is necessary to consider how lateral, or sibling relationship are operative.  The early twentieth century failure to appreciate the importance of sibling relationships resulted, in a failure to understand the mechanism of male hysteria.  Because early psychoanalysis did not understand male hysteria it failed to recognize returning WWI soldiers as hysterics and thus encouraged the development of alternate psychological categories.  Mitchell writes, "The hysteria, then, that is, despite our blindness, so noticeable in war surely involves brothers —enemies or compatriots.  This is missed because, in the theory and clinical practice of psychoanalysis, parents are all"[p130]

Mitchell recognizes a third factor in the disappearance of hysteria.  She argues that cultural biases against the feminine were instrumental in the 'disappearance' of hysteria.  Mitchell argues that the soldiers who returned from WWI were in fact suffering from hysterical symptoms, but that the medical profession could not accept that a disorder traditionally understood as feminine could affect men on such a large scale.  In the nineteenth century male hysteria had some credence, however the massification of male hysteria was unpalatable to the medical community in so far as it radically challenged and 'feminized' traditional conceptions of 'maleness'.   Thus rather than identify returning soldiers as hysterics, alternate categories of psychological disorder were instantiated, and hysteria was ousted from mainstream psychoanalytic discourse. 

Political implications of Mitchell's theory

Mitchell's theory of hysteria with its emphasis on the lateral sibling relationship has important and interesting political implications.    According to Mitchell's theory the prevalence of female hysteria can now be understood not in terms of essential or normative familial structures, but rather in terms of social structures which favor the position of the boy-child and thus make the stakes of sibling displacement higher for girls, i.e., because socially and culturally boy children are more valued, the girl-child experiences a greater degree of displacement in the face of the boy-child sibling.  In addition by placing the emphasis on the lateral sibling relation instead of on the vertical relation to the parents, Mitchell's theory allows for a gender-neutral conception of hysteria and allows us to think beyond the normative structure of the traditional heterosexual family structure. 

Mitchell's reconceptualization of the familial relationships that subtend hysteria, allow for a new understanding of the manner in which the death drive, the life drive and sexuality are at work in hysteria, and this in turn allows for new ways of thinking about individual and social violence.  According to traditional Freudian theory, the death drive and the life drive are opposed to one another and sexuality is rooted in the life drive.  Mitchell argues that in hysteric sexuality, sexuality and the death drive come together.  She writes, "Hysteria shows us how sexuality moves across the death and life drives"[p158].  This fusing of sex and death in turn explains the hysteria of soldiers and the phenomenon of war-rape.  The soldiers' sexuality as hysteric only mimes the life drive; there is no actual reproductive tendency.  Rather for the soldiers sexuality is related more strongly to death and via rape, only mimetically enacts the life drive. 

In recent political theory there has been a strong move to rethink the questions of community.  Mitchell's theory of lateral hysteria offers an interesting perspective on this issue.  The question of community, essentially a question of how to negotiate the self/other relationship, now, in light of Mitchell's work, can be more thoroughly considered in terms of conceptions of sorority and fraternity.  Marcuse in Eros and Civilization argued for a psychoanalytic understanding of the political relationship to authority.  For Marcuse the vertical Oedipal relationship was definitive.  Now with Mitchell's emphasis on the importance of lateral relationships we are pointed towards a psychoanalytic understanding of the lateral political relations to our neighbors and fellow citizens, brothers, sisters, peers, with whom we create a shared community. We are offered fresh insight into how these relationships are challenging, threatening, and into how they can function or become pathological.   Mitchell's novel theory of hysteria not only poses important and interesting challenges to psychoanalytic theory but also suggests new and exciting ways in which we can think about our shared life on earth and the political, emotional human drama in which we all are players. 


© 2002 Kathryn Walker

Kathryn Walker is a doctoral student in York University's Social and Political Thought program. Her work is focused on the relationship between moods, rationality and politics. Kathryn is also part of the j_spot editorial collective.


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