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Tag: psychoanalysis

Mad Men and Medusas

The return of the (well-dressed) repressed

Coming across this old review of Juliet Mitchell’s ‘Mad Men and Medusas’ (Independent on Sunday, 2001) reminded me that pretty much all the main characters in the TV series of the same name launched in the late Noughties are hysterics, but most especially Madison Avenue’s Don Juan, aka Donald Draper. I hope Mitchell is getting a royalty.

by Mark Simpson

A touch of hysteria can make you a real hit with the ladies. If you play your symptoms right, eminent feminist scholars might even end up arguing over your body years after your death.

Robert Connolly was treated for hysteria in 1876. He suffered from an unfortunate compulsion which forced him to swing his arms from side to side like a pendulum. Elaine Showalter, the mediagenic American feminist, held him up in her 1997 book ‘Hystories’ as an example of how hysteria is a response to a situation that is untenable – pointing out that he worked as a watchmaker she ‘read’ his body as an expressing his distaste for the monotonous, finicky work he was unable to articulate through language. Hysteria, in other words, is the corporeal protest of the powerless and inarticulate working class, women and blacks; literally, the symbolic sigh of the oppressed.

It sounds plausible. It certainly sounds fashionable – since it’s saying that hysteria, like everything else these days, is ‘about power’. But in ‘Mad Men and Medusas: Reclaiming Hysteria’ Juliet Mitchell the not-so mediagenic British feminist psychoanalyst disagrees. Inarticulate frustration at his job is not enough to explain Connolly’s symptoms, she argues (and besides, runs the risk of middle class condescension). Politics has rendered him a cipher for social forces. What is missing is the internal compulsion producing his symptoms: he could not stop. Mitchell speculates that Connolly may have been aware of Voltaire’s comparison of God to a watchmaker. Such a hubristic identification would, explains Mitchell, have had to have been repressed. When it returned from the failed repression – as such wishes do – it made a compromise with the ego which had repressed it in order to allow it’s expression. ‘With the wit of the unconscious, the watchmaker who wants to be God finds that, as Voltaire said, it is God who is the watchmaker.’

This poetic interpretation may or may not explain Robert Connolly’s hysteria, but it certainly explains why Showalter is much more likely to be invited on Richard and Judy or, for that matter, Newsnight than Mitchell. For her part, Mitchell explains that whatever the specifics of the case, a conflict of a wish for omnipotence and a prevention of it would be needed to explain Connolly’s – or any hysteric’s – movements. In other words, what’s needed is psychoanalysis.

And, at a time when many seem to want to be unconvinced of psychoanalysis’ value, Mitchell’s book makes a convincing argument for this. Not only because ‘Mad Men and Medusas’ offers a deeper, subtler – and much more difficult – understanding of hysteria than the familiar victim-victimiser Manichean narrative of American feminism, but also because it admits that psychoanalysis itself is part of the problem.

Hysteria was recorded and written about for 4000 years before disappearing in the earlier part of this century. Today the term is almost unheard of in clinical usage. However, its many manifestations throughout the ages are still familiar: sensations of suffocation, choking, breathing and eating difficulties, mimetic imitations, deceitfulness, shocks, fits, death states, craving and longing.

Hysteria has of course historically been strongly associated with women. The Greek doctors talked of a ‘wandering womb’ requiring treatment, Christian witchfinders of a ‘seduction by the Devil’ requiring drowning or burning. After the Renaissance, hysteria was remedicalised and, following the vogue, located in the brain, albeit a female one. In the Eighteenth Century refined women were quaintly described as suffering from ‘the vapours’ (which emanated primarily from the brain but were somehow supplemented by especially debilitating vapours from the womb). By the Nineteenth Century asylums were chock full of hysterical women. By the end of the Twentieth Century, no one was diagnosed as having ‘hysteria’ any more. For Mitchell this is not something to be celebrated: defying postmodern correctness, she asserts that hysteria is as universal and as transhistorical and as complex a phenomenon as ‘love’ and ‘hate’ (which are, it so happens, both constituent parts of hysteria).

So who kidnapped hysteria? It would appear that embarrassed masculine pride bundled it off the clinical scene. She argues that hysteria disappeared because of the intolerability of the idea of male hysteria to men. Eighteenth Century science’s relocation of hysteria in the brain, even in one intoxicated by the presence of a vagina, meant that hysteria was no longer so hygienically confined to the female of the species. Ironically, Nineteenth Century psychoanalysis, which was born out of the study of hysteria, hastened the ‘disappearance’ of hysteria by universalising hysteria and establishing it as a male as well as a female characteristic.

The shining cornerstone of psychoanalysis, the Oedipus Complex, was fashioned out of the study of male hysteria – Freud’s own, as well as that of his patient. However, Mitchell powerfully argues that Freud’s need to suppress his own ‘little hysteria’, as he famously called it, and his ambivalence about the early death of his younger brother, led him to overlook the importance of sibling relationships and the threat of displacement they contain, which are felt before the Oedipus Complex. ‘When a sibling is in the offing,’ writes Mitchell, choosing a word which could be interpreted as an example of the ‘wit of the unconscious’, ‘the danger is that His Majesty the Baby will be annihilated, for this is someone who stands in the same position to parents (and their substitutes) as himself. This possible displacement triggers the wish to kill in the interests of survival. The drive to inertia [the death drive] released by this shock becomes violence. Or it becomes a sexual drive, to get the interests of all and everyone for oneself.’

As the title Mitchell gives to one of her chapters ‘Sigmund Freud: A Fragment of a Case of Hysteria in a Male’ suggests, Mitchell believes that Freud’s hysteria was not so ‘little’. Again bucking the trend, she doesn’t reject the importance Freud’s Oedipus Complex, which she admits is difficult to overstate, but argues that the focus on generational relations has blocked the understanding of lateral ones.

Mitchell illustrates the importance of lateral relationships by reference to the first World War and the epidemic of male hysteria amongst the combatants: the ‘shell shock’ victims (so labelled partly because it was less humiliating to the men concerned than being called an ‘hysteric’). However, what has been forgotten is that the wartime male hysteric has not only been a victim of aggression from enemy action but has also been an aggressor. What the soldier may also be suffering from ‘is the knowledge that he has broken a taboo and that in doing so he has released his wish to do so – his wish, his “wanting” to murder, to kill his sibling substitutes.’

The so-called ‘negative’ or feminine Oedipus Complex, in which a man wants to be his mother and desires his father was elaborated by Freud as being as universal as the ‘positive’ one – but it never received as much attention in the theory then or especially since, effectively relegating it to the unconscious. ‘But it has surfaced again and again as homophobia…’ complains Mitchell. However, beating one’s breast about homophobia is to miss the point: ‘The attention now drawn to this homophobia means that we miss the crucial importance of hysterophobia in the theory as a whole.’

The negative Oedipus Complex, a passive relation towards the father, had to carry the weight of explanation of both male hysteria and homosexuality. ‘Too often the two have become confused. Hysteria, to the contrary, is essentially bisexual,’ explains Mitchell. (In an eerie confirmation of either great art’s psychoanalysis or psychoanalysis great art, Pat Barker’s ‘Regeneration’ trilogy fictional shell-shock victim ‘Billy Prior’ was bisexual and sexually compulsive.)

After the First World War the role of sexuality in hysteria and then hysteria itself was replaced by trauma (which is nowadays used to explain almost everything). But how to account for what Mitchell describes as ‘the rampant sexuality of war’ – which was recently illustrated by he publication of servicemen’s letters from The Great War which talked about ‘hard-ons’ when bayoneting the enemy? Mitchell posits an apparently ‘normal’ male war hysteria – a non-reproductive sexuality involving killing, mass rape and promiscuity: the death drive attaches itself to sexuality. The Oedipalization of all relationships meant that men at war and on civvie street could avoid being seen as hysterics – they were either homosexual or ‘normal’, that is heterosexual, and hysterical women merely appeared ultrafeminine. ‘In hundreds of clinical accounts… the man who displays hysterical characteristics is suffering from “feminine narcissism”, “feminine passivity” or homosexuality. In the eternal struggle to repress male hysteria, these are the new pathologies.’

Perhaps most interesting of all is Mitchell’s rescue of the Don Juan myth from the neglect that traditional psychoanalysis has condemned it. In the myth, Don Juan, a serial liar and seducer of women, kills the father of one of his conquests and is finally led to Hell by a stone statue of his victim. Sexuality and murder are completely/hysterically intertwined in the Don Juan story in a way that they are not in the Oedipus myth. Don Juan, the son, kills and defies the father substitute who has done nothing to him, where Oedipus defies then kills the father who has twice threatened to kill him (the displacement from actual father to father substitute is a typical hysterical substitution).

According to Mitchell, the repression of the Don Juan story, the story of male hysteria par excellence, has allowed all psychoanalytic theory to establish male sexuality as the norm and in doing so avoid its analysis. ‘Don Juan, the male hysteric, was absorbed into Freud’s own character; repressed and at the same time identified with.’

What is repressed returns. Now Don Juan is everywhere. The prevalence of the male hysteric ensured he became normalised as the post modern individual – a latter-day Don Juan, uninterested in fathering, just out to perform.’ The post modern Don Juan, like the original, does not take women as a love-object but instead makes a hysterical identification with them. Loaded lad is literally a ladies man.

However, for all her efforts to make hysteria visible again, Mitchell does not want to quarantine it. ‘Hysteria is part of the human condition,’ she states, ‘the underbelly of “normality”:

‘…it can move in the direction of serious pathology or in the direction of creativity… it is a way of establishing one’s uniqueness in the world where one both is and is not unique, a way of keeping control of others where one both does and does not have control.’


Jungian Complexes at the Multiplex

This week David Cronenberg’s feature-length shrink costume drama, A Dangerous Method, about the most famous – and doomed – love-affair in psychoanalysis, premières in the UK. I’m talking of course about the passionate, twisted and teasingly unconsummated romance between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

A Dangerous Method Trailer 2011 Official

Despite very mixed reviews I’ll be going to see it when it’s put on general release as I’m a sucker for this kind of costume-drama nostalgia – and let’s face it, anything to do with psychoanalysis in the skin-deep Twenty First Century is nostalgia. Although both are good actors, the casting of Michael Fassbender as the mustachioed Jung and Viggo Mortensen as the bearded Freud seems, like some of the lush locations in the trailer, to be mostly an aesthetic rather than dramatic consideration.

Put another way, A Dangerous Method looks like Brokeback Alp, with cigars.

But this is a love-triangle, with Keira Knightly as Sabina Spielrein, an hysterical Russian patient of Jung’s that he ends up having a sexual relationship with, much to Freud’s disapproval. Spielrein, who despite (or because of) her entanglement with Jung ended up a patient and then confidante of Freud’s, was to become an analyst herself and her work may have inspired both men – who were to end up bitter enemies.

Although it’s pretty clear that in most important things Freud was right and Jung just plain wrong, nobody is really interested in that. In fact, precisely because of the airy-fairy incoherence of his ideas, and because in his ruthless egotism he was more of the kind of person we can relate to now, Jung seems to be regarded more sympathetically these days than Freud. Jung the keen astrologer who came up with the breathtakingly nebulous concepts of ‘racial memory’, ‘the collective unconscious’ and ‘synchronicity’ is hip. Or maybe, just a hipster.

But as an incurable Freudian myself I would say that. Here’s a partisan review I penned of a biography of Jung, The Ayran Christ: The Secret Life of Carl Gustav Jung’ by Richard Noll, back in the 20th Century – when such things seemed to matter.

 

Jew-Envy and Other Jungian Complexes

By Mark Simpson

(Originally appeared in Scotland on Sunday, April 1998)

On October 28, 1907 Carl Gustav Jung was in an uncharacteristically candid mood. On that day he wrote a love letter to Sigmund Freud, father of the new Psychoanalytical Movement that Jung had just joined. But this love letter, in keeping with Freud’s own theories, was a touch ambivalent: ‘My veneration for you has something of the character of a “religious crush”,’ he admitted. ‘Though it does not really bother me, I still feel it is disgusting and ridiculous because of its undeniable erotic undertone. This abominable feeling comes from the fact that as a boy I was the victim of a sexual assault of a man I once worshipped.’

It turned out just five years later that this something ‘disgusting’, ‘ridiculous’ and ‘abominable’ did bother the impeccably Aryan doctor from an impeccably pious Swiss German bourgeois family after all, and Jung split from the Jewish Darwin to found his own psychological movement.

Interestingly, the split with Freud was ostensibly over Freud’s insistence that the sexual drives were the original motor force of all human actions. Jung felt this didn’t allow for the ‘natural’ religious and spiritual inclinations of the human race. In other words, Freud refused to accept that ‘religion’ was some kind of basic drive and that a ‘religious crush’ might have ‘erotic undertones’ but wasn’t erotic in origin. In Jung’s eyes, he was once again a victim of a sexual assault from a man he once worshipped. (He even wrote later of Freud’s ‘rape of the Holy’.)

As Freud feared, Jung and his mythological mumbo-jumbo proved to be a rallying point for many who rejected the pessimistic and difficult view of the human condition that psychoanalysis put forward, preferring Jung’s romantic metaphysics of ‘the collective unconscious’ and ‘archetypes’ to serious enquiry into the nature of human desire. To this day people at parties talking about being in therapy often say, ‘Oh, but it’s not Freudian, of course. It’s Jungian.’ As if this were something to brag about.

Richard Noll’s book The Ayran Christ: The Secret Life of Carl Gustav Jung should make them and all the New Age Jungian groupies think twice before using his name as a byword for artsy sophistication and rejection of authoritarianism.

For all Freud’s flaws next to Jung he’s a blemishless as Lou Andreas-Salome’s foundation cream. If Noll’s research only claimed that Jung was a charlatan who lied about his research and took the credit for the discoveries of others – which it does – then few people would turn a hair. But his book goes much further than this. It shows how Jung set out to turn analysis into a Dionysian religion with himself as its lion-headed godhead, how he believed himself to be the Aryan Christ and how his Volkish, pagan beliefs complimented and fed into National Socialism and anti-semitism. And how he brainwashed and domineered his mostly female patients who had a ‘religious crush’ on him (which he frequently exploited in that ‘spiritual’ way that religious cult leaders too often do).

The picture that Noll – who is, it’s important to point out, is a non-Freudian psychologist – pieces together of Jung is worse than even Jung’s former Freudian colleagues suspected at the time. Jung was, by any standards, barking.

But it was Jung’s relationship with Freud that seemed to shape his madness; even his obsession with Mithraism. Just before his split with Freud, Jung wrote extensively about the tauroctony, or ritual slaying of a bull that was central image of Mithraism. Mithras is depicted as pinning down a bull and slaying it by plunging a dagger into its neck. A scorpion or lion is usually depicted attacking the bull’s testicles. Jung, naturally, was a great follower of astrology and Freud’s star-sign was Taurus – The Bull. Even the scorpion attacking the bull’s testicles looks like Jung’s attack on Freud’s libido theory.

Freud had publically anointed Jung as his ‘son’, declared his love for him, and looked forward to him inheriting the leadership of Psychoanalytical Movement (as a handsome Aryan Christian he would bring the respectability to psychoanalysis which Freud craved, but which he knew he could never quite deliver). Hubristically, perhaps, Freud turned out to be a victim of the very Oedipus Complex he’d discovered. Jung failed to negotiate his ambivalent feelings towards Daddy Freud and ‘murdered’ him. Jung turned psychoanalysis into a religion to replace Christianity and realised a long-held German aspiration by replacing the Jewish ‘Christ’, Freud, with his Aryan self.

My own theory is that Freud was a victim of Jew-envy. Jung knew that Freud was a smarter, better, bigger man than him and his ego was outraged and suffocated by this realisation. Like his brown-shirted countrymen were to do twenty years later, he resolved rid himself of the inconvenient reminder of his inferiority. Indeed, when the Nazis – strongly influenced by the same Volkish traditions as Jung – gained power in the Fatherland, it was Jung who persuaded the International Society for Psychiatry to accept the expulsion of Jews from the German Society.

Jung’s femme-fatale seduction-assassination syndrome was not only directed at Freud. As Freud put it, in a letter to Sandor Ferenczi in November 1912 about his last serious communication with Jung: ‘I spared him nothing at all, told him calmly that a friendship with him couldn’t be maintained, that he himself gave rise to the intimacy that he so cruelly broke off; that things were not at all in order in his relations with men, not just with me but with others as well. He repels them all after a while…’. This is why Jung literally turned himself into a God – there wasn’t room for other men in his world, or, perhaps, the disgusting, ridiculous and abominable feelings they provoked in him.

But perhaps the most intriguing part of Freud’s observation was his reference to Jung’s trusted – and recently deceased – assistant: ‘His referring to his sad experience with Honegger reminded me of homosexuals or anti-Semites who become manifest after a disappointment with a woman or a Jew.’

Johann Jakob Honegger was a young assistant Jung took under his wing in 1909, telling Freud he had entrusted everything he knew to Johann. He was also to anoint him as his ‘son’ and heir in the way that Freud had done with Jung. But by 1911, when he was only 25, Honegger committed suicide with an overdose of morphine. Noll doesn’t go into the details of what prompted this – suicides are frequently acts of revenge – but he does give a startling account of how twenty years later Jung ‘murdered’ the dead man.

In 1911, the same year as his death, Honegger had discovered in a psychotic patient of his the famous ‘solar phallus’ hallucination – the basis of Jung’s theory of the ‘collective unconscious’ and notion of ‘racial memory’. But according to Noll, from 1930 onward, knowing that Honegger had been dead twenty years and had no living heirs to complain, Jung deleted Honegger from history and took the credit for the case himself.

Jung was so excited by this hallucination, in which the patient imagined that a large phallus hung from the sun moving back and forth created the wind, because it seemed remarkably similar to a ritual enacted in the pre-Christian Mithraic liturgies. But Noll shows how Jung later lied about the details of this case, claiming that the patient could have had no access to information about Mithraic rituals, in an attempt to use it to ‘prove’ the existence of the collective unconscious.

But the philosophies of East and West occult religions had anyway been disseminated for years by pamphlets and books that could be bought at newspaper kiosks. Neo-paganism anyone? Hellenistic mystery cults? Zoroastrianism? Gnosticism? Hermeticism? Alchemy? Swedenborgianism? Spiritualism? Vegetarianism? Hinduism? Or perhaps a nice well-matured bit of Neo-Platonism? Jung’s whole analytical psychology cult was pieced together out of precisely this roll-call of despair; a pick ‘n’ mix of hysterical symptoms.

Noll’s case study is slightly more sympathetic to Jung (or at least non-judgemental) than I make out in this condensed version of his arguments (full disclosure: I’m an incurable Freudian). But I would imagine that after reading it most people would find it difficult not to conclude that if Carl Gustav were alive today he’d be living in L.A., scanning the horizon for flying saucers, writing astrology columns for the National Enquirer and selling Solar-Phallus key fobs on his website.

And still muttering about that old bearded Jewish guy with the cigar whom he worshipped once but turned out to just have one thing on his mind.