The Discourses of Hysteria: Menopause, Art and the Body

By McLaren, Rosie | Hecate, January 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

The Discourses of Hysteria: Menopause, Art and the Body


McLaren, Rosie, Hecate


The Discourses of Hysteria: Menopause, Art and the Body

The artistic practices of women require deciphering, like monuments from lost or unfamiliar cultures. There is some system to the patterning of signs into meanings. We need, however, to find the codes that lend the symbols generated there resonance and meanings, both within the context of their production and across time and space to other contexts. These codes, as I name them, are not merely semiotic signs, but those shaped in concrete and historical conditions, which in turn shape and are shaped by the psychic life of individuals framed and formed in specific trajectories of socially constituted but psychically lived subjectivity...artistic practices are a form of witness, a testimony of survival, a promise of imaginative projection as well as the commitment to honest appraisal, to stories that must be told.(1)

Until recently stories of hysteria were told by men, but times have changed, and now theoreticians, writers and artists influenced by psychoanalytic perspectives, are shifting the location and construction of Western culture's understanding of the feminine. They are calling for a return to the discourses of hysteria as a means of negotiating masculine rationality. Instead of seeing hysteria as a gendered, prejudiced symptom of defective femininity, a specific female disorder, these critics, working with discourse theory and semiotics, regard hysteria as a specifically feminine protolanguage, a primitive or original language of the body which cannot be verbalized in every day forms of communication. Hysteria they suggest, is the result of repressed bodily knowing which speaks out against the social construction of sexual roles and identities. Women have found it difficult to find a voice within existing linguistic practices -- to speak about their own bodily processes, thoughts and feelings.

For centuries women have been labelled hysterical whenever they exhibited signs of anger, rage, frustration and despair.(2) Included in this array of symptoms were general unhappiness, fainting, choking, sobbing, laughing, nervousness and discontent.(3) Indeed, any woman who exhibited unacceptable behaviour, whether she was in puberty, or experiencing the effects of pregnancy or menopause, was labelled hysterical and, as such, her `condition' was seen as displaying the inherent essence of her femininity. The word `hysteria,' evolved from the Greek hystera, meaning womb, and gets defined in Dictionaries in such terms as `a mental disorder characterised by emotional outbursts.'(4) Another current dictionary definition states that the general features of hysteria are `an extreme degree of emotional instability and an intense craving for affection: an outbreak of wild emotionalism.'(5) Julia Kristeva points out that this outbreak of wild emotionalism is not the subjective narcissism that Freud was so critical of at the turn of the century. Instead, for Kristeva, the self-reflexive narcissism of the hysteric comes from the pain of `inner contemplation, day dreaming and even hallucination' as a consequence of sublimating their otherness, `love in the feminine,' to masculine rationality.(6)

Hilary Robinson claims that it is difficult for women artists to find an authentic voice for the `locating of the female and the feminine in the body and through bodily experience' within existing patriarchal linguistic practices.(7) Echoing the thoughts of the `French feminists' Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva, Robinson suggests that by returning to the spaces of the margins, the edge of language, women may find the means to negotiate masculine rationality and break through existing codes of femininity. Robinson and other literary and art theorists state that women artists have traditionally occupied a space on the margins of their profession.(8) They believe that it is from this marginal space, the border crossings between body and culture, that women have the potential for finding a voice. …

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