History and Hysteria: Writing the Body in Portrait of Dora and Signs of Life

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Author: Ann Wilson
Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,538 words

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[(essay date March 1989) In the following essay, Wilson finds parallels between the portrayal of hysterics in Cixous's Portrait of Dora and Joan Schenkar's Signs of Life.]

Much feminist criticism of the arts is preoccupied with the problem of authorial voice: how does woman constitute herself as speaking subject? This problem is explored by the French writer Hélène Cixous in her play Portrait of Dora and by the American writer Joan Schenkar in her play Signs of Life. Both playwrights represent historical figures who were hysterics. As indicated by the title of her play, the hysteric Cixous represents is Dora, the heroine of Freud's "Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria"; the hysteric Schenkar represents is Alice James, the sister of the novelist Henry James. Both Cixous and Schenkar inscribe themselves in their respective texts by identifying with these hysterics. In so doing, they raise the question of the relation between writing by contemporary women, particularly writing for the theatre, and a malady which we primarily associate with the late nineteenth century. Both writers represent the hysteric's attack--the conversion of repressed sexual impulses into physical symptoms--as acts which threaten to disrupt the phallocentrism of the symbolic order. The attacks are spectacles because the hysteric's expressions of the repressed occur before an audience, most frequently one composed of family and/or physician. The very theatricality of hysteria establishes a relation between spectator and hysteric which both playwrights see as radical.

It is necessary to have a sense of the lengthy history of hysteria before its importance to feminist theory can be understood. Throughout history, hypotheses about the etiology of hysteria have been based on the premise that woman is weakened by her inherent tendency towards a divided nature. For the ancients, the division was effected by the uterus which was autonomous to such a degree that it could migrate around the woman's body causing her to become ill. By the Middle Ages, this understanding of woman's nature had been revised so that the division was no longer attributed to physiology: because woman is spiritually weak, she easily succumbs to the temptations offered to her by the devil and is vulnerable when faced with the power of witches.1 Freud, in his eagerness to see parallels between medieval accounts of demonic possession and hysteria, does not question the implications of this model and so, like the Fathers of the Church, understands hysteria as some sort of foreign possession of the patient's psyche.2

What remains constant throughout the history of hysteria is the sense of the enigma of woman. Ancient medical practitioners believe that the uterus, which marks an anatomical difference between women and men, could turn against woman. The basic structure of this paradigm--woman divided against herself, what is within her (her uterus, her spirit, her unconscious) weakening her so that she is possessed by something foreign, and is transformed by this enemy within into someone who is less than fully human--is constant throughout the history of the condition. Further,...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100082096