Hysteria has usually been seen as a female disease. In Ancient Greece it was described as the "wandering womb", in the middle ages it was explained as seduction by the devil, and in the 18th century as a touch of "the vapours". It was only Jean-Martin Charcot in 19th-century Paris who insisted on the presence of male hysteria. This culturally universal condition - with its symptoms of paralysis, fits, choking, mimicry and hallucinations - was fully diagnozed by Freud, with his famous case study of the 18-year-old hysteric, "Dora". But when First World War soldiers began to suffer from this unmanly disorder, the term was dropped. According to modern diagnoses, hysteria no longer exists, yet here Juliet Mitchell shows that it is still just as much with us today, but under other names - trauma, panic attacks, anorexia, multiple personalities, even Gulf War Syndrome. We must, she argues, using studies of soldiers, the Don Juan legend, even Freud's own hysteria, reclaim the term, not just as a feminine disorder, but by recognizing the secret history of male hysterics. While not contesting the importance of the Oedipal complex, Mitchell argues that its discovery has blocked our understanding of hysteria. She proposes a different order, one that implicates siblings, the great omission in both psychoanalytic theory and clinical practice. Understanding hysteria in this way is vital to understanding the human condition.
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In 1974, Juliet Mitchells groundbreaking Psychoanalysis and Feminism presented the (then largely unpopular) case for a feminist engagement with psychoanalytic theories of sexuality and the unconscious. Nearly three decades later, Mad Men and Medusas: Reclaiming Hysteria and the Effect of Sibling Relationships on the Human Condition is another key intervention on a topic of hysteria, which has been central to the development of both psychoanalysis and feminism. Arguing against one influential (psychiatric) account of hysteria as the disease that has disappeared in the course of the 20th century, Mitchell re-opens the debate on the meaning of hysteria from a number of different psychoanalytic and cultural perspectives. There is no way in which hysteria cannot exist, she concludes (aware that such a statement risks both universalism and essentialism); it is a particular response to particular aspects of the human condition of life and death. Mitchell is especially concerned to question, and displace, the neglect of sibling relationships in psychoanalysis (the dominance of the Oedipus complex as a site of intergenerational conflict) at the same time as she brings the topic of lateral relations--with sibling, peers, partners--into contact with the concept of the death drive in psychoanalytic thought. This is an ambitious, and often complex, task, one that Mitchell traces through a range of contemporary debates (on male hysteria, trauma, memory, multiple personality) as well as some of the key texts in the psychoanalytic canon. In Dora: A Fragment of a Case of Hysteria in a Female, for example, Mitchell returns to one of Freud's most controversial cases to re-interpret it in terms of Doras relationship with her brother. Elsewhere, she turns to clinical and literary characters--Don Juan, Iago--to further this important new psychoanalysis of the reach, and significance, of that elusive state of hysteria. -- Vicky Lebeau
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