Little Brother, Little Sister

Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen

  • Mad Men and Medusas: Reclaiming Hysteria and the Effects of Sibling Relationships on the Human Condition by Juliet Mitchell
    Penguin, 381 pp, £9.99, December 2000, ISBN 0 14 017651 9

What is progress in psychoanalysis? One of the arguments most commonly used by advocates of psychoanalysis during the recent ‘Freud wars’ has been to reproach their adversaries for holding fast to an outmoded version of their discipline. Psychoanalysis, they say, no longer bears much resemblance to what its founder had envisaged, so that criticism focusing on the historical Freud is hopelessly off the mark. Who among psychoanalysts still believes in the preposterous ‘penis envy’, in the connection between masturbation and ‘actual neurosis’, in the founding father’s grandiose phylogenetic speculations? Today’s practitioners have long ago relegated these antiquities to the attic, in favour of more up-to-date concepts. Upholders of ‘ego psychology’ amend the doctrine to make it compatible with developmental psychology; ‘object relations’ theorists reject the solipsism of Freud’s theory of drives in favour of a ‘two-persons psychology’; partisans of a ‘hermeneutic’ reform of psychoanalysis no longer wish to be associated with Freud’s scientistic positivism; adepts of Kohut’s ‘self psychology’ blithely disregard the rules of analytic neutrality and abstinence in favour of an ‘empathic understanding’ of the patient; ‘narrativists’ no longer concern themselves with the ‘historical truth’ of what is said on the couch; Lacanians reformulate the theory in terms of language and the ‘signifier’. The Freudian collar can’t be attached to any of these, because they didn’t wait for the Freud bashers before profoundly revising both their theory and their practice. (They are the true ‘revisionists’!) Freud may be dead, as regularly announced in newspapers and magazines, but who can deny that psychoanalysis itself is alive and well, changing, adapting, expanding – i.e. progressing?

The argument is clever, but it hides a fallacy. For who, except the psychoanalysts themselves, claims that what we are dealing with here is progress, and progress in psychoanalysis? What, after all, remains of psychoanalysis when one has ditched most of Freud’s theories? And why should abandoning them constitute progress rather than a critique of psychoanalysis? The fact that analysts, by and large, no longer try to persuade their female patients that they want to have babies in order to make up for their lack of a male organ is undeniably progress. But why should this be construed as progress in the very theory that has been tacitly buried to accommodate feminist protest? There is something mysterious about the way psychoanalysis perpetually raises itself from its ashes, always more powerful, always more imperial, always more Freudian. How do analysts manage to transmute their defeats into victories? How do they change while remaining the same?

Juliet Mitchell is a grande dame of Freudo-Lacanian feminism. Her first book, Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1974), played a critical role in the feminist rehabilitation of Freud. The present one deals with hysteria, a neurosis reputed to be essentially feminine and the historical starting point of psychoanalysis itself. Mitchell informs us, as early as page 7, that Freud got it all wrong, however:

my investigation of the gendering of hysteria has led me to question some of the basic psychoanalytic theory that was itself built up from an understanding of hysteria. Thinking about hysteria has led me to a different reading of the Oedipus complex and to the need to insert the experience of siblings and their lateral heirs in peer and affinal relationships into our understanding of the construction of mental life.

So are we about to be treated to an all-out critique of psychoanalysis, to a new anti-Oedipus? The jacket quickly disabuses us: ‘Juliet Mitchell is a psychoanalyst,’ and her book ‘develops a major new psychoanalytic theory that stresses lateral relationships over generational ones’. Mitchell’s clients can rest assured: what they go through on her couch is still ‘analysis’. Except that it’s no longer clear what the term ‘psychoanalysis’ means.

According to the theory advanced by Freud and Breuer in their Studies on Hysteria, the symptoms of this strange and multifarious neurosis are a symbolic representation of sexual ‘reminiscences’ that have been repressed because they are irreconcilable with the conscious ego. At first, Freud thought that the memories he extorted from his patients were of real events, specifically of incestuous ‘seductions’ by adults during early childhood (what we would now call ‘child abuse’). Then, after the debacle of his seduction theory, he decided that these memories were mere fantasies expressing infantile sexual wishes, notably Oedipal ones: the hysteric wants to be seduced by the adult. Behind hysteria, as behind all other neuroses, Freud always finds love for the parent of the opposite sex whom the subject wants to ‘have’, and an ambivalent identification with the same-sex rival who the subject wants to ‘be’ and to dethrone (to which is added, in the so-called ‘complete’ form of the Oedipus complex, homosexual love for the same-sex parent and hostile identification with the heterosexual rival). Thus, in classic Freudian theory everything turns on the Oedipal triangle conceived as a ‘nuclear complex of neuroses’. In particular, the horizontal relationship to siblings is always considered from the perspective of the vertical relationship of the Oedipus complex: brother and sister are seen, not as ‘primary’ libidinal objects, but as rivals with respect to the father or (most often) the mother.

Mitchell reverses this schema. What is primary, she tells us, is not the libidinal bond to a parental object that one wants to ‘have’, but the mimetic identification with the sibling one wants simultaneously to be and to kill. Like Freud, she conceives of the appearance of a little brother or sister as a profoundly traumatic event for the subject, except – and this changes everything – that she sees in it an essentially narcissistic catastrophe. Until then, ‘His Majesty the Baby’ has been alone in the world, the unique object of his parents’ attention, when along comes another such object who steals his place and reduces him to nothing: ‘Who am I, I who was everything?’ That, according to Mitchell, is the hysteric’s fundamental question. Dislodged from himself, the (non-) subject tries everything to recover his lost being by identifying with (and letting himself be possessed by) the other and by ‘killing’ him (absorbing him) in the same gesture: the hysteric never lets go of a deeply mimetic ambivalence towards his horizontal alter egos – siblings, friends, colleagues, partners. Or again, he (Mitchell insists on using the masculine pronoun) regresses towards one parent or the other and identifies with that parent’s desire, in order once again to become the centre of the world. Oedipal love for the mother or father, which for Freud was the basis of hysteria and other neuroses, in reality hides the desire to be loved (what Lacan called the ‘demand for love’). The hysteric ‘wants his mother, or lots of new clothes, or too much of something to eat. This wanting to have the mother or father and their substitutes always dominates in pictures of hysteria; it obscures the desperate need to be someone.’ But how to be someone else, if not by imitation? Earlier in the book, Mitchell has warned us that ‘“Wanting” is central to a Freudian theory of hysteria. The age-old observation that the hysteric mimes or imitates is replaced in psychoanalytic theory by a specific understanding of mimesis in the context of “wanting”: one wants what the other person wants and mimes that person’s desires.’

Obviously, this theory of mimetic desire has nothing Freudian about it, if only because it desexualises and de-objectifies the ‘wanting’ and makes it into a desire to be a subject (autonomous, self-satisfying, self-identical). As Mitchell must know, such a theory is a direct outgrowth of the work of René Girard and, more distantly, of Alexandre Kojève’s interpretation of the desire for recognition and the ‘fight to the death for pure prestige’ in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. It so happens, however, that this same theory has led to an explicit critique of psychoanalysis: as Girard and I myself have argued, the refusal to consider the primarily mimetic character of desire is not only a constant in Freud, but is one of the most fundamental presuppositions of his theory. ‘Freud,’ Mitchell contends, ‘posits . . . that hysterics mimic other people’s desires.’ In fact, Freud maintains exactly the opposite. As he explains in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), and again in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921), the hysterical identification is not ‘simple imitation’: the hysteric’s identification with another person is based on a ‘common element which remains in the unconscious’, identification thus serving as a screen for a sexual wish that predates it and which is not in itself mimetic.

Why, then, does Mitchell so generously attribute to Freud a theory of mimetic desire that she has evidently found in Girard (cited only once in passing) and other writers? The answer seems obvious: because it is the only way to take into account a critique coming from outside psychoanalysis without admitting that’s what she’s done or, by the same token, drawing out the consequences. This is how psychoanalysis ‘progresses’, not by openly rectifying the doctrine, but by silently recuperating the criticisms directed at it and by having Freud endorse the most varied and contradictory theories, according to the fashions and necessities of the moment. ‘Return to Freud!’ clamours the chorus of psychoanalysts and then see how Freud, before our wondering eyes, becomes successively a phenomenologist, an existentialist, a hermeneuticist, an experimental psychologist, a Marxist, a Hegelian, an anti-Hegelian, a structuralist, a Derridean, a Post-Modernist, a Wittgensteinian, a feminist, a cognitivist, a neuroscientist – or a Girardian. What’s the use of trying to criticise such a ‘zero theory’? It is everywhere only because it is anything.

Mitchell not only modifies the Freudian theory of desire, she also turns on its head the entire theory of repression, which Freud called the ‘cornerstone on which the whole structure of psychoanalysis rests’. As Mitchell reminds us, psychoanalysis began with the idea that ‘hysterics suffer from reminiscences’: that is, from traumatic memories (real or imaginary, it hardly matters here) which hysterics are unable to recall because they repress them. But this misses the point, Mitchell tells us. Hysterics do not suffer from reminiscences, but from revivifications; not from representations, but from presentations. If they don’t recall the trauma, it is because the traumatic incident, when it occurred, quite literally reduced them to nothing. The psychic trauma of the sibling, like the physical shock of bombardment or torture, returns the subject to non-being, to the fundamental helplessness of premature birth (shades of Lacan). So how would such a non-subject ever be able to remember something that never happened to ‘him’? Overwhelmed by the trauma, he becomes that which invades him, identifies so completely with the ‘other’ that this other can be neither represented nor remembered as other (another silent borrowing, this time from my research on non-representational mimesis): ‘If I am you or he is she, then you, she, “the other” cannot be recalled as there is insufficient distance between the two terms.’ Such an identification cannot be represented, it can only be presented, i.e. repeated in the form of body memory, compulsion, hallucinatory perception or flashback. The aim of an analysis is thus not to unearth a repressed memory, as Freud would have it: it is to repeat the non-memory in order to give it a context and gradually change it into memory – that is to say, into representation, history and narrative. ‘For the trauma victim to recover . . . absence and presence must become first loss and presentation in memories-in-the-body-ego, then representation and memory-in-the-mind.’

Compare this to Judith Herman’s description in Trauma and Recovery of her work with ‘survivors’ of physical or sexual abuse: ‘Out of the fragmented components of frozen imagery and sensation, patient and therapist slowly reassemble an organised, detailed, verbal account, oriented in time and context.’ Mitchell piles up references to the Freudian text (‘primal repression’, the rupture of the ‘protective shield’, the ‘mystic writing-pad’ etc); it’s clear, however, that her traumatology comes not from psychoanalysis, but (with the exception of the theme of mimesis) from today’s sinister ‘recovered memory therapy’ (RMT) movement and from the theory of dissociation and ‘fixed ideas’ of Freud’s old rival, Pierre Janet. Indeed, it isn’t Freud but Herman and Janet who distinguish ‘normal memory’, which consists in the ‘action of telling a story’ and in representation, from ‘traumatic memory’, which interrupts (dissociates) the continuity of the subjective narrative and persists in the form of an unassimilable, amnesiac ‘fixed idea’.

Mitchell fails to mention any of this. On the contrary, she reproaches theorists of RMT with ignoring this distinction (between what she calls ‘memory’ and ‘perception’, or ‘trace’) in favour of a crude notion of ‘memory as a reproduction of a fixed event, true or untrue’. The same confusion, she adds, undermines the arguments of those who, like Frederick Crews, simplistically identify the ‘memories’ of incest unearthed by RMT therapists with the Oedipal ‘memories’ obtained by psychoanalysts: ‘To do so . . . is to misunderstand the psychoanalytic explanation of memory’. By an admirable sleight of hand, a distinction originating with Janet and RMT theorists thus becomes the alpha and omega of the psychoanalytic theory of memory. The irony is that the psychoanalyst Mitchell succeeds in distancing herself from the RMT witch-hunters only at the price of clandestinely surrendering to their theses, thus justifying Crews’s worst suspicions about psychoanalysis.

Mitchell, it’s true, takes care to inject sexuality into her theory of hysteria, lest anyone mistake its authentic Freudian character. This might seem quite a formidable task, for what’s sexual about being dislodged by a rival or subjected to a violent shock (an objection raised by Army psychiatrists with respect to ‘shell-shocked’ soldiers during World War One)? But psychoanalysis has infinite metaphoric resources. ‘Trauma and sexuality,’ Mitchell writes in a passage worthy of Paracelsus, ‘are analogous experiences. The effraction of the subject’s protective skin, which is an essential part of trauma (the breaking of the actual skin in the case of physical trauma, of an imaginary boundary in the case of psychic trauma), is comparable to the sense of a breaking open of the mind/body in sex.’ Swept down the slippery slope of analogy, we find ourselves ready to admit that all traumatic penetration is simultaneously sexual, sexualising and exciting. It is the libidinal excitement attendant on annihilation, we are told, that the hysteric endlessly repeats, beyond all satisfaction (‘beyond the pleasure principle’), whether he is a Don Juan, a rapist, an abusive husband, a hating and self-destructive lover or a sadist. Behind all these forms of hysterical sexuality, however, one finds hatred of the annihilating other, with whom the subject identifies all the more as he wants to annihilate him in return. Before love and sexuality there is mimetic hatred: ‘Freud claimed the hysteric loves where he hates; I would argue instead that he sexualises where he hates.’

Why did Freud see none of this? That is the question that all revisionist theories must address if they want to present themselves as psychoanalytic. Since Freudian revisionists cannot simply say that the founder was wrong, they must present the new theory as more embracing or ‘deeper’ than the old one. That way, they leave classical theory untouched, while suggesting that its validity is only relative. Some of them propose that the Freudian Oedipus be reinterpreted as an echo of the birth trauma, others that it be re-evaluated from the perspective of the pre-Oedipal relation to the mother, yet others that it ought to be reframed within a theory of the paternal Law and of symbolic castration. Mitchell, for her part, tells us that the Oedipal theory is the product of Freud’s repression of his own hysteria.

We know that in the mid-1890s Freud suffered from various somatic symptoms which were very likely due to coronary problems and/or cocaine use, but which he attributed to a ‘hysteria’. He recovered from this (hypothetical) hysteria, if one is to believe the psychoanalytic legend, after having ‘discovered’ in the course of his self-analysis that he had harboured in his unconscious Oedipal desires vis-à-vis his father and mother. Mitchell does not question this sequence of events, nor ‘the existence and signification of Oedipal and castration fantasies’; but she considers them to be a screen hiding the lateral relationships of mimetic rivalry which, she suggests, were at the heart of Freud’s hysteria, from his guilty identification with his brother Julius, who died at the age of six months, to his ambivalent friendship with Wilhelm Fliess: ‘Freud made everything come back to the Oedipal or pre-Oedipal parents in order to avoid the dead brother.’ Behind the Oedipal complex was the Cain complex.

How are we to reconcile this with the idea that Freud recovered from his hysteria? Shouldn’t we conclude, according to good psychoanalytic logic, that the Oedipus was a symptom of his unresolved hysteria? Mitchell shies away from drawing this conclusion, as it would obviously de-legitimise psychoanalysis in its entirety. Instead, she invites us to admit, simultaneously and contradictorily, that Freud ‘resolved his male hysteria by becoming Oedipus in his wishes’ and that this ‘emphasis on Oedipus eliminated the male hysteric’ from psychoanalysis. Once cured of his own hysteria, Freud no longer wanted to hear anything about male hysteria, for fear of reawakening his old demons. Hysteria, a potentiality for both sexes, became (or rather, became again) strictly a female affair. More generally, relations of lateral identification in female as well as male hysteria were neglected in favour of Oedipal relations, and soon everything in psychoanalysis came down to the mother-child relation (object relations theory) or to the impact of some non-sexual trauma, to the detriment of hysterical sexuality: ‘Hysteria “disappeared” into its psychoanalytic “cure” and re-emerged as the trauma theories (Recovered Memory syndrome and False Memory syndrome) of contemporary therapies’.

This is an allusion to the well-known phenomenon of hysteria having disappeared in the course of the 20th century: today, one hardly ever encounters the spectacular attacks, paralyses, anaesthesias, hypnoid states etc, which afflicted hysterics in the era of Charcot, Janet, Breuer and Freud. Other pathologies have taken over – ‘borderline personality’, depression, eating disorders, multiple personality disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome and the rest. Psychoanalysts themselves, not wanting to be outdone, have discovered new syndromes, each school having its own (the ‘schizoid personality’ of object relations theorists, the ‘narcissistic personality disorders’ of self-psychology). Isn’t this proof, the objection goes, that the Freudian theory of the mind, despite its claims to universality, is never anything more than a local theory, whose fate is tied to a ‘transient mental illness’ (Ian Hacking) corresponding to very specific cultural and historical conditions? Mitchell’s revisionist theory attempts to address this objection, by recentring the discussion on Freud’s self-analysis: yes, hysteria may well have disappeared from the landscape, but this was due solely to Freud’s blind spot in this regard. Once this is corrected, one realises that hysteria was always there, patiently waiting to be revealed by Mitchell’s ‘new psychoanalytic theory’.

Once again, you can only admire psychoanalysis’s recuperative capabilities: not only does it integrate facts put forward as objections to it, it even manages to make them into mere effects of the theory’s own misfires. This Freudocentric explanation of hysteria’s disappearance will only convince those for whom the history of psychiatry begins and ends with psychoanalysis. As Mark Micale has shown, hysteria’s decline was a European as well as a North American phenomenon, and it occurred during the first decade of the 20th century, at a time when psychoanalysis still involved only a small number of psychiatrists and patients. Psychoanalysis cannot, therefore, have played the historical role Mitchell attributes to it. If hysteria disappeared, this was partly due to the introduction of new diagnostic categories and to a decline in the use of hypnosis, and partly because patients followed suit, mimetically modelling their symptoms on their physicians’ changing expectations.

Mitchell does not ignore this second aspect. ‘Hysteria’s “disappearance”,’ she writes, ‘is also an illustration of its mimetic ability.’ Unrecognised, male hysteria thus left the hospital and the consulting room, only to reappear in everyday life in the guise of Don Juanism and sexual violence. Female hysteria, too, became a character trait: ‘femininity’. Reviving, though without acknowledging it, the old theory of suggestion, Mitchell even goes so far as to admit that those hysterics who remained on the couch duly mimicked Freud’s theories and those of his successors, offering up all the confirmation their analysts desired. For orthodox Freudians, they put on the great Oedipal show: ‘The hysteric in an Oedipal identification is only imitating.’ For Lacanians and narrativists, they played the game of chatter and ‘linguistic mimesis’. For object relations theorists, they mimicked the object relation ‘in the clinical setting. It is possible that this object relationship, which is “false”, may be channelled into a transference and analysed so that it can be successfully dealt with – but it may just as easily remain a perfect mimicry and be missed.’

Mitchell could have deduced from this, as critics of psychoanalysis do, that in analysis and psychotherapy one is always dealing with this kind of mimetic (‘suggestive’) artefact. But Mitchell makes no such deduction. If hysteria disappeared, she argues, it is not because, as a mimetic artefact, it was replaced by other artefacts. It is because it ‘camouflaged’ itself under these other artefacts, all the while remaining the same behind the disguise: ‘All it has in fact done is change colour.’ In other words, hysteria is not itself an artefact but the truth of all artefacts, enabling one to criticise all those who take the artefact for the thing itself. Mitchell doesn’t doubt for a second that hysteria ‘exists’. It is a universal and transcultural human ‘potentiality’ that may well be repressed or ignored, but which cannot, as such, disappear: ‘Hysteria, with its four thousand years of recorded history and its worldwide crosscultural presence, is clearly an appropriate representative of those two bêtes noires of contemporary, particularly Post-Modern, thought: universalism and essentialism.’

How does Mitchell know this? Where has she ever encountered hysteria ‘itself’? Nowhere. Hysteria being in its essence mimetic, it cannot be identified, nor can it be reduced to one of its historical disguises, to this or that behaviour, this or that set of symptoms. As a matter of fact, the hysteria to which Mitchell refers (the Cain complex, the reaction to the identity trauma etc) is not a thing open to observation: it is a theoretical construct intended to account for a multitude of phenomena among which some have traditionally (that is, culturally) been ascribed to hysteria and others not. Specifically, this ‘hysteria’ is the product of a psychoanalytic interpretation that infers the repressed from clues and circumstantial evidence. What assures us, then, that Mitchell’s revisionist interpretation is more correct or deeper that those of Freud or of her psychoanalytic colleagues?

Mitchell doesn’t shy away from correcting Freud and his successors’ case-histories, by unearthing the hysteria they failed to recognise. In her first book, she dutifully went about uncovering the hidden Oedipal structure of Laing and Esterson’s case studies in Sanity, Madness and the Family. She repeats the same operation in her present book, except this time it is Freud’s Oedipal stories that bear the brunt of her attack. Deleuze and Guattari famously reproached Freud for reducing everything to Mummy/ Daddy. Mitchell, for her part, reduces everything to little brother/little sister. Dora’s problem wasn’t her father, but her brother Otto; for little Hans, it was his sister Hanna; for the Wolf Man, his sister Anna. To demonstrate this, Mitchell marshals considerable hermeneutic resources and her interpretations are certainly as plausible and convincing as Freud’s. They are hardly any more convincing, however: given enough biographical information, one could easily repeat the same hermeneutic feat with cousins, the uncle, the maid or the postman. What would then have been gained? The history of psychoanalysis is one of perpetually conflicting interpretations and it is pointless to try to find in these controversies any kind of cumulative development. What is presented as ‘progress in psychoanalysis’ is usually just the most recent interpretation, or the most acceptable in a given institutional, historical and cultural context.

But what of clinical practice: does it not provide ‘data’, ‘observations’ that allow us to decide between competing interpretations? ‘My material for these reflections,’ Mitchell writes, ‘comes largely from a clinical psychoanalytical practice.’ This is the trump card of every psychoanalyst, seemingly all the more unbeatable as the said ‘material’ is protected by medical confidentiality and thus escapes outside scrutiny. In reality, this appeal to clinical practice settles nothing, for analytic ‘observations’ are never anything but interpretations transformed into facts (‘interprefactions’, to use the excellent term coined by Sonu Shamdasani). On the one hand, it is obvious enough that each psychoanalyst sees in his patient only what he wants to see – ‘signifiers’ if he is Lacanian, ‘self-defects’ if he is Kohutian, traumas if he is neo-Ferenczian. On the other hand, as Mitchell herself acknowledges, patients are only too happy to confirm by mimesis their analysts’ theories. How then does the hysteria she observed in her patients miraculously escape this co-production of the data? How can she rule out the possibility that it is nothing but an artefact of her own theories?

Psychoanalysts are fond of gossiping about the ‘professional’ patients who hop from couch to couch. Mitchell is no exception. At one point, she tells how it happened that a former patient of the well-known Kleinian psychoanalyst Herbert Rosenfeld ended up in her consulting room. Rosenfeld, in a case study devoted to this very patient, had described him as a paranoid homosexual. Mitchell, however, had no trouble detecting a hysteria and an ambivalent relation to a younger brother, both of which had been ignored by Rosenfeld. ‘For the analyst,’ she charitably remarks, ‘the seduction of the mimetic process in which the treatment is imitated is hard to perceive.’ I admire her perceptiveness, but I also regret that she applies it so selectively to her colleagues. For how can she be so sure that her patient’s ‘hysteria’ was not itself a product of the treatment’s mimetic process, just like Rosenfeld’s ‘paranoid homosexuality’? She can’t, since the facts she puts forward are produced in exactly the same way – through interprefaction.

Suppose Rosenfeld and Mitchell’s patient has a go with a third analyst. This analyst, armed with a brand ‘new psychoanalytic theory’, will probably have little difficulty detecting the mimetic seduction of which his colleague Mitchell was the victim. He will write a new book, using his patient as an example, and the book will be hailed as representing a great progress in psychoanalytic theory. In the meantime, our ‘zero-patient’ will go to a fourth analyst, who in turn . . .