< >   perfume  lacanian ink  symposium  messageboard  sitemap  links  hysteric's forum


Gérard Wajcman



Let us talk about hysteria, a field of investigation almost without limitations: throughout history there are writers telling us about hysteria, from the miraculous healing at the temple of Asclepios to the treatment of anorexia in a modern hospital; from the witch and her dealings with the devil to the high society lady and her fainting spills. Over time any concept of hysteria has been outdated by hysteria itself. For some, its diffuse, multiple patterns sprawl over the entire field of pathology. Facing both the practical difficulty of providing treatment for so ubiquitous a disorder and the theoretical problem of forcing it under one category, others, like Charcot, chose to reduce the multiple to one and to declare hysteria a single indivisible entity.

There doesn't seem to be anything medicine has not said about hysteria: it is multiple, it is one, it is nothing; it is an entity, a malfunction, an illusion; it is true and deceptive; organic or perhaps mental; it exists, it does not exist. Before proposing yet another spurious theory on the subject, we must in the existing theories locate the prolific nature of hysteria, its propensity to play in every key; this can be done with little risk of error. The very inconsistency of the disorder has lead many to think of it as a figment of the imagination; and yet, the profusion of literature devoted to it involves the entire range of medical knowledge.


We'll give the name of hysteric to this object which cannot be mastered by knowledge and therefore remains outside of history, even outside its own. This disjunction (//) can be expressed in the following way: if hysteria is a set of statements about the hysteric, then the hysteric is what eludes those statements, escapes this knowledge.

Moreover, beyond the properly scientific attempt to master an object through knowledge and thus to reduce it to a body of statements, the history of hysteria bears witness to something fundamental in the human condition--being put under pressure to answer a question. The questioning one is the hysteric. Asking a question is so elementary a relation of language that it can be done without words: when the hysteric presents her riddled body to the physician, even though mute, she poses her question.

The hysterical subject questions the physician about the symptom that, unexplainably, riddles her body. She presses him for an answer, impelling him to generate the knowledge needed to cure her.

While knowledge cannot articulate the hysteric, the hysteric ushers the articulation of knowledge.

Intending to talk about hysteria, we found that hysteria made us talk.


Following Jacques Lacan, we will call this particular structure the hysteric's discourse. (Perhaps Lacan's notion of discourse in general is inspired by this structure.)

This structure, whose elements are revealed by the history of hysteria, is fundamental first as discourse, and, second, as the hysteric's discourse.




Lacan's concept of discourse is a specific formalization of the basic components of speech and its effects. It accounts for what is at stake when we claim the right to speak. What do we do when we make this claim? First, we assume a place. Before the actual speech act occurs certain stable relations determine its effect, depending on the place from which it is performed. According to Lacan, it is the discourse that gives the speech act its status. Second, we assume language. Speech is addressed to another place in the direction of which it is delivered. Discourse as a signifying articulation establishes the social link that proceeds, from the place of speech as performance, to the place of speech as destination: to speak to an other is to act upon him. Thus discourse institutes power and conditions its exercise.

Lacan's symbolism


agent -- > other 2


accounts for these elements. It formalizes the places which come into play with every speech act, namely the agent of discourse and the other who is acted upon. This formula also suggests the dimension of power in all actions exercised upon an other. The effect of such actions, the product of discourse, requires the introduction of a third place:


agent -- > other -- > production


Finally, psychoanalysis necessitates a fourth item to complete this array: the place of truth. The analytic experience is based on the fact that, at least ordinarily, we do not know what we say: what we intend to say is not the truth of what we say: the agent of speech conveys a meaning unknown to him. Far from being the master of meaning, he acts, in the words of J.A. Miller, as its appointed 'functionary.' Thus, the agent suffers the truth rather than delivering it. His place only seems to be one of acting subject, a semblance brought in by speech as such. He who claims to speak in the name of truth cannot speak it, precisely because he speaks in its name.


To answer with Lacan, the hysteric is a chimaera, bringing to mind the myth of the sphinx. With the riddle she poses to man, the sphinx not only institutes a certain relation of speech, but specifically the discursive relation of agent to other. The riddle is the hysteric herself; she is the barred subject [barred sgif], whose body is marked by unexplainable symptoms. These symptoms define her discourse as a question addressed to the other. Brandishing her suffering, she acts as the sphinx posing a riddle to man. Having acknowledged her question, he raises to the position of master endowed with limitless power: he is the master of knowledge supposed to have the answer capable of silencing her. For the hysteric's discourse, the relation agent -- > other thus takes the form -->S1.

The riddle of the subject supposes the other (priest, physician, analyst) capable of resolving it. The history of hysteria can be seen as many Oedipuses lined up before the sphinx, each answering her riddle in his way, none conquering Thebes (it was his answer that made Oedipus into Oedipus, says Lacan.)

The riddle, or enigma, is a basic speech-form--a minimal enunciation [énonciation] --which compels the one to whom it is addressed to respond in the form of an assertion [énoncé]. The hysteric's enunciation is injunctive: "Tell me!"

This mandate to speak is a fundamental aspect of the Demand 3

: only speech is demanded, nothing else. The one who acknowledges this injunction, or mandate to speak, is given the power to satisfy the Demand. This constitutes him as capital Other. By posing the riddle, the hysteric commands the Other from her position as agent, and yet in so doing entirely surrenders to him whom she empowers to answer: "Tell me! Answer me! Whatever you say I am!" The demand compels speech, solicits an answer. It requests virtually all of speech, all that can be answered, as if all of language carried the mute question: "Who am I?" Asked by the hysteric, this question, essential for her, appears to arise from the structure itself. She identifies with the structure of speech, the synchrony of which is a question-answer:


Tell me ... who I am? --- > I am who you say.


The hysteric reveals the subject's symbolic dependence on the Other. She manifests this dependence by keeping up her 'symbolic debt' and by inverting the direction of the message (the speaker receives the message from the hearer):


tell me< --- >I am


who I amwho you say


The hysteric demonstrates that all speech proceeds from the place of the Other. The Other is master, letting the as yet inarticulate subject come into being: 4


I am / who you say < -- > I say / who you are.


The hysteric plays it as though she commanded the Other, yet symbolically she is entirely dependent on him whom she begs to make her a subject. She commands and at once surrenders. Her question, "Who am IT' receives the answer "You are who I say."

On the side of the Other the riddle ends with the gift of speech. But this gift has an essential flaw. By answering the subject's question: "Who am I?" the Other lets the subject come into being; but any given answer, necessarily specific, reduces the subject's quest to a finite object: "Who you are? A saint, a fool, a hospital case..." Calling the subject into being, the hysteric's "Who?" in response receives a what that objectifies her.


Tell me who I am? -- > You are what I say.


The division of subject and object, an irrevocable effect of language, provides the treacherous ground for hysteria to perform its manoeuvres.

The hysteric is a speaking riddle, the symptom that elicits speech from the other. Any answer will do as long as there is one at all. The historical abundance of theories on hysteria demonstrates this profusely. They have said anything and everything about hysteria save the truth.


The hysteric's role regarding knowledge is precisely ambiguous. She solicits knowledge by offering herself as its precious object, compelling man [the male] to always generate more. But on the other hand, her solicitation pushes knowledge to its limits, demonstrating that knowledge does not coincide with the truth that it supposedly expresses. Disengaged from the truth, knowledge fails to account for hysteria. And yet the two aspects are linked: the failure of knowledge incessantly fuels the riddle, and hence the production of knowledge.


As the subject who exhibits the symptom as an enigma for knowledge, the hysteric pushes the one to whom she addresses her question to know [pousse-à-savoir]: "Look at my body, there you will find the answer to my question." She offers herself to man as a ravishing enigma--as the object of a knowledge that divides her from herself. Characteristic for the hysteric, the subject-object division now stands revealed as a structural one, arising ng from the essential function of the enigma in the relation of speech.

The symptom as riddle calls for an answer. "Who am I?" The subject of this utterance [énonciation] remains in the air as long as it has not found articulation by means of a statement [énoncé]. Articulation answers the riddle, that allows any possible answer because it urges nothing but speech itself. But with any particular answer, something drops out of the signifying relation: articulated by means of this answer, the riddle itself disappears. The subject finds itself constituted by a definite statement, "You are . . .," and the object of this statement, the riddle, is dropped as a lost object, as object . The statement [énoncé] falls necessarily short of the utterance [énonciation]; in stating something, it does not state the truth.

It should be evident by now that the notion of hysteria as a riddle has more than descriptive value: hysteria is not today's riddle which might be solved tomorrow. Hysteria is a riddle, and remains a riddle. Nothing truer can be stated of a riddle than: "It is a riddle."

Paradoxically, the only true answer to the question "What is hysteria?" is not answering it. There are two possible positions: (i) answer the question and produce knowledge; or (ii) speak the truth but don't answer the question.


The hysteric embodies the division between subject and object in a particular way. As subject she incites desire; but when this desire moves towards the object that causes it, the hysteric cannot condescend to be this object. She incites man to know what causes his desire, inciting him to acknowledge her as the inaccessible object of his desire.

This intrigue of the hysteric is open to everyday observation. Offering her charms, she captivates the man. She provokes his desire, then suddenly disappoints it; she retreats at the very moment hen he risks a response to her advances: being the object of his desire is the position she cannot endure. Her game is to present herself as desirable; but when this offer is taken seriously, she withdraws and will not have been what one thought she was.


Here the castrating dimension of the hysteric's game becomes evident. Pushing man towards knowledge [pousse-à-savoir], she also pushes him towards failure [pousse-au-manque]: the man involved with her always finds himself stupid [manque-à-savoir]. But the erratic quality of the hysteric's discourse derives more from the structure which necessitates hysteria than from the hysteric who asks to be interpreted in terms of the structure.

Hysteria is an elementary effect of language. As an intelligible phenomenon it follows from the structure of the Demand. This structure, in fact, is identical with hysteria. Immersed in language, the subject is hysterical as such. While Freud took hysteria to be the nucleus of all neurotic disorders, Lacan has revealed the speaking subject as fundamentally hysterical: the only subject of psychoanalysis is the barred, unconscious, hysterical subject.

It then appears no longer sufficient to conceive of hysteria as a fact of language among others; it is the fact of language if we admit that whoever speaks is hysterical. We can go further and say that the subject demands to be recognized as a fact of language (see the formula "Tell me who I am --> I am what you say.") The hysteric not only requests that language be used as a means for explaining her; she also insists on being acknowledged as a being of speech. Freud fulfilled this demand, and so did Lacan.

The connection of hysteria and psychoanalysis is structural and not historical: the subject, insofar as it demands to be recognized as an effect of language, lines up with the analyst, whose existence is sustained by the fact that language has effects. This constitutes his knowledge, or rather the knowledge the hysteric attributes to him. The hysteric is not a Subject privileged by and for analysis, and yet psychoanalysis could only emerge with the hysteric as subject. This does not explain why analysis was invented by Freud, but provides the structural reason for its emergence. As we said, there are two possible subjective positions regarding the hysteric: (i) The position of medicine; by playing the hysteric's game, this position produces a body of knowledge from which the hysteric: (i) The position of medicine; by playing the hysteric's game, this position produces a body of knowledge from which the riddle drops out. (ii) Freud's position which consists in a non-response to the riddle, or rather the silent response: "It's a riddle." This silence is a structural position, and not only an incitement to speak. It is a response, and knowledge is produced; but adequate to the truth, the response does not answer the Demand. The statement "It's a riddle" stands for a knowledge that functions as truth. (This could be the definition of psychoanalytic interpretation.) As a matter of fact, the analyst's silence might lead to a reverse hysterization, inasmuch as the analyst, by becoming a riddle himself, commands the subject to produce knowledge about him. As a result, the riddle includes the knowledge of the riddle, and this knowledge cannot be articulated.

It is Freud's historical achievement not to have fabricated new knowledge to more adequately or more elegantly account for hysteria. He came upon a knowledge that does not know itself, the unconscious; his break with the past was recognizing a knowledge that speaks by itself.

The hysteric renders unfeasible any enterprise based on the teleological organization of different kinds of knowledge. She banalizes the bits and pieces of knowledge, challenging not so much their content as the place from which they are pronounced. All medical knowledge is the same for her, whether it be Hippocrates' wandering uterus or Charcot's missing lesion. Between the two, centuries of patient and learned efforts, thousands of pages of theses, of analyses, of conclusions.

We suggest that history's judgment on Charcot's studies of hysteria must not be understood as the failure of a particular theory or approach but, on the contrary, as marking a point of no return. Charcot's paradigmatic failure is that of knowledge as knowledge about the hysteric.

What can be seen from her history, then, is not only that the hysteric resists being apprehended as an object of science, but that she cannot serve as such an object because the knowledge she embodies is precisely unknowable. Freud's identification with the hysteric has more than biographical relevance: by putting himself in her place, his knowledge about her was produced like a symptom--a knowledge speaking by itself. Knowledge about the hysteric is the knowledge of the hysteric.

Freud closed the discourse of the hysteric, or rather, opened it up, by establishing as irremediable the disjunction between subject and object. The invention of psychoanalysis proceeded from his position on the hysteric: he kept silent and let the symptom speak.



1. From LE MAITRE ET L'HYSTERIOUE. Paris: Navarin (1982), pp. 11-30. Translated [by Thelma Sowley] for LSN
with the friendly permission of the author.
This article is reproduced, in part, from HYSTORIA, Schulz-Keil, Helena (Ed.), New York: The New York Lacan
Study Group, 1988.
back up
2. The arrow indicates the direction of the message as well as the synchronic relation between two places. back up
3. Lacan opposes Demand and desire; Demand is addressed to the capital Other. cf. << Subversion of the Subject and the
Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious >>, in: Jacques Lacan, ECRITS: A Selection, New York: W. W. Norton
(1977), p. 315 and passim. Editor's note. back up
4. Lacan puns Maître/m'ître. Editor's note. back up