The Certainty of Hysteria
Éric Laurent

Author’s Bio

translated by Marguerite C. Laporte

Since only hysteria, as a clinical type, raises itself to the level of discourse, it introduces a series of questions. The first aporia that this writing deploys is located be­tween the identification with the hysteric’s desire, and the place of sexual meaning, centered around the object.

This aporia was formulated in 1975 by Jacques Lacan, in these terms: “There is no common meaning for the hysteric, and what identification plays on him or her is structure and not sense, as is well shown in the fact that it bears on desire, that is on lack taken as an object and not on the cause of lack.”[1]

This identification with the lack in hysteria, points out the distance with regard to sense, distance other than the one introduced by the obsessional.

Here I would like to isolate two limits to hysterical identification: one introduces the relation between hysteria and obsession, and the other seems to be a problem internal to hysteria. These two issues will also al­low me to clarify some obscure theses circulating in the I.P.A. (International Psychoanalytic Association).

My remarks will be grounded on the treatment of two hysteri­cal subjects, both women. One puts into question the rela­tion of identification with the symptom—identification by the fantasme—the other emphasizes a phenomenon no­ticed clinically, but badly elaborated on, the ‘ob­sessionalization’ of the hysteric in analysis.

I will introduce the first of these issues by what I have learned about it from a subject, an uptight patient, Y.A.R.V.I.S., as the Americans say: Young, Attractive, Rich, Verbal, Intelligent, and Sociable. She is young enough, indeed she is four years old. She came to see me be­cause she was going through an uneasy stage crystallized around a fear of falling and by a series of nightmares about which she cannot really describe the contents. She has a little sis­ter, two years old, who is according to the mother, the trouble. About this trouble there are two interpreta­tions: for the mother the cause of the uneasiness is linked to an involuntary miscarriage that occurred between the two children’s births; that dead child would recurrently disturb the sleep of the subject, whom we shall call Hélène. Hélène herself tells me that she is afraid, but afraid of falling from a little bench. She also informs me that she is named Hélène—and she is very proud of it—after her grandmother, a prominent figure in her family, who had just died. When I asked her how her grandmother had died, she specifies that it was in falling from a stepladder. And she explains to me this difficult word, in case I didn’t know it: a stepladder is a little bench. There ended our first meeting.

I would like to make two immediate remarks: the first is that the so-called familial discourse gets misplaced in the belief that it is about facts—it’s about interpretations. And the subject may have another. That’s the case here. We may agree that both versions seem right, but we should place them correctly. What the little girl says to me is that she situates her trouble in an identification with a trait levied from the Other, the dead grandmother. Her mother locates her daughter’s trouble on the horizon of an Imaginary axis where a dead child is found in relation to whom she positions herself.
Thanks to what this little girl says to me, I con­sider the symptom should assuredly not be taken as phobic, but strictly speaking as hysteric.

The transferential bearing confirms this: at the end of the session the girl’s mother will report to me what Hélène confides to her: “The Gentleman is very nice, but too old for me to marry.” The mother/daughter rivalry is thus firmly in place.

Three stages deserve to be differentiated in this analysis. In the first Hélène constantly brings to the ses­sions a stuffed animal as big as she is, which she beats, thrashes, mistreats in all possible ways—the stuffed ani­mal clearly is identified with her sister. This game is alle­viated at one session. Identified with her sister she plays the two year old girl, as only a four and a half year old girl may imagine it. It is only at the end of the session that she is willing to admit that she would always be two years older than her sister — and she is really sorry about that. She could now articulate her nightmare: “Thieves find their way into the house and throw objects out the window, pencils, paper, pens,” she says—listing the objects she sees on my desk. The story comes to an end on a negation: “The thieves don’t throw my little sister out the window.”

Second stage. The après coup of the above negation in­troduces a new sequence. At the outcome of a session, where she is just empty word, she snatches a scrap of paper from my desk, scribbling on it, and dashes, tri­umphantly towards her awaiting mother, handing her the paper: “I made a drawing for you: it’s a dead child in a box.” The mother instantly pales with anxiety; the child is delighted to send back to its destination this message weighing upon her.

Then a new sequence opens, during which she endlessly draws boxes, bellies of mother animals. She enumerates the bestiary recognized by our urban children, which contains a good number of exotic animals. The baby, sometimes next to the box-belly, or still in an ambu­lance, where one puts children who are about to be born or who are injured for example from falling out windows. The animal sequence is enriched by a character who sums up the thieves, the bad guy. In fact in her building, as in many buildings, there are problems with the doorman. This door­man doesn’t like animals, and is suspected of leaving out poisoned meat which has an effect on all the cats able to wander around there. This guy has just killed the cat from an apartment familiar to Hélène. She introduces, in the après-coup of this fact, a drawing: it is a box in which there is a birth­day cake and a dog—a dog whose tail she is about to cut.

The calculation allowing for the introduction of the de­tachable object, linked however to the oral object in this poisoned birthday gift, introduces the third sequence. She could now speak of her father, who “wouldn’t be happy” if she didn’t draw better. This father is introduced in a posi­tion of essential discontent. These boxes containing live animals, she finally begins to present them as containing living children. She said, besides, these boxes are trees at the foot of which mushrooms grow. In the little mush­room which sprouts at the foot of the trees she recognizes easily the lit­tle organ she saw at her cousins and boys—which brings her to dream of a white onion: this onion is an egg; from it emerges a chicken, a swallow. After that presentation of the couple of imaginary children she promises herself, she will stop drawing boxes. She will now draw semblances of writing.

Symptoms are relieved. She is well, according to her entourage. Summer vacation separates us. I didn’t see her again for a year. She returned to see me in a short mo­ment of anxiety: encountering some boys in a square she asks herself if they weren’t thieves. And with her best friend, they both became intensely restless.

This incident therefore starts a new series of short ses­sions, in which she insists in bringing her father with her, distracting him from his many occupations in order to interest him in her. This sequence ends by the fact that one fine day she announces that she would prefer to attend the birthday of the chosen one of her heart, rather than come to her session. So that she could devote herself to the task of detaching her minion from the group of boys who diverts him about his true occupations.

I don’t really see what can prevent me from saying in this case that the subject is an hysteric. And I don’t see how else to designate this support which she draws on the desire of the Other. She took this support, centered on the love of such a father, thoroughly unsatisfied, to whom she avows to sustain the desire—it is around this that she reaches a conclusion about her choice of desire.

Moreover I don’t see why we should fall back to consider whether the matheme of this neurosis is the dis­course of the hysteric, or whether this discourse is the math­eme of hysteric neurosis in the analytic experience. But that’s absolutely not the question. Hysteria, simply, is at its place in the discourses. A neurosis making a discourse poses a problem—we will take this up again at the conclusion.

This case introduces therefore an hysteric subject of four and a half years old. Well, there is a thesis circulating in the I.P.A., variously modulated. You have traces of it in the doxographic collection, entitled Encyclopédie médico-chirurgicale, where there are three articles and three dif­ferent positions, each one almost refuting the other, but all three covering a well articulated field. I am going to take up an article from 1971, which the Strasbourgers are well acquainted with, since it was written from there. The thesis is: “It is exceptional, that an hysteric child remains thus until adulthood. There is no continuity between the child’s hysteria and the adult’s. All the same it is exceptional to find, in the anamnesis of adult hysterics, a history of in­fantile hysteria, while the existence of infantile neurosis, in the most vague sense of the term, is constant.” Well, I should say the contrary: I have never known an adult hys­teric who, not from anamnesis but in analysis, doesn’t bring for­th identification phenomena, typical among hysteric children. One simply shouldn’t take as a guide line anamnesis and manifest neurosis. As a rule we find, each time in ana­lytic treatment of adults—if anyone has a counter example I would be happy to hear about it—these identification phenomena.

Lebovici’s article argues that “there are some dangers re­garding clinical efficacy to assemble under the term of in­fantile hysteria, a certain number of manifestations which have a meaning, but will become greatly different.” And you know that Lebovici’s thesis is to oppose personality to symptom. It is from there that Strasbourgers of 1971 take their distances. The existence of an hysteric personality is more debatable, so they say.

Well, it seems to me—and here I’m following a Kleinian psychoanalyst who wrote in 1983 about the above, con­sidering that the dimension of infantile hysteria should be maintained as such. Lacan’s teaching also carries forward on this. Simply, we need to articulate effectively the relation between symptom and personality. Infancy is the period of choice about desire, but leaves in suspension in the best case, a choice about the fantasme—or better said, of its use. Michel Silvestre, in an article on infantile neurosis, differ­entiates between neurosis in the child and neurosis fully deployed: with the child it is a question about the mother’s desire, but with the full neurosis the question is about jouissance of the woman. I should add to this that infantile neurosis is surely a choice about perfectly decided desire. Neurosis as such sends us back to the choice about the use of fantasme. In this sense one should wait for verification of the desire by the treatment of jouissance which breaks in. In this sense, the Real at stake in castration is awaiting verification. Since the difficulties of gluing together the choices of desire and the choice of jouissance, according to Jacques-Alain Miller’s expression, pose difficulties, that effectively lead clinicians to distinguish between child­hood neurosis and personality. Now: simply I think that to organize the phenomenon, we must speak strictly of the opposite thesis to the one pre­sented by Dr. Lebovici, that is to admit to an identification to the symptom inasmuch as this identification bears on desire, and to reserve instead the hysteric personality, to the extent that personality is a deployment of the fantasme. The choice of the use of the fantasme is decided in the après coup of the trial of verification, which is simply not puberty as biological maturation, but as the en­try into a new dimension of jouissance, including the veri­fication that love games bring (déduit), according to this beautiful French word that underlines the degree of logic played out here. It seems to me that the study Lacan made of Gide’s choice, postponing it to the extreme limit, appears to verify this distinction between the choice of desire and the choice ofjouissance, and the usefulness to be intro­duced here.

The second problem in hysteric identification I would like to discuss, is produced by an obses­sionalization of a hysteric in analysis. I use the term to designate the following phenomenon: it concerns a subject who came to see me after a long analysis to take it up again. Besides she didn’t think that her analysis was over when she stopped it. She is troubled because she just had an abortion. She asks herself what has she done. Ex­pressed in another way, she treats it as an acting out: the truth has spoken, but she doesn’t know what this means.

What she retained from her previous analysis—and this is what I believe allows me to speak of obsession­alization—is a formula. She remembers a dream in which—let’s take only this sequence—she discovers herself in front of a landscape, a shining expense, about which she wonders if it’s made of snow or if it’s the sea. The interpretation she remembers is that snow (neige) transforms into “have I not” (n’ai-je), or into “born am I” (nais -je). And it’s a genuine formula obsessing her re­flections: it turns ceaselessly in her mind, and she is not able to put to an end to it. Indeed, only by acting out a birthing, throws back the question. It was necessary during the pre­liminary sessions for us to discover what were the remain­ing, enduring identifications with her intimate rival of childhood, who just being married, told her about his upcoming fatherhood. She became pregnant, figuring things in an unconscious sort of way. So that she would bear her own child at the same time as this man. It would take the whole part of the analysis to restore the function of the subject supposed to know and to dislodge that repetitive return around this “have I not” (n’ai je). The restoration of this function goes through the situating of the object gaze, for of all things she considers in herself successful—she says with much modesty, especially in her dreams—it’s her gaze. She thinks that her eyes equal the most precious jewelry. Her childhood troubles of accommodation, of hysteric nature, will be recognized and put back in place through a series of stagings. Only after this series will she take up again her dream and say: “What I remember of it as the essential, it’s that it’s a dream of optical illusion.”

I would say that in this case there was an installa­tion of a quasi Zwangby the analysis, but that the après coup of the false Zwang, is the Agieren. It’s not Zwang und Zweifel; it’s Zwang und Agieren. Her acting out comes here as the response to this quasi obsession, to this suture pro­duced between signifying constructions.

We see how a new tightening of the subject can operate around her desire, situating the body as the place of the Other, which in hysteria is imagined as such, although presentified. This body as the place of the Other is not in­tersubjective but place of the Other, “these scars on the tegumentary, peduncle to hold themselves on the orifices to be used as taken, ancestral artifices and techniques which gnaw on it.” Lacan notes that this establishment of the body as place of the Other allows for the dismissal from their position the pretensions of masochism. As Danièle Sil­vestre has underlined in her lecture, the relation of the hys­teric to the body as place of the Other displaces the ques­tion of this particular masochism which, as Lacan notes, gives the highest price to psychoanalytic discourse.

This re-tightening of the subject around its desire al­lows us to resume the use of the new word Lacan in­troduced in order to speak about the masochism in hys­teria: cowardice,—the term levied from The Rat Man, as he notes. It is this faint-heartedness, this weak rela­tionship to desire, which is to be picked up — as Colette Soler emphasized—in analysis, to re-center the subject on its fantasme.

I’ll say that what enables us to address the second sub­ject, is what someone such as Elizabeth Zetzel may have introduced in the I.P.A. She supported in the 1970’s, that hysterics, contrary to what we might believe could not undergo a psychoanalysis; there was a limit to identifica­tion which always renders them unanalyzable. She verified that, finally, only those hysterics who had sufficiently obsessional traits, were analyzable. This is not false—but it’s necessary of course to put this thesis back on its feet. When the subject presents itself in the position of the di­vided subject, strictly speaking in the agent’s position, one then has a subject out of order, and practically misfitting in ana­lytic discourse. The same thing happens when the subject assumes a posi­tion of distance concerning the master signifier, a position of erotized defiance, for the subject itself camouflages and conceals the object around which the sexual meaning re­volves. Then the analyst may find himself reduced to the ridiculous position of resorting to his psychoanalytic knowl­edge.

I’ll conclude with two points about this cowardly re­la­tionship of the neurotic subject, especially hysteric, to its desire: what can this teach us about hysteria as a social link and its limitation? Hysteria—qualified by Lacan of admirable theoretician, when the subject is feminine—al­lows Freud to take up the question left in the lurch by man as man of pleasure, who himself has succeeded in giv­ing birth to the desire for, what we should call to its limit, revolution, linked to “that attempt to the natural eman­cipa­tion of desire” produced in the 18th Century. Hysteria, by the quarter turn that analysis may pro­duce, foreshadows its contribution to the establishing of a new desire, which allows for the envisioning of an exit from the master’s ambient discourse, which is the so called capitalist dis­course.

Then, there is for the female hysteric this mounting of de­sire, if analysis could operate in her this quar­ter turn. There is also on her part a marked refusal regarding the master. Actually, one can ridicule the ideal­ism witnessed with certain hysteric subjects, from Florence Nightingale to Anna O. and others. Never­theless, it effectually embodies this refusal to “eat your Dasein,” such as the master would like her to swallow. There is in hys­teric identification, a call to a new desire, which enables her to fight back in her own fashion, with dignity, against what Lacan could have called at a given moment “the communal degradation of the social enter­prise.”


Suzanne Hommel: The little girl, Hélène, discovers that there will always be the same difference in age, two years, between her and her sister. Is it not a confrontation to the Real that brings castration into play?

Eric Laurent: Actually it is the Real of the Symbolic that introduces the counting. It is in the links of the Symbolic net to which she consents, with negation, that she ap­proaches the place of her sister, not simply as Imaginary, and with another Real, than that of death.

Colette Soler: A question to Eric Laurent brought about in the conclusion concerning the little hysteric of four and a half years old. From the youngest age we have a choice about desire which allows us to name it hysteria. You consider however that the choice of jouissance, in a subject so young, awaits verification at the moment of puberty, at the effective encounter with the other sex. Isn’t it that even for the choice of jouissance this is already resolved? Shouldn’t we distinguish between phallic jouis­sance and the jouissance of the Other? If we retrieve all that in hysteria appears as trauma, as encounter, it is, all the same, quite precocious. Don’t we have a choice already made which, surely, is to be re-actualized while repeated in puberty?

Eric Laurent: The distinction made by Jacques-Alain Miller “on the choice of jouissance,” seems to me interesting to preserve. Thus, I recalled the example of Gide where Lacan considers that the decision on his homosexuality was only made at a very late stage. Basically, we are not only dealing with puberty, with the encounter of love games and series, there also is the spontaneous construction of the fantasme and its use at a certain moment. There is a choice, in Lacan’s sense, not a volition, but a volition of jouissance, for an acephalous subject. It seems useful then, to preserve that distinction, and we see how we can thus clarify certain phenomena, especially on the side of the feminine subject: i. e. decisions apparently made on feminine sexual­ity, decisions which can tilt in the course of analysis with­out this coming as an effect of suggestion, and conse­quently from moral prohibition. On the other hand, it could be that the choice of the subject wavers when faced with the position of the desire of the Other. Actually, these encounters with the forms of the desire of the Other appear decisive, and imply a choice by the subject, more than puberty as biological maturation, even if it simply introduces a new jouissance. In hysteria the distinction between phallic jouissance and jouissance of the Other is to be registered. What appears as decisive is the articulation of the subject to the Other, that is, the encounter made by the hysteric subject with this Other who is not a desert of jouissance: she encounters an Other that jouit—even if it be too little. This keeps her going in this encounter. And the articulation to this Other, through the fantasme, leaves its use open, a use which, perhaps, at a given moment, if the requirement of a new love imposes on her as a response, could lead her to make the choice said to be homosexual, and on occasion, cause the revision of her decision.

The Certainty of Hysteria originally appeared in print in lacanian ink 3, 1991

[1] Scilicet #5, “Introduction à l’édition allemande d’un premier volume des Écrits.” Seuil, Paris, 1975, p.15. (“Il n’y a pas de sens commun de l’hystérique, et ce dont joue chez eux ou elles l’identification, c’est la structure, et non le sens comme ça se lit bien au fait qu’elle porte sur le désir, c’est-à-dire sur le manque pris comme objet, pas sur la cause du manque.”).


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