The Ethics of Hysteria & Psychoanalysis
Vicente Palomera

Nathalie Djurgberg

Author's Bio

It is well known that Freud inaugurated an entirely new mode of human relations from listening to hysterics. The birth of psychoanalysis depends on this encounter with hysteria, but we should actually ask ourselves—as Lacan did himself—where have the hysterics of yesterday gone? Those marvelous women, the Anna O’s, the Emmy von N’s, and so forth—do their lives belong to a lost world? Lacan related the birth of psychoanalysis to the Victorian times, since Victoria was she who knew how to impose her ideals in an era which bears her name. Lacan said in his Seminar “this kind of havoc was necessary to produce what I call a waking.” In the present, do hysterics play havoc with the social field? Has hysteria displaced itself into the social field? Let’s start with all these questions.

On the other hand, how do the present psychoanalysts of the IPA face the question of the existence or non-existence of hysteria? The word has disappeared as such from certain psychiatric manuals. In one of the last International Congresses of Psychoanalysis, there was a panel dedicated to hysteria, and there we find psychoanalysts of different persuasions discussing hysteria. Many of them held that hysteria is only a defensive technique to maintain at a distance and under control of anxieties which are defined as “primitive,” “psychotic,” “non-sexual.” As you know, to define hysteria as a defense is not new, it is something already thought of by the Kleinians, and for instance, Fairbairn. I’d like to show you how all these definitions were bound to lead to confusion. Generally speaking, psychoanalysts have shrunk from the challenge of hysteria.

This is what was said recently in a paper issued in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis on the subject of hysteria, where one already finds Lacan quoted alongside several authors of the so-called French School of Psychoanalysis, that is to say, diluted in the eclectic tradition that distinguishes the IPA. As you see, this is a proof that “Lacan is everywhere.”[1]

First of all, the hysteric is a particular subject, one who puts his division in the place of power. In the second place, there is an ethics of hysteria, an ethics which is not in the service of the goods industry. Psychoanalysis is not an ethics of goods either. The ethics of hysteria is an ethics of privation, which does not mean an ethics of generosity (of giving); on the contrary, it is an ethics of dispossession (giving up). It is true that this position, at the very heart of hysteria—the pure hysterical position—is not usually carried out till the end, but the hysteric very often affirms her dispossession with ferocity, sometimes arriving at sacrifice.

This dispossession is presented to us as a complaint. The most fundamental complaint of hysterics is one of lack of identity, lack that Lacan wrote with a symbol, the letter $, which means that the subject is separated from his being, and for this reason separated from identity, which is why you identified yourself easily with others. With the term, unconscious, Freud meant a level where something thinks, where you find articulated thoughts (Gedanken). Yet, at the unconscious level you cannot say: “I am,” in fact, you are dispossessed of being. Thus, the unconscious is a level where there is no “self-consciousness,” where the subject does not find a way of naming himself, the “I am.” By means of the $ Lacan transformed Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum,” a statement which meant a level where the subject would be able to think: “therefore I am,” a level where, according to Descartes, you would be able to obtain the certainty of being.

What the hysterical subject intensifies and overtly manifests is this lack of a certainty, the lack of an identifying signifier. Hysteria shows up through a void of identification $ which the subject transforms into a question presented to anyone who is in the place of master of knowledge S2:


Hysteria is a discourse, and like every discourse it implies two partners. In the hysterical discourse Lacan isolates one of the partners as the divided subject $, the other as the master signifier, or the master who embodies it S1. So you have first, occupying the place of agent the subject addressing a demand to the Other—the Master—commanding the Master. The agent is what we call a place of power. In the analytical discourse,


power is in the object commanding a certain task to the subject.

The first time Lacan writes about his four discourses, he defines hysteria as the divided subject, that is to say as the unconscious in exercise: L’inconscient en exercice qui met le maître au pied du mur de produire un savoir.[2] (The unconscious in action challenging the master to produce knowledge). What is important here is the identification of hysteria with the divided subject. But, on the other hand, Lacan says clearly enough that the hysteric is also a mastering subject, because he/she is in the place of the agent.

Although you may easily illustrate this with any case of hysteria, I’d rather choose one which is certainly well known to you. Everyone knows the popular conception of Florence Nightingale, the self-sacrificing woman, the maiden who threw aside the pleasures of a life of ease to help the afflicted, the “Lady of the Lamp,” as she was nicknamed, consecrating with her goodness the dying soldier’s couch. I have taken Lytton Strachey’s picture of Florence Nightingale, because one suddenly recognizes the portrait of a hysteric.[3] He describes a hysteric, in so far as Florence’s position before men consisted in putting them to work, right till her death. You know she wanted to satisfy her vocation: to be a nurse. This was her want (in the double meaning of the word), a want that not only remained fixed immovably in her heart, but grew in intensity day by day. To become a nurse implied dispossession. She had brushed aside with disdain and loathing the allurements of her aristocratic milieu. Her lovers had been nothing to her, and she refused marriage. In her thirty-first year she noted in her diary: “I see nothing desirable but death.” Florence made her choice and refused what was at least a certain happiness for a visionary good which might never come to her at all. The Crimean War broke out; she was thirty-four when she arrived at Scutari where the organization of hospitals was horrific. The conditions were indescribable: want, confusion, diseases, dysentery, misery, filth, that is to say, the very image of jouissance. Florence came into that inferno, transforming it into a militarily organized hospital. A passionate idolatry spread among men, and Strachey summarizes it with these words “they (the soldiers) kissed her shadow as it passed.” A soldier said: “Before she came there was cussing and swearing, but after that it was as holy as a church.” She succeeded in emptying that jouissance, not without a certain heroism.

Back in England, “the Lady of the Lamp” falls seriously ill. She suffers from fainting fits and terrible attacks, a mysterious illness which will accompany her till her death at the age of ninety-one. “Wherever she went… she was haunted by a ghost”—says Strachey—“It was the specter of Scutari.” I found this a nice way of saying that at last Scutari became the signifier that, in the end, represented Florence S1 /$. Nevertheless, L. Strachey wrote that “a Demon possessed her,” giving her a signifier, precisely when she had rejected every signifier and showing by this means that she was not subjected, not fixed to any master signifier, but possessed by something mortifying.

As I have told you, the hysteric puts the master’s back to the wall—au pied du mur—to produce knowledge, says Lacan. Florence also shows this very well. Let’s take, for instance, her relationship with Sydney Herbert, who later became War Minister, trying to be a man in accordance with Florence’s wishes, then with Arthur Clough—her secretary—and with Dr. Sutherland. None of them were men, only false copies in Florence’s eyes. Strachey summarizes it very well: “she worked like a slave in a mine. She began to believe, as she had begun to believe at Scutari, that none of her fellow workers had their hearts in the business; if they had, why did they not work as she did? She could only see slackness and stupidity around her. Dr. Sutherland, of course, was grotesquely muddle-headed and Arthur Clough incurably lazy. Even Sydney Herbert… oh yes, he had the simplicity and candor and quickness of perception, no doubt; but he was an eclectic, and what could one hope for from a man…” As the years passed, Florence sought consolation on the writings of the Mystics, and also in a correspondence with Mr. Jowett, who acted as her spiritual adviser. But… how could he succeed where the others had failed? Jowett was entirely devoted to her, but Florence felt that she gave more sympathy than she received. “Her tongue, one day, could not refrain from shooting out at him: He comes to me, and he talks to me,” she said, “as if I were someone else.” With a sentence like this we immediately realize the nature of the hysterical discourse: the subject $ in the position of agent addressing a demand to the Master S1, to produce knowledge S2 which is impotent to say the truth of the subject a:

The hysteric presents herself precisely as lacking knowledge: “Cure me—try to know what I have.” As a result, like Mr. Jowett, the analyst cannot do it. He is impotent in his knowledge of what will cure her. In this dimension hysteria is a challenge.

We do not know much more about Florence. She died leaving nothing but a veil, that very veil she used to wear when she strolled in the park twice a month. What did she hide behind that veil? Strachey sees the visible nothingness she had converted into omnipotence all through her life: “The thin, angular woman, with her haughty eye and her acrid mouth, had vanished; and in her place was the rounded, bulky form of a fat old lady, smiling all day long. Then something else became visible. The brain which had been steeled at Scutari was indeed, literally, growing soft. Senility descended. Towards the end, consciousness itself grew lost in a roseate haze, and melted into nothingness.”

Why had she sacrificed all her life? It is an enigma. What we do know is that she didn’t give up her sacrifice and also that she eluded herself as a question.

Now, thanks to Lytton Strachey and going back to Lacan’s teaching on hysterical discourse, we are able to re-read not only Florence Nightingale’s portrait, but also hysterical discourse as such: the hysterical subject is an agent; secondly, she is a subject who eludes herself as object (Florence died without giving her secret); and thirdly, she is a subject who sacrifices herself.

Let’s go now to Lacan’s teaching on hysteria.

The first two features I have just given you may seem contradictory: there you have hysteria defined as Subject $, in the place of agent, of power, and, I have also said that hysteria is defined in the place of the object. I shall try to show you that there is no such contradiction at all. We can organize Lacan’s teaching on hysteria in four periods:

1) 1936-1949: The Period of the Mirror Stage
With the Mirror Stage Lacan formalizes many clinical facts, with a great economy of concepts, after having isolated the imaginary relationship. In the English edition of the Écrits,[4] you find hysteria defined by means of the fragmented body: “This fragmented body usually manifests itself in dreams when the movement of the analysis encounters a certain level of aggressive disintegration in the individual. It then appears in the form of disjointed limbs, or of those organs represented in exoscopy, growing wings and taking up arms for intestinal persecutions (…) But this form is even tangibly revealed at the organic level, in the lines of fragilization that define the anatomy of fantasy, as exhibited in the schizoid and spasmodic symptoms of hysteria.” The fragmentation in hysteria, referred to in the Mirror Stage, is an early reference to the absence of identification with The Woman.

2) 1957: The Hysterical Question
In La Psychanalyse et son enseignement,[5] Lacan defines hysteria as an “imaginary inversion.” Schema L inscribes the condition of the subject as dependent on what is being unfolded in the Other A. What is being unfolded there is articulated like a discourse. This Schema opposes the Imaginary and the Symbolic:

Schema L

In this Schema a — a’ is the relation to the partner, the relation to the body image and, also, to the partner’s body, as it is developed in the Mirror Stage.

With the dotted axis Lacan writes the symbolic relationship, from the subject to the Other, the Other as the locus of language which precedes the coming of the subject in the world. This axis implies a subject, a subject who is presented with the question of his existence, “What am I there?”—A question from the subject directed to the Other, since it depends on what is unfolded in the Other. Lacan says: Neurosis is a question which finds its strictures in this Other, and it is in the Other too that are posited the terms through which the subject, of hysteria or obsessional neurosis, cannot accede to the notion of his/her facticity, with respect to his/her sex in the case of the one, and with respect to his/her existence in the case of the Other.

The key to the understanding of this paragraph is the word facticity with its reference to ‘thingness,’ a word which designates that in the Other—the locus of all signifiers—there are signifiers which lack. That is, there, the signifiers with which to say one’s sex and one’s existence are lacking, and that is why Lacan writes facticity. Later in his teaching, Lacan is going to say the Real.

Hysteria accentuates the facticity of sex. This translates the lack of an identifying signifier for femininity. So, when the question is “What is a woman?” this describes the neurosis we call hysteria. It is from this question—“What is a woman?” and unconsciously, “Am I man or woman?,” and at the moment when there is an answer to this question—that the hysterical subject gives a privileged place to another woman, or to the other woman, the woman who would know what it means to be a woman. Nevertheless, there can be other responses. For instance, I am thinking of an analysand whose particularity is that she collects men, and that’s her way to try to learn how to be a woman who would be worthy of this name.

This is exactly what Lacan writes, that the hysterical position is the imaginary inversion, a certain kind of response to her question. Every structure has its question and gives its response. Thus the hysterical response to her question about sex, to her impossibility to say what a woman is, is creating a scene in which she identifies herself with the other sex. It is the inversion at the imaginary level: instead of identifying with her own sex, she identifies with men.

All this is due to a deficiency at the level of identification, as Freud teaches us, a lack of narcissistic identification. It is like having an anatomy she cannot inhabit. Let’s take, for instance, Dora: she cannot be at the place to which her anatomy calls her; she is fascinated by Frau K, although she identifies herself with Herr K.

But you can also follow this imaginary inversion in another text: the “Intervention of Transference,” presented in 1951. This article is a perfect example of a critical re-reading of Freud’s texts, where Lacan re-reads the question of Dora’s symptoms thanks to the Mirror Stage. There is, firstly, Dora’s identification with her father, favored by the latter’s sexual impotence. These identifications showed through all the symptoms of conversion presented by Dora, a large number of which were removed by this discovery. Secondly, Lacan wonders why Freud failed to see that Dora’s aphonia brought up during the absences of Herr K was an expression of the oral erotic drive when Dora was left face to face with Frau K, without there being any need for Freud to invoke her awareness of the fellatio undergone by the father. As you know, Lacan interprets Dora’s aphonia as an effect of the identification with her father, since “every one knows that cunnilingus is the artifice most commonly adopted by ‘men of means’ whose powers begin to abandon them.” Had Dora gained access to the recognition of her femininity, she wouldn’t have had to remain open to that functional fragmentation (here Lacan refers explicitly to the Mirror Stage) which constitutes a conversion symptom. Thirdly, in the same direction, Lacan interprets Dora’s pregnancy fantasy and the transitory neuralgia as a result of her identification with Herr K, that is to say, once more, as a function of her virile identification after the rupture which followed the declaration at the lakeside, the catastrophe following which Dora entered on her illness.

In short, Lacan interprets all her symptoms as the effect of virile identification. Her symptoms depended on the imaginary alienation, as it is seen in the Mirror Stage.

All this allowed Lacan in Seminar II, dedicated to the ego and its functions, to make a very precise variation, one which anticipated the discourse of the master, that is to say, how can a woman take the place of the master? Lacan re-reads a clinical case taken from a Kleinian, Fairbairn. It is a woman who suffered from what at this time they used to call depressive phases. It is a very nice case of narcissistic alienation which we call the woman with the tiny vagina. After all, in this case you find something real—the little vagina—which puts that woman in the position of having to deal with the Penisneid in a very peculiar way. This example is taken by Lacan only in order to criticize the notion of partial object commonly used at this time—because her symptom seemed to be the aggression and then the twisting of her own aggression—according to the Kleinian classical sequence aggression-guilt-depression. Lacan throws overboard all these references to the partial drives to say that all her difficulties with men, her dealings with men, were related to the fact that man was her own image, and that it was this that she encountered all the time in her life. Besides this, it is a very important case because we are able to see the distinction between the function of the phallus as a signifier, the penis and the imaginary genital: in the case of this woman this is marked by a feature of the anatomical reality.

3) 1960: The Hysterical Sacrifice
In “Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious”[6] there is an important shift in Lacan’s teaching. There we find a subtle transformation of the previous formulations. In fact, it is the consequence of having introduced the objet petit a and the matheme of fantasy: $ ◊ a.

There you have two things. First, you have the subject, divided as an effect of the signifying chain $; no longer the biological prematurity that is at stake, following the Mirror Stage, but a subject who has lost a part of himself, who has been wounded by language. As a result, the subject is not a whole but a half, a half subject. Lacan’s idea is that the subject who speaks is a subject who has lost a part. And fantasy depends on this. In the matheme, we have written, face to face, the subject S and the objet petit a, placed in opposition.

How does Lacan define hysteria now? He defines it : “Indeed the neurotic, whether hysteric, obsessional, or, more radically, phobic, is he who identifies the lack of the Other with his demand A with D. As a result, the demand of the Other assumes the function of an object in his fantasy, that is to say, his fantasy ( S ◊ a ) is reduced to the drive ( $ ◊ D ) . . . In the case of the hysteric, in as much as desire is maintained only through the lack of satisfaction that is introduced into it when she eludes herself as object.”[7]

Here Lacan defines the hysteric by putting her in the place of the object, where she operates by slipping away (eluding herself). Lacan also writes that by and large when she slips away she gets something: she maintains desire, she maintains the lack through a refusal of satisfaction. As a result, you have unsatisfaction. To keep desire unsatisfied would be, then, the hysterical motto. This means two things: to make the other desire and also to keep oneself in desire. This is very close to the phenomenology of the seduction’s phantasy discovered by Freud, because it is the other—the father—who is placed as the agent of desire, and the subject fantasizes herself as being in the place of that object which the other lacks.

On the other hand, to elude herself as object implies the presence of that other in front of whom she eludes herself. In fact, she first needs the presence of the partner, and sometimes she complains about this alienation, saying she is not autonomous. At the same time, besides this alienation there is also her triumph over the other, which gives us an idea of what a mastering subject is. Let us remember Fairbairn’s case cited by Lacan. The hysteric is a subject who tries to be the master of desire, as “the Lady of the Lamp” shows us, to make desire flame up, in the sense of the Freudian equation “phallus (the signifier of desire) = fire.” Sometimes, the hysteric—remember Rider Haggard’s book She—does not know for how much longer this position will hold her up (the end of the adventure in She is that the guide, instead of finding immortality for herself and the others, perishes in the mysterious subterranean fire). Thus, the hysterical position is to elude herself as object (to refuse jouissance and to cause desire).

The hysterical subject does not want to offer her division to the other’s jouissance. This is what is shown in the intrigue (Lacan talked of ‘hysterical intrigue’). Here also her sacrifice, that is to say, her intrigue, implies a renunciation of a share of jouissance: She refuses a part of jouissance to the other and at the same time, she deprives herself of jouissance. It is here where she finds her satisfaction, in her sacrifice. At this point Lacan gives us a very precise remark, in a reference to the dream of the butcher’s wife: “she did not know what Dora knew.” What does it mean? Both are hysterics, but Dora was nearer to knowing that what she wanted was privation, that she wanted to leave Frau K. to men. In La psychanalyse et son enseignement[8]—Lacan pointed out: The hysteric offers the woman in whom she adores her own mystery to the man whose role she takes without being able to enjoy. What the butcher’s wife did not know was that she would find her satisfaction in leaving her husband to the other woman.

What the hysterical subject intensifies and manifests is this raising of privation to an absolute level, which can eventually manifest itself by the rejection of every master signifier. She is a subject who says no to identifying the signifier One S1.

4) 1973: The Being of the Lack
In 1973 Lacan writes an introduction to the German edition of the Écrits. There he went back to the butcher’s wife dream and takes it as the hysterical paradigm: je ne prodigue pas les examples, mais quand je m’en mêle, je les porte au paradigme (“I am not lavish with examples, but when I proffer them, I elevate them to the status of paradigms”). Before this he wrote: 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.[9] (“There is no common denominator of hysteria, and what identification plays on in hysterics is structure, not sense, as is shown by the fact that it bears on desire, that is, on the lack taken as an object, not on the cause of lack”). That is to say, the hysterical subject demands being but not any being; she demands the being of lack. What characterizes hysteria is that the hysteric identifies herself with the lack of desire, not with the cause of desire. In saying this Lacan went back to his formulation in The Direction of The Treatment,[10] the butcher’s wife desire—the question in which the woman identifies herself with the man—is to be the phallus (in this text, Lacan defines the phallus as the signifier of the lack, the signifier of desire). To be the phallus is not a plus-de-jouir, but on the contrary it is the signifier which indicates the lack, always present, in the Other (the slice of smoked salmon takes in the dream the place of the lack of the Other). In short, what is at stake in hysteria is to be this lack of desire, to be the nothing of desire (the nothing here is an object). The hysteric puts this void in the place of the object, she shows up through this void, transforming it into an eternal question. So the hysterical unsatisfaction is correlated with her way of supporting herself in being as ‘nothing.’

Sometimes the hysterical subject carries this position very far, up to the point of sacrificing her own person. We saw this, for instance, with Florence Nightingale. She sacrificed everything to be a nurse, brushed aside the charms and allurements of her aristocratic environment, refused marriage and exiled herself from her country. She was ferocious with men, and her heroism was beyond any human consideration. Although her ideals were testimony to her discontent with any master signifier, she called for a new desire, allowing her to struggle against what Lacan called la dégradationcommunautaire de l’entreprise sociale, the blind-alleys of the Other.


The Ethics of Hysteria & Psychoanalysis was adapted for print in lacanian ink 3 from a lecture given at the CFAR, London, 1988.

[1] Jacques Alain Miller, unpublished Seminar, 1979.
[2] Lacan, “Radiophonie”, Silicet 2/3, Paris: Seuil, 1970.
[3] Strachey, Eminent Victorians, Penguin Modern Classics, 1980.
[4] Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, New York: Norton & Co., 1977, p. 4.
[5] Lacan, Écrits, Paris: Seuil, 1966, p. 437-58.
[6] Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, p. 292 – 324.
[7] Ibid, p. 321.
[8] Lacan, Écrits, p. 437-58.
[9] Lacan, Scilicet 5, Paris: Seuil, 1975, p. 15.
[10] Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, p. 262.


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