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Segal, N. (2002). The Indiscreet Charm of the Hysteric: Hysteria by Christopher Bollas (London and New York: Routledge, 2000, 192 pp); reviewed by Naomi Segal. Psychoanal. Hist., 4(2):235-244.

(2002). Psychoanalysis and History, 4(2):235-244


The Indiscreet Charm of the Hysteric: Hysteria by Christopher Bollas (London and New York: Routledge, 2000, 192 pp); reviewed by Naomi Segal

Review by:
Naomi Segal

Christopher Bollas's Hysteria was a discomfiting read, confounding the expectations raised by its title. The opening sentence of the back-cover blurb announces: ‘Hysteria has disappeared from contemporary culture only insofar as it has been subjected to a repression through the popular diagnosis of “borderline personality disorder” ‘. Bollas's closing lines echo this with some elegiac fervour: ‘With the hegemony of the term “borderline”, hysterics were shoved off the stage of psychoanalysis […]. But with the glasnost of de-repression in 1990s psychoanalysis, we are likely to see the colourful garments of the hysteric return once again to our stage, there to clown around with us all and to compel us to think them again and again’ (179). This cheerful farewell then takes on a more ambivalent note: ‘Next time we think hysterics have disappeared, let's ensure someone asks after us, and calls for help’. Which sort of someone, whose help, whose well-being to be asked after, and who precisely are we?

The material of this book was originally given as a lecture series, and so I think it fair to assume that ‘we’ are psychoanalysts, practising, training or aspiring. Many of its pages are taken up with representing the difficulties the analyst will recognize or should learn to expect with a hysteric, who, artful histrion, may imitate a whole range of other conditions (only the counter-transference can tell), may be ‘death-drive’ (69ff.), ‘malignant’ (127-45), toxic (139) or entrenched (147), may enact betrayal (144) or seduction (152-61), may be ‘ascetic’ (79) or ‘precocious’ (79) ‘flirtatious’ (81), with some combination of ‘the violence of the nun and the violence of the prostitute’ (144), is generally ‘lying’ (150) but nevertheless is ‘always lovable and loving’ (173). The most often used epithets are ‘teasing’ and—on one page repeated no fewer than four times—‘charming’.

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