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Polkinhorn, H. (1987). Hysteria. Am. Imago, 44(1):1-13.

(1987). American Imago, 44(1):1-13


Harry Polkinhorn

“… the key to hysteria as well really lies in dreams.”

—Freud (St. Ed: 1, p. 276)

Saint Teresa's ecstasies can be understood as reverse hysteria. As the vision of God throws her into a divine swoon, the social/biological world is forgotten. Hysteria's mute language of local deadening spreads to her entire body, whose nullification in the apotheosis of its own repressed desires operates the conversion at the level of totality. It was not until the late 1880s that Freud began to reformulate this repressed dimension through his work on hysteria. In Stuart Schneiderman's formulation, “analysis was taught to Freud by hysterics.”1

As the medical/mechanistic model of human reality was losing its hegemony over the European mind, strictly mental phenomena increasingly fascinated thinkers and researchers. Charcot's work with hypnosis was a bridge crossed by Freud on his way to formulating a general theory of the relationship between the conscious and unconscious modes.2 Breuer and Freud, for example, based their early work on strategic differences of position from Binet and Janet, as the following demonstrates:

If it seems to us, as it does to Binet and Janet, that what lies at the centre of hysteria is a splitting off of a portion of psychical activity, it is our duty to be as clear as possible on this subject. It is only too easy to fall into a habit of thought which assumes that every substantive has a substance behind it—which gradually comes to regard ‘consciousness’ as standing for some actual thing; and when we have become accustomed to make use metaphorically of spatial relations, as in the term ‘sub-consciousness’, we find as time goes on that we have actually formed an idea which has lost its metaphorical nature and which we can manipulate easily as though it was real. Our mythology is then complete. All our thinking tends to be accompanied and aided by spatial ideas, and we talk in spatial metaphors…. We shall be safe from the danger of allowing ourselves to be tricked by our own figures of speech if we always remember that after all it is in the same brain, and most probably in the same cerebral cortex, that conscious and unconscious ideas alike have their origin. How this is possible we cannot say. (St. Ed.: 2, pp.

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