Let’s start with this: the word hysterical has two sides. There’s Anchorman, or perhaps Airplane, or maybe even Seinfeld, if that’s your taste. There’s you and your friends and your absolutely unparalleled banter. Trevor Noah on a good day. This is the one side.
But it has another side, a dark origin story, the repressed memories of a bad childhood. See, its current usual meaning — very funny, hilarious — implies uncontrollable fits of laughter, which is a bit of a morose callback to a time when uncontrollable fits of things was a serious reality. The term itself hails from the Latin for womb, and you guessed it, back in the 1700s, hysteria was an ailment to diagnose women with; it was supposedly caused by a “wandering uteris”. Call it old-timey doctors (and yes, men) being old-timey, the fact remains that many, many women did have hysteria. And it was bizarre. The poor gals fainted, convulsed, took on strange speech disorders, and became completely invested in complex, fantastical hallucinations. It was so common that you could go to the Salpêtrière sanitorium on any day to be entertained by the sight of a girl, totally lost in the identity of some famous actress of the time, acting out a scene for an imagined theatric audience. If that’s not dark enough for you, you should read up about the various treatments (but on your own time, please; we’re trying to keep this blog PG). And of course, there’s the later school of thought that hysteria was a reaction to severe, repressed trauma. Less 21 Jump Street, more Shutter Island.
Grim, sure. But if you find yourself morbidly fascinated, you’re in good company. First there were the surrealists, a monumentally influential school of artists from the early 1900s, who found hysteria inspirational and supremely expressive. And then there is Anne Scheffer, local art wizard slash badass, wife of one proud Retro Rabbit director, and recent presenter at one of our so-called Bunny Beer Wisdom events. For the initiated, we occasionally coax folks who rock at things outside our areas of expertise to come and enlighten us. It’s just part of #beingbetter. Anne is the leading authority on the surrealists and their creepy/beautiful relationship with the creepy/beautiful world of hysteria, and apparently she doesn’t like to dumb things down.
So a couple of weeks ago, we had what I can only describe as a solid lecture on the subject. It was information-dense, fast-paced, and utterly, utterly fascinating. And now that we were there to take it all in, we know things! So without further ado, here are some interesting tidbits on the relationship between surrealism and hysteria. Feel free to use them the next time you need to impress a date or show up an old bully whose claim to fame is their arcane art knowledge.
The surrealist aesthetic is very symbolic. Taken at face value, the subject matter seems other-worldly and out of place, but it is meant to represent something deeper. The actual topic of a surrealist painting is encrypted and transformed by the painter. You can probably see where these folks take their odd-bahviour-masking-forgotten-trauma cues from. Max Ernst’s so-called overpaintings probably demonstrate this the best. He took unsettling pre-existing graphics and drawings — X-rays, biology diagrams, even his own old paintings — and painted over them, softening the original meaning, hiding it. And it goes deeper. The hysterical treatment of trauma has specifically been compared to what we all do in dreams: take disturbing thoughts and process them by re-working them. The dream-like feeling happens to be a hallmark characteristic of surrealism.
One of the key aspects of hysteria that makes it so unnerving is a concept called automatism. This means that hysterical patients are in a sort of unconscious, hypnotic state, seemingly not acting of their own accord, but controlled by dark, unseen forces. Welcome to the world of the uncanny. Someone you thought you knew is not themselves anymore, maybe not even quite human; what you see before you resides in the murky marchlands between the animate and the inanimate. Obviously, the surrealists had to get all over that. They developed surrealist automatism, a method of producing art while suppressing conscious involvement, to give a voice to the unvoiced, the subconscious, the unconscious. Not content to simply stare into Nietzsche’s abyss, they dove in headfirst.
One last aspect of hysteria we haven’t talked about yet is desire. In addition to trauma, hysteria was believed to originate from suppressed desire. Desire inexpressible in the surrounding culture. Yes, sexual desire, more often than not. The surrealists considered hysteria as a form of expression of that desire. They wanted to bring it into the foreground in their own work, emulating the hysteric. But hysteria has an unusual take on desire. Patients would simultaneously seek out the object of their desire, and assume its identity; act like the person they yearn for while yearning for them. This is called mimetic ambiguity, and is another characteristic of surreal art. Let’s take it a step further: what if the reason that the hysteric suppresses their desire, the unaccepting society, the unforgiving household, what if that is the very trauma that has caused their hysteria? That is what the surrealists took as inspiration for something called engagement with a traumatising system. For example, their fear of a hyper-industrialised, dehumanised society would be depicted as a person, embedded into a machine, or with a phoropter for a head. We would certainly argue the point that that’s analogous for an isolated Victorian-era woman, totally consumed with infatuation for her married neighbour, totally unable to express or even allieviate her desire, caving under the emotional pressure, and suddenly acting as if she was that very man.
None of this sounds very healthy, we know. Everyone should just be sensible, modern, rational adults without any of this gothic unpleasantness. But here’s the thing about this modern sensibility, this total rationality: perhaps it’s becoming our new traumatising system. A lot has changed since the height of surrealism, and hysteria has long since been dismissed as an invalid diagnosis. But surrealists saw the fantasy world of hysteria as a direly-needed escape from the straight-jacket of rationality. The world could always do with some of that.