Hysteria

The etymology of hysteria, from the Greek word for ‘‘uterus,’’ reflects its interpretation as an essentially female malady, caused by alterations of the female reproductive system and manifesting itself in a wide variety of symptoms—such as paralyses, convulsions, blindness, and other physical dysfunctions without organic causes. In recent years, the topic of hysteria has received much critical attention, especially on the part of feminist psychoanalytic critics and cultural historians. On one hand, there have been interpretations of male representations of hysterical women (especially abundant in late-nineteenth-century literary as well as medical texts), while on the other, hysteria has been positively rewritten by women writers and critics as the locus from which a critique of patriarchy can be articulated, as a symbolic site of feminine empowerment (this latter interpretation, however, risks romanticizing illness as a desirable state). In both cases, the hysteric has been seen as an exemplary trope for the female condition, as the embodiment of a conflict caused by oppressive patriarchal socialization.

The period between the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries was significantly the golden age of both hysteria and feminism. Although the principal centers of research on hysteria were first Paris and then Vienna (hysteria was the focal point in the emergence of psychoanalysis), important work was also being done in Italy by Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909). The latter claimed in his infamous La donna delinquente, la prostituta e la donna normale (1893) that hysteria can be simply defined as the exaggeration of womanhood. It is at least partly as a consequence of such an identification of woman with hysteria that this malady also fascinated many late-nineteenth-century novelists, be they scapigliati, naturalists, or symbolist-decadents. For example, there are diagnosed hysterics in Iginio Ugo Tarchetti’s Fosca (1869, made into the movie Passione d’amore in 1981 by Ettore Scola), Giovanni Verga*’s Tigre reale (1875), Luigi Capuana’s Giacinta (1877) and Profumo (1891), as well as several of his short stories, and Federico De Roberto’s I Vicere´ (1894). Many characters in Gabriele D’Annunzio*’s monumental production display hysterical symptoms, from the short stories ‘‘La vergine Orsola’’ (1884) and ‘‘La vergine Anna’’ (1886), to novels such as Trionfo della morte (1894), and many of his plays—for example, Le martyre de saint Se´bastien (1911) and La Pisanelle (1913). Hysteria is also present in several operas, such as Vincenzo Bellini’s I puritani (1935) and Gia-como Puccini’s Turandot (incomplete at his death in 1924, based on a 1762 play by Carlo Gozzi). Hysterical symptoms as the link between madness and sexuality are displayed by several women characters in Luigi Pirandello*’s the-ater—from the Donna Uccisa in All’uscita (1916) to Ersilia in Vestire gli ignudi (1923). In all of these cases hysteria functions as a privileged, yet hostile and nflattering construction of femininity. This association is more complicated in texts by women writers of this period, such as Matilde Serao*’s Fantasia (1883) and Regina di Luanto’s Salamandra (1892), in which hysteria is no longer a caricature of woman. In the work of some twentieth-century women writers hysteria takes on a different function, for it is posited as a subversive discourse. This can be seen in the work of novelists such as Dacia Maraini,* who in Lunga vita di Marianna Ucr´ı a (1990) writes about a case of hysterical mutism as a rebellion to patriarchal rape culture and as a body language that cannot be verbalized.

See also: Medicine; Scapigliatura; Verismo: 1870–1880.

Bibliography: Spackman, Barbara. Decadent Genealogies: The Rhetoric of Sickness from Baudelaire to D’Annunzio. Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989; Gilman, Sander, Helen King, Roy Porter, G. S. Rousseau, and Elaine Showalter. Hysteria Beyond Freud. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993; Mazzoni, Cristina. Saint Hysteria: Neurosis, Mysticism, and Gender in European Culture. Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996.

CRISTINA MAZZONI




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