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Hysteria as a confusion of occurrent and dispositional states

Trevor Pateman

Abstract: Uses Wittgenstein's distinctions between occurrent (mood) and dispositional (belief, feeling) states to re-think the nature of hysteria

In a number of places, Wittgenstein suggests that our willingness to attribute beliefs, emotions, feelings and moods to someone is linked to an understanding of the real temporal span and experienced temporality of human life. So we can puzzle ourselves by asking a question like, Can you be passionately in love with someone for three minutes? The answer seems to be 'No', and yet there is clearly no rule for how long a feeling must last to count as passionate love for someone. Similar questions can be manufactured at ease by adding ' for three minutes' at the end of such beginning questions as: Can we believe in God? Can we believe deeply in God? Can we mourn someone? Can we care about the environment?

In other cases, the syntactic form of the question has to be a bit different to avoid ambiguity: Can we sincerely want for three minutes to marry someone? Can we have an ambition (for three minutes) to learn Russian? And so on.

Sometimes, there's no problem about the time dimension. It does seem all right for us to say that someone was momentarily depressed, or temporarily enraged, and part of the philosophical task is to sort these cases from the others - so that we may end up with an understanding of mood and an awareness of the distinction between occurrent states of mind, such as moods, and dispositional states, such as beliefs and feelings.

Now I want to take a leap and say that psychoanalysis, as invented in the conversation between Freud and his patients, has grappled practically with the same kind of problem, and that the problem was most sharply posed in the early days of psychoanalysis by what, then and now, is called hysteria. For it might be said of the hysteric - and I don't know if this has been said in so many words before - that s/he repetitively confuses mood with belief and feeling. And this is the specific way in which hysteria is a failure of the self, an inability to present an identity to another person to which they can (non-therapeutically) relate. For the hysteric's ground is always shifting, but never presented simply as a change of mood. The hysteric believes passionately and loves deeply - for three minutes at a time. And this is why hysterics both need and elude a talking cure. They live in spots of time, use language to express that fact, but baffle others in their use of language because they treat their occurrent states (moods) as if they were dispositional (belief, feeling) ones.

As is well known, it was one of Freud's early hysterical patients who invented the phrase, ' the talking cure'. Hysterics have an abundant need to talk, since their world is one of urgent belief and pressing feeling, for which words appear to serve as expression. Yet their words are empty, a recognition of which is at the core of the psychoanalytic treatment of hysteria. Their words do not give them the contact with themselves which hysterics both crave and fear. As the trace of mood, the words of a hysteric do not cohere an identity (to use a felicitous expression of Christoper Bollas), and the hysteric's abundant meta-communications ('What I really meant was...') are heard by the analyst as desperate rationalisations intended to achieve that sense of identity which the hysteric may know s/he has not got. In a non-therapeutic relationship, the partner (the other) of the hysteric may sink into a gloom presided over by the thought, 'This person never means what s/he says'. For the therapist, the goal of their work is to enable their patient to say something that they mean, - to echo also the title of Stanley Cavell's first book, Must we mean what we say?

But, of course, working with words - the common currency between analyst and analysand - the hysteric in on safe ground for eluding her task. She has only to keep on talking, keep the flow of rationalisation going, in order to defeat the analyst-enemy. This is what I mean when I say that the hysteric both needs and eludes a talking cure.

Attempts to specify the nature of hysteria have been variously expressed. The idea that the hysteric doesn't mean what she says is also contained in the common use of dramatic metaphors to talk about hysteria: the hysteric stages a crisis; s/he treats the other as an audience; the hysteric's distress has a theatrical quality; and so on. And, of course, utterances on stage, do not have the force or carry the consequences that they would carry in real life. Stage utterances have, in fact, been a favourite stalking ground for speech act and other theorists of pragmatics just because they have difficult to analyse dual properties of seriousness and emptiness. In this, the hysteric's utterances are comparable.

Without the other, the hysteric is lost, like an actor without an audience. S/he looks to the other to give words a reality which they would not otherwise have, the reality which comes from recognition. But the audience is almost certainly going to be misled, and to make matters worse by taking the hysteric seriously. Taking them at face value, the other will hear the words of the hysteric as expressing beliefs or feelings and will respond accordingly, unless the listener moves into analytic role and treats them symptomatically as the expression of mood. But to express sympathy or to enquire 'Why do you think you are feeling like this?' is to move out of a communicative relationship (an I-Thou relationship) and into a therapeutic relationship with quite different goals. The hysteric both needs the literal-mindedness of (say) the obsessional and is defeated by it, since it cannot touch where the words are coming from. A dogged obsessional will drive the hysteric ever deeper into the maze of rationalisation where s/he will lose his/her self even more hopelessly.

Without hysteria, there would have been no psychoanalysis. Contemporary hysteria is different from fin de siecle Viennese hysteria, and contemporary understandings of hysteria focus more on the experience of the hysteric's other (the counter-transference in psychoanalysis; the distress of relatives and friends in everyday life). They also, as far as aetiology is concerned, focus more on the role of the mother in the genesis of hysteria. I'll say a bit about all these matters.

1995; unfinished. Not previously published