March 4, 2013

"A Woman Under the Influence: Hysteria, Theatricality, and the Hijacking of Desire" by Virginia Konchan

Mabel Longhetti’s desires were simple:  she wanted to singlehandedly karate-chop Brecht’s fourth wall.   

Living in a post-Vietnam era in-between Nixon and Ford, the soft sell of the “sexual revolution” having replaced political gains for American women (the Equal Rights Amendment failed to pass in 1982) before their (re)immersion in the workforce, Mabel, the female protagonist of A Woman Under the Influence (1974) had few outlets for expressing herself and finding solidarity with other women as a LA suburban housewife.  

 As the postwar boom ended and the national recession fueled the Western adoption of neoliberal public policy modeled after laissez-faire capitalism and classical liberalism, the shift from the collectivism practice of Keynesian-managed capitalism to a focus on individual (market) choice was mirrored in Mabel’s private isolation (the hallmark of American exceptionalism).

John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, alongside Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Robert Altman’s Images, and Richard Benner’s Outrageous, makes a muse out of female psychosis:  Mabel’s “hystericized” body is the cinematic corps-sujet of the 20th century, as a sustained projection of repressed trauma and the volatile libido of supercapitalism’s dawn. 

The Western regulation of female hysteria was first codified in the 19th century by Jean-Martin Charcot, director of the Parisian clinic La Salpêtrière:  Charcot classified Grand Hystérie as a four-part neurological degeneration triggered by physical shock, from paralysis to epileptic fits.  

According to Christina Wald, the discourse and treatment of hysteria in European medicine occurred alongside “theatricalized hysteria” by solo women performers (Ida Brun in Denmark, Henriette Hendel-Schütz in Germany) in 18th century Europe, at such performance spaces as Chat Noir and Folies Bergère in Paris, the histrionics (eye rolling, fainting, hysterical laughter) of actresses such as Sarah Bernhardt appearing as “semiotically indistinguishable” from hysteria. 

20th century feminists who theorized the performative malady of hysteria included Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva:  Irigaray sought to feminize hysteria, positing hysteric body language as a “genuine female alternative to phallogentrism,” and Kristeva warned against a championing of the mute, insane hysteric as a feminist icon outside the signifying order.  Wald cites Grand Hystérie as a concrete illustration of Judith Butler’s gender performativity:  not as deliberate staging of consciousness but a stylization of the body, acting within a rigid regulatory frame that produces the appearance of substance, not “being” itself.   [1] For Wald, the revolutionary power of “hysteria” is not in its subverting of logos, however, but in the self-awareness of the woman “acting out” (or working through, in psychoanalytic terms) the hysteric’s social “roles”:  female castrato, ventriloquized body, or victim of trauma or abuse.  [2]

The staging of Mabel’s psychic disintegration is domestic, as with Charlotte Gilman and Bertha Antoinetta Mason in the 19th century novel, and the prototypical “madwoman in the attic” described by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar:  the authorial “double” haunting 19th century women writers’ texts as a failed escapee from “male houses and male texts.” [3] H.D., Mina Loy, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and Anne Sexton are among female authors of the 20th century who wrote about or succumbed to extremes of depression or jouissance.  Confinement to the domestic sphere even for a writer is inimical to development, especially when one is limited to an expressive repertoire that doesn’t include political consciousness, social critique, or rage:  Shoshana Felman defines madness as the “impasse confronting those whom cultural conditioning has deprived of the very means of protest or self-affirmation.”  [4]  

What is so unique about the character of Mabel (Gina Rolands), her relationship to her husband Nick (Peter Falk), her children, and herself, is that she is not that of one of society’s castaways:  (fallen female or unassimilable “other”):  the mother of three children ensconced in middle-class domesticity (Nick is a construction foreman), Mabel appears to be a happy-go-lucky woman devoted to her family while the outside world comes apart at the seams.  Yet, upon scrutiny, Mabel’s personality is not marked by mature, socially pro-adaptive behavior, but by childlike naïvete, irrational thinking, and sexual impulsivity:  signs of her stunted growth and lack of autonomous possession of her mind and body.

Her cheery façade belies an unstable faultline:  early in the movie, after Nick calls to say he has to break a date with Mabel due to a busted water pipe at work, Mabel, feeling driftless, heads to a local bar, chats up a stranger, and ends up taking him home and sleeping with him.  Nick’s conversation with one of his crew members after he calls home establishes Mabel’s subsequent pathologization:  “Mabel is a delicate, sensitive woman,” Nick says in response to his co-worker calling her “crazy.”  Nick goes on to “verify” Mabel’s sanity through her domestic labor:  “Mabel’s not crazy; so don’t say she’s crazy. This woman cooks, sews, makes the bed, washes the bathroom. What the hell is crazy about that?”

Mabel’s emotional lability as a creature of circumstance, seeking constant stimulation by her immediate environment, takes the form of excessive displays of affection toward Nick and the kids, following by periods of withdrawal or neglect, and always accompanied by a psychological state of inner questioning (she frequently talks out loud to herself) and attempts to turn the script of bourgeois ideology into Artaudian theater.  At a spaghetti dinner with Nick’s co-workers at their house, Mabel implores one of the guests to sing opera until Nick finally explodes; later, during her hosting of a children’s party she encourages the children to dance naked and feign “dying” for Mr. Jensen, an unamused neighbor, to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

In these scenes, Mabel attempts to overcome her own learned passivity, a Herculean task marked by the uncertain role of women in American culture between the 50s’ cult of domesticity, the Kennedy era, the return of women to the workplace in the 80s, and the concurrent movements of feminism’s first and second waves, by using her body as a communicative organ in replacement of logocentric speech (which Mabel never acquired, unlike Ophelia, whose articulations were reduced to asemic babble by Hamlet’s gaslighting).    

When Nick expresses concern over her behavior Mabel turns docile, offering up her own powers of self-representation:  “I’ll be whoever you want me to be.”  (Nick’s responds by encouraging her to “be herself.”)  Unable to construct a stable subjectivity within a domestic context, and shielded from the rigors and self-realizations found in employment and public life, her speech (bursts of commentary and overtures of emotion) remains a transitive repertoire of gesture and incident divested from discursive logic (“I have five points, Nick,” she manages before being taken to the psychiatric hospital near the film’s end).  Nick, while integrated into the labor force, is also inarticulate and prone to erratic behavior, yet his speech is marked more by cliché and his actions, by attempts to institute domestic normalacy, such as his beach outing with the kids while Mabel is hospitalized (a painfully awkward scene evoking the forced brio of post-WWII “planned leisure” activities).  

During Mabel’s off-camera six-month hospitalization we learn that she underwent electroshock treatments, an aggressive anesthetizing treatment in accord with the historic European treatment of hysteria:  according to Elaine Showalter, the reformed Victorian asylum (which in 1871 admitted 1,182 female patients to 1,000 male), like other Victorian institutions (penitentiary, workhouse, factory) was part of the paternalist tradition in which psychological domination and strict ordering of activities guaranteed deference from the female patients, whose minds were already atrophied by a lack of educative, cultural, and political stimulation.  [5] 

Mabel’s glossolaliac cries mark her language as “other” to the Eurocentric masculine order:  “Through reintegrating the mind and body into a single ontological, psychosomatic verity, hysteria undermines the masculine Cartesian project that provided a justification for the subjugation of women. Rather than utilizing the symbolic, verbal, masculine language of reason, hysteria instead expresses itself via the pre-symbolic chora of the body to articulate female experience.” [6]  Hysteria provides a “convenient” diagnosis for women whose rejection of or mastery of symbolic language destabilizes the binaries of the logos:  a threat requiring the empiricist “treatment” of medicalization, from psychological manipulation to tranquillizers, shock treatments, and hysterectomies:  “Physicians . . . were less inclined to accept the veracity of purely mental phenomena owing to the difficulty of their measurement, quantification and authentication . . . this created a culture in which women suffering from mental anxiety were forced to invent or disproportionately emphasize physical symptoms.”  [7] 

Historically, according to Showalter, the medical myth that the female nervous and reproductive systems made women more “vulnerable to derangement” than men was also used as justification for barring women from the professional class, denying them political rights, and keeping them under the control of the husband/father/state.  [8] 

Dora, like Mabel, was hystericized by a male authority, rather than hysterical herself, the authors of The Hysterical Male point out, calling Dora “the first of the existentialists” for reporting her condition not as unleashed emotion, but “nausea and disgust” for being surrounded by and forced to caricature repressed hysterical men. [9]

Mabel’s desire to live and perform from beyond programmatic scripts echoes Cassavetes’ own directorial aim.  According to film critic Inge Fossen, the accumulative power of Cassavetes’ work stems from his jettisoning of plot-based film structures, and the elevation of his performers to “co-auteurs.”   The improvisational “feel” of the movie is a result both of extreme directorial care (what Cassavetes calls the transition from enthusiasm to craftsmanship) and creative licensure of the actors as a form of “actor-centered subjective realism.”  [10]

Perception is a physical affliction in cinema, according to Steven Shavio:  an “intensification and disarticulation of bodily sensation” rather than a process of naïve (ideological or Imaginary) beliefs or ideas.  The cinematic body as scapegoat can be seen in the films of male directors such as George Romero, Jerry Lewis, and David Cronenberg, and Fassbinder’s film Querelle, based off Jean Genet’s novel Querelle de Brest:  Shavio describes Genet’s Lysiane (the sole female character) as designating the “outer limit” of the cinematic field of male homoerotic fantasy, a masculine project of “inventing the woman” by expelling actual women and appropriating their images.  Querelle de Brest narrates the process by which Lysiane is “frozen out of the action,” culminating in a film-still of her anguished, isolated figure as a “negative reference point”:  femininity must first be projected upon Lysiane in order for it to be drained from her.  [11] 

The viewer is also implicated:  projecting her own fragmentation onto the cinematic body, a lost sense of wholeness is reconstituted cathartically through witnessing the decomposition and punitive “treatment” of the hysterical subject.  [12] Sexual difference, according to Grosz, is a double-bind:  a framework that must disappear in the codings that constitute sexual identity, sexual difference is the horizon that is implied but cannot “appear” except as the very possibility of an entity, identity, subject, or “other.”  The transgressive body of the other (of “difference”) can easily be controlled in cinema through what Laura Mulvey defines as the fetishistic gaze.  [13] 

For Marina Abramović, performative power is located on the occupied site of her body, in real time, rather than “in” linear narratives or iterable texts.  In the frontispiece of a March 2011 retrospective of her career (featuring fifty sound pieces, video works, installations, photographs, and collaborative performances) at MOMA, entitled “The Artist Is Present,” Abramović sat in immobile silence for 736 hours and 30 minutes in the museum’s atrium, while spectators took turns sitting opposite her.  Jeff Dupre’s 2012 documentary includes extensive footage of the performance:  as if facing, a stilled Narcissistic pool, the sitters who filed into to sit before Abramović experienced a variety of reactions, from hostility to tenderness, while Abramović’s face remained an open field, accepting their projections with only the occasional betrayal of emotion or exhaustion.   

The 2011 3D documentary film Pina, a retrospective of German contemporary dance choreographer Pina Bausch’s career, also provided an international audience for the work of an artist whose medium (Tanztheater, or “dance theater”) explodes traditional representations.  Staged in and around Wuppertal, Germany in indoor and outdoor spaces, and ranging from violent explorations of the “natural” in gender relations (“The Rite of Spring”) to the colorful spectacle of Kontakthof (German for “contact” and “courtyard”) featuring dancers ranging in age from teens to dancers over 65, Bausch’s work explores the motivation for movement rather than the form (individual, dyadic, collective) that movement takes.   

Bausch’s work and that of other experimental or post-avant female artists (Chris Kraus, Cindy Sherman, Tracie Morris, Harryette Mullen) raise the question of whether “relational aesthetics” (Nicholas Bourriand’s term to define art of the technological age that de-privatizes the encounter between a collectivized beholder and the artwork, and positions the artist as peripheral to the experience) is a de-subjectivization of aesthetic practice of little practical use to female artists of the late 20th and 21st century, whose public self-representations of cogito, body, and self are historically unprecedented.  The question for any female artist of how to write on, about, or perform a non-essentialized “body” remains usefully problematic:  “Is the body a source of subversive practice, a potentially emancipatory vehicle . . . or a source of repression and suppressed narrative?  What regulatory actions of the body politic impinge on the deployment of the autobiographical body?  How to experiments enable her to evade “narrative fixture” in “official scripts of the universal subject”?” asks Sidonie Smith. [14]  

In Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee (a pastiche of lyric and epic poetry, parable, translation, correspondence, catechism) the body is presented not as a commodity offered for consumption but “stubbornly unreadable,” according to Elisabeth A. Frost:  the autonomy and materialization of the “body politic” is figured in the exilic text through the fate of individual female bodies such as Yu Guan Soon, a Korean woman executed under colonial domination for refusing to speak (the sacrificial body’s political agency representing the “ultimate form of signification”).  [15]

Whether collective, such as Oulipo poetics or the Tahrir Monologues (a women-directed theater performance centered in Cairo that recreates revolutionary moments in Egypt) or individual, works that theatricalize the Cold War binary between politics and aesthetics present models of multiracial, multinational, multiethnic, and polysexual representation.  This is the brutal freedom of improvisational art, whose epigonal subjects reject the compulsion to perform scripts of domestic bondage or neoliberal market commodification:  instead opting to participate in the economic and cultural market volitionally, celebrating somatic (or choreographed) movement, natural (or recited) speech, and the pleasures of self-fashioning that threaten, by their very excess (or restraint), the miasmic données of screen, stage, and law. 

[1] Christina Wald, Hysteria, Trauma, and Melancholy (New York:  Palgrave MacMillian, 2007), p. 56.
[2] Ibid., p. 29-41.
[3] Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic:  The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven, Conn.:  Yale University Press, 1979), p. 85.
[4]  Shoshana Felman, “Women and Madness:  The Critical Phallacy,” Diacritics 5 (1975), p. 2.
[5] Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady:  Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980 (New York, Virago, 1987), p. 50.
[6] Victoria Fairclough, “Hysteria in the Victorian Novel,” BronteHeroine, 2011. Web.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Showalter, p. 73.
[9] Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, The Hysterical Male (New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 1991), p. xi
[10] Inge Fossen, “A Woman Under the Influence,” Senses of Cinema, March 13, 2012.  Web.
[11] Steven Shaviro, The Cinematic Body (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 188.
[12] Ibid., p. 51-52.
[13] Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies (Bloomington; Indiana University Press, 1994), p. 209.
[14] Sidonie Smith, “The Consolidation of Autobiography,” Subjectivity, Identity, and the Body:  Women’s Autobiographical Practices in the 20th century (Bloomington:   Indiana University Press, 1993), p. 23. 
[15] Elisabeth A. Frost, “’In Another Tongue’:  Body, Image, Text in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée,” We Who Love to be Astonished:  Experimental Women’s Writing and Performance Poetics (Tuscaloosa:  The University of Alabama Press, 2002), p. 183-184.  

Virginia Konchan’s poems and critical writings have appeared in The New Yorker, Best New Poets 2011, The Believer, Boston Review and The New Republic, and her fiction in StoryQuarterly and Joyland, among other places.  A recipient of grants or fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, Ox-Bow, and Scuola Internazionale di Grafica, Virginia is pursuing her PhD in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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