- Passions of the Voice: Hysteria, Narrative, and the Figure of the Speaking Woman, 1850–1915
Triangulating the study of narrative with the discourses of literary history and psychoanalysis, Claire Kahane’s book proposes the late-nineteenth-century emergence of a formal conversion of the female disease of hysteria from bodily symptomatology into textuality, a discursivizing shift that produces sets of texts and cultural notions that can be viewed and aestheticized, she maintains, as a “virtual psychopoetics of hysteria.” Kahane traces across the boundaries between literary, historical, and psychoanalytic discourses the structures of voice, subject position, and desire. In Freud’s emergent theory, she argues, hysteria served to represent historically specific dysfunctional desires, an unstable subject position in the oedipal structuration of identity, and a displaced conflict from body to perception and voice. In narrative, moreover, the “New Woman,” especially the figure of the speaking woman, challenged cultural discourse and troubled realistic representation, causing “tonal instability” analogous to the “hysterical voice.” Kahane characterizes the narrative voices of the texts she examines “by their inability to sustain a neutral and consistent subject position”; they demonstrate an “anxiety about the voice itself” that “exhibits features of a discourse in crisis.” Reading narrative texts as analogous to symptomatic bodies or as displaced sites of psychic conflict, Kahane traces the excessive splittings and displacements of storied subjects, the paralyses of plot, semantic discontinuities, and disruptions of narrative sequence. Against these hysterical textual instabilities, she maintains, the narrative voice struggles to contain, through form, the confusions of its utterance.
In chapters on hysteria’s history, Freud’s “Dora,” and Victorian and modern narratives (Florence Nightingale’s Cassandra, Alice James’s Diary, The Bostonians, The Story of an African Farm, The Voyage Out, Heart of Darkness, and The Good Soldier), Kahane tests her “psychopoetics of hysteria.” The case history of Dora serves, she says, as her interpretive paradigm. Dora brought to analysis a passionate “derangement of the senses,” a tendency to act out bisexual desire as both masculine and feminine unconscious fantasy; in the cure through representation, the voice constituted the intersubjective and transferential relationship [End Page 557] between analyst and analysand; the act of listening to the hysteric’s voice destabilized Freud’s analytic subject position; and, while Freud wanted to tell in his case history a “nineteenth-century oedipal narrative of heterosexual romance,” Dora’s story of multiple identification and desire problematized such conventional narration, revealing “an essential instability of gender, a fluidity of aim and object in the erotic life of men and women.” Yet Freud’s dream interpretations produce and reveal his own resistance to Dora’s different voice and homoerotic desires; his “sadomasochistically toned” representation of Dora’s analysis reproduces the “erotic power-politics of heterosexuality” within nineteenth-century cultural notions and discursive positionalities of masculine and feminine. Kahane’s model for reading, then, articulates tropes for voice, narration, and culture at the levels of story and discourse. Unstable subject positions, hysterical desires, and problematized narratives emerge at each level.
Kahane’s literary chapters trace similar tropes and paradigms through narratives from the mid-Victorian period to high modernism. In “Invalids and Nurses: The Sisterhood of Rage,” for example, Kahane reads illness narratives and patient pathographies across the boundaries of genre, history, and culture. Here, Kahane shifts her focus to daughterly rage and recognition of maternal lack, examining the ways anger affects the narrative voices and split plots of Alice James’s, Florence Nightingale’s, and Charlotte Brontë’s hysterical texts. Thus James’s privately voiced Diary speaks a “deeply regressive desire to break down the boundaries between self and other,” to destroy the “gendered polarities of the subject” that constitute good daughterhood; the hysteric represents her experience of disgust at the body’s abjection and effaces the maternal voice and figure from her text. Nightingale’s Cassandra plays out a split identification with a “powerful maternal imago and its passive counterpart,” inscribing as it does so a classically hysterical discourse of contradictory passions, digressive voice, and inconsistent subject position; the narrative...