Insane Passions is an engaging, useful inquiry into an idea that has become a queer critical commonplace: lesbian representation is a problem. Christine Coffman makes it clear, though, that if lesbian representation is a problem, it is also a problem one can hurl, with demonic glee, at the social order. In twenty years of queer theoretical writing, scholars of literature and film have discovered same-sex desire between women as a thing not named on the page, a spectral presence, a mark of aggression, and a version of primitivism. In Insane Passions, Coffman discusses twentieth-century texts—surrealist essays, novels by H. D. and Djuna Barnes, and several recent films—in which same-sex desire between women appears as a symptom of dangerous, often murderous, psychosis in women. Coffman traces the emergence of the lesbian psycho-killer in Lacanian and Freudian writings that theorize the social order in terms of sexual difference. She also examines deployments of the figure of the psychotic lesbian in literature and film that, in some ways, not only reiterate elements of the linkage between murderous violence and same-sex desire, but that also suggest possibilities for a new symbolic order—one in which sexual difference does not define the limit of the social. [End Page 457]
Coffman begins by describing the origin of the literary and filmic psychotic lesbian killer in psychoanalytic theory, including Lacan’s writing about the Papin sisters, Léa and Christine, who, in 1933, in a small town in France, murdered Madame and Mademoiselle Lancelin, a mother and daughter who employed the sisters as maids. Speculations that the sisters were erotically involved were an integral part of the discourse surrounding the murders. In his account of the Papin murders, for instance, Lacan expresses early versions of his theory that psychosis is the result of a refusal of sexual difference. For Lacan, the motives of the Papin sisters can be understood in terms of their ignorance of sexual difference; the lesbian is one who psychotically refuses inscription into the paternal symbolic order. Her capacity for destruction comes from her existence beyond the limits of the social. Freud similarly positioned the lesbian as one prone to violence. In Freudian terms, same-sex desire is a result of arrested development at the stage of narcissistic object choice, and the lesbian is thus a psychical primitive—an imaginary figure outside time, culture, and, therefore, social constraints against violence. Lacanian and Freudian theories of psychosis and same-sex desire, according to Coffman, are the source of the linkage between psychosis, violence, and lesbianism that has been repeatedly expressed in literature and film of the last century.
Readers immersed in psychoanalytic theories of subjectivity, identity formation, and sexual difference will especially enjoy Coffman’s book. But you don’t have to love psychoanalytic approaches to literature to appreciate what Coffman says about how to read figures of the psychotic lesbian that have been with us since the beginning of the twentieth century. Coffman’s nuanced and careful close readings of reports about the Papin murders in the periodical Surréalism au Service de la Révolution, for instance, shows that surrealists celebrated the Papin murders for their challenge to the bourgeois sexual regime. If the surrealists claimed for eroticism the potential to provoke a revolution from within bourgeois society, the Papins’ lesbian sexuality functions as an ideal sign of that revolt in surrealist reports.
Coffman’s discussions of novels by H. D. and Djuna Barnes also add a layer of complexity to already rich literary critical discussions. H. D.’s portrayals of characters who inhabit borderline psychical states in novels such as HERmione reflect ambivalence about the classification of the sane and the insane; this ambivalence also expresses a larger concern about social and psychical marginalization. Madness coexists with same-sex desire in H. D.’s fiction, but the relationship is not causal. The linkages Coffman [End Page 458] finds in H. D.’s work suggest that her characters’ insanity is as much a product of sexism and homophobia as it is a...