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Modernist Autobiography, Hysterical Narrative, and the Unnavigable River: The Case of Freud and H.D.

From: Literature and Medicine
Volume 30, Number 2, Fall 2012
pp. 241-275 | 10.1353/lm.2012.0028

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The Freudian case history, which reads the history of the self as the history of a psyche, offers a useful model of autobiographical narrative. This essay examines Freud's famous case history of "Dora" as a context for H.D.'s memoir Tribute to Freud. Freud's portrait in Dora of what scholars now call "hysterical narrative" has attracted long-lasting critical attention even as the genre has expanded beyond its original association, the halting reports given by patients with hysteria. By pulling this concept back to its historic construction in an important source text, Dora, I hope to demonstrate that it made available a productive model for Modernist autobiography, in particular H.D.'s memoir of a critical time in her artistic formation.

Elaine Showalter, in her influential study "On Hysterical Narrative," points out that Freud drew upon earlier negative links between hysteria and narrative but that use of the term has, since Freud, spread to encompass all manner of writing by or about women. Julia Kristeva and Hélène Cixous celebrated the hysteric's tics and silences as a radical gesture, a feminine language outside patriarchy, and an array of feminist critics, led by Mary Jacobus, began associating women's words (and reading) more generally with hysterical narrative. Claire Kahane, another major critical voice on "hysterical narrative," extends the quality of hysterical narrative to male authors but still associates it with women, as she theorizes it to be an anxious response to the rise of the vocal New Woman. Showalter argues that overuse of this concept unhelpfully diminishes a "vast medical literature" to a few canonical case studies and conflates characters who are explicitly identified as hysterics (such as Lucy in Villette) with women who are "merely unhappy, histrionic, or rebellious." Furthermore, she points out, we should not unthinkingly equate hysteria with women, overlooking the literature on male hysteria; for example, female hysterics' stories work through a power imbalance that does not close down male hysterics' more open-ended stories. She closes by warning readers that "to label women's writing as 'hysterical' is to denigrate it as art," regardless of one's theoretical groundwork.

Although Showalter decries how far hysterical narrative has traveled from its origins, we may return to Dora, where many critics first encounter the concept of hysterical narrative, to see both why this text is so influential and why its later readers remain so stubbornly focused on hysterical narrative as a woman's resistant stream of words. In Dora, Freud offers a powerful metaphor for hysterical narrative: he tells us that Dora's narrative, which stands in for her hysterical consciousness, is an "unnavigable river" that must be cleared before it can be traced through to its source. The case as a whole theorizes her narrative, and by extension all narratives generated by hysterics, as based on an autobiographical journey, formally vexed, and generated through a gendered, contestatory relationship, where the auditor (here, the male analyst) must push through and clear the resisting voice of the speaker (Dora), and neither contributor can transcend this stormy but productive partnership.

This construct revises the model of the late-eighteenth-century "nervous body" described by Peter Logan, the body with an unstable but ever-streaming flow of words, which (he argues) finds its anxious volubility echoed in many Georgian texts. Freud's model, which focuses more on resistance, friction, and a clotted flow, similarly shares significant characteristics with many Modernist narratives, often also autobiographically based and formally vexed or 'resistant.'

One Modernist writer, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), explicitly signals her interest in and discomfort with Freud's model. Her memoir Tribute to Freud, which recalls H.D.'s analysis with Freud in the 1930s, is indeed both a tribute to Freud and a contestation of his authority. Here H.D. lauds Freud's model of psychoanalytic narrative, borrowing the metaphor of the unnavigable river that he used in Dora and also in her own analysis; but she qualifies her support by setting the river trope in contrast to other metaphors (oil, spear) he used in H.D.'s analysis. While expanding on and returning to the river metaphor, she critiques the oil and spear metaphors as...



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