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  • Insane Passions: Lesbianism and Psychosis in Literature and Film
  • Susan McCabe
Coffman, Christine E. Insane Passions: Lesbianism and Psychosis in Literature and Film. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2006. vii + 288 pp. $49.95.

Christine E. Coffman’s book is tremendously intelligent and ambitious. It succeeds in undoing the love affair between modernism and the female hysteric, inserting the lesbian psychotic as the figure upon which much of twentieth-century [End Page 371] literature and film have depended upon in order to delimit sexual difference and “normalcy.” She establishes a lineage for this figure through careful readings of modernist texts, traversing Lacan’s writings of the 1930s, André Breton’s Nadja (1928), Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood (1936), and several novels by H. D.; she concludes with popular films of the 1990s where the murderous lesbian persists as an object of paranoid projection and fantasy.

Coffman nicely untangles the complexities of Lacan’s theories, making clear some of the mistakes in earlier critical interpretations, particularly in the frequently misused term, “foreclosure.” Judith Butler, for instance, sees Lacan as “foreclosing” the lesbian’s “intelligibility.” For Coffman, however, “the ‘Law of the Father’ induces trauma and foreclosure, but the psychotic forecloses the Name of the Father and thereby refuses paternal law” (20). This is a significant distinction, locating a refusal in the psychotic herself–though it is not clear if in her act of refusing the psychotic emerges in any way as triumphal. The distinction, however, is an important one, suggesting that only from within the Symbolic can one abandon it. In this conception, “the ‘transferable’ phallus (Butler’s notion) might even become dispensable, available–at least in theory–to play bit parts instead of the lead role in the dramas of desiring subjectivity” (179).

Coffman implies an agency to the lesbian psychotic, while “ideology,” broadly configured, keeps reproducing her as the limit figure, marking where civilization ends and the primitive begins. I italicize “figure” because psychosis does involve literal mental instability–such as was purported in the case of the Papin sisters and described by H. D. herself–yet Coffman blurs the line between “real” madness and its creation through projection, especially when it is coupled with lesbian sexuality. I suspect the lesbian psychotic is not the only figure (as Coffman implies) who carries this burden of anxieties surrounding sexual difference from the turn of the twentieth century to the present. The hysteric may not have entirely run her course, as Coffman assumes. Yet Coffman traces a credible trajectory of the lesbian psychotic, who really is much more predominant than usually presumed. One may only glance at contemporary media to find unending examples well beyond the 1990s where Coffman’s book perforce ends. The offerings on Lifetime Movie Network, for instance, are prime examples of portraits of women, whose friendships are often fraught with criminal as well as lesbian overtones. Richard Eyre’s 2006 Notes on A Scandal is another recent reappearance of Coffman’s delineation of this persistent “type”–a character compelling in her violence and desire but insistently demonized.

Based on Coffman’s provocative book, Lacan’s theories seem fuelled by the Papin case, which involved two sisters who slayed their employer mistress and her daughter. The notorious double murder stands as the signal emblem of paranoid homosexuality. Yet by rejecting the violence of the edict of “the Law of the Father,” the sisters expose juridical paranoia and repressive homophobia. In no way exculpating the women, Lacan considers them to suffer from “lesbian passion as an inherently morbid pretense to having the phallus” (56). Concluding that Lacan’s “representation of the Papin affair takes the form of a paranoid event” (57), Coffman nevertheless locates Lacan’s depiction of “the sisters’ ‘larval’ homosexuality” with the “surveillance of sexuality” (Foucault’s notion) as decisive in the spawning of the twentieth-century lesbian psychotic.

It is striking that Lacan published his article on the “Motives” of the “maids of Le Mans” (with motives never to be fully untangled) in the 1933 issue of the surrealist journal Minotaure, placing the article within the context of surrealism’s exaltation of “psychical disintegration.” Likewise, Breton, training psychoanalyst turned surrealist, is invested in upsetting norms, aggrandizing...


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