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Hysteria, Women, and Male Desire:
Sexual Politics in T. S. Eliot's "Hysteria"
and The Waste Land

Jian-kuang Lin

Keywords : sexual politics, desire, hysteria, trauma, T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land , "Hysteria," "Portrait of a Lady."


Published in the fall of 1922, in the Dial in New York and the Criterion in London, T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land has never failed to attract attention. Its lack of thematic clarity, fragmentary dialogues, and shifting voices and scenes soon made it a classic, and no less controversial, poem of the Modernist movement. The highly chaotic, disruptive form in which The Waste Land was written has since triggered the readers urge to master or make a "proper" {2} reading of it. However, even the publication in book form in December, 1922 by Boni and Liveright, in which Eliot provided notes and explained the scholarly sources and allusions he used in the poem, did not reduce its multiplicity of meaning and make it less controversial. Seeming to "offer a key to the poem and to promise a full and scientifically accurate explanation which would overcome its fragmentation," these notes reveal nevertheless that Eliot may "have been playing an elaborate and highly successful practical joke on the academic profession" (Davidson 124-5). The reader's fear of the text's unruly fragmentation, which impels his/her desire to search for order and system, is counter-balanced by Eliot's fear of a "problematic," or even "dangerous" femininity. Following Harriet Davidson's advocacy for an "improper" reading, this paper aims to discuss the representation of women in Eliot's "Hysteria" and The Waste Land , and to problematize Eliots desire for a "proper" femininity. While hysteria is one class of neurosis, the discourse on hysteria may contain a concealed sexual politics, which glosses over the male desire for order as well as his anxiety about a subversive femininity. Anything other than that valorized in a patriarchal society, in other words, may be regarded as "improper" or "bad," which should be cured by the psychoanalysis of a male audience and tamed by the symbolic order. Thus the discourse of hysteria serves as a vehicle by means of which a male subjectivity is established. Just as the legitimation of the Self is often constructed through an Other, male identity, as Jacqueline Rose well states, "relies on the disturbance of the woman to give it form" (qtd. in Li 323). The readers desire to overcome the disruptive fragmentation of the text, to reaffirm the authority of the Name of the Father of the signification system, thus runs parallel to the poet's desire to contain a problematic femininity. Before we go to the poems, however, a preliminary discussion of some classical literature on hysteria by Freud and Josef Breuer is necessary for our understanding of the role of women in "Hysteria" and The Waste Land .


Freud's study on hysteria can be traced back to the publication in 1893 of a paper called "On the Psychical Mechanism of Hysterical Phenomena: Preliminary Communication," {3}  a collaborated product of Freud and Josef Breuer, an already prominent physician in Vienna who had treated Fraulein Anna O. from 1880 to 1882. In this essay, Breuer and Freud attribute the pathology of hysteria to a traumatic event or a number of "partial traumas," which may be cured precisely through the reproduction of the traumatic experience ( SE 6). For Breuer and Freud, hysterical symptoms are the result of an overexcitation in the nervous system, called the "affect of fright," which is not or cannot be properly managed by the subject (5-6). In economic terms, "the outcome of the trauma is always the incapacity of the psychical apparatus to eliminate the excitations in accordance with the principle of constancy" (Laplanche/Pontalis 467). In a properly prescribed hypnoid state, the unpleasant memories of the trauma, which are often repressed by the conscious self, are reproduced. The therapeutic value of the psychical working-out of the trauma through hypnoid reproduction lies in the fact that it occasions the "strangulated affect to find a way out through speech" ( SE 17). Breuer and Freud use the word "abreaction" to describe the cathartic effect of the hypnoid reproduction of trauma (8). What is interesting in the essay is the therapeutic function of human speech in the treatment of hysteria:

each individual hysterical symptom immediately and permanently disappeared when we had succeeded in bringing clearly to light the memory of the [traumatic] event by which it was provoked and in arousing its accompanying affect, and when the patient had described that event in the greatest possible detail and had put the affect into words . The psychical process which originally took place must be repeated as vividly as possible; it must be brought back to its status nascendi and then given verbal utterance." (6; italics original)

Although the term "talking cure" is not yet used until two years later, when Studies on Hysteria , in which Anna O.’s hysteria constitutes the first case history, is published in 1895, the 1893 essay already touches upon the therapeutic value of "verbal utterance." If the hysteric suffers from the insufficient abreaction or catharsis of the tremendous amount of affect, the "talking cure" is, as the above quotation shows, a transcription of the "affects into words." In some other places, Freud uses the word "translation" and says that the "talking cure" is the "translation of affects into words," and repression for him is a "failure of translation" (qtd. in Hunter 484-5).


That hysteria can be traced back to a traumatic event or a series of events, as explained in the 1893 essay, is a theory Freud maintains for some years. However, he would propose a more radical theorization on the nature of traumatic hysteria. In a memorandum he enclosed in a letter to Fliess in 1896, Freud further indicates that almost all traumas contain as their content an unpleasant sexual experience in childhood. For Freud, the inter-connection between hysteria and traumatic sexual experience explains why women are more likely to be hysterical, although male hysteria is not unlikely to happen:

Hysteria necessarily presupposes a primary experience of unpleasure—that is, of a passive nature. The natural sexual passivity of women explains their being more inclined to hysteria. Where I have found hysteria in men, I have been able to prove the presence of abundant sexual passivity in their anamneses. (Gay 96)

Women are more likely to be hysterical because, for Freud, their sexual passivity makes them more likely to be overwhelmed by the "fright of affect," and this also explains why some effeminate men, like Eliot's Pruffrock, are more likely to be hysterical. Although he does not state it directly, Freud seems to imply that in order for a male to "recover" from hysteria, psychoanalysis must "rouse" his masculinity and eliminate his "improper," hysterical femininity. We are thus reminded of the production history of The Waste Land , in which Pound, like a psychoanalyst, "rouses"the impotent, Pruffrockean Eliot by cutting a lot of passages from the original, more "feminine" manuscript, a point I will later return.

4. Several months after his letter to Fliess, Freud read a paper to the Viennese Society for Psychiatry and Neurology in 1896, called "The Aetiology of Hysteria." Following the argument in the 1893 essay, "Aetiology" maintains that hysteria is caused by a childhood trauma, the reproduction of which through hypnosis might bring about the patient's recovery. Here Freud boldly claims that the pathology of hysteria can be attributed almost exclusively to a childhood sexual trauma: "Whatever case and whatever symptom we take as our point of departure, in the end we infallibly come to the field of sexual experience. So here for the first time we seem to have discovered an aetiological precondition for hysterical symptoms" ( SE 199). Dismissed as "a scientific fairy tale" by a celebrated neurologist called Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing (qtd. in Gay 97), Freud's theorization on hysteria, trauma, and female sexuality nevertheless provides us a perspective from which Eliot’s poems can be reassessed. Before turning to The Waste Land , I would like to examine one of Eliot's less well-known poems: "Hysteria."


Written in 1915, the year that Eliot married his first wife, Vivien Haigh-Wood, "Hysteria" is a prose poem that depicts the child's failure to identify with the father in a typically Oedipal structure ( CP 19). The laughter of the "hysterical" woman and her movement ("the shaking of her breasts") are said to disrupt a coherent reality and disintegrate the unity of a day into "fragments of the afternoon." What is threatening about hysteria is its contagious, mimetic nature. Looking at the woman, the male speaker ("I") feels his solid, male identity crumbling. Being unable to control himself, he is now compulsively mimicking her hysterical body movements: "As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved in her laughter and being part of it ... I was drawn in by short gasps, inhaled at each momentary recovery, lost finally in the dark caverns of her throat, bruised by the ripple of unseen muscles" ( CP 19). Like the Sirens whose seductive, maternal voice induces the sailors to forgo their male subjectivity and jump into the sea (a feminine, oceanic image), the woman’s voice tends to dissolve the male speaker's autonomous self. He has the impulse of abandoning his subjectivity and "becoming involved in her laughter and being part of it," like the sailors' impulse to be one with the sea-mother described in Homer's Odyssey . If the cunning Odysseus represses his libidinal desire by tying himself to the phallus-like mast, Eliot resorts to a father figure, the "elder waiter," to repress his impulse of being assimilated to the third object, i.e., female hysteria. Eliot's resort to a father figure to resist being merged with the maternal figure, not unlike the reader's recourse to Eliot's notes to resist the temptation of the hysterical text of The Waste Land , reveals his fear of an "improper" femininity, which should be "corrected" by whatever means.


However, even the presence of the elder waiter cannot restore the fragments of the afternoon disturbed by the hysterical laughter, much like Eliot's notes cannot effectively contain and unify his fragmentary, hysterical text. The crumbling of the elder waiter is accompanied by the failure of the signification system of language, the Name of the Father. Like the well-known Anna O. who got contracture of her right arm when she was nursing her sick father, the elder waiter's unabreacted fright of affect is "translated" into the contracture of his "trembling hands," as the poem shows ( CP 19). His hysteria is most vividly seen in the disturbance of speech, and he cannot even finish a coherent sentence: " 'If the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden, if the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden…' " Anna O, when she suffers from traumatic hysteria, also has severe problems of linguistic usage:

she would keep repeating in the impersonal form 'tormenting, tormenting.' For alongside of the development of the contractures there appeared a deep-going functional disorganization of her speech…. In the process of time she became almost completely deprived of words. (Freud, SE II 25)

Being unable to identify with the elder waiter, and unwilling to identify with the woman, Eliot's speaker finds himself stuck in a triangular relation in which the mother "denies the speech of the father its function as law … [and] prevents the child from acceding to the paternal metaphor" (Lemaire 235).

7. If language serves as the Name of the Father through which cultural identities are constructed, one's failure of speech may either denote his/her incapacity of becoming a linguistic, therefore social, cultural subject, or his/her desire of not becoming so. Thus Anna O.'s speechlessness is not only a hysterical symptom, it may also have its political, subversive implications, as Dianne Hunter argues: "I think it is possible to see a liberating motive implicit in Pappenheim's [Anna O.'s real name] linguistic disruptions. Speaking coherent German meant integration into a cultural identity Bertha Pappenheim wanted to reject" (468). One interesting phenomenon in Eliot's "Hysteria" is that while the woman barely uses any speech, (though she does use a "hysterical" body language quite eloquently), both the speaker and the waiter seem to feel the importance of language in restoring the disintegrated Oedipal structure and their lost identity. Traumatized by the hysterical woman who threatens to remove him from the symbolic order to a speechless, pre-Oedipal stage, Eliot’s speaker tries to regain his lost subjectivity by means of symbolization, and transforms "her teeth" into "accidental stars with a talent for squad-drill" ( CP 19). The military connotation of the image illustrates that in order for the maintenance of male subjectivity and the Name of the Father to occur, a maneuver of masculine symbols is deemed necessary to suppress the improper femininity. The symbolization process is a weapon through which the hysterical fragmentation of that afternoon may be restored, and the "male writer's best defence against female hysteria lies therefore in the very order and style of language, that is, of Lacan's symbolic order itself" (Li 329).


At the end of the poem, we are uncertain whether or not the speaker successfully cuts himself off from the pre-Oedipal, "improper" femininity and restores a "proper," Oedipal structure. However, his strong desire to repress identification with the mother is represented as the masculine will to restore the hysterical ruins: "I decided that if the shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some of the fragments of the afternoon might be collected, and I concentrated my attention with careful subtlety to this end" ( CP 19). As with Tiresias in The Waste Land , who is an "Old man with wrinkled female breasts" and "wrinkled dugs," the shaking breasts in "Hysteria" embody a problematic, if not "ugly" femininity which should be exorcised. They are also castrating in the sense that the child's access to the paternal signifier is denied. After the failure of the paternal metaphor, Eliot tries to maintain his identity and separate himself from the mother by "concentration." Not surprisingly, writing becomes the most effective weapon to restore the Self and castigate the Other. Itself a concentrated, detailed reproduction of the traumatic scene, this poem functions like the "talking cure," through which the "fright of affect" may be translated into words and then "abreacted." The therapeutic value of the poem is also discernible in that it tames the amorphous, maternal voice and body movements with a paternal signifier, namely, the title "hysteria." While no obvious evidence in the content of the poem shows that the woman is really "hysterical," a certain negative connotation the title conveys reduces the amorphous, what Kriesteva would call the "semiotic," {4} femininity to something symbolic and negative. In other words, the title does not so much describe the content as "misread" and reduce it. It conceals "the repressed femininity of men" (Hunter 485), effacing the male speaker's possible male hysteria by projecting his anxiety to the woman. The naturalization of male aggression by means of the discourse of female disease can thus be found in the discrepancy between the title and the content of the poem. The political implication of the title is obvious; it enables the male speaker to stand in a privileged, superior position to observe and judge the woman, not unlike the power relations between the psychoanalyst and the patient. But here in "Hysteria," the psychoanalyst Eliot may be a patient, and his desire is not to "cure" the mother, but to castigate or even "kill" her by means of the paternal signifier, "hysteria."


The same strategy is used again in "Portrait of a Lady," in which the male speaker, afraid of the mimetic nature of hysteria, resorts to the symbolic order to construct his male subjectivity. The poem stages an encounter between a male speaker who listens and a problematic, hysterical woman who talks, which again reminds us of the relation between mother and son or psychoanalyst and patient. As in "Hysteria," the woman's voice in "Portrait" is described as an interruption of a coherent reality: "The voice returns like the insistent out-of-tune/Of a broken violin on an August afternoon"( CP 9). That the voice "insists" on its "returning" to the speaker actually reveals the male speaker's desire to repress the seductive hailing from the maternal, pre-oedipal body. Enchanted by the "attenuated tones of violins/Mingled with remote cornets" and "the smell of hyacinths across the garden," he repeatedly tells himself to "keep my countenance,/I remain self-possessed" (8; 10). Even the maternal lady, who is "about to reach her journey's end," flatters the speaker, the son, with respect to his imaginary autonomy and indestructible masculinity: "You are invulnerable, you have no Archilles' heel" (10), as if Archilles were not born from a woman's womb. The repression of the mother, however, most often brings about the return of the repressed, and the speaker's imaginary, solid self is momentarily overcome by the "smell of hyacinths" and "tones of violins," a pre-oedipal, amorphous state preceding the language system of the symbolic order. The insistent returns of the maternal voice makes him feel that "My self-possession gutters; we are really in the dark" ( CP 11).


Like what we have already seen in "Hysteria," writing serves as a paternal weapon that eliminates or fixes an improper maternity. The "pen in hand" at the end of this poem thus becomes a phallus, and writing a vehicle of strengthening the speaker's endangered male subjectivity (11). And the poetic creation transforms the "smoke and fog of a December afternoon," which is the poem's first line, into an afternoon of the lady's death as the poem approaches its end: "Well! and what if she should die some afternoon,/Afternoon grey and smoky, evening yellow and rose" (11). The repetition of the "smoke" is a repetition with differences, because the confusion of the foggy afternoon at the beginning slightly transforms itself into the colors of grey, yellow, and rose at the end. The amorphous maternity is thereby transformed into or fixed by a "portrait," which does not so much describe the lady as set a frame around her. Although the mother talks all the time, it is the son who has the final say. Both "Hysteria" and "Portrait of a Lady," therefore, reveal the male's desire to tame a problematic femininity by means of a symbolic mortification. The male aggression is also discernible from the epigraph of the "Portrait" (“Thou hast committed--/Fornication: but that was in another country,/And besides, the wench is dead”), as Victor Li states:

Like "Hysteria," "Portrait of a Lady" seeks to master the disturbance of the woman by literally immobilizing her and containing what is perceived as her hysterical energy. If the narrator of "Hysteria" concentrates his efforts towards stopping "the shaking of breasts," the young man of "Portrait" allows some of the misogynistic violence of the poem's Marlovian epigraph to surface by fantasizing the lady's death (329-30)


If a certain sexual politics in "Hysteria" and "Portrait of a Lady" is concealed under the discourse of female hysteria, both the production history of The Waste Land and its content reveal the text's close connection with women and hysteria. Being often regarded as a depiction of the decay of modern civilization through the juxtaposition of different images from the cityscape, The Waste Land is actually burdened so much with the poet's personal history that it "is not altogether the lofty cultural diagnosis it would like to take itself to be" (Pinkney 109). It is a well-known fact that Eliot's unhappy marriage in 1915 to his first wife, Vivien Haigh-Wood, not only affected his mental condition but his poetic creation as well. The laughing lady in "Hysteria" may have been her, and the lines in The Waste Land —"On Margate Sands./I can connect/Nothing with nothing./The broken fingernails of dirty hands" ( CP 46)—are likely to be Eliot's personal experience at Margate when he started working on the poem against his doctor's advice (Koestenbaum 116). The traumatic speechlessness and impaired vision in the hyacinth garden scene—"I could not/Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither/Living nor dead, and I knew nothing" ( CP 38)—may have something to do with his being hospitalized in Lausanne. Moreover, the passage "My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me./Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak" ( CP 40) may be a reflection of the poet's hopeless marriage with his hysterical wife{5}.


Though having some ideas in mind as early as 1919, Eliot found himself, like Anna O., "almost completely deprived of words" to put them into a poem (qtd. in Koestenbaum 116). It was not until 1921 when he experienced a mental breakdown and was hospitalized in a sanatorium in Lausanne that he finished the manuscript and then sent it to Pound for revision. According to Wayne Koestenbaum, the sense of emotional paralysis Eliot felt between 1918 and 1921actually corresponds to female hysteric paralysis, and the doctor's order that Eliot should not write any prose for six months shows that he was actually being treated like a female hysteric (116-7). Interestingly, it was due to his illness and another psychiatrist's sarcastic remark—who told a friend of Conrad Aiken that Eliot "thinks he's God"—that he was able to break "the ice of his self-consciousness and instigated the extraordinary poem [ The Waste Land ] which transformed him into the leading poet of his generation" (Ackroyd 108). Like the male speaker in "Hysteria," Eliot resorted to language to "cure""his own female hysteria. The poetic creation thus functions as the "talking cure" through which the hysterical affects are abreacted:

For Eliot, poetic composition was a cathartic birth; like Anna O.'s hysterical childbirth, or the "talking cure" itself: the poet, Eliot believed,"is going to all that trouble, not to communicate with anyone, but to gain relief from acute discomfort," for he "is oppressed by a burden which he must bring to birth in order to bring relief." (Koestenbaum 117-8)

However, it was not until Pound's extensive revision that some "feminine" traits of Eliot's manuscript were exorcised. Detesting the pervasive existence and influence of contemporary women writers, such as Edith Sitwell (jeered by Pound as "shit"), Pound complained that contemporary life "has become too feminine" (120). A good poem, for Pound and Eliot, must be " hard , acute, erudite, complex, mature, and elite as opposed to the soft , dim, bland, callow, and vulgar" (Perkins 516; italics mine). It seems that anything that had to do with femininity was "vulgar." When an explicitly sexual politics is transformed into aesthetic ideals, it is not surprising that Pound

treats the manuscript of The Waste Land as if it were an effeminate Pruffrock he wishes to rouse: he "cures""the poem of its hysteria by suggesting that central representations of the feminine be expunged—thereby masculinizing the poem's core—and by urging Eliot to make his language less indecisive. (Koestenbaum 125)


In spite of Pound's brazen attempt to transform the female "hysterical discourse" composed of "meaningless chaos" into something meaningful and masculine, which Koestenbaum argues so well in his essay (136), traces of hysterical fragmentation and dismemberment can still be found almost everywhere in the final version of The Waste Land . Although Tiresias may be regarded as a universal consciousness unifying all other voices of the poem, the formal dislocations of the text resist the male desire for order and system. Even the poet's notes added for the book version of the poem, which tend to "erase the improper side of the poem in favor of its proper, pedagogic side," cannot successfully tame its hysterical fragmentation and rich suggestiveness (Davidson 125). While the reading process may be one of mastering or controlling, the reader may still feel anxious that something is beyond his/her control. It is an anxiety of hysterical dismemberment, that "the 'organic unity' of the text is brazenly flouted, unitary notions of character slip, slide and perish, [and] the narrative point of view is busily unravelled into an unresolvable plurality of conflicting voices" (Pinkney 97). If Koestenbaum's essay demonstrates how the collaboration between Pound and Eliot reveals the male desire to repress femininity, the hysterical fragmentation of the final version signals the return of the repressed. For the rest of the paper, I will discuss women's voice, or voicelessness, and male aggression in The Waste Land . Of the many voices—Marie, the hyacinth girl, Madame Sosostris, the Thames daughters, Sibyl, and Philomel, to mention just a few—I will just focus on three women in the first two sections ("The Burial of the Dead," and "A Game of Chess"). They are Sibyl, Marie, and Philomel.


Originally called "He Do the Police in Different Voices," The Waste Land is indeed resonant with many different voices, some of which come from traumatized, hysterical women. As we have already seen in "Hysteria" and "Portrait of a Lady," the epigraph to The Waste Land stages a scene of encounter between the opposite sexes, a mother and a few sons. The female prophet Sibyl, shriveled up like a hysterical woman in a bottle, expresses her death wish to some Greek boys in a hysterical, fragmentary utterance, "I wish to die." While the male aggression is relatively clear in "Portrait" in his imagining of the lady's death ("Well! and what if she should die some afternoon" ), Eliot's allusion to the Sibyl episode from Petronius' Satyricon attributes the female prophet's death wish to her own volition, not to some probable violence done by the Greek boys. Just as in "Hysteria," in which the laughing woman's "hysteria" is very likely to be an aggressive projection from the male speaker's own desire, it is highly probable that Sibyl's death wish may reflect the wishful thinking of the Greek boys who, like the seemingly passive listener of "Portrait," actually have the final say. Furthermore, the encounter between a female victim and male spectators may not only reveal the latter's aggressive impulse against an aged, "ugly" woman or mother, but also society's common fear of a woman who knows too much (Sibyl being a prophetess, like Madame Sosostris, who "Had a bad cold" and "is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,/With a wicked pack of cards" [ CP 38; italics mine]). In "A Game of Chess," society's aversion to some types of femininity can also be found in Lil, who looks older than she really is: "You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique./(And her only thirty one") [ CP 42]. Since Sibyl's voice is actually mediated through the boys’ gaze, a concealed power relation between the two sexes may not be a completely wild guess. When the reader identifies with the male spectators and takes their view for granted, a certain violence of representation is thereby naturalized or neutralized. It is within the identification and spectator structure that the "aggression of the former [a male audience] is successfully denied by projection, attributed rather to the aged Sibyl's own death-wish than to the taunts of the Greek boys" (Pinkney 96).


After the first few lines of the poem in which the speaker, possibly Sibyl, expresses her death wish, the voice is shifted to a woman named Marie, who may have suffered from a childhood sexual trauma:

And when we were children, staying at the

My cousin's, he took me out on a sled,

And I was frightened. He said, Marie,

Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the
winter. ( CP 37)

Nominally a description of a skiing scene, this passage is rich in its sexual connotations. The skiing scene seems like what Freud would call the "scene of seduction,|" in which the child submits to another person's sexual advances. The "fright of affect" stimulated by this experience accounts for the repression of sexuality in the child's later development (Laplanche/Pontalis 404-7). Although there are hysterical men, females for Freud are more likely to be hysterical because of their sexually passive nature, as we already discussed at the beginning of the paper. For Freud, the scene of seduction is characterized by the subject's passivity not only because s/he behaves passively in the primal scene, but also because its full "meaning," due to his/her still yet immature development of sexual emotions, is beyond his/her comprehension. The incapacity of the subject to incorporate or control the external stimuli, which makes a sufficient abreaction not possible to occur, explains why the traumatic scene is accompanied with fright of affect. In short, "the state of passivity implies an absence of preparation, and the seduction produces 'sexual fright'" (405).


Marie's response to the primal scene is marked not only by her fright ("I was frightened"), but also her submissive passivity. Asked by her cousin to "hold on tight," Marie submits to his sexual demands. Marie's sexual submission is also a submission to the patriarchal order because the event actually occurs "at the archduke's." Not being able to have a full understanding of its meaning, Marie describes the seduction scene with a peculiar objectivity and lack of subjective commentary, a distinctive characteristic of the traumatic narrative. Apart from "I was frightened," there is no description of what she feels after "down we went." Due to the fact that trauma, by definition, is marked by its overwhelming affects on the psychical apparatus, there is no way the subject under traumatic impact may fully comprehend its nature. A trauma, that is to say, registers its content on him/her, but its full signification is not realized until later when the event is remembered through some associations, which trigger the memory of the scene of seduction. Freud and Breuer's celebrated sentence—"hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences" ( SE ii 7)—characterizes trauma's double-time structure. Although the traumatic event occurs at the first stage, it really becomes a trauma at the second stage, usually after puberty, when "the memory of the first scene … occasions an influx of sexual stimuli which overwhelm the ego's defences" (Laplanche/Pontalis 467). In other words, it takes two times for one trauma to occur: the real or phantastic scene of seduction, and the memory of that scene. Freud states:

sexual experiences are the fundamental precondition for hysteria, are, as it were, the disposition for it and that it is they which create the hysterical symptoms, but that they do no do so immediately, but remain without effect to begin with and only exercise a pathogenic action later, when they have been aroused after puberty in the form of unconscious memories. ( SE iii 212)


Freud's theorization of the childhood sexual trauma and its temporal structure may well explain Marie's account of the primal event at the archduke's. While the fright of affect forecloses a proper interpretation or evaluation of the traumatic scene, the task of which belongs to the conscious mind, the unconscious often brings about the return of the repressed memories. Like the earth which would rather be covered "in forgetful snow" at the beginning of The Waste Land , April reawakes the earth's trauma and its repressed, unconscious memories with spring rain. The earth and its "dull roots" suffer from the undesired spring rain, just like "hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences." No wonder that April, mixing the repressed "Memory and desire" of the earth, is regarded as "the cruellest month" ( CP 37). That Marie's traumatic symptoms occur not immediately at the traumatic scene, but rather later when unconscious memories are triggered can be found in the transition from the last line which describes the childhood event ("And down we went") to the lines which describe Marie as an adult who suffers from insomnia: "In the mountains, there you feel free./I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter. " Marie's sleeplessness may be a traumatic symptom: "Sleeplessness or disturbed sleep are also symptoms" of hysteria (Freud, SE iii 33). While her habit of reading in the night may reveal her repressed sexual desire due to the childhood trauma, her going to south in the winter may be for the recovery of her health. Koestenbaum's argument well explains how Marie's narrative and her other symptoms indicate that she suffers from a childhood trauma:

This apparently affectless reminiscence reads like a childhood trauma in Studies on Hysteria , a memory without meaning or emotional charge…the implication of Marie's nocturnal reading is either that she is insomniac, or that she is not having sex "much of the night." Her sexual desires are repressed, with her childhood trauma, and as Eliot went to Lausanne, she goes south, in search of warmth and a cure. (130)

The unpleasant, repressed childhood memory is not forgotten. It simply stays dormant, like the silence, the lack of speech, between the primal scene ("And down we went") and hysterical symptoms (her insomnia and "nocturnal reading"). Assuming the appearance of a "nothingness," the silence actually tells a horrible story, the overwhelming impact of which necessitates its repression into the unconscious.


That female hysteria is often caused by a sexual trauma may best be represented in the last woman of our discussion, namely Philomel, who

by the barbarous king
So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale
Filled all the desert with inviolable voice
And still she cried, and still the world
"Jug Jug" to dirty ears.

Being brutally violated by King Tereus, Philomel reacts to the traumatic scene with an unintelligible verbal utterance, "Jug Jug." Her hysterical symptom is even more serious than those of either the elder waiter in "Portrait of a Lady" or the unnamed voice in the hyacinth garden in "The Burial of the Dead": "I could not/Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither/Living nor dead, and I knew nothing." While the latter is still capable of speaking "I could not speak," and thus puts the traumatic affects into words, the former can only resort to a far less adequate language (the bird song) of the hysteric to cope with the trauma. Although repetition impulse is a way of mastering and abreacting the traumatic affects, as we already discussed, Philomel's repetition of the nightingale's song is more like a helpless protest than a helpful reproduction or translation:

The repetition is desired [by the ego] to relieve a painful tension, but […] the repetition itself is also painful. […] The patient has entered a vicious circle. The "belated mastery," which the repetitions strive for, is never obtained because every attempt to reach it brings about a new traumatic experience." (Laplanche/Pontalis 472)

Thus Jeffrey Perl's view that the Philomel episode reveals the attempt of The Waste Land to "give the famous dead a decent burial, to tell their stories, to show that behind all the stories is a single plot: the continuous rape of innocents by the cruel or vulgar" (553), is highly problematic. Many women are indeed the victims of male aggression in the poem, but it doesn't necessarily mean that it intends to give them "a decent burial." Philomel tells a horrible story, in an unintelligible voice, but her story is above all framed and displayed "above the antique mantel" in the living room, for the spectator's pleasure. While the distance caused by the spectator structure makes a full identification with the female victim not always likely to occur, it seems to be easier for the spectator to transform her trauma into an object of desire or even aesthetics. The cause of Philomel's hysterical inarticulateness, her rape by the "barbarous king," is no sooner remembered than effaced when trauma, which by definition is beyond representation, is framed, and represented in a picture. Like the pen in "Portrait of a Lady" which transforms a feminine Other into a "portrait," and the title "Hysteria" which gives a name to something or someone beyond the Name of the Father, the framed picture displayed above the mantel tends to naturalize or neutralize a sexual politics by means of the symbolic order. The symbolization process, in other words, is a strategy by means of which a dangerous femininity is tamed and male aggression neutralized or even aestheticized. Philomel is not only victimized by the patriarchal order (King Tereus), her suffering is doubled by "the world [which] pursues" the voyeuristic gaze of the trauma: "And still she cried, and still the world pursues,/'Jug Jug' to dirty ears."


In June 1921 Eliot's mother, Charlotte Champe Eliot, came from America to visit him in England. Not having seen his mother for six years, Eliot expected to see an old woman (she was seventy-seven years old at the time) from whom he may have found kindness or some angelic qualities (to use the word we frequently see in this paper, "proper" maternity). Instead, he found her to be as energetic and domineering as she had always been since his childhood: "Whereas he had expected Charlotte Champe Eliot to be an endearingly docile angel, she actually turned out to be a most formidable octopus" (Pinkney 94-5). Immediately after her return to America at the end of August, Eliot suffered a nervous breakdown. It was during the time when he was hospitalized in Lausanne that he was able to finish The Waste Land , which he intended to finish in June 1921 but had been unable to (Ackroyd 109-14). Whether or not the anxiety about an old woman or a "problematic" femininity in Eliot's poems may have something to do with his mother and his wife is debatable. And to read the laughing woman in "Hysteria"as a shadow of Vivien, or the old lady in "Portrait of a Lady" or even the Sibyl in the epigraph of The Waste Land as that of Charlotte Eliot is certainly too reductive and mechanical. However, it seems fair to say that Eliot had been so much haunted by these two women that he felt it necessary to cut himself off, at least symbolically, from a certain type of femininity. While Eliot's collapse in 1921 immediately after his mother's return to America may be attributed to her domineering maternity, he reaffirms his literary identity with the help of Pound, Eliot's father figure as well as homosocial friend, by writing The Waste Land . Poetry thus serves as the "talking cure" through which a male identity, with another man's help, is constructed and the "most formidable octopus" of his real life symbolically terminated.


1. All Eliot's poems discussed in this paper are from The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909: 1950 (New York: Brace & World, 1971). The book is abbreviated hereafter as CP .

2. See Harriet Davidson, "Improper Desire: Reading The Waste Land, " The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot , ed. A. David Moody (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994) 121-31.

3. All works from Freud and Breuer, except otherwise indicated, are from The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud , trans. James Strachey. 24 vols. (London: Hogarth Press, 1953-73). This edition is hereafter abbreviated as SE .

4. See Julia Kristeva, "The Speaking Subject," On Signs , ed. Marshall Blonsky (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1985). 210-20.

5. It is interesting to know Vivien Eliot's comments on the passage. In the manuscript of the poem, she actually wrote beside these lines: "WONDERFUL. Yes, & wonderful. wonderful."; quoted in David Perkins, A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1976) 496.

Works Cited

Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life . London: Hamish Hamilton, 1984.

Breuer, Josef and Sigmund Freud. "On the Psychical Mechanism of Hysterical Phenomena: Preliminary Communication." The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud . Trans. James Strachey. Vol 2. London: Hogarth Press, 1955. 3-17.

Davidson, Harriet. "Improper Desire: Reading The Waste Land ." The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot . Ed. A. David Moody. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. 121-31.

Eliot, T. S. The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950 . New York: Brace & World, 1971.

Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud . Trans. James Strachey. 24 vols. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-73.

Gay, Peter., ed. The Freud Reader . New York: Norton, 1989.

Hunter, Dianne. "Hysteria, Psychoanalysis, and Feminism: The Case of Anna O." Feminist Studies 9 (1983): 465-88.

Koestenbaum, Wayne. " The Waste Land : T. S. Eliot's and Ezra Pound's Collaboration on Hysteria." Twentieth Century Literature: A Scholarly and Critical Journal 34 (1988): 113-39.

Laplanche, J. and J. B. Pontalis. The Language of Psycho-analysis . Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: Norton, 1973.

Lemaire, Anika. Jacques Lacan . Trans. David Macey. London: Routledge, 1977.

Li, Victor.  "T. S. Eliot and the Language of Hysteria." Dalhousie Review 77 (1997): 323-34.

Perkins, David. A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode . Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1976.

Perl, Jeffrey M. "Penelope without Ulysses." Southwest Review 76 (1991): 551-62.

Pinkney, Tony. Women in the Poetry of T. S. Eliot: A Psychoanalytic Approach . London: Macmillan, 1984.




艾略特於 1922 年所發表的現代詩《荒原》,早已被公認為是現代主義的經典之作。其支離破碎的書寫形式、跳躍式的場景接替、及去中心化的敘述模式,亦常被評為是詩人針對一次大戰後分崩離析的歐洲文明所做的寫照。按此解讀方式,《荒原》乃是一首男菁英詩人憂國憂民式的診斷與預示。


本文旨在探討書寫 閱讀 權力之間的糾葛。前半部主要討論艾略特一首較不為人知的散文詩 〈歇斯底里〉 中男性詩人的懼女與厭女症。 藉由複製家庭羅曼史 (family romance) 的三角關係結構,此詩鋪陳出艾略特這位現代主義大師如何將其焦慮與慾望投射至一位所謂「歇斯底里」的女人身上,以及書寫如何偷天換日,演化或突變成為建構男詩人主體的性別政治。論文後半部則是從詩人的創作、生產過程以及作品本身來探討女人 特別是「受創的」 (traumatized) 、「歇斯底里」 的女人 在《荒原》中所扮演的角色,希冀能凸顯出隱身於現代主義美學背後的權力與性別政治。

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