Psychoanalysis and Cinema
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Psychoanalysis and Cinema

The Play of Shadows

Vicky Lebeau

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eBook - ePub

Psychoanalysis and Cinema

The Play of Shadows

Vicky Lebeau

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About This Book

Lebeau examines the long and uneven history of developments in modern art, science, and technology that brought pychoanalysis and the cinema together towards the end of the nineteenth century. She explores the subsequent encounters between the two: the seductions of psychoanalysis and cinema as converging, though distinct, ways of talking about dream and desire, image and illusion, shock, and sexuality. Beginning with Freud's encounter with the spectacle of hysteria on display in fin-de-siècle Paris, this study offers a detailed reading of the texts and concepts which generated the field of psychoanalytic film theory.

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‘Hallucination that is also a fact’: this is André Bazin’s stark analysis of the power of the cinematic image (Bazin 1967: 16). Early cinema lured its spectators with the promise of perceptual illusion, ‘documents’ of everyday life: the madding crowds of city streets, a family at dinner, workers leaving a factory. This is, as one commentator was to put it following the first demonstration of the Lumières’ Cinématographe at the Grand Café, life ‘collected and reproduced’ (Burch 1990: 21). At the same time, as Maxim Gorky pushes to remind his readers, cinema is a haunted way of seeing the world. ‘If you only knew how strange it is to be there’, Gorky writes in his troubled account of the ‘kingdom of the shadows’ in 1896. ‘It is not life but its shadow, it is not motion but its soundless spectre’ (Gorky, cited in Popple 1996: 97).
There is, it seems, something uncanny in the connivance of reality and illusion achieved by cinema, the impression made on its spectators. ‘The spellbound audience in a theater or in a picture house’, wrote Hugo Munsterberg in one of the first psychological analyses of film in 1916, ‘is certainly in a state of heightened suggestibility and is ready to receive suggestions’ (Munsterberg 1970: 47). As Lynne Kirby points out in her important discussion of Munsterberg, this association between cinema and suggestion, spectator and the subject of hypnotism, has a long tradition (Kirby 1997: 155). From the very beginning of cinema, the deluded – hysterical, traumatised, hallucinating – spectator is a source of comedy. In Kirby’s example, Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show – an Edison/Porter film from 1902 – ‘parodies the Lumière spectator responding to the train’ (65). Like Munsterberg’s suggestible spectator, Uncle Josh is seduced into believing that it is ‘life’ he sees as the image of the train, The Black Diamond Express, rushes towards him. A figure of fun, perhaps, but Uncle Josh’s panic – his (momentary) conviction in the present reality of the object on screen – confirms how far cinema was prepared to reflect on itself as an institution bound to exhibit the effects of suggestion: hallucination, false perception of an object which is ‘not there’.
The question of how far the experience of cinema, the perception of the filmic image, can be compared to that of hallucination was central to the development of a psychoanalytic film theory in the 1970s. In this sense it is important to grasp what psychoanalysis does with the fact of hallucination, as well as the phenomena so often associated with it: hypnosis, suggestion. Like cinema, psychoanalysis is bound to the relation between the two: cinema and psychoanalysis share parallel histories (to borrow Janet Bergstrom’s recent phrasing) which, at times, appear to converge (Bergstrom 1999: 1). The first half of this chapter explores one such scene of convergence: the origins of Freud’s thinking in the spectacle of hysteria and hallucination on display at the Salpêtrière Hospital during his studies in Paris in the mid-1880s. It is a spectacle – of shock, of illusion – which has been compared to that of early cinema as both one of the distractions of fin-de-siècle Paris (the city of image and pleasure, as Vanessa Schwartz has argued) and a decisive moment in the visualisation of mental illness through the use of camera and photograph.1 The second half of the chapter looks in some detail at Freud’s early collaboration with his colleague and mentor, Josef Breuer. Part of the puzzle of the early history of psychoanalysis concerns the transition from Freud’s studies with Charcot to his discovery (or invention) of the unconscious in the course of his treatment of a wide range of neurotic patients in Vienna in the closing years of the nineteenth century. In particular, Breuer’s account of the case of Anna O., and Freud’s response to it, can be used to bring into focus the difference of Freud’s thinking about hallucination and memory, narrative and fantasy – the concepts through which Freud begins to elaborate psychoanalysis as a mode of interpretation which can be brought to bear on the experience, and objects, of modern culture.
The spectacle of hysteria
A proper assessment and a better understanding of the disease only began with the works of Charcot and of the school of the Salpêtrière inspired by him. Up to that time hysteria had been the bête noire of medicine. The poor hysterics, who in earlier centuries had been burnt or exorcised, were only subjected, in recent, enlightened times, to the curse of ridicule. (Sigmund Freud, ‘Hysteria’ (1888))
… these symptoms have the body as their theatre. (Monique David-Ménard, Hysteria from Freud to Lacan (1989))
In the summer of 1885, the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Vienna awarded a travelling grant to the young Sigmund Freud (‘by thirteen votes to eight’, he wrote, jubilantly, to his fiancée, Martha Bernays, on 20 June that year (Freud 1992: 155)). Freud had applied for the grant with one aim in view: to study with the renowned Jean-Martin Charcot, Professor of Neuropathology at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris. ‘In the distance’, Freud recalled, years later, in his ‘Autobiographical Study’, ‘shone the great name of Charcot’ – the man who, with some daring, was transforming medical understanding of the symptoms gathered under the term ‘hysteria’ (Freud 1925: 11). Hysteria, ‘the most enigmatic of all nervous diseases’, as Freud calls it in his obituary for Charcot (Freud 1893: 19).
As both disease and enigma, hysteria has a long history, one that can be traced back to the oldest sources of recorded medicine (the Egyptian Kahun Papyrus, from about 1900 BC, for example, deals with the manifestations of hysteria). Yet, as Ilza Veith points out in her fascinating study of the disease, hysteria ‘defies definition’, resisting and adapting itself to the diverse cultures in which it occurs (Veith 1965: 1). From the ‘migratory womb’ diagnosed by the ancient Greeks – ‘Sorely disturbed, and straying about in the body’, writes Plato in Timaeus – to the chimera of sexuality and demonism common to the Middle Ages, to the battery of debilitation – paralysis, convulsion, vomiting – described by physicians through the nineteenth century, hysteria appears to mutate according to the concerns, and contradictions, of its culture (7, 120). At the same time, there is something enduring in the symptoms that have taken on its name. Notably, from the Greek hystera (womb), hysteria announces its privileged association with women and the disorders of female sexuality. It is an association, at once ancient and modern, which will become a powerful resource for both psychoanalysis and cinema.
When, in 1975, Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément sketched an account of early cinema as part of the modern institutionalisation of hysteria, they pointed to the tangled relations among psychoanalysis, femininity and spectacle which are the subject of this chapter. In the ‘expressive, expressionistic women of the silent films, their mouths open wide in unformulated cries’, Cixous and Clément find an image of the women who helped Freud to bring psychoanalysis into being (Cixous and Clément 1986: 13). A cinema of silent women: seduced, seductive, suffering. That silence, its presentation as a pleasure and distress to be looked at, sustains this feminist analogy between cinema and the controversial psychology of hysteria emerging towards the end of the nineteenth century. As we will see, in his use of photography as a technique for visualising mental illness, Charcot has his place in the history of that institutionalisation of hysteria. Charcot and cinema share a passion for looking and recording what is seen. At the same time, the lack of an identifiable organic cause for the dramatic disturbances of the body taking place at the Salpêtrière Hospital points to the realm of (psycho) pathology that will captivate Freud: the work of mind and feeling in the production of the hysterical symptom.
Freud’s trip to Paris was decisive. Arriving in the city in October 1885, he was immediately seduced by what he described as the ‘plethora of new and interesting material’ on display in Charcot’s clinic (Freud 1886: 9). A hospital for women, the Salpêtrière housed some 5,000 patients; the ‘dregs of society’, as Veith calls them: ‘neurotic indigents, epileptics, and insane patients, many of whom were deemed incurable’ (Veith 1965: 236, 229). As senior physician, Charcot was in charge of the Department of Ordinary Epileptics, and immersed in the problems of hysteria. ‘We are faced’, he noted, ‘with a kind of living pathological museum of considerable resources’ (Pontalis 1981: 20). Convulsions, paralyses, contractions, tics, hallucinations: the symptoms encountered by Charcot were often extraordinary, a wild theatre of bodies. With his background in pathological anatomy – the investigation of the body as a clue to the understanding of disease – Charcot began to explore that theatre. The arc en cercle, for example, in which the body is ‘bent in a bow-like curve and is supported only by the neck and the feet; the hair is dishevelled; the extremities are agitated by the clonic “grands mouvements” of flexion and extension and the mouth is opened widely’ (Veith 1965: 231). An image of Bedlam, part of the chaos that confronted Charcot in his attempts to distinguish hysteria from other types of mental disorder suffered by the women of the Salpêtrière.
In so doing, Charcot was writing against a medical tradition which, as Freud was to point out in 1888, was in the habit of ‘allotting the descriptions “hysteria” and “hysterical” capriciously, and of throwing “hysteria” into a heap along with general nervousness, neurasthenia, many psychotic states and many neuroses’ (Freud 1888: 41-2). As the bête noire of the medical profession, hysteria was frequently ridiculed and dismissed, along with those who suffered from it. ‘These patients are veritable actresses’, wrote Jean-Pierre Falret in 1866, expressing a keen repugnance for the disease. ‘In one word, the life of the hysteric is nothing but one perpetual falsehood’ (Veith 1965: 211). It was a prevalent view through the nineteenth century: the hysteric as malingerer, liar, deviant (a counter to that other Victorian image of the woman as an ‘angel in the house’); hysteria as a ‘false’, or simulated, condition unworthy of serious attention.2 Against this, Charcot – a man with a ‘passion for careful observation and orderly classification’ – began to build up his clinical picture of the disease (Bernheimer and Kahane 1985: 6). ‘He used to look again and again at the things he did not understand’, Freud recalls in 1893, ‘to deepen his impression of them day by day, till suddenly an understanding of them dawned on him’ (Freud 1893: 12). But looking, and looking again, Charcot could discover no organic cause for what was happening to his patients: there was nothing ‘wrong’ with their bodies. At the same time, he insisted, whatever was wrong was real; hysteria was not simply a vicious plea for attention, its suffering was neither false nor feigned. The disease, he insisted, could also occur in men, a claim likely to arouse protest amongst some medical professionals. For Charcot, the symptoms of so-called ‘railway brain’ (a phenomenon observed in the (often male) victims of railway, and industrial, accidents) matched his own extensive description of hysteria and hysterical attacks. In particular, the grande hystérie, the pure type of hysteria, being observed at the Salpêtrière. ‘An attack proper, if it is complete,’ Freud summarised in 1888, ‘manifests three phases’:
The first, “epileptoid”, phase resembles a common epileptic fit. […] The second phase, that of the “grands mouvements”, manifests movements of wide compass, such as what are known as “salaam” movements, arched attitudes (arc de cercle), contortions and so on. […] The third, hallucinatory, phase of a hysterical attack, the “attitudes passionnelles”, is distinguished by attitudes and gestures which belong to scenes of passionate movement, which the patient hallucinates and often accompanies with the corresponding words. During the entire attack consciousness may either be retained or be lost – more often the latter. (Freud 1888: 43)
‘Rare and strange material’, Freud notes, reporting back to the University of Vienna in 1886: the age-old enigma of hysteria (Freud 1886: 6). But, as the psychoanalyst Jean-Bertrand Pontalis has pointed out, Charcot uses that material to open up a ‘new space’ – a space charged with the prehistory of both psychoanalysis and cinema (Pontalis 1981: 20). ‘The stenographer is not a photographer,’ Charcot wrote to Freud in 1891; that is, Freud’s calm words cannot capture the visual shock of hysteria. His quiet reference to the resources available to Charcot at the Salpêtrière – among them, a ‘studio for photography’ – is no preparation for the impact of the spectacular record of hysteria that emerged from Charcot’s teaching (Gelfand 1988: 571; Freud 1886: 7). Compiled between 1876 and 1878, for example, the remarkable Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière is the product of an alliance between psychiatry and photography: its succession of images give a body to clinical accounts of the convulsions and contractures – as well as the moments of stillness and ecstasy – experienced at the Salpêtrière. ‘A roll-call for the phases and postures of the hysteric’, is how Pontalis describes it: ‘the art of eroticism’, a ‘sexual topography that could easily serve as a set of instructions for perverts (front view, back view, it’s all there!)’ (Pontalis 1981: 21).
A strong statement, but one which bears witness to a certain excess of, and a felt investment in, the body of the woman in Charcot’s vision of hysteria. There was a section designated for male hysterics at the Salpêtrière, but its Iconographie photographique… is a catalogue of women, variously posed: Supplication, Extase, Erotisme, Tetanisme. Images are staged, then staggered. As Stephen Heath points out in his discussion of these documents, there is a ‘series of plates for a single patient, an attempt at duration, a movement in time’; an attempt, that is, to figure the space and time of the unfolding of a hysterical attack (Heath 1992: 52). Some of the women are photographed over and over again. ‘The effect is of a kind of cinema’, Heath concludes, a response which echoes through the literatures on Charcot’s imaging of the hysteric. ‘Film avant la lettre’, proclaims Friedrich Kittler in the course of a brief discussion of Freud, Charcot and improvements in the speed of photographic processes from the late 1870s: ‘Charcot’s engineer Albert Londe, inventor of the Rolleiflex, had already in 1883 built a camera with nine or twelve lenses that took successive snap shots on the command of a metronome’ (Kittler 1997: 94).
Cinema avant la lettre? The camera, as Kittler indicates, helps Charcot to see something: ‘How beautiful and grand must the hysterical curve have turned out when cameras were able to store or produce it’ (ibid.: 94). A new technology of vision enables an image of beauty, grandeur, eroticism and, perhaps, violation. The impact of Iconographie photographique… owes something to the intimacy, and intrusion, exercised by the camera closing in on women with tongues protruding, faces and neck in spasm. This is an obliteration of privacy that casts the hysteric in the role of the grotesque (the other side of the eroticism emphasised by Pontalis). Again, it is an intrusion that finds a parallel in early cinema. Consider, for example, the ‘experiment with the moving camera’ described by Noël Burch in his brief commentary on A Subject for the Rogues Gallery, a Biograph film from 1904, in which three men force a woman (a prostitute) to pose for the camera:
The prostitute tries to avert her gaze but the men force her to confront the oncoming camera; still struggling to withhold her image she contorts her features; but finally, in close-up, she breaks down and cries. (Burch 1990: 271)
It is an experiment which gestures towards the future of cinema as an institution, Burch suggests: ‘the violation of the female face’. This early, and cogent, model of the film-spectator relation travels from the pro-filmic event to the image of looking on screen – a mix of voyeurism and sadism which psychoanalytic theory has made central to its analysis of the pleasures, and distresses, of cinema. In so doing, that theory is taking its cue from a cinema that continues to probe the acts, and scenes, of looking to which it is so closely bound. Think, for example, of Michael Powell’s still controversial Peeping Tom (1960). The story of a young man who films the terrified faces of his (female) victims as he kills them, Powell’s film seems both to confirm Burch’s insight into the destination of cinema and to hark back to the surveillance of the female body which supports Charcot’s studies in hysteria. The transfer of sadistic voyeurism from man to woman, from father to son (in Peeping Tom, the murderer has been traumatised by his father’s intrusive surveillance) is one of the privileged themes of Powell’s film – a theme in which a psychoanalysis of cin...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Series List
  3. Title Page
  4. Copyright
  5. Contents
  6. acknowledgements
  7. introduction
  8. 1. from charcot to freud: the origins of psychoanalysis
  9. 2. through the looking-glass: mirror/Dream/Screen
  10. 3. A Brief Interlude: Screening Freud
  11. 4. typical dreams
  12. 5. the woman in question
  13. conclusion
  14. notes
  15. bibliography
  16. index
Citation styles for Psychoanalysis and Cinema

APA 6 Citation

Lebeau, V. (2019). Psychoanalysis and Cinema ([edition unavailable]). Columbia University Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2019)

Chicago Citation

Lebeau, Vicky. (2019) 2019. Psychoanalysis and Cinema. [Edition unavailable]. Columbia University Press.

Harvard Citation

Lebeau, V. (2019) Psychoanalysis and Cinema. [edition unavailable]. Columbia University Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Lebeau, Vicky. Psychoanalysis and Cinema. [edition unavailable]. Columbia University Press, 2019. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.