Hysteria and my mystics class
Symptoms of hysteria include "anorexia, carried to the pitch of rejection of all nourishment, various forms of disturbance of vision, constantly recurrent visual hallucinations, etc." (p 4) These are remarkably similar to some of the signs of holiness in mystics. Saint Claire (?) starved herself to death. Hildegard of Bingen had a constant disturbance of vision and frequent visions, which some might term hallucinations. Breuer and Freud were not unfamiliar with these similarities. They claim that hysteria results from repressed reaction to trauma, and hence is common in "saints and nuns" (p 11) as well as others taught to repress their feelings. Thus this paper seeks not only to define hysteria and explain its cause, but also to explain why "saints and nuns" are so often effected. It is not approaching mysticism neutrally, but with the idea of explaining the phenomenon as illness. The writers go so far in making this connection, that they refer to a certain set of symptoms as a "hysterical stigmata." (p 15)
However, the hidden symptoms they attribute to hysteria do fit extremely well in finding a non-mystical explanation for mystics. They claim that dissociative states, otherwise known as "splitting of consciousness" or multiple personalities, are "present to a rudimentary degree in every hysteria . . .." (p 12) Thus, hysterics have two voices. One is their own voice, and one is the voice of the "hypnoid states" that hysterics enter into during hysterical attacks. "The ideas which emerge [during hysterical attacks or hypnosis] are very intense but are cut off from associative communication with the rest of the content of consciousness." (p 12) Therefore, the ideas do not exist in an accessible form during the hysterics normal, waking self. They are ideas from an internal other.
Breuer and Freud assert that hysterics enter into hypnoid states for a few reasons. One is excessive daydreaming, "to which needlework and similar occupations render women especially prone." (p 13) Thus they continue to define hysteria as female. The case studies where they find the root causes of hysteria include examples of men and women. In all cases though, the victims endured some trauma and were powerless to stop it. The hysterical man was physically attacked by his boss. (p 14) He was thus feminized and made subordinate through physical force. His attacks also stemmed from having been unable to win a case against his boss in court. The hysterical man was thus denied access to power through normal channels. He was thus feminized and responded to that in an affective, feminine manner. This is similar to the condition of female religious who can never rise in power through the church, due to their gender. They also had an affective hysterical response, which at the time allowed some of them to gain power. This powerlessness shows up again when the writers describe the typical hysteric, "They include girls who get out of bed at night so as secretly to carry on some study that their parents have forbidden from fear of their overworking." (p 240) Girls who are barred from gaining power, in this case knowledge, through normal channels. As the lives of our mystics are not well known, it's hard to know how much they fall into these patterns. It's easy, though, to imagine Joan of Arc, the self-proclaimed best spinner in all of Domremy, working and day dreaming about leading soldiers to battle.
The mystic who most closely matches hysteria as defined by Breuer and Freud, is Kempe. Her woes started during a time of trauma surrounding childbirth and lead her to experience hallucinations of demons and other hysterical symptoms for months. Even when that ceased, she continued to have hysterical symptoms, similar to those described by Breuer: "Every pain, however, caused, reaches maximum intensity, every ailment is 'fearful' and 'unbearable'. . . . We find nervous palpitation of the heart, a tendency to fainting, proneness to excessive blushing and turning pale, and so on." (p 241) It fits perfectly with a Freudian hypothesis that her traumatic event was sexual and her visions and her issues surrounding her husband were of a sexual nature. Breuer goes on to say that auto-hypnosis, such as Kempe's visions, "develops from reveries that are charged with affect." (p 248) For example, Kempe's in depth day dreams about the passion of Christ or of serving the Blessed Virgin while she was pregnant may qualify. Kempe reports crying constantly during these meditations. Perhaps her praying for visions was a form of auto-hypnosis which triggered her hysterical states. Perhaps all successful prayers for visions are auto-hypnosis.