In my travels around the internet, searching for work on the intersection between Georges Bataille and Jacques Lacan, I stumbled across Simon Elmer’s work at a site called The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. In 2012, he produced a book-length work on Bataille, “The Colour of the Sacred,” which is a piece of extensive scholarship. However, what caught my eye in the chapter on “The Point of Ecstasy” was his reference to the French psychologist Pierre Janet and his two-volume work “From Agony to Ecstasy.” Published in 1927-28, it documents almost two decades study of ‘Madeleine,’ a woman suffering from bouts of what he considered religious hysteria 1. The research has not been published in English, but it is available online in French. As I began to read the online version of the texts, I realized my French wasn’t as bad as I thought it was.
From the point of view of a creative writer, there is no way not to view this twenty-year relationship as a love affair. She absorbs him for twenty years. She paints, she writes constantly – and so eloquently that it is she who gives him the names for the different stages of her illness. He observers her, photographs her, charts her breathing, pulse and brain waves during her fugue states.
The works he produced positions her as a scientific object of study – a map of insanity and suffering. But the writer in me feels the need to turn the spotlight back onto him and his motivations. He spends a good portion of his life documenting, to put it in Lacanian terms, female jouissance. It is possible to read into this a progression on the part of the scientist, from detached, positivist interest, to doubt (since she is brought to the Pitié-Salpétrière Hospital after having been arrested for vagrancy and prostitution), to empathy and finally, in a sense, to envy. Her ecstasies are something he will never have access to.
I have to wonder if a man, so involved in a world of rational thought and so engaged in documenting the phenomena of mental illness, contrasted against a socially normative benchmark, might come to see that other existence as an experience of life on a transgressional, wholly interior plane.
I like the idea of him as a figure of power within the Foucaultian ‘Clinic.’ Where symptoms of abnormality are cataloged and thereby controlled 2. It smells of medicalized BDSM. But the difference between the doctor and the sadist is that the doctor will not admit to his enjoyment of the power dynamic of the situation. And yet, I have to wonder if, year after year, the constant witnessing of her agonies, her aridities, her tortures and her ascensions into ecstasies wouldn’t take a toll on him. I think they would pull him in, make him wish he, too, could give himself over to that release of the rational – to that state of female jouissance.
Lacan identified three types of jouissance: the phallic, the female and the jouissance of the Other. He did not say that female jouissance was solely available to women. In fact, he points out that men, like St. John of the Cross, experienced it 3.
So, I’d like to chart this man’s evolution of jouissance, from the phallic which he enjoys as being in a position of authority and power within the culture of the clinic, to jouissance of the Other during his rejection of her enjoyment as malingering, and finally to the entry into that experience of female jouissance when he finally comes to believe that what she is experiencing is not simply the symptoms of an illness but something more. Something mystical.
I believe, even from my very brief survey of the work, that there is justification for me to take these liberties. Even his choice of a title “From From Agony to Ecstasy” is significant. Unlike his contemporaries, he doesn’t use the medical jargon of his field to title this work. Unlike Freud with his “Psychopathology of Everyday Life” or “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality“, or even Lacan’s “The Language of the Self: The Function of Language in Psychoanalysis” or The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis,” Janet uses his patient’s language for the title of his text.
I have some serious amounts of research ahead of me. Not only to struggle through both volumes of Janet’s work in French, but to get a sense of the setting – the Pitié-Salpétrière at the turn of the last century – and the sociopolitical and scientific culture of the times. The hospital is a character in itself, having originally been a gun-powder factory and then a prison for prostitutes, the insane and a large population of rats. It became known for its progressive psychiatric unit, and hosted a number of notable doctors, including Jean-Martin Charcot, the father of modern neurology, Sigmund Freud, and later, Jacques Lacan himself.
- Elmer, S. (2012). III . The Point of Ecstasy. In The Colour of the Sacred: Georges Bataille and the Image of Sacrifice (Vol. 1, pp. 299–329). Retrieved from http://thesorcerersapprenticeonline.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/the-point-of-ecstasy8.pdf ↩
- Foucault, M., & Sheridan, A. (2003). The Birth of the Clinic. Taylor & Francis. Retrieved from http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=c53DEY3-qtcC ↩
- Rabate, J.-M. (Ed.). (2003). The Cambridge Companion to Lacan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CCOL0521807441. p. 228 ↩