Madeleine, Ascended – Notes for a Story

madeleine,-ascendedIn 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.




  1. 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
  2. Foucault, M., & Sheridan, A. (2003). The Birth of the Clinic. Taylor & Francis. Retrieved from
  3. Rabate, J.-M. (Ed.). (2003). The Cambridge Companion to Lacan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CCOL0521807441. p. 228

8 Thoughts on “Madeleine, Ascended – Notes for a Story

  1. Daemon on December 9, 2013 at 1:53 pm said:

    Achingly fascinating consideration hm? I often find in my work that there is much to learn not only from the “subject” but equally and sometimes more so, the one who is studying.

  2. It is, I think, part of the structure of power in the clinic that those with authority, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, use the formality and strictures of empiricism as a mask behind which they can hide and not be examined. I like the idea of reading between the lines to get some sense of him and why he spent half of his professional life studying her.

  3. This will be a fascinating project! Too bad I can’t access the text since I don’t read French.

  4. korhomme on December 11, 2013 at 10:45 am said:

    I expect that you’ve done a bit of background research on Charcot and Janet. Part of their work was on ‘hysteria’ which, as I understand it, was to connect apparently somatic symptoms with previous psychological problems. They, or at least Charcot, thought that such ‘hysterical’ patients were particularly susceptible to Mesmerism or hypnosis. Freud attended for a while, but found the demonstrations of hypnosis in ‘hysteria’ more like a music hall entertainment than something properly scientific; for this reason he left.

    Janet’s name is found in ‘the hysterical conversion of Janet’. ‘Hysteria’ has been replaced by ‘conversion disorder’ today, and the whole idea of ‘hysteria’ is felt to be very suspect.

    Which is all a rather roundabout way to suggest that Janet may not be the most reliable of narrators, and perhaps you should approach his ideas with caution.

  5. What is notable about this text, if you’d care to read it since I know you read French, is that in the entire 800 pages, he doesn’t mention hysteria once. Probably because it was going out of fashion as a diagnosis by the time he published the book in 1926.

    It is my most fervent hope that he’s an incredibly unreliable narrator, and that his unreliability reveals him!

    Nonetheless, this is the document we have. There really isn’t any point – especially when creating a fiction out of it – in angsting over whether he’s a liar. Everyone’s a liar in some way. That’s what makes taking something like this and turning into a fictional work so delicious.

    You’re looking for absolutes again, Korhomme 😛

  6. korhomme on December 11, 2013 at 1:58 pm said:

    A couple of words in your text caught my eye; but I did read all three posts, and found that the same thought had occurred to you; it’s in the last part of the third post.

    “Prostitution” and “vagrancy” would strongly suggest to me that Madeleine was a streetwalker; and as a group, these were the people at most risk of syphilis a century or more ago.

    The diagnostic problem with (late) syphilis is revealed in its nickname, “The great Imitator”. Just about any disease you can think of would include syphilis in its differential diagnosis. There was no serological test for syphilis until the early 1900s; in the late stage of the disease this Wassermann Reaction (or WR) can be negative.

    Until perhaps 50 years ago, there was the curious idea that “syphilis was good for you”. This seems to have come from creative, artistic types, whose prowess was (wrongly) thought to be due to their infection. It seems much more probable that creative, artistic, Bohemian types were much more likely to get syphilis. For example, James Joyce sought Oliver St John Gogarty’s (aka “Buck Mulligan”) help for a dose he had caught in Dublin’s Monto; Gogarty congratulated Joyce, saying that it would make him a real artist. (It’s not clear if Joyce caught syphilis or the clap; but the suggestion that it was syphilis has been used to account for his iritis, etc.)

    Janet certainly knew this, and may have bought into the “syphilis is good for you idea”, and have been aware of the various “folies” it can produce. Did he sublimate this, as an “unreliable” narrator, into Madeleine’s words?

    (I can’t work out what Madeleine’s early medical problems might have been. And, sadly, my French isn’t really that good; my German is much better. I certainly look for simplicity; perhaps I really do seek absolutes 🙂 )

  7. Heheh. Ironically, I’m not nearly as interested in what Madeleine’s early medical problems were as I am in Pierre Janet’s reaction to her. From what I can tell, she wasn’t actually suffering from syphilis. My allusion to the disease is a play on the intersection between her provenance and name, Janet’s adoption of her language, and Hegel’s ideas on language as a contagion.

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