Using the Embodied Language of the Other: Traces of Intimacy

So, I have found this wonderful, fertile piece of ephemera – this document that represents a relationship between Dr. Pierre Janet and his patient, Madeleine. It purports to be a careful and detailed study of one woman’s mental infirmity, scientific, objective, clinical. And indeed, the structure of the two volumes follow the characteristics of case-studies within the scientific discourse of the period.

From a critical perspective, I take the ideas of two theoreticians, Foucault and Bataille, into account when interrogating the positioning of the scientist to his subject in “From Agony to Ecstasy” 1

Madeleine’s life history is relayed to us, her mood swings and states of mind are enumerated, categorized and systematically documented. She is, as Foucault would put it, subject to the clinic’s ‘technologies of power’ and the ‘scientific gaze: “the gaze is not faithful to truth, nor subject to it, without asserting, at the same time, a supreme mastery: the gaze that sees is a gaze that dominates” 2

Although this hegemonic ‘gaze’ permeates both the structure and much of the language in Janet’s work, this is most strikingly exhibited in the visual material that is contained within the texts and reproduced here as exemplars.

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As  you can see, the photographic documentation becomes progressively more invasive, more intimate, and more voyeuristic.

However, as I touched on in my previous post, Janet’s documentation is informed in fundamental ways by Madeleine’s own writings. I think the language used in title of the text shows a ‘slippage’ in Janet’s position of authority. Not ‘A Study in Religious Hysteria‘ or some similarly ‘scientific’ title, “From Agony to Ecstasy” is a title which uses the language of the person experiencing the phenomena, not the person studying it.

Of more interest still is that Janet comes to identify the different stages of her psychological episodes using the names she herself gives them.

Schéma de la succession des états : 1 et 7: État d'équilibre. 2. État de tentation, 3. État de sécheresse, 4. État de torture, 5. État d'extase, 6. État de consolation.

Schéma de la succession des états : 1 et 7: État d’équilibre. 2. État de tentation, 3. État de sécheresse, 4. État de torture, 5. État d’extase, 6. État de consolation.

1. State of equilibrium. 2. State of temptation. 3. State of aridity (dryness). 4. State of torture. 5. State of ecstasy. 6. State of consolation. 3

According to Simon Elmer, after reading Janet’s study three times and although, in “Eroticism: Death and Sensuality,” Bataille takes as his point of departure Janet’s documentation of Madeleine’s series of ‘states’, he also criticizes him for his ‘external’ approach to the subject of ecstatic mysticism 4. However, I think it is significant that Janet uses Madeleine’s language and not the language of the clinic to chart her states of mind. Regardless of the veneer of professional detachment, the fact that he allows her vocabulary to enter his work, not just to note her utterances but consistently and in such crucial ways indicates to me, as a creative writer, that he is at least straddling the fence of his allegiances.

These words she uses for her experience: temptation, aridity, torture, ecstasy and consolation, are not part of medical discourse; this is embodied language 5.

Obviously, as a writer of fiction, I could simply invent an intimacy between Pierre Janet and Madeleine that was never there. I’m not suggesting that creative writers need proofs of historical realities in order to weave their fictions. However, both Foucault and Bataille have offered me an additional ‘way in’ to the fiction I am about to create.

And so I begin to conceive of this relationship buried in the words of this piece of medical ephemera, as transgressive and perverse. Janet’s eye is not a dispassionate one, and his acquisition of her language is perhaps proof of this. This woman who ends up under his care in the Salpêtrière Hospital is an enigma: she says she has eschewed all physical pleasures and has vowed to live a life of complete abjection. But, in the time period, isn’t prostitution part and parcel of the female experience of abject poverty? In fact, before she is admitted into Janet’s care, she has been arrested for vagabondage and prostitution and she chooses as her pseudonym the name of the most infamous of all biblical prostitutes.

Within the medical discourse of the time, prostitution’s most worrying aspect is as a vector of venereal disease, which, in those days could result in madness.  And here we have Madeleine, infecting him with her language, her syphilis of the soul:

This language has the power of a ‘‘contagion’’ that makes a certain demand on its listeners, for they interpret themselves through the same language, and cannot help but take up new uses of words into their webs of meaning. 6.


  1. Janet, P. (1926). De l’angoisse à l’extase – Tome I. Paris: Librairie Félix Alcan.
  2. Foucault, M. (2003). The Birth of the Clinic. (A. Sheridan, Trans.). Taylor & Francis. p.60
  3. Janet, P. (1926). De l’angoisse à l’extase – Tome 1 – ch.3-5. Retrieved from p. 72
  4. 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
  5. Wright, K. (2012). Embodied Language. In P. Williams, J. Keene, & S. Dermen (Eds.), Independent Psychoanalysis Today (pp. 271–296). London: Karnac Books.
  6. Moyar, D., & Quante, M. (Eds.). (2008). Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit: A Critical Guide. Cambridge University Press.

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