Nowadays, the mention of Sigmund Freud may not inspire distinctly positive ideas. Despite his prime discoveries occurring more than a century ago, contemporary society is still aware of the neurologist’s conception of erotic psychoanalysis, his theory of the Oedipus complex, alongside many others which have probably found their way into ‘Cards Against Humanity’. However, the extent to which Freud’s studies are embedded in 21st century consciousness is a strong indication of his achievements in revolutionising the science of psychology: indeed, a notion that Hysteria expertly communicates.
This graphic novel account of Freud’s early career in his attempt to remove stigmas surrounding hysteria – whilst also arriving at a cure – not only delves into the fascinating subject of psychoanalytic studies, but humanises the man behind the myth. Depicting his struggles with internal self-doubt and external Jewish persecution, Appignanesi crafts an image of Freud worthy of sympathy and admiration.
The pioneer of psychoanalysis was invited to work alongside Jean-Martin Charcot in the female asylum – La Salpêtrière – studying the traits of hysteria in comparison with epilepsy. Indeed, Freud came to the revolutionary conclusion that hysteria was not a hereditary defect, as late nineteenth-century scientists believed, but rather the product of internal repression stemming from harrowing experiences. The representations of these female cases were particularly harrowing and sexually graphic, although successfully treated with delicacy and compassion. Even so, Hysteria could be interpreted as presenting Freud as a protector of misunderstood women, whilst modern feminists may find this contradictory given his studies concerning ideas of patriarchal dominance. Whilst this was slightly parochial, Appignanesi brought to light many universal issues surrounding the sentiment of hysteria.
Drawing attention to the medieval treatment of women within nineteenth century science, didacticism was used by the author, demonstrating the ways in which hysterical behaviour exists in the everyday. The novel’s framed narrative, beginning with an elderly Freud nearing the end of his life, views in hindsight the errors of his career along with the ubiquitous notion of learning from past mistakes. It is in this way that Hysteria can be read not only as an educational and aesthetically engaging text, but one which delights in teaching more than simple facts.
Image: Wellcome Images/Wellcome Trust