Beyond Hysteria: From Frankenstein’s Monster to Hegel, Freud, and Paul

For most of human history people lived out their lives in the codified cocoon of traditional societies in which the cosmic order was presumed to dictate immutable laws determining every aspect of human life. One might respond by submitting or transgressing, but the laws were held in place by divine dictate. To change up the world order was not a possibility and was made a possibility only by one who would claim to be the way, the truth, and the life. Changing the world order is a possibility introduced by Christianity but the notion of freedom, even among the first Christian heretics, is perverted to mean an absolute freedom from all constraint.  Freedom from the law combined with the revolutionary notion of recreating the world, apart from the specifics of the work of Christ, created a stream of thought already developing in the Corinthian Church but famously represented by such key figures as Descartes, Hegel and Nietzsche. Beginning with doubt and constructing from the foundations up (Descartes), with death and nothingness itself as foundational (Hegel), philosophy marked the turning to a radical freedom in which no values hold (Nietzsche).

This radicalized freedom not only expresses itself philosophically, but politically and socially (e.g. democratic revolutions including the American Revolution in which freedom is enshrined as an end in itself, and in Marxist and communist revolutionary movements). The death of God and of all enduring value, which Nietzsche describes personally and philosophically, Mary Shelley captures in a new genre of literature (some say, the first science fiction novel) in which the main character is literally “constructed.” Utilizing new scientific developments (chemistry, galvanism), Victor Frankenstein creates, according to the creature himself, one that “ought to be thy Adam,” but is instead “the fallen angel.” Robert Louis Stevenson, as well, poses the possibility of the reinvention of humanity from within, but his Mr. Hyde, much like Frankenstein’s monster, rises up to destroy his creator.

The possibility of reconstructing, from scratch, what it means to be human unleashes a plague of possibility. Beyond good and evil, unchained from the worlds sun, not only describes a philosophical realization but a nearly unbearable psychology and a new form of personality or personality disorder. The spirit of the age, in its questioning of everything, manifests in a subject, sometimes literally paralyzed, with questions.

Sigmund Freud invents a new form of healing, “the talking cure,” aimed primarily at this modern disease of “hysteria.”  In an age in which ideas were presumed primary, Freud posed the possibility that hysteric symptoms were not simply neurological but arose from suppressed trauma which could be cured through reconstructing repressed memories. Words and human speech (free-association and interpretation), in this understanding, were seen to literally heal the lame and open the eyes of the blind (paralysis and involuntary closing of the eyes being some of the symptoms of hysteria).

Jacques Lacan comes to define hysteria as a structure of the Subject. Though the Subject does not exhibit bodily symptoms, she may be classified as hysteric due to the organizing question Lacan associates with hysteria. Where obsessional neurosis is structured around the question of existence (think here of the Cartesian cogito in attempting to establish being through thought), hysteria is structured around human sexuality: “Am I a man or a woman?” or “What is a woman?”

Isn’t this precisely the possibility posed by the Apostle? Doesn’t Paul describe freedom from the contingencies of every circumstance (gender is completely plastic – neither male nor female; ethnicity is set aside – neither Jew nor Greek; economics and social status are rendered inoperative – neither slave nor free)? Isn’t this a rejection of all the contingencies of embodied circumstance, such that reality is a completely open possibility?

For Slavoj Žižek, this hysterical possibility is not simply a disease but it is the cure for the more oppressive obsessional neurosis, obtained only in passage through a Pauline Christianity. Žižek and Lacan describe the personality which takes shape around this open possibility as “feminine.”  It is not just that Freud’s early patients were women but Lacan is contrasting this understanding with the closed “masculine” orientation (worked out here) in which reality is rule governed and everything can be described according to the rules it follows. Where the masculine Subject experiences the law as a foreign crushing power, the feminine Subject constitutes itself as “not all” in regard to the law.  Where the masculine form is one in which the law is omnipotent and omniscient the feminine position posits an incompleteness or lack in the law.  Where the masculine form might be associated with ontotheology and transcendence (the transcendent exception proves the rule), the feminine form questions the Other behind the law in its transcendence and might be associated with a radical immanence such as atheism or materialism. The masculine is the positivist universe of Newtonian science which presumes that reality immediately presents itself as a definitive construct. The feminine revolves around a negation or absence – an incompleteness, absence, or void in the law.

Žižek traces the genealogy of this feminine subject through Hegel’s development of Pauline Christianity.  Hegel specifies the nature of the void in the law (the background of Lacan’s feminine sexuation) in his Phenomenology in deploying Luther’s translation of Paul’s κατηργηται in his key term Aufhebung. Hegel is describing the manner in which the occurrence of language creates a negative “space” (a suspension of the law) on which all the positive elements of language and reality depend.  For example, the simple term “This” can only have a positive reference against the background of everything else which is “not This.”  “The This is, therefore, established as not This, or as something superseded (aufgehoben); and hence not as nothing, but as a determinate Nothing, the Nothing of a content, viz. of the This.”[1] Though Hegel works this out as a characteristic of language, his presumption is that this negative space in language reflects the role of nothingness and death in reality.

Hegel and Paul, in Žižek’s view, are able to describe the formation of an alternative Subject through taking up this death and nothingness which suspend the positive force of the law, or in Paul’s terms “dying with Christ.”  In death the predicates of the law no longer apply, so that by tarrying in the realm of negation there is the possibility of reconstituting the Subject in the feminine orientation. Thus “Hegel is the most sublime of hysterics” (according to Lacan) in which hysteria describes a new form of freedom.

All of this to say, that there is a new form of the Subject traced through Paul to modern thought which would attain to a new form of freedom, not through the specific work of the death of Christ, but through death per se. Paul, in I Corinthians 6, is already dealing with the contradictions of this new theological and psychological freedom. He has already dealt with Corinthian legalism among those claiming to judge, divide, and wanting to stand as arbiters of the law (the masculine orientation, and he has also dealt with its transgressive alternative I traced here). But now he is dealing with a peculiar lawlessness – one that is Christian and which utilizes Christ to proclaim total freedom.

The summation of the Corinthian argument is to be found in the notion: “I am free to do anything.” Paul notes that this is bad philosophy by quoting another philosopher: “not all things are beneficial.” The Corinthians seem to be misconstruing Paul’s description of freedom: “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor.” The way in which this freedom applies to food is very different from the way it applies to sex. “Eat anything that is sold in the meat market without asking questions for conscience’ sake; for the earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains” (I Cor. 10:23). The argument drawn from the indifference of meats (1 Co 8:8; Ro 14:14, 17; compare Mk 7:18; Col 2:20–22) is, perhaps, extrapolated by the Corinthians to include fornication.

Paul, however, does not simply suspend male and female and human sexuality but he sees it fulfilled by being “joined to Christ.” “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take away the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? May it never be!” (1 Co 6:15). In Romans 7 Paul utilizes this sexual metaphor, dealing first with the case of the woman who would declare herself free to love anyone, and replacing it with a new form of freedom: “Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God” (Ro 7:4). One is freed from the law through being joined to Christ and not simply through a reorientation to death.

The attempt to throw off every constraint – the stomach, food, and the body is, indeed, a particular orientation to death. Dying with Christ, however, is not simply a taking up of the Hegelian subject position, it is specifically to take up the cross-bearing servanthood of Christ. While Paul describes a new freedom in Christ, this freedom is realized by recognizing that “the one who joins himself to the Lord is one spirit with Him” (1 Co 6:17). By understanding “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own” one takes up this alternative freedom (1 Co 6:19). “For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Co 6:20).

This glorifying servitude is the freedom which lays down the heavy burden of establishing being (constructing personhood from the ground up) and recognizes that “your life is not your own.” While there is a reorientation to the law, recognizing that the law is not everything and the law does not constrain or compel, one is not left in a void. What replaces relationship to the law is recognition of who owns us and the service this entails.

[1] G. W. F Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 68.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.