Dora Flees: Is There Anything Left to Say About Hysterics?


The author re-reads Dora’s case, stressing how much in fact the psychoanalytic theory of hysteria in general has not solved the enigma of the hysterical form of life. He remarks also that by the word “hysteria” we can no longer consider just some specific symptoms–notably conversion or somatization–but rather observe a general vocation for a lack of satisfaction by a subject. The author tries to account for the reasons of this constitutive lack of satisfaction (a potential enjoyment which cannot become actual), highlighting the hysterical capacity for multiple identifications and role-playing. Reconsidering Lacan’s approach to hysteria–which is focused on the hysteric’s basic homosexual position–the author objects
that hysteria goes beyond this position to occupy all the available identificatory and objectal positions.

1. “What the devil does she want?”
Is there anything left to say about Dora’s Case, which Freud published in
1905? Hasn’t everything already been said and written about the girl whom Freud
saw for less than three months over a century ago, after what has been written since
Freud? Isn’t what’s been said on hysterics in the 19-20th century enough on the
whole? A century after the invention of psychoanalysis, born as a cure for hysteria,
isn’t it time to shelve, once and for all, this “magnificent child of
psychoanalysis” (as Nasio calls hysteria) among the problems that have been solved?
But, after having read over several decades Freud’s texts on hysterics, there is
a hard core I still don’t quite understand. At every re-reading, I have the inkling
that something does not tally. This not only my personal feeling: as M. Csabai
shows in this same JEP issue, both psychoanalysts and common readers, after having
bulimically digested so many writings on hysterics, are still hungry and exclaim:
“But, in the end, what the devil does a hysteric want?”
The devil, in fact. In many languages one says “what the devil…” to convey
something which vexes us because it is incomprehensible. Not by chance did 19th
century medical discourse establish an elective affinity between hysterics and the
devil. Positivist theory taught us that the poor witches burnt alive–including St.
Joan of Arc–were actually women suffering from hysterical symptoms, just as those
who Jesus cured as possessed by the devil were actually the mentally ill. Today, in
light of the latest historical analysis (e.g. starting with M. Foucault), the
witches=hysterics identification is out of fashion. Today we tend to distinguish the
witchcraft’s theological discourse from the medical-psychiatric discourse on
hysteria. But yet…
It is no coincidence that feminist thinking evokes both witches and hysterics as
precursors of the feminine question. Both appear as emblematic figures of a
fundamental feminine discontent. And both provoke, in men and women alike, the
crucial question: what in the devil do they want? What if that is just what they want,
the devil?—or maybe, “that’s exactly it, she wants a diabolic love”. After a century
of Dorology—i.e., expert texts about Dora—we must still acknowledge her devilish
dimension. Lacan expressed this “devilry” by saying that hysterics’ essential desire
is to have an unsatisfied desire—a desire for potential (in potentia) but never acted
out (in actu) pleasure. “The devil” the hysteric loves would thus be desire itself—
and, if satisfied, would die as desire. Can we say that there is something outdated,
almost medieval, in Dora?
2. An illness to feign an illness?
Hysterics—analysts say—today are no longer topical: they’re practically as
rare as witches. Psychiatry today is interested in narcissistic personalities,
depression, multiple personalities, panic attacks. DSM-IV has done away with the
word hysteria, fragmenting it into different syndromes, one of which is Somatization
Disorder, simply noting that the historical term was “hysteria” or “Briquet
The disuse of the term hysteria is certainly related to political correctness in
US, insofar as the term is derived from usteron, uterus—linguistic cleansing
dismisses a macho term like hysteria. DSM-IV refers to Somatization Disorder as
occurring in between 0.2 and 2% of women, and in less than 0.2% of men: the
feminine nature of the disorder is admitted statistically, but repressed from the
nomenclature. And while it is often thought that psychoanalytic thinking has also
“disproved” the idea that hysteria is a female specificity, insofar as it speaks of male
hysterics, it is also true that Freudian theoreticians claim that both male and female
hysterics have a problem with femininity: in short, hysteric men don’t quite
understand the exact meaning… of their being female. A human being with a penis
can be hysteric, but for psychoanalysis hysteria indicates a problem with femininity.
Bollas justifies the publication of his recent book on hysteria with the fact that
he was struck by the frequency of hysteria cases brought to him for supervision…
Again and again, even in my non-professional life, I am bumping into hysterics.
The symptom known as “bolus hystericus” (sensation of choking) is part of everyday
psychiatric experience. Yet psychiatry apparently is no longer concerned with
hysterics because it considers them a solved case, thanks to Freud. Nowadays “howto-treat-a-hysteric” is part of everyone’s know-how. So, in Chaplin’s Limelight,
Calvero the clown cures a young hysteric ballerina, restoring her ability to use her
legs using a quick Freudian interpretation. Of course, in the US at the time of the
film (1952) psychoanalysis was all the rage, and even a clown knew how to act with
a hysteric.
The Freudian theory on hysteria has apparently been wiped out by its own
success. In old hysteria, what interested—and often irritated—doctors most was
somatic conversion, that is a pseudo-organic disorder. Hysteria was an illness
consisting in feigning an illness: each apparent sufferer was reintroduced into the
diagnostic system as “a sufferer for appearances”. From Charcot to Freud, via
Pierre Janet, hysteria has been identified with “suffering for mental representations”.
But is the illness of not being ill as important to the hysteric as it is to the doctor?
Does hysteria really essentially consist in a forged illness? In this case, medicine
projects its categories and priorities upon the very existence of its patients–but as
Freud already glimpsed, hysterics sometimes don’t even care about their conversion
symptoms (their belle indifférence).
[I am not implying that somatization is unimportant in hysteria, but it should
be seen in light of a larger picture of the hysteric specificity: that is, that the hysteric
must confront a void (or lack, castration, frustration, loss) in reality itself.
Certainly, the most handy reality is that of one’s own body, but it can also be found
outside. Take for example a male hysteric who, despite being an excellent student,
consistently failed all his University exams: his academic failure was his conversion.
What counts, in hysteria, is that the subject experience a real impotence, a chronic
lack of satisfaction, which can either be connected to one’s own bodily functions
(for example, sight in hysteric blindness) or come from without, in the impact with
a world which rejects him/her. As we will see, Dora’s main “conversion” is her
impotency in re-gaining her father’s love and cutting off his affair with his lover.
Dora suffers more for her father’s “betrayal” than for her somatic pains. The socalled hysteric conversion is just an aspect of what I would prefer to call a missed
conversion of hysteria—just as we say that a country has missed its opportunity for
conversion from socialism to capitalism, or from an agricultural economy to an
industrial one.]
Freud was after all a doctor and grounded in the medical discourse of his time,
when, like today, the diagnosis of an illness, defined by its symptoms, was essential.
Philosophy, literary criticism and art history today use extensively terms like
symptoms or symptomatic), but we should not forget that to speak of symptoms is to
speak as a doctor. And the typical symptoms of hysteria are conversions, a sine
materia handicap. DSM, talking of somatization, follows medicine on the issue of
hysteria: the somatic appearance of disorders.
Freud, to make his etiological theory acceptable, needed first of all to prove
that he was able to explain hysteria’s symptoms of conversion and to cure them.
Freud aimed to prove that to-be-apparently-ill was an illness in itself, insofar as it
was possible to be cured—the logical consecutio between illness and recovery was
inverted, with recovery demonstrating that there had been an illness. Psychoanalysts
have often taken the medical context of Freud’s argument too literally, without
noticing that at a certain point Freud was forced to leave the medical model behind,
realizing that the medical symptomatology for hysteria was only the tip of the
iceberg of being an hysteric. To define hysteria on the basis of conversion is a bit
like defining Catholics as “those who don’t eat meat on Friday”… Some women
can be defined hysterics even in the (near) absence of any relevant somatic
symptoms. It is important i to see the whole hysteric iceberg. Like the Titanic,
Freud’s technique hit Dora’s iceberg Dora—and this is what I will analyze here.
3. Dora’s besser Weg
Dora’s case—while the best-known–certainly does not owe its fame to
hysteric symptomatology in the medical sense. Freud himself stressed that the
theoretical interest of a case is not related to the gravity of the symptoms themselves:
No doubt this case history, as I have so far outlined it, does not upon the whole seem worth
recording. It is merely a case of ‘petite hystérie’ with the commonest of all somatic and mental
symptoms: dyspnoea, tussis nervosa, aphonia, and possibly migraines, together with
depression, hysterical unsociability and a taedium vitae which was probably not entirely
genuine. More interesting cases of hysteria have no doubt been published, and they have very
often been carefully described…
The important point is that Dora’s father brought her to Freud not so much for her
somatizations, as for her continuous requests that he end his relationship with the
younger Frau K. (which he describes as a mere friendship, which no one believes).
In fact, Dora disrupts her father’s comfortable situation, and rather than bear her
own symptoms, Dora initially comes across as her father’s symptom—the pain in the
neck, the spoilsport, the cause of his suffering. Her “padre-padrone” [father-boss]
—he was a wealthy industrialist—did not say to the doctor “please, cure her”, but
“You try now to set her on a better path” [Suchen Sie jetzt auf bessere Wege zu
bringen]”—more request for a rabbi than a doctor. In fact, the father saw things
correctly: as we shall see from her dreams, Dora was undecided as to her own path
as a woman. Her father is the first to doubt that “the thing” troubling the family is a
somatization: the truth of the matter is that Dora hasn’t chosen the rational,
convenient, useful path that would be the easiest for everyone. And what should this
better path have been? Not to disturb the adulterous relationship between her father
and Frau K., and to keep the latter’s husband Herr K. quiet by conceding herself to
Freud quickly realizes that, compared to her father’s hypocritical reserve,
Dora’s description of the situation is far more exact. The main players in this erotic
vaudeville make up a quartet: Dora, her father, Frau K. and her husband Herr K.
Dora’s mother, described as disagreeable and not very intelligent, appears excluded
from the often obscene swapping game insofar as she is “psychotic” (for Freud, the
housewife [Hausfrau] who only takes care of the household, was a kind of
psychotic). Dora’s father and Frau K. have been lovers for years, behind the façade
of a respectable friendship between the two families. Herr K. knows about the affair
(he appears not to have had any sexual relations with his wife for quite some time)
and says he hadn’t asked for a divorce because he is too attached to their children.
Herr K. has desired Dora sexually for years and his attentions to her (their long
walks, his gifts) appear to be tolerated by her father, which may have led Freud and
Dora to suspect that he would look at a possible affair between Herr K. and his
daughter as something good–an exchange of favors between gentlemen. But it’s a
question of counting the chickens before they’re hatched. Or rather, they didn’t
count the hysteric. So, when Dora tells her father of Herr K.’s unmistakable
advances on the shore of a lake in a holiday resort (Lake Garda, Italy), her father
pretends to believe—or deceives himself into believing—K.’s version, who not only
denies any designs on the girl, but attributes her “fantasy” to her perversity and her
sexology readings. It is after this “mother scene” on the lake, the crucial moment of
this drama, that Dora “falls ill” and chooses the path of a vengeful war against her
father, demanding an end to any further association with the K.s.
When I speak here of a quartet, it is a bit like Dumas the elder, who called
The Three Musketeers a novel in which there are four musketeers. The quartet, in
actual fact—as will become clear to Freud too late—is a quintet, because the analyst
inevitably comes into play.
Freud charges himself with proving that Dora passionately loves all the main
players of the quadrille—at the same time hating and fighting them. This erotic
generosity makes her a champion of perversities, in the light of the criteria of the
time at least: insofar as she’s in love with her father she is incestuous, insofar as she
loves Frau K. she is a lesbian, insofar as she loves Herr K., an older man, she is a
little Lolita, to use a term from today. And insofar as she also loves Freud, she is…
a patient in transference. For Freud, transference was also a form of neurosis, while
today analysts tend to think it “normal”. Freud’s reconstruction finds in Dora, as
usually in hysterics, many peculiarities today celebrated as ab-normality, as that she
even comes across as post-modernist. If Freud appears to support Herr K.’s wish, it
is because among all of Dora’s crushes and counter-crushes, that on her rival’s
husband comes across as the most socially acceptable in the end—the besser Weg
between the various perverse and neurotic paths over which our heroine is hesitating.
4. Normality is not “normal”
Can Dora’s hysteria be ultimately reduced to her non-complicity with her
father’s erotic strategy, as feminist scholars assert? Is Dora only her father’s
symptom? And insofar as Freud subtly tries to convince her that she loves Herr K.
—therefore pushing her sweetly into his arms—is he not also an accomplice of the
obscene exchange of women that the father-boss encourages? And as she was sent to
Freud against her will, was the therapy destined to fail from the very start? To
answer affirmatively to these questions would be forcing things a bit too much.
Dora accepts to undergo Freud’s strange new therapy, it is because she perceives that
something in her is wrong. Dora admits it to Freud:
Dora felt quite rightly that her thoughts about her father required to be judged in a special way.
“I can’t think of nothing else”, she complained again and again. “I know my brother says we
children have no right to criticize this behavior of Father’s. […] I can quite see that, and I
should like to think the same as my brother, but I can’t. I can’t forgive him for it.”
“I should like to forgive him, but I can’t”. This is what seals every neurotic’s
complaint: “I would like to, but I can’t”. Dora recognizes a certain malaise, but
affirms its necessity.
Before continuing, something ought to be said about Dora’s brother, about
whom Freud says so little. Like his sister, he was to leave his mark on history. Otto
Bauer (1881-1938), an eminent philosopher, Austrian Socialist leader and a former
enfant prodige, became one of the main theoreticians of Austro-Marxism, a leader of
the Austrian Socialist-Democratic Party between 1907 and 1914, and foreign
minister in 1918. His historical role is today seen as negative: he was “blindly”
opposed to an anti-nazi popular front with the Communists. After the Anschluss in
1938—which was also an effect of his mistakes–he escaped to France. Like his
sister, Otto rejected paternal values, but in a way which, by our standards, would be
considered emancipating, compared to his sister’s sterile “hysteric protest”. His
tolerance of his father’s adulterous affair—with respect to his sister’s morbid
involvement— seems today the correct path to emancipation. And yet, which of the
two—the progressive reformer or the hysteric—really “failed”? Dora’s failed
emancipation poses a lot more interesting questions today than the “family jewel’s”
socio-political success, which ended up an historical failure.
Let’s return to Dora, whose ego-dystonia—her feeling of something morbid in
her—is expressed by these two affirmations: “I can’t think about anything else” and
“I can’t forgive him”. Here Freud places hysteria alongside melancholy, insofar as
both are characterized by over-intense passions. Our heroine suffers too much for
her father’s erotic enjoyment. Freud puts into action his habitual “hermeneutic”
strategy: a neurotic manifestation of an excessive or bizarre attitude is interpreted as
a sign of an attitude that would be normal in another context. The melancholic
behaves like someone who has suffered mourning—ergo melancholy is a form of
mourning for the loss of a special object. “Dora is bereaved by her father’s affair
with Frau K. like a betrayed jealous wife—ergo, Dora really is in love with her
father, as a wife would be”. But then the problem is simply shifted: if Dora behaves
as a betrayed wife toward her father, what lies behind the reactions of a betrayed
This question may seem superfluous, because we think we perfectly
comprehend the reactions of a betrayed and jealous wife who says, “I can’t think
about anything else” or “I can’t forgive him”. This reaction is comprehensible, but
it nonetheless deserves an explanation. What makes human beings jealous of certain
people (and not only those they love)? Not all jealous wives manifest hysteric
symptoms. The mystery of hysteria marks back, therefore, to the mystery of
jealousy. Or, better still, the mystery of hysteria—via Freud—turns the perfectly
understandable feeling of jealousy into something enigmatic. To question hysteria is
to question normal affectivity. Herein lies the secret behind psychoanalysis’ 20th
century great success: it not just provided irrefutable explanations as to the causes of
neuroses, but, through its explanations, allowed us to appreciate the inexplicable,
neurotic side of everything that is normal.
5. A culture of dissatisfaction
But what does Dora’s hysteria, or hysteria in general, consist of according to
I should without question consider a person hysterical in whom an occasion for sexual
excitement elicited feelings that were preponderantly or exclusively unpleasurable; and I
should do so whether or not the person were capable of producing somatic symptoms.
For Freud, it is not only those who suffer from somatization disorders who are
hysterics, but any woman who doesn’t enjoy the normal, particularly sexual
(whether hetero or homo), pleasures of life. Hysteria ultimately is a stormy lulling
oneself with a culture of dissatisfaction. The background against which Freud
considered hysteria was a woman’s refusal to carry out the ministerium of a “real”
woman to go to bed with the man she loves and bear his children. Today, we
consider a lesbian’s going to bed and living with the woman she loves a normal
ministerium. If Dora is in love with Herr K. (as Freud believes), why doesn’t she go
to bed with him and give him some kids? And if Dora is in love with Frau K. (as,
on the other hand, Lacan believes), why doesn’t she seduce Frau K. away from her
father? Dora does neither of the things she desires—provided she really does desire
them. Hysterics’ irritated refusal of a hedonistic prescription irritates us. “But what
in the devil does this woman want?” When Italian males that “that one’s a real
hysteric”, they mean “she irritates me because she won’t put out”.
Everyone tells Dora: “enjoy!” Everyone plays the role of the Super-ego of
enjoyment. But she cannot, or doesn’t want to, enjoy. The only thing that would
give her enjoyment is impossible… Although everyone (including Freud) says
“make love, not war!”, oddly enough, she prefers a war against her father. Some
feminist theoreticians have mistakenly interpreted hysterics as in revolt against male
society that has prevented women from achieving themselves and enjoying. The
opposite is true: late 19th century society was particularly fascinated by hysterics,
because they seemed to incarnate a “challenging” resistance by women finally
subjected to the implacable laws of enjoyment for all! These late 19th-early 20th
century gentlemen were saying to their women “enjoy, just as we do”, but the
hysteric chose to suffer. The hysteric avoids the enjoyment she is asked to achieve.
For example, with her husband she was frigid. Today, as Marta Csabai has stressed
here, hysteria takes on the form of an “eating disorder”: in Western society, where
people no longer die of hunger, the hysteric spits in the plate of oral enjoyment.
Thus the hysteric annoys our society that wants to ensure the maximum hedonistic
satisfaction for all, especially women.
In running away from those she loves, Dora annoys Freud as well. Through
Freud’s kaleidoscopic mirror, she is the fugitive. She escaped: first at 14, when K.
kissed her in his shop; later on the banks of Lake Garda, when K. started making
proposals; and finally from Freud, by interrupting therapy. In the first of two
dreams she recounts Freud, she speaks openly of escape, and in the second of an
escape à l’envers: escaping from a desired sexual relationship, and from the
psychoanalyst’s scientific “grasp”. Hysteria has a primary relation to escaping from
what one wants—which in turn has a paradoxical connection with the impossibility
of escaping family life.
Neurotics are dominated by the opposition between reality and phantasy. If what they long
for the most intensely in their phantasies is presented to them in reality, they none the less flee
[Benvenuto’s italics] from it; and they abandon themselves to their phantasies the most readily
where they need no longer fear to see them realized.
All neurotics are hysterics deep down, insofar as they flee from putting things into
action, from the possibility of being caught by satisfaction, from being closed into a
bond of satisfaction—thus they even flee from the theory which com-prehends,
“closes” them in an intellectually satisfying gate.
6. The impotent doctor
Today Freud is blamed for being too sure of his method. As often happens to
ambitious researchers, Freud, impassioned by his hypotheses, didn’t hesitate to strain
even the most minute details in the Procuste’s bed of his interpretative system, just
to make things tally. But he didn’t realize how many oversights he needed in order
to make things tally.
For example, Lacan highlighted the strange way Freud “explains” Dora’s itch
in the throat and her periodic cough. Earlier Freud had concluded that somatic
hysteric symptoms could all be traced back to expressive imitations of sexual acts.
At one point, Freud wrings a confession out of Dora: that she considers her father
impotent (unvermögend, impotent). But then, Freud asks her, how can she accuse
him of having a sexual affair with Frau K.? Dora replies that she is aware that
penetration is not the only way one can make love. At this point, anyone might
think of cunnilingus, the way a man typically satisfies a woman when he can’t
manage it. Freud, instead, thinks of fellatio from Frau K. Why such an obvious
oversight on Freud’s part?
Freud must explain the coughing and itchy throat as a corporeal mise-en-scène
of fellatio (the penis, not the clitoris, reaches the throat). Freud is so enamoured of
his explicative system that, a bit like Dora with her father, he “can’t think of
anything else”, he doesn’t notice what any unbiased maid would see right away.
And he fails to notice that Dora’s innuendo is towards something else.
Today we can view Dora’s kind concession of symptomatic improvement
during analysis differently. Dora seems to consider other men as impotent in
satisfying her desire, and not just sexually. She mocks doctors (at the time
exclusively male) as impotent in curing her; they cannot give her what she feels she
truly needs—including Doctor Freud, whom Dora makes sure gets the message.
When a male exhibits his potency, her game is to quickly get him off his high horse,
which is what she does with Herr K., when he tells her he gets nothing out of his
wife. Freud points out that Dora plays the cock tease who encourages and withdraw.
She sends out encouriging messages, but at the crucial moment—on the banks of
Lake Garda when he makes his declaration—she slaps him. With Freud she behaves
more as a knowledge-teaser, exciting knowledge, giving Freud’s cognitive phallus a
hard on and at the crucial moment putting him in a therapeutic check. Freud reacts
spitefully by writing his famous text, as if he were trying to elaborate on a setback
to his therapeutic and theoretical power. Writing seems to give him back the
interpretative potency these diabolical hysterics often put into question.
Freud is a member of the male series—father, Herr K., doctors—and so he has
the brand of impotency set on him. This becomes clear when, fifteen months after
the cure was interrupted, Dora reappears. It doesn’t escape Freud that Dora reappears on April 1st—and he considers it an April fool’s joke. Dora suggests that
they resume their relationship and, to “seduce” him, gives him information that
ought to send him into rapture: she tells him of her reconciliation with the K.s and,
apparently, even with her father. She had made Frau K. admit her affair with her
father, and made Herr K. admit that he really had tried to seduce her that day on the
lake. The whole business seems to be over at this point, since hasn’t she said enough
to make Freud feel fully satisfied? Obviously Dora is telling him all this to signify:
“see how good you’ve been? Thanks to you I got what I wished for.” But Freud
doesn’t believe this April Fool’s joke.
In fact, Dora complains again of two annoying symptoms: an aphonia that had
lasted six weeks, and a facial neuralgia on her right side which had lasted a
fortnight–symptoms which are quickly connected to the fact that she was confronted
with the two non-family men in her life once again: Herr K. and Freud. Aphonia
began after a chance street encounter with Herr K.
She had come across [Mr K.] in the street one day; they had met in a place where there was a
great deal of traffic; he had stopped in front of her as though in bewilderment, and in his
abstraction he had allowed himself to be knocked down by a carriage.
Just as Herr K. was left “speechless”, she too is left speechless after this
confrontation, as if she were repaying him for the incident. The facial neuralgia
ensued after reading in the newspapers that Freud had been nominated Professor
extraordinarius at Vienna University. Her somatizations appear as the trail of two
encounters which aroused once more her passion to humiliate men, and as the price
of her triumph over the male (a kind of an “eye for an eye” law) in the double
quality of love claimant and therapeutic claimant—but in both cases triumphs over
males claiming to penetrate her.
Freud interprets the facial neuralgia as a metaphor of the slap given to K.,
which she now regrets—and in doing so he elliptically admits having been slapped
by Dora himself, not as a claimant to her femininity, but as a claimant to her
hysteria. But her regret is an April Fool’s joke because in fact this double
reappearance—before Herr K. and Freud—changes nothing. The two men who
wished her bite the dust. Because, if K. loved her because she was a young woman,
Freud loved her because she was an hysteric who ought to have opened up the casket
of the unconscious for him.
Subsequent commentators have often accused Freud of peevishly rejecting
Dora when she proposed a resumption of her analysis: Freud behaved as a betrayed
lover who concedes himself revenge against an “ex” who had slapped him. Dora’s
lack of seriousness is seen as an alibi: Freud is simply slapping his patient back–
unlike K., who was overwhelmed by her gaze. It has also been insinuated that Freud
behaved a bit like the deprecated Breuer when, confronted with Anna O.’s attempts
to seduce him, interrupted the therapy and escaped to Venice with his wife. Here
too Dora offers herself—as a patient—and Freud rejects her, behaving with her in
the same way as she had behaved with K., tit for tat. All this makes sense, but
Freud had good reasons for not believing Dora’s good intentions: he had understood
that her real, deepest wish was to make manifest to the male his own impotence. Had
he accepted her back into therapy, he would have sooner or later found himself in a
situation of impotence.
7. First Dora’ Dream
Let’s have a look at how Freud exercises his interpretative power Dora’s two
dreams. In the first,
A house was on fire. My father was standing beside my bed and woke me up. I dressed
quickly. Mother wanted to stop and save her jewel-case; but Father said: “I refuse to let
myself and my two children be burnt for the sake of your jewel case.” We hurried downstairs,
and as soon as I was outside I woke up.
Each time after waking up she had smelt smoke.
I shall skip the various phases of Freud’s well-known interpretations of this dream
and consider only the final interpretation: “The temptation is so strong. Dear father,
protect me again as you used to in my childhood, and prevent my bed from being
wetted!”. In her dream, Dora is supposedly defending herself from the temptation
of accepting K.’s proposals and would like her father to help her escape this erotic
temptation (“wetting her bed”). This interpretation sees the fire as a metaphor of
sexual excitement, and the jewel case as a metaphor of female genitals, both wornout metaphors common in colloquial German.
Metaphor aside, it is a dream of escape. As in life, even here Dora doesn’t
stop fleeing. Her father’s household is metaphorically burning and Freud thinks he
knows why: it’s red-hot with illegitimate or secret erotic passions that stir all the
characters therein. There’s no doubt, as Freud guesses, that her escape from her
father’s house plays out her desire to escape from an erotic siege, not only Herr
K.’s, but also her own desire’s. In other words, her dream plays out her desire to
escape from desire, and represents the desire not to desire. But this is the mere
corollary of Freud’s dream theory in general, that a dream is always the fruit of a
desire to escape from desire—if it weren’t, the sleeper would wake up. The dream
aims at having one’s cake and eating it too, satisfying the desire for sleep, as well as
to some extent those desires that awaken us.
Today, the interpretation of dreams tends to include transference: the person
to whom a subject describes a dream is included in the dream. From this point of
view, Freud here can take the father’s place: Freud wakes Dora from her hysteric
But why must Dora free herself from temptation? After all, no one (including
Freud) wants to stop her from having an affair with Herr K.—to the contrary.
Hence the paradox: Dora oneirically asks her father to free her from the temptation
of satisfying her father’s wish… Thanks to the interpretation of this hysteric dream,
we are referred back to hysteria’s basic enigma: “why in the devil does Miss escape
from an affair she apparently desires?”
Usually, we awaken from a dream when there are no chances left to saving
ourselves; waking up signals the failure of the dream, according to Freud’s theorem,
because the dream no longer succeeds in turning the impertinent desire into
representations. So why does Dora awaken from her nightmare only when she
manages to leave the house and is safe? Here, waking up signals the dream’s
success: Dora manages to reach safety from the fire, and the whole family along
with her. There is something baroque in this redundant waking up.
It is a “17th-century art” dream: a dream within a dream, recalling those 17th
century paintings entitled, for example, “Views of Rome,” in which we see a
painter’s studio, and within it successive paintings portraying views of Rome…
Dora dreams of her father waking her from her dream, and then wakes up from the
dream of this awakening. It is an awakening raised to the second power. What can
these Russian dolls mean?
The fire, the escape from the house, the awakening are all ambiguous and
two-fold: insofar as Dora runs away from the house she actually remains there;
insofar as she escapes from the fire she actually stirs it; and insofar as she comes out
of the deceptive dream of childhood incest she actually stays in it. When she
awakens from her dream of a dream, it is still in the house-that-in-the dream-isablaze that she awakens… The true danger thus not lies so much in the burning
house, but in the escape from it. Dora escapes from the danger of running away
from home. In other words, she flees as a danger her desire to flee from home.
The house, which also appears in the second dream, is a container, an empty
space gathering life and death. It is like an uterus with which Dora identifies: in the
first dream she escapes from it, in the second she returns to it alone. The house is
what I would call the central void every hysteric is fixed: a void to which corroding
her very life, but to which she seems to remain pigheadedly faithful.
Perhaps hysteria is actually about not being able to leave the house, not being
able to abandon the void. Even when one has left it materially. An hysteric is
unable to leave the house burning with passions, in which she participates with her
soul, but not yet with her body–because, in the end, the hysteric wants to remain a
child, therefore incestuous. She doesn’t want to become other than the child she is
no more. She doesn’t cut the link with home, because she doesn’t cut away her
childhood. Because she has never really removed herself from her childhood, she
takes every sexual proposal as an attempted act of pedophilia. She’s in her lost
childhood up to her neck, and when she dreams of fleeing it… it’s to eventually
return there.
8. Second Dora’s Dream
To the second dream.
I was walking about in a town which I did not know. I saw streets and squares which were
strange to me [I saw a monument in one of the squares]. Then I came into a house where I
lived, went to my room, and found a letter from Mother lying there. She wrote saying that as
I had left home without my parents’ knowledge she had not wished to write to me to say that
Father was ill. “Now he is dead, and if you like, you can come.” I then went to the station
[Banhof] and asked about a hundred times: “Where is the station?” I always got the answer:
“Five minutes.” I then saw a thick wood before me which I went into, and there I asked a man
whom I met. He said to me: “Two and a half hours more.” He offered to accompany me. But
I refused and went alone. I saw the station in front of me and could not reach it. At the same
time I had the usual feeling of anxiety that one has in dreams when one cannot move forward.
Then I was at home. I must have been travelling in the meantime, but I know nothing about
that. I walked into the porter’s lodge, and enquired to our flat. The maidservant opened the
door to me and replied that Mother and the others were already at the cemetery [Friedhof].”
This second dream seems a mirror overturning the content of the first: it is no longer
a dream of fleeing from home, but of returning home from a far-away, non-familiar
location. Here, her mother and father make their appearance, but in absentia: the
former through a letter, the latter is dead. While in the first dream she escapes with
both parents, in the second it is their absence that stands out, and she returns from
her flight.
Today’s analyst would not interpret exactly as Freud did, seeking the anatomic
sexual metaphor in the dream’s every detail. For example, reading into the nymphs
in the background of a thick wood—a pictorial image Dora evokes in talking about
the dream—a reference to the lips of the vagina, which were known as nymphs in
the gynecological language. Freud was obsessed by sexual metaphor. And yet, a
modern-day analyst would read what Freud did in this particular dream: a
metaphorical transposition of the lake scene, of her escape from amorous temptation
and consequent return home. Her vagina remains unpenetrated, and she herself
returns to the homely void. The dream loosely articulates Dora’s never-ending
fluctuation between a desire for full femininity and “a retirement to childish pregenital relations”, as an orthodox analyst would say. For modern-day analyst,
nymphs in the wood would evoke a wild and unleashed feminine sexuality, the exact
opposite of the Sistine Madonna Dora pauses before for two hours in the museum of
This dream and everything that happens to Dora in the nine months following
the lake scene, seems to play out an alternative story to the real one, bringing to
mind Peter Howitt’s film Sliding Doors (1998). There two parallel stories develop
featuring the same woman—one if, on a certain day, at a certain time, she hadn’t
missed her train in London’s tube, and the other if she had. The two lives are
equally possible and never cross paths. Like the woman in the film, Dora seems to
live another possible parallel virtual life: if on that day at the lake she had
succumbed to Herr K., she may have gotten pregnant, may have given birth nine
months later, etc. The dream somehow ties together two parallel lives—the
imaginary and the actual—producing this mythical return home following her
father’s death.
In the interpretation of this dream, the much-commented episode of Dora’s
visit to the Sistine Madonna in Dresden emerges. On the occasion of that visit a
male cousin, whom we suppose to be about her age, offers to accompany her to the
picture gallery, but Dora prefers to go alone. She remains for a couple of hours in
ecstasy before Raphael’s S. Sixtus Madonna—particularly attracted by the Madonna
herself. The events evoked seem combine to form a metaphor of her relation to
Herr K.: in both cases she refuses to let a man accompany her, going off alone to
contemplate virginity. However, the Sistine Madonna is a virgin with child: again,
Dora seems to be bringing an imaginary child to life while remaining a virgin. But
wherein lies her desire to be both a mother and a virgin?
In Raphael’s painting, the Madonna with child is venerated by two figures at
her feet: an aged St. Sixtus and a young St. Barbara. It’s hard not to think of Frau
K.’s two worshippers when considering these two raphaelesque characters—Dora’s
father and Dora herself. Frau K., a woman with children who was certainly not a
virgin, had become the object of Dora’s worship:. Yet Dora had constructed for
herself a theory according to which her ego ideal (as Freud would have called it)
was chaste: she avoided her husband’s bed, and her lover was impotent. Dora’s
father didn’t penetrate Frau K., he worshipped her by licking her vagina. A mother
worshipped chastely by a man and a young woman. In the Madonna, the Jewish
Dora imagines an idealised figure, at once mother and chaste: an impossible dream.
In the Sistine Madonna, Dora obviously idolises femininity that can generate
without a male contribution—a pure feminine potency that leaves the body
untouched, by the other, a purely endogenous maternity, an autarchic femininity
with no penetration, laceration, or occupation by the penis or any other intruder. It
is a dream of narcissistic integrity in which it is possible to produce without any
need of the other. After all, that’s what hysteria is all about.
9. Dora won…
After a century of psychoanalysis, the enigma of hysteria remains intact,
despite success in treating hysterics. Why do hysterics flee from the satisfaction of
their desires? Answers Freud tries to elaborate, even in this text, leave us perplexed.
On page 84 of the Standard Edition, Freud finally tries to explain why Dora
rejects Herr K. and renounces the pleasures of the flesh. As Dora believes that all
men are libertine rogues—her nanny had convinced her of this—according to her,
Herr K. has a venereal disease, just like her syphilitic father. It was a realistic fear
then, like AIDS today. But even if this fear of syphilis were true, why does Dora
extend her refusal of sexual contact to embracing and kissing?
A few pages later Freud tried to explain the mystery.
There was a conflict within [Dora] between a temptation to yield to the man’s proposal and a
composite force rebelling against that feeling. This latter force was made up of motives of
respectability and good sense, of hostile feelings caused by the governess’s disclosures
(jealousy and wounded pride….), and of a neurotic element, namely, the tendency toward a
repudiation of sexuality which was already present in her and was based on her childhood
Freud’s ultimate explanation—presented modestly in a 1905 footnote—is really
disappointing. That Dora is cautious and complies with common decency is hardly a
satisfactory reason, because on other occasions she doesn’t come across as either
cautious or decent. Today caution and decency are no longer feminine ideals, yet
hysterics haven’t disappeared. And while the nanny’s gossip may excite jealousy
and wounded pride, these feelings hardly hamper sexual attraction—in fact, just the
opposite. What’s left is what Freud calls “the neurotic element”, an aversion to
sexuality, which was somehow what really needed to be explained. The ultimate
explanation comes across as somehow circular: hysteric aversion to sexuality is
caused by… a fundamental neurotic aversion to sexuality. It’s as if we were hearing
Molière’s laughter in the background when he has the old fogey doctors say: “opium
causes sleep because of its virtus dormitiva (sleep-arousing virtue)”.
The fact is that Freud was not only defeated on the therapeutic plane, but his
theory proved impotent as well. The hysteric enjoyed a double triumph—both
clinical and theoretical.
Today we are fundamentally convinced that psychoanalysis’s masterpiece has
been the treatment of hysteria, but that’s precisely because psychoanalysis hasn’t
managed to cure it or eliminate it… Hysteria is still intact, seized but not penetrated
by analytic knowledge. But thanks to its failure, psychoanalysis has allowed one
truth about the hysteric to emerge, i.e. the impossibility of naming the devil she
10. Lacan on Dora
However, we can focus not only on what Freud understood of Dora, but
perhaps also on what we can grasp, making use of a century of reflection.
Lacan’s reinterpretation of hysteria—starting from Dora’s case—is
particularly prestigious. According to him, an hysteric woman is basically a
“masculine” homosexual who doesn’t fully acknowledge herself as that. Hence the
difficulty an hysteric has in accepting herself as a sexual object for men. According
to Lacan, Frau K. is our heroine’s true and ultimate object of desire—because a
woman is the hysteric’s “object of real interest”. Lacan believed he had at last found
the ultimate truth of hysteria behind its phantasmagoria of symptoms. “Dora’s
fascinated attachment to Mrs. K.” has as its object “not an individual, but a mystery,
the mystery of her own femininity, let’s say her corporeal femininity”. Lacan
underlined Dora’s subsequent identifications with her father, Herr K. and finally
with Freud, all male characters, but her true object was Frau K. In other words,
Dora wonders: “what is it that makes her desired and loved by men?” Dora
abandoned treatment because Freud supposedly failed to take into account the
homosexual link between his patient and Frau K. through an identification with the
latter… because the hysteric identifies not only with subjects of desire (men), but
also with their object (woman).
Freud didn’t see into Dora’s privileged link with her father’s lover. “It’s
because he put himself too much in Herr K.’s place… that this time Freud didn’t
manage to move the Acheron”. How should Freud’s footnote stating that treatment
failed because Dora’s transference was not taken into account be judged? For
Lacan, the key to any transference is actually the analyst’s counter-transference:
Freud sided with one of the characters and, above all, wanted Dora’s good too
much. For an open-minded person like Herr Professor, what could this good be for
an 18-year-old girl from a good family? To have a more “mature” lover and to
satisfy her legitimate heterosexual drives. But the analyst should never want the
subject’s normality, and identify it ipso facto with her good.
For Lacan, the crucial proof of Dora’s mirroring love for Frau K. consists
precisely in that famous lake scene when K. proposes and she, after slapping him,
runs away–the scene from which Dora’s “crisis” derives and which pushes her into
Freud’s analytical arms.
Many a scholar has meditated on Dora’s slap on Lake Garda, one of the most
well-known slaps in European literature. Certain feminine smacks have attracted the
attention of philosophers precisely because of their anodyne “grammar”, so
problematic to translate into conceptual language. Freud, therefore, reads Dora’s
cuff a bit as if he were reading into a dream: it has manifest content—the rejection
or expulsion of the male—and a latent one—the declaration of her love. This
feminine attack “betrays” her: it reveals the woman’s true desire while at the same
time masking it, forcing it to take on the opposite shape from that of love. But then
what does that fatal smack “betray” of Dora?
Freud wonders: “why does this woman reject Herr K.’s offers in this way
when—as we know from other signals—she was not insensitive to his charm?”
Common sense convinces Freud of Dora’s love for Herr K., hence the idea that the
slap represents a fit of jealousy. In actual fact, a few days earlier, Dora had found
out that Herr K. had also made sexual advances to the housekeeper, whom he had
tried to convince by resorting to the same words he would later use on the banks of
the lake with Dora, “Ich habe nichts an meiner Frau”, “I get nothing out from my
wife”. Dora feels she is being treated in the same way as the allured maid and—
jealous as well as humiliated—responds to the proposal with an outburst of anger.
On the other hand, according to Lacan, the fact that she smacks her gallant
man is equivalent to a message along these lines: “ if your wife is nothing for you,
who will you ever be for me?” For Dora, in fact, Frau K. encloses within herself the
very mystery of femininity. As soon as her husband confesses that his wife means
nothing to him, Dora’s entire identification with him collapses. All of a sudden he
slips into the position of a “dummy”—Dora can no longer identify with him. He
devaluates Dora’s true love object, and thus offends her femininity(even her own),
which she connects to the mysteries incarnated by Frau K., the woman her father
It is odd that Lacan—who often rightly criticised the inaccuracies and
mistakes in French translations of Freud—trusted the French translation of the time
on this occasion. This translated Herr K.’s aforementioned sentence as “vous savez
que ma femme n’est rien pour moi.” It’s not an incorrect translation, but it is not
very literal. Ich habe nichts an meiner Frau is a typically Austrian expression
elliptically meaning, “I no longer have any sexual relations with my wife”—and
certainly, by extension, it also implies that wife no longer means “wife” to who
utters the sentence. Herr K. clearly tells Dora that he hasn’t had sex with his wife
for a long time, and Dora must have thought: “As your wife no longer makes love to
you—and instead makes love to my father—you now expect to make love to me!
Who do you think I am? Your housekeeper, who has no higher hopes than going to
bed with you?” And the slap ensues.
Lacan’s interpretation—and therefore his theory of hysteria—is certainly not
erroneous and adds considerably to our understanding. But, like Freud’s theory, his
too is only partial, precisely insofar as it aims to profess the ultimate truth on
hysteria. Male identifications and questioning on femininity are certainly relevant
aspects of hysteria, but there are others as well. There are also feminine
identifications—the Virgin Mary in Dora’s case, for example. As Freud revealed,
not only does Dora love all the main players in the drama—and come across
disillusioned by them—she also identifies with all of them, even if in different ways.
Dora imitates—i.e. identifies with—anyone, a bit like Zelig in Woody Allen’s film
of the same name (Zelig always takes on the look of the person closest to him).
What if hysteria’s ultimate truth were not one of the identifications in play,
but rather the oscillation between these identifications? In such a case, hysteria
wouldn’t be the festival of the hundred-thousand masks harking back to one single
face, but rather, the hysteric face is truly one, none and a hundred-thousand masks.
It is precisely this polymorphic quality, this hesitation between identifications and
their correlative objects, that seems to me really crucial in hysteria. The ultimate
truth of hysteria is its lack of an ultimate truth—hence its “modernity”, even if
hysteria is as old as the hills. Dora—like every other hysteric—doesn’t allow herself
to be caught by ultimate interpretations (including Lacan’s and Freud’s very acute
ones) but, as in her dreams or on Lake Garda, she flees… from psychoanalytic
knowledge as well, which never possessed her but rather, I would say, embraced and
immortalized her. The hysteric frees herself from the grip of psychoanalysis, which
owes much of its prestige to this eel-like woman. Perhaps the “ultimate truth” on
hysteria is its oscillation between several fundamental truths without ever making a
decision. In Aristotelian terms: hysteria is the impossibility of moving from
potential enjoyment to actual enjoyment, from the potency of desire to giving
oneself up to enjoyment.
The Garda scene can be reconsidered in this hermeneutically liberal key.
Dora’s postponement of a relationship with a man—her living a potential femininity
—comes up against a wall when Herr K. “seriously” proposes to her, and she is
faced with a real decision—whether or not to go from potential to action. Her
reaction is to flee a heterosexual relationship and “return home” to her father’s
metaphorical arms, aggressively claiming his love. Her crisis, which takes her back
to Freud, is a delayed train of this long flight. For two years she exasperatingly asks
her father to put an end to any relations with the K.s, i.e., to close the family into
the shell of an autarchic incestuous bind. Her two dreams act out on the one hand
the need to leave the house and head towards the Other, accepting to “give it [her
sex]” as a woman, and on the other, the impulse to return to an empty house,
isolated from external exchanges—double movement making up hysteria’s Falsche
Bewegung, false movement.
Hysteria thus illustrates a pure potential for identification and sexual
investment, which is never—if ever—acted upon. The hysteric is an inhibited
heterosexual, an ideal homosexual, a polymorphic pervert, but never in act. Her
being consists in not-yet-being, as well as no-longer-being—not yet a woman and no
longer a child. No longer a female and yet not a male–while a male hysteric cannot
manage to be fully a female, and he needs the presence of another male in order that
the female attain enjoyment.
Today, a spontaneous sympathy for hysteria can once more be found, because
our age also feels that the putting-into-action is impossible, because what they want
is impossible.
11. Hysterics’ potency
Hysterics want to keep their potentials, that is their power, open. This is why
they never open their sex to the other’s action.
One of psychoanalysis’ limit is not to have expounded on the impact of power
as central to sexual life—with the exception of the clichéd reference to omnipotence,
put into play as the ultimate delusion. Nietzschians like Foucault and Deleuze found
it easy to reconsider Freud’s conclusions by appealing to forces born from power
conflicts. But power, potential, potency, impotence, omnipotence are all connected:
those in power can make use of a potency they can choose to act out or not. Yet
analytic practice has shown that in the hysteric universe—more than men and
women— there are rather strong and weak, potent or impotent individuals. For the
hysteric woman, the male is above all he who disposes of strength and power, thus
her act of force against him to make him, or reveal him as, impotent (one reason
why hysterics many feminists, with their critique of male power, find a good
resonance in hysteria).
In hysteria, women live in fairy tale-like scenarios, in order not to have to “act
out”—sexually above all—and thus preserve their potency. Consider Dora’s
symptoms after the lake scene—her dragging right leg, pains in her abdomen, etc.—
which Freud interpreted as an acting (an act of the body) pregnancy. For nine
months after the lake scene, Dora lives a “virtual” sex life: instead of running away
from Herr K., she goes to bed with him, he makes her pregnant and she gives
birth… But Dora’s second life is not actual—it is a fiction thanks to which she
preserves her virginity. She preserves the potency that centuries of Christian cults
have attributed to virginity.
But autarchic potency allows the hysteric to neglect her ministerium as a
Minister comes from the Latin minister, who was originally a servant, the
ministra the house-maid. In the wider sense, minister also meant priest, he who
serves God. Ministerium is thus a service, be it low-level (the attendant) or highlevel (priest, civil servant, the modern-day minister of a government). Insofar as the
hysteric gives up her ministerium, she becomes the minister of a mysterium called
To fulfil our adult sexual ministerium—finding a partner, raising children—
we must all deal with those desires and fantasies that are unwilling to accept this
ministerium. We might say that Freud, through hysterics, discovered the gay part in
all of us. Today, gay means homosexual, but at one time in English it actually
meant libertine, someone who practices his sexuality freely—without making it the
servant of a legitimate family. Freud helped us to tolerate our own libertine desire.
People in analysis mostly complain of two things: their inability to work and/
or love (marry, stay with their loved one, honor the coitus, etc.). They can’t
manage to be ministers, to serve. Through analysis they sometimes realize that they
are unble to serve because they want the impossible: on the one hand, that the world
serve them, that they not serve anyone or anything, but on the other, that they can be
of service. The hysteric doesn’t want to comply with sexual obligation to a man—
but neither does she want to become a nun, a servant of Christ. The neurotic is
basically someone who yearns for privilege. While the neurotic, like the child,
doesn’t want to serve, on the other hand s/he does want to fulfill her/his ministerium
and thus be like everyone else. Herein lies the impossible double-bind.
Freud’s mistake was wanting the good of his patient—he didn’t send her to
work because in those days bourgeois girls didn’t work, but he did want to send her
to bed and to sexual enjoyment. Lacan eas right: Freud’s counter-transference—he
wanted Dora to be of service as a woman—was the basis for Dora’s transference.
But for any analyst, proof of clinical improvement is when a client can work and
make love like s/he is supposed to. Analysts don’t preach it, but they practice it. In
practice, the analyst adapts a child-subject, who cries because s/he wants the
impossible, to the only possible services that our lives have in store for us. Analysts
adapt their patients de facto only by giving up on adapting them. But adapt to what?
To serving. This is the only grace that life allows: being thankful to others because
they have allowed us to be of some service…
This is why the hysteric is so attractive today—to women and feminists in
particular—because she paradigmatically embodies women’s journey today, in an
age which forces her—because of historic changes—to abandon the comfortable and
oppressive House of the Father, and to head for an unknown house, where she will
awaken from the dream.


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