A FOOTNOTE TO
PYTHIATISM AND SARTRE’S THE FAMILY IDIOT
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
To be stupid, and selfish, and to have good health are the three requirements for happiness; though if stupidity is lacking, the others are useless. Gustave Flaubert
Dedicated to Sharon Stone
In The Family Idiot Sartre claims that for Gustav Flaubert, the novice playwright, writing was secondary to acting out his ideas, that the French Realist’s mature literature was born of the “thwarted vocation” of acting, and that he was an unconvincing actor, because “he acted so as to launch an appeal to being by exploiting the means at hand, that is, his very derealization.”
Sometimes the youth fascinated, disturbed, or won over his audience of friends and family when he played the part of a grotesque boy, an idiot, a giant, a saint and so on, but for the most part he was a bad actor; he was false, transparent, and irritating because he was writing his own plays, and doing so in bad faith, for he had no being of his own to speak of; he was simply attempting to negate a negative but had nothing real to work with.
The main thing here is that he is destined to incarnate a single character—for all his avatars resemble each other—not entirely his own character but the persona he wants to appear in the eyes of others, which we will describe in the next chapter. Thus his first vocation seems scarcely more than the simplest and most immediate reaction to his derealization; and I mean that this, as well as his constituted passivity and his pithiatism, would have served him if he had gone into the theater.
Young Gustave, in effect, was allowing himself, through self-cannibalization, to be vampirized by the characters he played:
And he [played his characters] all the more contentedly because he had discovered his true status as Master of the Unreal. In sum, he was reassured by judging himself instituted in advance, integrated by the society that refused him, and, fulfilled by his profession; he abandoned himself to his constituted passivity which would make him all his life the martyr of unreality…. He caricatures living people, in sum, in order to steal their being for a moment and know what it is to take pleasure in having an objective being. Surely he is not convinced that he is Papa Couilleres while he is doing him, or that this theft/possession (he becomes vampirized by the being he has stolen) could be accomplished without that pithiatism that generally characterizes constituted passivities.
The boy had something to gain by his playacting, which was tantamount to throwing hysterical fits:
But for the de-realized child, an absenteeist, the character is none other than his persona created and guaranteed by the benevolence of the Other: protected by an invisible armor, he offers himself up to the blows of fate, exhibiting, without taking responsibility for it, the pre-established transposition of his absurdity and misfortune. In his theatrical experience the child finds irresponsibility, submission, happy and compensated vassalage; the guarantee of the imaginary by a sovereign will, by the necessity of connections, by tradition and universal consent; a priori knowledge of his being-for-others, the ambiguity of fatum, the justification of pathos that is, not just of his excessive gesticulation but of his constituted passivity, which, by forbidding hint action, encourages him to abandon himself to what he is and to show his passions through gestures; pithiatic belief, never total but consolidated by that of others; the ability really to feel what he expresses . The child finds all this in his theatrical experience as long as it remains in the immediate realm of un-reflected spontaneity, in other words, as long as he produces himself on stage, moved only by the need to escape from his insubstantial and tedious persona by replacing it with the being of a character.
Good play actors, then, are disposed to passivity and pithiatism, in contrast to Sartre, who is an activist because he participates in socialist activism. That is, play actors are receptive to the influence of suggestion, which makes them convincing imitators, or performing hysterics.
I personally note that a Freudian psychologist, a regular sex fiend or “cunt-hound” who professed psychology at the New School and who loved to seduce beautiful aspiring actresses, recruited me when I was an acting student at HB Studio into one of his group therapy sessions on the Upper West Side. After several drinks at a bar on Broadway, where I first met him, he posited that “actors are the most neurotic of all people, mainly hysterical, which makes my group therapy sessions a lot of fun.” He claimed that acting is “a masochistic profession.” Ironically, he confessed in group therapy that he was obsessed with or possessed by Sharon Stone, and that she often appeared in his dreams as a dominatrix with a foot-long black dildo with which she painfully sodomized him.
Now Sigmund Freud, in his ‘Fourth Lecture on The Origin and Development of Psychoanalysis’ (1910), noted in the context of thwarted development that:
(The sexual impulses) appear in opposed pairs, as active and passive. The most important representatives of this group are the pleasure in afflicting pain (sadism) with its passive opposite (masochism) and active and passive exhibition pleasure. From the first of these later pairs splits off the curiosity for knowledge, as from the latter the impulse toward artistic and theatrical representation…. Every process of development brings with it the germ of pathological dispositions in so far as it may be inhibited, delayed, or incompletely carried out. This holds for the sexual function, with its many complications. It is not smoothly completed in all individuals, and may leave behind either abnormalities or disposition to later diseases by the way of later falling back or regression.
Flaubert liked playacting, and found writing alone somewhat troublesome because he was loath to confine his imagination to the written word. The family potentate would eventually send him off to law school, to which he was indifferent, to say the least, although he found the precise, unsentimental objective language of the law attractive, in comparison to the wild, romantic urging of his youth.
While on vacation at home, he suffered a nervous breakdown or crisis, accompanied by temporary paralysis, an event said to be a nervous disease; the ‘stroke’ may have been, for all we know, an epileptic seizure although clear signs of epilepsy were not apparent.
These attacks, absent the usual signs of epilepsy, recurred throughout his life whenever he was under considerable stress. If his abnormal motor or sensory affects, whatever they might have been, were psychogenic, today they might be considered as evidence of a psychosomatic “conversion disorder,” along the lines of ‘classical’ hysteria, provided they were preceded by stress, not faked, not medically or culturally determined, not limited merely to pain or sexual dysfunction, and not falling within the context of some other somatic disorder or mental illness. Incidentally, the symptoms of conversion hysteria in the West are of a different type than those found in the East despite the requirement of cultural indeterminism.
Epileptic phenomena, as Sartre well knew, were once believed to be symptomatic of hysteria. Hysteria was called a “protean” affliction because it could mimic or fake the symptoms of many physical diseases. Studies of hysterics had demonstrated that hysteria is a performance with a purpose—primary and secondary gains are to be had.
When we examine the photographs of hysterical performances taken at Salpetriere Hospital, we believe our own starlets would have gained appreciative Off Broadway audiences there in those days. There were also male hysterics at Salpetriere, just as Dionysus appeared at Delphi while it was ruled by Apollo, but the command performances were naturally given by pithiatic women inasmuch as females traditionally had the “wandering wombs” associated with irrational or immoral behavior, while men were customarily the repositories of reason, which logically justified their might as a moral right by virtue of their will to power.
Pierre Andre Brouillet’s‘Una lecon Clinique a la Salpetriere’
(A painting Sigmund Freud kept in his office).
The “Queen of Hysterics,” Blanch Wittman,
Faints into the arms of Joseph Babinski
Like witches of old, who were usually impoverished women who practiced the magical arts of witchcraft as a trade, the new witchdoctors took up diagnosing and casting curative spells as a business. Instead of burning witches at the stake, and chaining womb-wandering hysterics to prison walls, they would endeavor to disenchant them of their maladies with their persuasive powers of reasonable talk and positive suggestion, perhaps after the demons possessing the hapless patients came forth and revealed themselves during hypnotic spells, courses of free association, or during couched confessions for which no penance was exacted. And, like the witches of old, hysterics performed well at the suggestion of their inquisitors, confessing their sins, particularly those of a sexual nature; otherwise, the prognosis would be “incurable”; that is, if they did not perform as indirectly directed, they would be cast into the hopeless ward from hell.
The fallacious arguments has been made by some good doctors that, if hysterical behavior is a performance, then performers are hysterics. For them, the hysterical performances confirmed that histrionics, or pretending to be someone else, is a masochistic art. In fine, hysteria was an invention, or rather a new name for an old disguise, and the enthusiasm or spirited prepossession of the “scientific” doctors, who were themselves frequently subject to the hysteria they had unwittingly induced, had a financial motive; to wit, to corner the market from the so-called charlatans and quacks who plied their ancient trade with potions, mesmerism, sympathetic magic, hypnotic spells and the like.
Witchcraft like psychoanalysis was not without its financial rewards, and lifted many a witch out of dire poverty. We refer to The Wonderful Discoverie of Witches In the County of Lancaster With the Arraignement and Triall of Nineteene notorious WITCHES, at the Assizes and generall Gaole deliuerie, holden at the Castle of LANCASTER, vpon Munday, the seuenteenth of August last, 1612…. by Thomas Potts, Esq., who was clerk of the court and present for the trials. Seventeen of the women were found guilty. The Introduction and Notes, from which we quote below, were written by Thomas Crowley, Esq.
A common story emerged from witness and the confessions of the accused, of vengeful witches being accosted by and entering into deals with a devil named Tibbe or Fancie, appearing perhaps as a boy, black cat, brown dog, or hare and such. The witches were most likely engaged in a competitive business of selling unorthodox spells, curses or blessings, and dealing in “contraband” i.e. magic images, the likes of which have historically produced considerable income to legitimate religions besides those forbidding graven images.
Whether it be with witches as it is said to be with a much maligned branch of a certain profession, that it needs two of its members in a district to make its exercise profitable, it is not for me to say; but it is seldom found that competition is accompanied by any very amicable feeling in the competitors, or by a disposition to underrate the value of the merchandize which each has to offer for sale.
Accordingly, great was the rivalry, constant the feuds, and unintermitting the respective criminations of the Erictho and Canidia of Pendle, who had opened shops for the vending of similar contraband commodities, and were called upon to decry each other’s stock, as well as to magnify their own. Each ‘gave her little senate laws,’ and had her own party (or tail, according to modern phraseology) in the Forest. Some looked up to and patronized one, and some the other. If old Demdike could boast that she had Tibb as a familiar, old Chattox was not without her Fancy. If the former had skill in waxen images, the latter could dig up the scalps of the dead, and make their teeth serviceable to her unhallowed purposes.
In the anxiety which each felt to outvie the other, and to secure the greater share of the general custom of a not very extended or very lucrative market, each would wish to be represented as more death-dealing, destructive, and powerful than her neighbour; and she who could number up the most goodly assortment of damage done to man and beast, whether real or not was quite immaterial, as long as the draught was spiced and flavoured to suit the general taste, stood the best chance of obtaining a monopoly.
It is a curious fact, that the son-in-law of one of these two individuals, and whose wife was herself executed as a witch, paid to the other a yearly rent, on an express covenant that she should exempt him from her charms and witchcrafts. Where the possession of a commission from the powers of darkness was thus eagerly and ostentatiously paraded, every death, the cause of which was not perfectly obvious, whether it ended in a sudden termination or a slow and gradual decline, would be placed to the general account of one of the two (to use Master Potts’s description,) “agents for the devil in those parts,” as the party responsible for these unclaimed dividends of mortality.
Did a cow go mad, or was a horse unaccountably afflicted with the staggers, the same solution was always at hand to clear negligence and save the trouble of inquiry; and so far from modestly disclaiming these atrocities, the only struggle on the parts of Mothers Demdike and Chattox would be which should first appropriate them.
And in all this it must not be forgotten that their own credulity was at least as great as the credulity of their neighbours, and that each had the power in question was so much an admitted point, that she had long ceased, in all probability, to entertain any doubts on the subject. With this general conviction on one hand, and a sincere persuasion on the other, it would be surprising if, in the course of a few years, the scandalous chronicle of Pendle had not accumulated a corpus delicti against them, which only required that ‘one of his Majesties Justices in these parts, a very religious honest gentleman, painful in the service of his country,’ should work the materials into shape, and make the gruel thick and slab.’”
In Dr. Whitaker’s astonishment that Margaret Johnson should make the confession she appears to have done, in a clear case of imposture, few of his readers will be disposed to participate, who are at all conversant with the trials of reputed witches in this country. Confessions were so common on those occasions, that there is, I believe, not a single instance of any great number of persons being convicted of witchcraft at one time, some of whom did not make a confession of guilt. Nor is there anything extraordinary in that circumstance, when it is remembered that many of them sincerely believed in the existence of the powers attributed to them; and others, aged and of weak understanding, were, in a measure, coerced by the strong persuasion of their guilt, which all around them manifested, into an acquiescence in the truth of the accusation. In many cases the confessions were made in the hope, and no doubt with the promise, seldom performed, that a respite from punishment would be eventually granted. In other instances, there is as little doubt, that they were the final results of irritation, agony, and despair.
The confessions are generally composed of “such stuff as dreams are made of,” and what they report to have occurred, might either proceed, when there was no intention to fabricate, from intertwining the fantastic threads which sometimes stream upon the waking senses from the land of shadows, or be caused by those ocular hallucinations of which medical science has supplied full and satisfactory solution. There is no argument which so long maintained its ground in support of witchcraft as that which was founded on the confessions referred to. It was the last plank clung to by many a witch-believing lawyer and divine. And yet there is none which will less bear critical scrutiny and examination, or the fallacy of which can more easily be shown, if any particular reported confession is taken as a test and subjected to a searching analysis and inquiry.”
The trial of the Samlesbury witches, Jennet Bierley, Ellen Bierley, and Jane Southworth, forms a curious episode in Potts’s Discoverie. A Priest or Jesuit, of the name of Thomson, alias Southworth, had tutored the principal evidence, Grace Sowerbuts, a girl of the age of fourteen, but who had not the same instinctive genius for perjury as Jennet Device, to accuse the three persons above mentioned of having bewitched her; “so that,” as the indictment [lvii] runs, “by means thereof her body wasted and consumed.”
“The chief object,” says Sir Walter Scott, “in this imposture, was doubtless the advantage and promotion of the Catholic cause, as the patient would have been in due time exorcised and the fiend dispossessed, by the same priest who had taught her to counterfeit the fits. Revenge against the women, who had become proselytes to the Church of England, was probably an additional motive.” But the imposture broke down, from the inability of the principal witness to support the scheme of deception. Unsuccessful, however, as it proved, the time was well chosen, the groundwork excellently laid, the evidence industriously got up, and it must ever deserve a prominent place in the history—a history, how delightful when it shall be written in the spirit of philosophy and with due application of research—of human fraud and imposture.”
This wicked attempt on the part of this priest, or Jesuit, Thompson, alias Southworth, to murder the three persons whose trial is next reported, by suborning a child of the family to accuse them of what, in the excited state of the public mind at the time, was almost certain to consign them to a public execution, has few parallels in the annals of atrocity.
The plot was defeated, and the lives of the persons accused, Jennet Bierley, Ellen Bierley, and Jane Southworth, saved, by no sagacity of the judge or wisdom of the jury, but by the effect of one simple question, wrung from the intended victims on the verge of anticipated condemnation, and which, natural as it might appear, was one the felicity of which Garrow or Erskine might have envied. It demolished, like Ithuriel’s spear, the whole fabric of imposture, and laid it open even to the comprehension of Sir Edward Bromley and Master Thomas Potts.
Then as today the stigmata or signs of hysteria would increase in number as the profession progressed. Naturally it would behoove the best modern neurologists to become psychiatrists and treat the most affluent women, many of whom if not all were neurotic due to their discontent with patriarchal civilization, making of some of them a good example of the virtues of prolonged psychiatric treatment. Some patient patients would be so utterly convinced by the results of their submission to professional authority that they would take up the practice themselves; others, conscious of the fact that they were “faking it,” found scant relief from the maladies suffered.
Flaubert’s performance, Sartre believed, was staged to gain enough sympathy to get out of law school, first of all, and then to do whatever he wanted. Mission accomplished: his father was convinced Flaubert’s constitution would not tolerate a regular life; he was withdrawn from school and supported by his family’s considerable resources. It was after this crisis, which most people would have written off as mildly traumatic at most, that he supposedly found himself able to write at length, albeit painstakingly, sometimes working on a single page for an entire week in a scientific effort to find just the right, harmonious yet unsentimental words to perfect it.
Hysteria, by the way, can be so broad as to encompass all sorts of disorders. Now an obsessive-compulsive person might protect himself from the shitty world by confining it to things that must be touched and warding off its pollution by repetitious hand-washing.
Flaubert, hypothetically, totalized the world at his writing desk, warding off its pollution with a clinical representation or purist style of writing. In other words, his writing distanced him from the dirty world as he condensed what he thought about it into words, tortuously molding the crap into concrete constructions—everything was under control in that bloody wrestling arena. In Walter Pater’s words, he was the “martyr of style.”
Neither technique nor artist should be noticed in fine art. Flaubert finally managed to lose himself in brilliantly depicted details, to paint himself out of his picture of Madame Bovary; there he would perfect his unreality in a disappearing act; to wit, become untouchable or Nothing. Only Nothing is perfect and permanent; that would be his form of hysterical paralysis within which his artistic convulsions were performed. And that was no easy accomplishment for a rebellious subject raised in the vague, emotional effusions of French High Romanticism with all its affectations in the form of incomplete words—words are merely symbolic, indicative of potential action, impotent in themselves.
From the age of fourteen, he is quite explicit about his dissatisfaction with the written word, a dissatisfaction that will persist at least until the crisis of 1844; the written word is clearly inadequate as it can render neither feelings, sensations, nor ecstasies. This denunciation is his recurrent subject, and, as we know, the deepest reasons for it lie elsewhere; but if he slips it into most of his early works from the age of fourteen on, it is as an occasional yet crucial motif. He was forbidden the career of actor; hence, words were deprived of their ordinary accompanying gestures, mimicry, and intonation; they were suddenly mutilated, became little more than inert scaffolding how could he give them back their former fullness? Deprived of his old sound tools, he had to replace them by crude, mute instruments which, because they were not heated by his breath, would never express his animating pathos. Of course, he would read his text aloud, interpret it, giving a singular aspect to the universal vocable through the timbre of his voice, and hence would be able on rare occasions to preserve the illusion that he was giving birth to it by expectoration. But he knew very well that reading is not acting. Even the ludic aspect of literature has nothing to do with acting. Above all, writing for unknown readers is an attempt to captivate and seduce them by defenseless graphemes, which they interpret as they like. He is vulnerable with nothing in his hands, nothing in his pockets; the writer traces his scrawl and goes away, leaving it to the most malevolent inspection.
Despite Sartre’s analysis, we see nothing neurotic or abnormal in Flaubert’s reluctant progression from an oral to written mode of communication; the reduction of thought to objective texts, the invention of writing, accounts for the “progress” of civilization.
As Neil Postman has pointed out, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985), a medium is a suggestive metaphor, and the particular form of a medium helps define the truth—a medium has an epistemological function. For example, “today’s news” was a creation of the telegraph. We still think of the brain as a tablet on which personal experience is recorded, and as a calculating and decisional machine; today we think of it as a personal computer linked by one device or another to the Internet “Cloud” in which we have our heads.
Nicholas Carr asks us if Google is making us stupid. Postman believes our regression from words to pictorial images as a mode of communication is filling our heads with dangerous nonsense and rendering us silly. Still, we associate the truth with the printed page or its facsimile, which constitutes a reorientation of thought from the oral mode. Our laws are written; therefore our lawyers do not have to be wise; being well briefed is sufficient. Oral testimony is still preferred as being a truer to the mind of the witness, but we more strongly believe in the authority of writing. “The written word is assumed to have been reflected upon and revised by its author, reviewed by authorities and editors. It is easier to verify of refute, and it is invested with an impersonal and objective character.”
However that may be, to exist is to exist in print, as Lewis Mumford noted, which makes a far greater impression than actual events and releases people from the domination of immediate and local circumstances. Sartre himself said he wrote to free people—no doubt beginning with himself. Maybe we should all take up writing at greater length.