Catharsis. Again?

Da: AA.VV., Semiotic efficacity and the effectiveness of the text, a cura di I. Pezzini, Breplos, S. Marino, 2000.

I will begin with a quotation that I would like to share with you, taken from an extraordinary tale by Thomas Mann: Mario und der Zauberer (Mario and the Wizard, 1930). Hypnosis is here defined as that “blind execution of combined actions in which the order shifts, through a mysterious route, from organism to organism”. It is this point that I would like to consider: Mann’s whole text revolves around the problem of how it is possible to want not to want, around the question of co-suffering, free will and independence. Many critics have interpreted this story simply as a metaphor of Neofascism, but I believe that this reading is rather limited.
Within the semiotic reflection on factitiveness and on “to make-someone-do” (e.g. to make the other interpret, yet also make him act or suffer), perhaps it would be worth studying from a semantic point of view some verbs such as “to suggest”: to remind someone of something means to tell him what he must or should say, — to suggest is a verb of saying –, and, more concisely, it can become “to call to someone’s mind”, “to advise”, and “to propose”. I would like to consider a specific modality of the verb “to suggest”, that is to say, the modality of suggestion. This is also the theme I would like to suggest as regards symbolic efficacity.
There are numerous, rather complex, definitions of “suggestion”, and all of them draw attention to the concept of relationship: according to the dictionary entry, it is a “phenomenon of consciousness in which an idea, a conviction, a desire and an attitude are imposed on other people from the outside” — this entry gives hypnosis as the typical example –, or it may also refer to “facts and situations that are not evaluated objectively, subjective impressions and situations that are not examined rationally”, etc. Therefore, the corresponding verb is to influence: to influence a person’s thoughts, feelings and will. Semiotic experts know that this is essentially the problem of will and passions. “Suggesting” is what suggests or influences an answer, what leads to a state of suggestion, of sentimental abandon or pathetic emotion. The Lalande dictionary of philosophy stresses Leibniz’s model of the two monads influencing each other. It says that, essentially, in philosophy the problem of suggestion has always been thought of in connection with the soul/body distinction. In semiotics, we have always been obsessed with some verbs, such as the classical verbs of inference. In general, our reading of the verbs of inference is purely cognitive, but in the dictionary the definition of “to induce” is “to act through persuasion on other people’s will in order to make them perform some acts”. Induction is defined not only as an assertion of an inferential kind within an argumentation but also and above all as an assertion of a factitive kind. In other words, to induce means not only “to make a rational remark” but also “to make someone do something, to induce someone to do something”. Therefore, induction can be interestingly defined as “a change that some properties of a body undergo due to the nearness of another body” (hence the induced delirium). It would be very interesting to apply the same concept to the notion of abduction, and, with the help of the dictionary, prove that, apart from the obvious logical, inferential meaning, the term “abduction” means something else. In English “abduction” means “kidnapping” and involves acting on other people in order to oblige them to follow you against or without their will: “to abduct” is a verb which manipulates other people’s will and action. Consequently, notions such as induction and abduction, far from being only inferential moments describing a subject’s cognitive processes, contain some actantial structures of a factitive kind.
One of the surprising effects of hypnosis is the levitation of a limb — the arm lifting itself up. In the Treccani dictionary I have found the following definition of abducting movement: to push away by a movement, pushing-away movement of a limb, it is a part of the body removed from an axis or a reference level, it is called abducent muscle, and so on. I repeat it: it is also necessary to conceive the notions of induction and abduction as operations of factitiveness within an actantial structure in which different actors can be involved. If this is the case, we will have no problem to think of a semiotics that conceives the image of logical-inferential operations as one of its fundamental themes to reflect upon, and, at the same time, is forced by the use of the dictionary employed by social and linguistic actors to reflect upon “to make someone do”.
I come now to the point stressed by Marsciani in his communication about symbolic efficacity. Lévi-Strauss published two articles on this subject: the first is indeed entitled “Symbolic Efficacity” (Lacan will invariably say that his work borrows from this text), and the second is called “The Witch Doctor and His Magic” (the witch doctor, like the psychoanalyst, is a “professional abreactor”). In this text, the author gives examples such as dying as a result of a curse, as in the voodoo, and he tries to explain how the linguistic curse is somehow taken by the body that transforms it. Lévi-Strauss is interested in what he calls the “inductive property”, that is, the ability to construct myths, and in the fact that the organic-psychic body and reflected thought overlap according to a metaphorical structure, that is, they are a metaphor of each other and are related through translation. Due to my, possibly wrong, inclination to think that one of the characteristics of Hjelmslev’s principle of empirics is that a theory must be suitable, otherwise it becomes another linguistic play, today I asked the Director of the maternity home of the University of Bologna something about childbirth. Since Lévi-Strauss’s article talks about a Cuna childbirth, I thought it would be sensible to see what a Bolognese childbirth is. This man, who is not at all interested in Lévi-Strauss, made a long speech about the artificial vagina: his idea is that the body’s contractions, tensions and extensions, which are violent beyond any expectation, are so painful and upsetting, especially for those women who give birth for the first time, that the only solution is to create a comprehensible internal space and an acceptable exit by means of an intersubjective activity of mutual manipulation (that is, gestural yet also linguistic, rhythmic, tonal and respiratory manipulative practices). What he calls virtual vagina is simply the idea of a peculiar collaboration in which the doctor is apparently the manipulator, but, in fact, it is the woman who gives herself the construction of a symbolic body by acquiring a special rhythm of relaxation and contraction. This man probably does not know the truth about the subject, but it is interesting to see which self-representation an actor gives of this kind of relationships. Some of Lévi-Strauss’s terms, such as “mythical anatomy” and “emotional geography”, also recur in the discourse of this kind of actor. An interesting thing occurs, also underlined by Lévi-Strauss: a dialogue is not only based on words but also on concrete operations, on real rites that pass directly through the conscience to reach somewhere else. All I mean is a manipulation of ideas and organs.
Anthropologists have recently made two observations about Lévi-Strauss’s work. The first and the most embarrassing one is that, in the long “Mu’s street” (a partly white entity that progressively, and with gradual difficulties, passes through the parturient woman’s body), the witch doctor speaks a secret language that the woman cannot understand. It is as if that doctor from Bologna had decided to speak Greek with the parturient woman. Lévi-Strauss ignored this detail, which, on the other hand, makes the problem much more complicated, since some of the narrative configurations contained in the shaman’s tale are somehow simulative. For example, Lévi-Strauss writes that the shaman, after arranging some tiny little men with a pointed hat on, — the Viennese delegation is not accepted! — makes them go into the woman’s body, first in single file and then, progressively, in twos, threes, fours and fives, so that the text itself simulates a phenomenon of progressive dilatation. But where is the link between the text and the woman, if, as Carlo Severi points out, the former is in Greek and the latter cannot understand Greek? Moreover, on this occasion, Severi, a strong critic of Lévi-Strauss’s linguistics, in particular of the fact that Lévi-Strauss reduces the complex mechanism of influence just described to a merely linguistic problem (which Lacan will then transform into talking cure, that is, into a purely linguistic cure), observes that, in this case, the main problem is not to reconcile a collective and an individual myth metaphorically, to think that the body establishes a metaphorical relationship with mythology, accepts this rhythm and then performs its operations. Conversely, the fundamental problem is the enunciative construction of an external actor — a model which is very similar to a fetishist triad — who is capable of warranting the operations. Thus, with reference to Sapir’s and Whorf’s hypothesis, interestingly enough, Severi shows that the tyrannical imposition of language on thought does not concern the linguistic code acting on social reality but the concrete functioning of discourse acting on social reality: it is the concrete discourse produced with the woman that is adopted as a body transformer. According to this idea, the issue essentially concerns the divine actor, that is, the particular case of the entity which can warrant the woman not only a representative myth but also a simulation of a series of operations that are performed in any case, whether she understands what was said during the story or not. In other words, a fiduciary contract links the woman and this actor who somehow intervenes and performs the operations. Yet, in her turn, the woman has faith or creates it, depending on whether it already exists for cultural reasons or it has been lost by her individually and must therefore be put into the story. Curiously enough, even in Severi’s observations, the woman is never considered as an actor but only as a patient. He raises the issue of the homology between her body and myth, or of the construction within the text of an enunciator through an image of another actor, who is a transcendental actor and guarantor, capable of performing the operations. And the woman? And the effects on her? This is one of the problems of linguistic effects which, I believe, must be tackled in a different way. I do not want to be seen as a feminist, yet both Lévi-Strauss’s analysis and its revision neglect the function of the transformation of thought, feelings, and body sensations that, in this case, concerns the woman.

Let us move on now to the problem of catharsis: hence the title of my paper and the despair of having to resort to this model. Catharsis again? We have enough of it. And yet you know that, when a text-reception theory is formed — see Jauss, for instance –, the problem of catharsis often rises and a chapter is devoted to it. Inevitably, when we think in terms of reception, the cathartic terms are reintroduced, either to talk about women in labor or about Goethe’s Faust. Therefore, while attempting to put together, as quickly as possible, a dossier about the cathartic question, I bumped into the problem of hypnosis. For two reasons: first, because most of the mid-nineteenth-century work to redefine the notion of catharsis started from the experiences that reintroduced the cathartic method into hypnosis and psychoanalysis; secondly, because the notion of catharsis was then redefined in medical terms and, even nowadays, it is still partly accepted as such. I will sum it up in simple terms, although there are many ways of dealing with the question of catharsis. I will here quote only Aristotle’s definition: “representation of an action that, by means of compassion and fear, accomplishes the catharsis — which I translate here as purgation — of such passions”. The definition from Poetics therefore requires the representation of an action, and not only of language, that accomplishes, or achieves expiation through two passions: the catharsis intervenes in the dimension of passion. Another way of dealing with the problem is to forget the dimension of passions. Consequently, the catharsis becomes a moral operation and the theory of passions a sort of reformatory where one becomes virtuous. There are also aesthetic solutions: it is beauty that acts, and people find freedom in the beauty of the work. And what about tragic violence? Moreover, there are intellectualistic theses, which see catharsis as intellectual clarification, as anagnoresis: we witness recognition in the tragedy, we recognize by ourselves, and thus catharsis occurs. In this case, it is a mere consequence of inferential operations, as if we caused cathartic phenomena by means of an abduction. This does not take into consideration the medical side. Since the middle of the nineteenth century catharsis has increasingly turned into liberatory excitement rather than calming expiation, thanks to a new reading of Aristotle’s texts about the soul, psychophysiology and politics (the cathartic question is also a political one; indeed in Politics Aristotle says that he will talk about it in Poetics, but, in fact, there is no mention of it). Catharsis is what aims at the relationship between the soul and the body. In De anima Aristotle stresses the fact that the passion is located in the soul/body articulation. This favors semiotics, which has long been trying to define passions not only at the modal and aspectual level but also at the esthesic level, that is, taking into consideration the esthesic-perceptive dimension of passions as a representation of bodily operations.
If we read again the two texts by Aristotle carefully, we will find out that catharsis, which is the fundamental model of the action of release and relief, has tragedy as its model. On the other hand, tragedy is modeled on music, and music on medicine, which means that medicine is the radical model (hence the idea of expurgation whereby catharsis is associated with phlegm). As Aristotle invented a very effective theory of passions, if we want to analyze fobos, that is fear, we must consider that it is opposed to temerity and that courage lies between them. Consequently, the aim of catharsis is certainly to avoid fear, but, at the same time, it is also to prevent it from turning into temerity and obtain courage instead (it seems to be banal that, according to Aristotle, considering the structure of the city, it was essential for the Greeks to have courage — civic courage, I would say). In other words, catharsis becomes important because it is a problem of relational treatment. It is not by chance that the medical model is very important. In particular, it is a psychiatric model. Whatever those who see catharsis as a phenomenon of intellectualistic or esthetic recognition may say, it seems to me sound to agree with Aristotle’s idea from De Anima: “it seems that the soul’s emotions depend on the body: courage, sweetness, fear, compassion and boldness, but also joy, love and hate: in all these cases the body feels passion”.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Breuer, Charcot and Freud, among others, revive the cathartic principle. In fact, Jauss says that the idea of catharsis continued to work from St. Augustin (his idea of compassio is fundamental here), through Rousseau, until Brecht. This research direction attempts to study the cathartic phenomena within another kind of practice, in which the transformation of passion (for example, the symptom) plays an essential role. For instance, it is possible to study Brecht and his idea of catharsis: catharsis occurs when we are completely distant, whereas beforehand catharsis occurred when we were completely involved. Yet let us go back to the problem of the psychiatric redefinition of catharsis and of its links with hypnosis. Some modern psychiatrists, for example Tobie Nathan, maintain that hypnosis is the secularization of the phenomena of possession. Therefore, it concerns an ancient practice which has survived in our culture. This notion of hypnosis, of a subject acting on another one, which is very complex relationship, constantly recurs in speeches, for example any time we talk about television. I remember a hypnotist who, some years ago, hypnotized people from the television and had some shocking effects on the audience, till he was forbidden to go on. Moreover, a lot has been recently said about cases of children who hypnotize themselves by playing videogames. There is a whole literature, totally absurd but interesting, on the media as hypnotizing agents. Hypnosis has been long considered a technique to communicate suggestions: if you read Haley, who worked with Bateson on communication strategies, you will find that the first chapter of his book is about hypnosis. Hypnosis becomes now a communication model, and the hypnotic session becomes, in some way, an interactive laboratory. Freud, who in 1905 wrote “Psychopathische Personen auf der Buhne” (Psychopathic Characters on Stage), began practicing hypnosis, but later on, when it led to worrying transformations of passion and too strong an emotional release (he was terrified when, at the end of a cathartic session, a woman threw her arms around his neck), he interrupted, or better removed, it and practiced instead the “talking cure”, which had very different features. However, contemporary psychoanalysis has raised the issue again, starting from Ferenczi. In the 1930s, in a famous article called “Hypnotic method and Neocatharsis”, he underlined that a Freudian epistemological block occurred and that it was necessary to think over hypnosis again. It comes as no surprise that Isabelle Stengers, together with Léon Chertok, has recently written a book on hypnosis. Their aim is to attempt to explain that, from the epistemological point of view, Freud tried to remove hypnosis and all its aspects — cathartic exchanges, transformations of passion, extraordinary interaction and hypnotic release — in order to make up a scientific model in line with the nineteenth-century scientific models. The current hypotheses concerning the hypnotic phenomena try to analyze directly the relationships between the subjects and the way they function. Those who are interested in this aspect should remember that in 1980 a famous American expert, Theodore Sarbin, wrote an article in Semiotica entitled “Hypnosis, Metaphorical Encounters of the Fourth Kind” — unavoidably there is always number four, “the sign of the fours”, etc. — in which he studies the various types of interaction. Furthermore, there is a very interesting article by Haley and Wickland, who wrote with Watzlawick a book about the pragmatics of human communication, which reports the transcript of a session recorded by Milton Erickson (a famous hypnotist of our century and a friend of Bateson’s) concerning the hypnosis of a woman, followed by the three experts’ commentary on the session. This article throws light on some very interesting phenomena, which are much more useful than the prescriptive definitions the hypnotists give of what they actually do. An example is the fact that Erickson plays with two voices: on the one hand, a standard, conversational voice, and, on the other, a much lower, slower, and more relaxed voice, with a strong rhythm which totally differs from the ordinary one, thus giving rise to a phenomenon of overlapping addressers that brings about a splitting in the other as addressee. This splitting is of an intersubjective kind: the hypnotized individual must somehow accept, in a clearly consensual situation, a splitting, which can occur even without him doing anything. For example, Erickson quotes a case of public hypnotic session in which he realizes that the other individual is so resistant to hypnosis that he says absolutely nothing, and, after a while, he falls into a trance. This happens because he comes to be hypnotized yet at the same time to resist hypnosis, and, when he sees that nothing happens, he hypnotizes himself. This example is very interesting because it means that suggestion is rather self-suggestion, and that it is necessary to place the phenomenon in the reflexive dimension of the splitting operation rather than, as we may think, in the hypnotizer’s active operation. Hence the psychoanalysts’ idea that the real analyst is the addressee rather than the addresser. The hypnotist is not a man endowed with an extraordinary power but a man who makes use of the image of this power in order to allow the other individual to take it. We are clearly dealing with a very complex interaction strategy, a highly strategic definition of factitive relationships, and, consequently, factitiveness can only be conceived in relation with conversational issues. In front of whom does the hypnotist find himself? In front of a individual who is there because he is ill. Therefore, it is the patient who wants it. In fact, this is not true. The hypnotist realizes that the patient wants and simultaneously does not want to change his own symptom, since it is also his way of seeing the world; thus, a strong desire to change is associated with a strong desire not to change (which is called resistance). This phenomenon is mentioned by all theories of the double bind, which, for example, in Bateson appears in his analyses of alcoholics: the alcoholic wants yet does not want to change, and the big problem is how to give him enough competence to make him change without him believing he can make it, otherwise he would always continue to drink a last glass. If you accept the idea that the patient is already divided into two actors, characterized by a different competence — the former to do and the latter not to do — the hypnotist’s problem is to perform an operation which gives rise to a tension between these two kinds of competence. With regard to this, Haley says that “in each induction, at some point the hypnotist, implicitly or explicitly, challenges the subject to try and do something which he was told and is not able to do”. Greimas wrote a very good article about challenge which I still consider a model of conversational analysis in general. One of the most interesting paradoxes of challenge is telling another individual he must do something and saying that he has not the competence to do it. Challenge starts up the other’s system of values and obtains from it that action which, in fact, could not be accomplished. It happens that only those people who are changing their system of values are challenged: if you share a system of values with the other individual, there is no need to challenge him, indeed it is enough to ask him simply to perform the value operations in which he believes. However, as soon as the other individual stops believing in his systems of values, you can then challenge him to guide him back towards them. Challenge has therefore a transforming value as to a possible transformation of someone’s values. Indeed, this is the case of hypnosis: the person comes, wants to change, yet obviously does not want to change. I cannot discuss now the problem of the interaction between the hypnotizer and hypnotized, yet I will only make a remark which has many consequences and appears in almost all studies I happened to read, from Chertok to Sarbin and the others: the splitting of the actors is achieved through the focalization on some operations. This phenomenon is interesting, since it means that some of the hypotheses we use to analyze the cinema or the literary discourse are also adopted between subjects by focusing on one point (to find the weak point, try to make one focus on one point, and so on). Focusing on one point only, that is, the isolation of focalization, allows us to exclude a series of actions that normally bind a person. It also gives the fixed subject the competence to allow another kind of unexpected suggestions, perceptions and co-perceptions to flow. Indeed this is one of the characteristics of psychoanalytic discourse: on the one hand, you have a man who acts by association of ideas and has lost the normal linguistic and conceptual vision; on the other hand, the psychoanalyst who also works by association of ideas. Both behave as if they were mutually hypnotized; neither of them is consistent with their linguistic actions and habits. Once these operations are accomplished, they get to a sort of agreement and to a very stimulating understanding of each other that does not concern the level of conventional conversation. This applies to psychoanalysis, but the hypnotists’ answer is that psychoanalysis did nothing but borrow the strategies from hypnosis. Yet what happens at some point when fixation occurs? It happens that the Ego’s splitting allows the subjective body to split into different elements, into independent actors: for example, in the posthypnotic moments, someone lifts his hand and says: “I tried to bend my arm but it wouldn’t bend”. The body is split into different actors who are characterized by mutual actions and competence, according to which one of the subjects is simultaneously the observer of another subject: the body becomes a sort of plurality of variable enunciating subjects with agreement possibilities. This idea seems to belong to Deleuze, but, in fact, it belongs to Whitehead. It is the basic idea that it is easier to explain how a subject splits into a plurality than demonstrate why we manage to form a subject just by starting from all those subjective instances that constitute us.
I will end my paper with the following question: what is the other communication that occurs once the subjects are focalized in a different way? Fundamental interopathy. Roustang, a big expert in this matter, believes that there is a moment when the subjects get to non-intersubjectivity, that is, they become non-subjects who, anyhow, share an interopathy. All this is a fall below the threshold of an esthesia regulated inside a place, which is deeper at the generative level, full of pulses, mutual acknowledgments of movements, heat, scents, pushes, breaths and lights, and from which we can then return by rearranging subjectivity and intersubjectivity. This hypothesis is stimulating, in my view, as it could give us some directions for getting out of a semiotics of purely conceptual and cognitive movements that only aims at the subject and the object, in order to get to a semiotics that, on the contrary, can conceive the phenomenon of interosubjectivity and interopathy. If this is true, I think that some of the instruments I have mentioned, such as manipulation of passion, the problem of tensive structures, the reorganization of the plurality of subjectivity and enunciation instances, such models as factitiveness and the structure of challenge can be interesting patterns to revise the way in which not only language but also the set of signs interact with the subjects — the only ones we can trust, because they are us.


Aristotele, Poetica, De anima, Politica.

Bateson, Gregory; Don D. Jackson; Haley, Jay e Weakland, John H., “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia”, Behavioral Science, 1, 1956, pp. 251-264.

Chertok, Léon e Stengers, Isabelle, Le coeur et la raison. L’hypnose en question, de Lavoisier à Lacan, Paris: Payot, 1989.

Chertok, Léon e Stengers, Isabelle, L’hypnose, blessure narcissique, Paris: Les empêcheurs de penser en rond, 1990.

Erickson, M. H.; Haley, Jay e Weakland, John H., “A transcript of a Trance Induction with Commentary”, Amer. J. Clinical Hypnosis, 1959, 2, pp. 49-84 [now in Haley, Jay, Advanced Techniques of Hypnosis and Therapy. Selected Papers of Milton H. Erickson, M. D., New York/London: Grune & Stratton, 1967].

Ferenczi, S., “Principes de relaxation et néocatharsis”, in Psychanalyse 4, Oeuvres complètes, tome IV: 1927-1933, Paris: Payot, 1982.

Greimas, Algirdas-Julien, “Le défi”, in Du Sens II. Essais sémiotiques, Paris: Seuil, 1983, pp. 213-223.

Haley, Jay, Uncommon Therapy. The Psychiatric Techniques of Milton H. Erickson, M. D., New York: W. W. Norton, 1973.

Jauss, Hans Robert, Aestetische Erfahrung und literarische Hermeneutik, Frankfurt, Suhrkamp, 1982.

Nathan, Tobie, Le sperme du diable, Paris: P. U. F., 1988.

Roustang, F., “…Elle ne lâche plus”, Paris: Minuit, 1980.

Watzlawick, Paul, Die Möglichkeit des Anderssens. Zur Technik der therapeutischen Kommunikation, Bern: Verlag Hans Huber, 1977.

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