“Augustine” is not her name:  she was named by the institution. At 15, Augustine was left at the Salpêtrière asylum in Paris in 1875 by her mother; she had already endured the brutality of sexual abuse throughout her young life. Augustine’s “hysterical attacks” had begun at the age of thirteen when, according to her testimony, she had been raped by her employer, a man who was also her mother’s lover.  When admitting her to Dr. Jean Martin Charcot’s “care,” Augustine stated that her perpetrator had threatened her with a razor (De Marneffe 88).

Musée de la civilisation, bibliothèque du Séminaire de Québec, fonds ancien.

I found Augustine in an essay by Elaine Showalter. She was mentioned briefly as an example of the cultural (re)production of the Shakespearean figure of Ophelia. Instead of reading through the passage, I paused to ask a simple, and as it turns out complex, question:  who are you?  Reading Augustine as a victim would have been possible; however, it would then not have allowed me to extend how I might begin to understand or hear what she might have been saying.  Her documented “hysterical” outbursts in her household were her objections to domestic violence, and her contained, managed and documented hysteria in response to the brutality and humilation she endured, along with 5,000 other girls and women, within another institution (the asylum),  I read as a discourse of resistance.

The project came to life as Tatiana and I walked home one winter’s night in Montreal:  we were talking about, oddly enough, hysteria.  We began to imagine, as the snow fell, three vertical frames that would be projected onto a wall and represent a figure’s response to Charcot’s violent reinvention of hysteria while he was director at the Salpêtrière asylum for  women in France. The figure inside each of the projected border-frames depicts the intra-activity, enfolding, and struggle with object, other, and self.

"Invention of Hysteria" by George Didi-Huberman

Our preoccupation with hysteria and how, as an ideology, it is associated with the body through varying forms of social and medical performances, could be combined through the disciplines of theatre and video art to explore the scenographic and the spatial, among others, and their relationships to power and agency.  What does hysteria mean?  How is it possible to represent hysteria when we have come to know it only through representations?  How can we translate the untranslatable? How could theatre provide a space to articulate the struggle held within these questions and potentially open “the word” for further inquiry?  These are the questions we continue to ask.

“The sign,” as Jacques Derrida asserts, “represents the present in its absence … .When we cannot grasp or show the thing, state the present, the being-present, when the present cannot be presented, we signify, we go through the detour of the sign ….The sign, in this sense, is deferred presence” (9).  In a similar way, Artaud speaks about the struggle of language when deciphering life:  “When we speak the word ‘life,’ it must be understood we are not referring to life as we know it from its surface of fact, but to that fragile, fluctuating center which forms never reach” (13).  A young girl named Augustine, therefore, is both Derrida’s “deferred” and Artaud’s “fluctuating center.”  For the installation, we are exploring, in different ways, the language found in theatre or, as Artaud suggests, “that which is half-way between gesture and thought” (89). As an iconic image of hysteria, Augustine was entered into medical discourse through Shakespeare, theatre and images, and those symbols still feed into how we come understand the “signs” that detour us from that which can never be reached – the being of hysteria, resistance and ourselves.

Charcot used patients like Augustine to represent hysteria to international audiences including physicians, writers, artists, scientists, and scholars.  All patient interviews were transcribed.  It is in Charcot’s transcriptions of Augustine, where he represents her in his “theatre of medicine” as Ophelia-like, that her uncontained silence reveals her explicit resistance to his scientific model of hysteria.  This is where I heard Augustine’s resistance: in her found monologue, a young woman resisting the institution of medicine:

"Je Suis Augustine" by Sorouja Moll and Tatiana Koroleva (actor: Myriam Suchet)

What do you know about medicine? … I don’t want to feel you near me!

Augustine’s hysteria was a disruption of a patriarchal and institutionalized force that unified a discoursive structure which continues to govern how the female body is represented.  The video installation is an attempt to open the opportunity to discuss how the intra-disciplinary practice of theatre and video art, as well as its historical and contemporary architecture could be disrupted to a/effect space, location, geography on character/actor/identity; how historical locations remains spatially present; how borders, borderlands, and liminality in theatre/performance is a process of resistance against the violence of institutional geography, history, religion, borders, and ultimately leads to, when recognized, the (re) construction of sovereign forces and engagement among the performing present absent body and space.

"Je Suis Augustine" by Sorouja Moll and Tatiana Koroleva (actor: Myriam Suchet)

I won’t uncross my legs! … Oh! You really did hurt me ….

No, you won’t manage! … Help! … Camel! Lout! Good-for-nothing! …

Pardon me!  Pardon me, Monsieur!  Leave me alone …. It’s impossible! …

(IPS, 11:146-146) [1]

"Je Suis Augustine" by Sorouja Moll and Tatiana Koroleva (actor: Myriam Suchet)

After years of being held against her will by Charcot and after her many attempts to escape the institution, one morning Augustine dressed herself as a man and walked out of the front doors of the asylum into the streets of Paris.


[1] Didi-Huberman, Georges. Translated by Alisa Hartz. Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpetriere. Massachusetts: MIT, 1982. 83.

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Comments
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