Fiction - Autumn 2017

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

By Maud Casey | September 5, 2017
A woman diagnosed with
A woman diagnosed with "hystero-epilepsy" at the Salpêtrière hospital (Courtesy of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh)

We, Surrealists, insist on celebrating here, in 1928, the 50th anniversary of hysteria, the greatest poetic discovery of the 19th century. 


André Breton and Louis Aragon’s homage to the anniversary of the diagnosis in La Révolution surréaliste is accompanied by reproductions of the original series of photographs, titled “The Passionate Attitudes, 1878.” Plate I, “The Call”: propped on an elbow, thick hair hanging down her back. Plate II, “Eroticism”: arms hugged to her chest, as though she is sleeping. Plate III, “Contracture”: head tilted, lips pursed, she sits up in bed wearing only a sheet. Follow the slope of her bare shoulder down her arm to find the paralysis, clenched fist camouflaged in bunched bedding. Plate IV, “Mockery”: tsking someone no one else can see. Plate V, “The Cry”: tongue stuck out of a twisted face.


Her clever escape from the Salpêtrière dressed as a man has always been the end of the story, but lives have a way of exceeding their narratives.

We, Surrealists, who love nothing so much as those young hysterics, the perfect example of whom is supplied to us by the study concerning the delicious Augustine—admitted to the Salpêtrière in Dr. Charcot’s care not yet 15.


Was she still delicious, 50 years later? Oh yes. The man on the street was handing the journals out to everyone who passed, but she likes to think her deliciousness is why, when he put one directly into her hands, his lingered.


“You cannot claim to have really seen something until it is photographed,” she remembers the great doctor saying to the men gathered all around her in the amphitheater. “Listen to the photographs. They will tell you all you need to know.”

Fifty years later, she listens to the photographs, though she’d rather be reading the novel given to her by a lover. You’ve wondered? She’s had many lovers. Since her escape in clothes stolen from an intern, she has come to understand that the infection the doctor said came from an invisible lesion on her brain cannot be yanked out. She said to this most recent lover that sex with him was like breathing underwater, and he gave her a novel about a sea expedition in search of a mysterious sea monster, which eventually turns out to be a submarine. She was charmed. Anyway, she likes a sea adventure.

It’s hard to hear at first what the photographs are saying across the years, but like her image on the plates, it begins, slowly, to take shape.

In each photograph, a girl in a bed against a black backdrop. The doctor was an eye-twister; he twisted her eyes. Still, there is the girl in a bed in a night that was the world.

When she arrived in the amphitheater, she would shake the braids out of her hair as if she were shaking everyone out of the room. Sometimes she was a magnet and all the men little pieces of metal waiting to be drawn up. When she arrived, the air, hot and thick, shimmered with electricity.

“The neurologic tree has many branches,” the great doctor said, pointing at her clenched fist. “Each has a different fruit.”

“One thinks one has dreamed something,” she said. Some days, she knew exactly what to say. She looked straight into the fruit of the great doctor’s brain. Some days, the words came as if in a dream. “But it wasn’t a dream at all.”

“And now,” the great doctor said to the audience, “I will give you firsthand experience of this pain.”

“Get rid of the snake in your pants,” she said.

She would perform an idea of sex, writhing on the floor. It gave the endless ache she couldn’t name shape where there was no shape; it gave it a name when there was no name. For a moment, it explained everything. The men clapped. When the doctor reached inside to adjust her, it pleased her to know the seed of her pain was nowhere he would find it. After, it was nowhere she could find it either. No shape no name, the ache went on and on.

Once upon a time, she’d had two gangly brothers. They wrestled constantly. Their bodies, so unlike her own, fascinated her. She never eats enough, her mother would say to her father, who had recently moved the family to the city so he and the brothers could work in the textile factory that dyed their fingers blue. She is fine, her father would say. She was fine, rosy and plump, one of those children who brimmed with love. As a girl, she was bored hearing about the lives of the Saints at the convent school. What a relief when her mother finally took her out to work alongside her as a chambermaid in the home of Mr. C. When he threatened Augustine with a razor and threw her on the bed, it was not her brimming love he was after. When her fits began, her mother had been relieved; she could send her away from that house.

In the back of the journal designed to look like a scientific journal is an ad for portraiture: “Resemblance Guaranteed.” The girl in the photographs does resemble her; that face is inside her face still when she looks in the mirror.

Sweet, clever girl, she thinks, poignant to herself in Plate VI, “Ecstasy”: hands reaching heavenward. Three seconds between each plate, three seconds for each pose. She learned the speed of the shutters. The photographer squeezed the stereoscopic bulb only after he situated the plates, framed the shot, adjusted the light. She held the pose even as the flash lit up the room; the moment that might have been lost forever, illuminated. Is this her, the girl you want? In the photographs, that girl will never die or she will always be dead.

The doctor is long dead, his theories derided. On certain days, she misses him. It takes her by surprise. One day, the smell of sawdust in the streets sent her back to the sawdust on the floor of the amphitheater in case there was blood. There were his eyes, so expectant, better than desire because it was something he needed from her, not something he could just take. There were days it was clear he wanted her to surprise him. Since his death, it is said that hysterics suffer primarily from reminiscences. She reads novels to avoid reminiscing, to avoid the dream in which she grows smaller after the doctor moved her out of the private room back onto the ward of incurables. Some of the women looked like her mother, but they were never her mother, who died though no one told her. In the dream, she grows so small in that crowded room of almost-mothers that she misplaces herself. She might be the woman in the corner there or that one there or that one there.

Once, when she was still the doctor’s best girl, he left her alone in his office. Who wouldn’t have looked at the papers on his desk? Report on the Service of the Insane of the Department of the Seine in the Year 1877. One doctor for every 500 patients. Three different kinds of diets: two meals, one meal, and starvation. The rate of cure: 9.72 percent. According to the report, 254 women died that year of causes due to insanity. Thirty-eight physical causes such as scrofula, blows, wounds, alcohol, debauchery, licentiousness, and masturbation; 21 moral causes such as nostalgia, misery, love, joy, and bad reading habits.

“Her world is without color,” the doctor had said. But there’s color still.

We, Surrealists, therefore propose, in 1928, a new definition of hysteria: Hysteria is a more or less irreducible mental state, characterizing itself by the subversion of the links established between the subject and the moral world, of which he believes he is indeed a part, outside of any system of madness. The mental state is founded on the need for a reciprocal seduction, which explains the hastily accepted miracles of medical suggestion. Hysteria is not a pathological phenomenon and can, in all respects, be considered as a supreme means of expression.


She puts another log on the fire. She puts the journal on the fire. She returns to her novel about the mysterious sea creature, which eventually turns out to be the submarine. As the journal burns, the submarine takes the men around the world, 20,000 leagues—to the Antarctic Ice Shelves, to the corals of the Red Sea, to Atlantis. The captain is monomaniacal, and ultimately, having abandoned his crew, he disappears into a maelstrom off the coast of Normandy. She understands Captain Nemo’s desire for exile. But she is not Nemo. She is not nobody. Her favorite is the scene when the giant squid attacks one of the crew. She has read it over and over. Tonight, as often happened when she was the girl in the photographs, her mind delights her with its inventiveness.

In her own one-person submersible, she sinks into the ocean, black as the night in those pictures where she floated, but here there is no frame; the liquid world goes on forever. There, in the expansive underwater night, she meets the giant squid. It presses its eye to the window of the submersible. It looks directly at her the way she looked into the camera. Unashamed, the doctor had said. An accusation, but she heard the admiration too. By then, her hearing was attuned to the most delicate of pitches. Unashamed, the giant squid reaches out its tentacles to her. It takes the submersible in its many arms. Augustine, delicious Augustine, its giant eye says to her, perhaps the rest of life is in the sea.

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