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Jacqueline Rose on Freud's 'Dora'

Jacqueline Rose's reading of Freud's famous case study 'Dora' from Sexuality in the Field of Vision remains one of the most important interventions not only in the interpretation of that case and its place within Freud's theory but also of the relation between psychoanalysis and feminism.

Jacqueline Rose22 October 2020

Jacqueline Rose on Freud's 'Dora'

Jacqueline Rose's reading of Freud's famous case study 'Dora' from Sexuality in the Field of Vision remains one of the most important interventions not only in the interpretation of that case and its place within Freud's theory but also of the relation between psychoanalysis and feminism. In this excerpt, Rose argues that the case is fundamental for understanding Freud's theory of sexuality, later developed in Three Studies on the Theory of Sexuality and beyond. She shows that the problem of feminity per se structures what Freud himself is able to comprehend about Dora's case. In the process of her reading, Rose thus turns a feminist psychoanalysis back on Freud's own theory, showing how the feminine and its representation becomes a dialectical limit to psychoanalysis as a whole. 

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What would it mean to reopen the case of Dora now? The quotations above point to an urgency that is nothing less than that of the present dialogue between psychoanalysis and feminism, a dialogue that seems crucial and yet constantly slides away from the point of a possible encounter, psychoanalysis attempting to delimit an area that might be called femininity within the confines of the drive, within a theory of sexuality that constantly places and displaces the concept of sexual difference, feminism starting precisely from that difference which it then addresses to psychoanalysis as a demand, the demand for the theory of its construction. Feminism, therefore, first turns to psychoanalysis because it is seen as the best place to describe the coming into being of femininity, which, in a next stage, it can be accused of producing or at least reproducing, sanctioning somehow within its own discourse. And then, where it fails, as it did with Dora, this can be taken as the sign of the impossibility of its own project, the impossibility then becoming the feminine, which, by a twist that turns the language of psychoanalysis against itself, it represses. Quite simply, the case of Dora is seen to fail because Dora is repressed as a woman by psychoanalysis and what is left of Dora as somehow retrievable is the insistence of the body as feminine, and since it is a case of hysteria, in which the symptom speaks across the body itself, the feminine is placed not only as source (origin and exclusion) but also as manifestation (the symptom). Within this definition, hysteria is assimilated to a body as site of the feminine, outside discourse, silent finally, or, at best, ‘dancing’.

What I want to do in this essay is look at some of these difficulties through the case of Dora — not simply to accuse the case of its failure, which failure must, however, be described and interrogated; not to produce an alternative reading whose content would be the feminine; but nonetheless to bring out some of the problems of the case precisely as the problem of the feminine within psychoanalysis in its urgency for us now. To do this will involve a discussion of the case itself, how its failure relates to changes in the concept of sexuality, and how these changes, which come at least partly in response to that failure, make certain conceptions of the feminine problematic.

The essay falls into three parts: (1) the failure of the case, its relation to Freud’s concept of femininity; (2) the relation of changes in the concept of femininity to changes in that of analytic practice (transference), and then to the concept of the unconscious in its relation to representation (hysterical and schizophrenic language); and (3) how these changes make impossible any notion of the feminine that would be outside representation, the failure of the case of Dora being precisely the failure to articulate the relation between these two terms.

The Case of Dora

The case of Dora was first drafted under the title ‘Dreams and Hysteria’ in 1901, the year after the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams. Yet it did not appear until 1905, in the same year as the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. The space between the two dates is punctuated by Freud’s own comments on his hesitancy regarding a case that had promised so much, that he had in fact promised as nothing less than the sequel to The Interpretation of Dreams, as the link between clinical practice and dream analysis, between the etiology of the symptom and the primary process. The history of the case, its hesitancy, in this sense speaks for itself, for it is caught quite literally between those two aspects of Freud’s work, the theory of the unconscious and the theory of sexuality, whose relation or distance is what still concerns us today, as if the case of Dora could only appear finally at the point where the implications of its failure had already been displaced onto a theory of sexuality, by no means complete and still highly problematic, but at least acknowledged as such. Dora then falls, or fails, in the space between these two texts, and Freud himself writes: “While the case history before us seems particularly favoured as regards the utilization of dreams, in other respects it has turned out poorer than I could have wished”.

What then was wrong with Dora? First, in the simple sense of diagnosis and/or symptom, leaving aside at this stage the question of the status of the diagnostic category itself, not forgetting however that it was from this very question that psychoanalysis set out (rejection of hysteria as an independent clinical entity). Dora, then, as first presented or brought to Freud; was suffering from tussis nervosa and periodic attacks of aphonia (nervous cough and loss of voice), ‘possibly migraines, together with depression, hysterical unsociability, and a taedium vitae which was probably not entirely genuine’. Her entering into the treatment had been precipitated by the discovery of a suicide note by her parents and a momentary loss of consciousness after a row with her father, subsequently covered by amnesia. The symptoms are so slight, in a sense, that Freud feels it necessary to excuse to the reader the attention he is to give to the case, the status he is granting it as exemplary of a neurotic disorder whose etiology he sets himself to describe.

The situation is all the more complex in that the case is offered as a ‘fragment’, and this in a number of different senses: first, the case was broken off by the patient; second, it was not committed to writing until after the completion of the treatment (only the words of the dreams were recorded immediately after the session); and third, as a corollary to the second factor, only the results of the analysis and not its process were transcribed. Finally, Freud explicitly states that, where the etiology of the case stalled, he appeals to other cases to fill in the gaps, always indicating the point at which ‘the authentic part ends and my construction begins’.

Each of these notions of fragment are crucial for the case, and each is double-edged. If the case is broken off after three months, this only ‘fragments’ it insofar as the whole practice of psychoanalysis had changed from the immediate analysis of the symptom to an engagement with whatever presented itself to the mind of the patient in any one session, so that the inadequacy of the time span is the consequence of a new privileging of the discourse of the patient herself. Thus the distinction between the results and the process of analysis, which is the basis of the second and third notions of fragment, in one sense collapses on the first (this incidentally should be remembered in any simple dismissal of the case as the suppression of the patient’s ‘own’ language). On the other hand, the process is missing from the case in another and more crucial sense, that of the relation between the analyst and the patient, which Freud calls the transference, and to whose neglect he partly ascribes its failure. All these points should be borne in mind as the signs of this failure, and yet each is a paradox: the process is there, but it is somehow elided; a meaning or interpretation of Dora’s ‘complaint’ is produced, but it is clearly inadequate.

To give a history of the case is therefore impossible, but a number of central points can be disengaged that I hope will be of help in the discussion to follow:

1. The parameters of the case are defined by the sexual circuit that runs between Dora’s parents and their ‘intimate’ friends, Herr and Frau K., in which Dora herself is caught.
2. Thus, Dora is courted by Herr K., and the crisis that leads to the treatment is partly precipitated by an attempted seduction on his part, which she repudiates.
3. Behind this is the affair between Dora’s father and Frau K.; behind this, crucially, the absence of Dora’s mother in her relationship both to Dora (‘unfriendly’)8 and to Dora’s father (hence his relationship with Frau K.).
4. Behind this again, there is an intimacy which is first that between the two families but which also completes the sexual circuit between them — the intimacy of Dora and Frau K., whose precise content is never given and that functions exactly as the ‘secret’ of the case, the source of the sexual knowledge that Dora undoubtedly has, and that thus cuts straight across from the ‘manifest’ behaviour of the participants to the ‘latent’ etiology of the symptoms (Freud’s theory of hysteria).

Put at its most crude, Freud’s interpretation of the case is based on a simple identification of the Oedipal triangle, and starts with Dora’s protest at her place in the relationship between Frau K. and her father, that is, with Dora as a pawn who is proffered to Herr K. Thus her repudiation of the latter is the inevitable consequence of an outrage that takes Herr K. as its immediate object, and yet behind which is the figure of the father, who is the object of real reproach. In this way Dora’s rejection of Herr K., ‘still quite young and of prepossessing appearance’ (sic) can be seen as simultaneously Oedipal and hysterical (repudiation of her own desire). Dora’s own desire is defined here as unproblematic — heterosexual and genital. At this stage Freud was still bound to the traumatic theory of neurosis, and he thus traces the repudiation on the part of Dora to an attempted embrace by Herr K. when she was fourteen, which was also repulsed — ‘the behaviour of this child of fourteen was already entirely and completely hysterical’. To be more precise, therefore, we would have to say that the Oedipal triangle is there in the case history but that it is held off by this notion of trauma, which makes of Herr K. the first repudiated object (the seducer). In his analysis of Dora’s first dream, there is no doubt that Freud interprets it as a summoning up of an infantile affection for the father secondarily, as a defense against Dora’s persistent and unquestioned desire for Herr K. (The second dream is then interpreted as revealing the vengeance/hostility against her father that could not achieve expression in the first.)

Now the way in which the case history is laid out immediately spoils the picture, or the ‘fine poetic conflict’ as Freud himself puts it, since Dora has been totally complicit in the affair between her father and Frau K., and it had in fact been entirely through her complicity that the situation had been able to continue. Furthermore, Dora’s symptom, her cough, reveals an un-mistakable identification with her father, a masculine identification confirmed by the appearance of her brother at three points in the case history — each time as the object of identification, whether as recollection, screen memory, or manifest content of the dream. The revealing of this masculine identification leads directly to the uncovering of the ‘true’ object of Dora’s jealousy (made clear if for no other reason by the overinsistence of her reproaches against her father), that is, Frau K. herself, with whom Dora had shared such intimacy, secrecy, and confessions, even about Frau K.’s unsatisfactory relationship with her husband — in which case, Freud asks, how on earth could Dora in fact be in love with Herr K.? We may well ask.

What we therefore have in the case is a series of contradictions, which Freud then attempts to resolve by a mandatory appeal to the properties of the unconscious itself (‘thoughts in the unconscious live very comfortably side by side, and even contraries get on together without disputes’), revealing a theory of interpretation actually functioning as ‘resistance’ to the pressing need to develop a theory of sexuality, whose complexity or difficulty manifests itself time and again in the case. Thus in his analysis of the hysterical symptom — aphonia, or loss of voice — Freud is forced toward the beginnings of a concept of component sexuality (a sexuality multiple and fragmented and not bound to the genital function), since the symptom is clearly not only the response to the absence of Herr K. (impossibility of the communication desired) but also a fantasied identification with a scene of imagined sexual satisfaction between Dora’s father and Frau K. This is the fullest discussion of sexuality in the book, which anticipates many of the theses of the Three Essays, but it is conducted by Freud as an apology for Dora (and himself) — a justification of the discussion of sexual matters with a young girl (the question therefore being that of censorship, Freud’s discovery reduced to the articulation of sexuality to a woman) and then as insistence on the perverse and undifferentiated nature of infantile sexuality so that Dora’s envisaging of a scene of oral gratification — for that is what it is — might be less of a scandal.

The difficulties therefore clearly relate to the whole concept of sexuality, and not just to the nature of the object (for the importance of this, see later in this essay on the concept of the sexual aim), but Freud’s own resistance appears most strongly in relation to Frau K.’s status as an object of desire for Dora. Thus this aspect of the case surfaces only symptomatically in the text, at the end of the clinical picture that it closes, and in a series of footnotes and additions to the interpretation of the second dream and in the postscript.

“It is in her second dream that the identification of Dora with a man (her own suitor) is unquestionable, and since the analysis reveals a latent obsession with the body of the woman, the Madonna, defloration, and finally childbirth, the recuperation of a primary autoeroticism (the masturbation discerned behind the first dream) by a masculine fantasy of self-possession now charted across the question of sexual difference is clear. Yet Freud makes of the dream an act of vengeance, as he does the breaking off of the case, which perhaps not suprisingly is its immediate sequel. The way this dream raises the question of sexual difference will be discussed below. It should already serve as a caution against any assimilation of Dora’s homosexual desire for Frau K. to a simple preoedipal instance. Note for the moment that Freud is so keen to hang onto a notion of genital heterosexuality that it leads him, first, to identify the fantasy of childbirth that analysis revealed behind the second dream as an obscure ‘maternal longing’ outdoing in advance Karen Horney’s appeals to such a longing as natural, biological and pregiven in her attacks on Freud’s later work on femininity; and second, to classify Dora’s masculine identification and desire for Frau K. as ‘gynaecophilic’ and to make it ‘typical of the unconscious erotic life of hysterical girls’, that is, to use as an explanation of hysteria the very factor that needs to be explained.

“Finally, it should be pointed out that the insistence on a normal genital sexuality is obviously related to the question of transference. Freud himself attributes the failure of the case to his failure in ‘mastering the transference in good time’, while his constant footnoting of this discussion with references to his overlooking the homosexual desire of this patient indicates that the relation between these two aspects of the case remains unformulated. At one level it is easy that Freud’s failure to understand his own implication in the case (countertransference) produced a certain definition of sexuality as a demand on Dora, which, it should be noted, she rejects (walks out). On the other hand, and more crucially, Freud’s own definition of transference in its relation to the cure can be seen as caught in the same trap as that of his theory of sexuality, since he sees the former as the obstacle to the uncovering of ‘new memories, dealing, probably, with actual events’ (relics of the seduction theory), just as he defines neurosis as the ‘incapacity for meeting a real erotic demand’, and even allows (thereby undermining the whole discovery of psychoanalysis) that neurosis might ultimately be vanquished by ‘reality’. The concept of a possible recovery from neurosis through reality and that of an unproblematic feminine sexuality are coincident in the case.

'In fact she was a feminist'

“The reference comes from Freud’s case on the ‘Psychogenesis of Homosexuality in a Woman’,20 and in one sense the step from the failure of the case of Dora to this case, which appeared in 1920, is irresistible — not, however, in order to classify Dora as homosexual in any simple sense, but precisely because in this case Freud was led to an acknowledgement of the homosexual factor in all feminine sexuality, an acknowledgement which was to lead to his revision of his theories of the Oedipus complex for the girl. For in this article he is in a way at his most radical, rejecting the concept of cure, insisting that the most psychoanalysis can do is restore the original bisexual disposition of the patient, defining homosexuality as nonneurotic. Yet, at the same time, his explanation of this last factor — the lack of neurosis ascribed to the fact that the object-choice was established not in infancy but after puberty — is then undermined by his being obliged to trace back the homosexual attraction to a moment prior to the oedipal instance, the early attachment to the mother, in which case either the girl is neurotic (which she clearly is not) or all women are neurotic (which indeed they might be).

The temptation is therefore to see the case of Dora as anticipating, through the insistence of Dora’s desire for Frau K. as substitute for the absent mother in the case (‘the mystery turns upon your mother’21, Freud says in relation to the first dream), the nature of the preoedipal attachment between mother and girl child, an attachment Freud finally makes specific to feminine sexuality in its persistence and difficulty. All recent work on the concept of a feminine sexuality that resists or exceeds the reproductive or genital function stems from this, and since the Oedipus complex is properly the insertion of the woman into the circuit of symbolic exchange (nothing could be clearer in the case of Dora), then her resistance to this positioning is assigned a radical status. The woman, therefore, is outside exchange, an exchange put into play or sanctioned by nothing other than language itself, which thus produces the question of her place and her language simultaneously. The transition to a concept of hysterical discourse as some privileged relation to the maternal body is then easy; it is partly supported by Freud’s own ‘suspicion’ that ‘this phase of attachment to the mother is especially intimately related to the aetiology of hysteria, which is not surprising when we reflect that both the phase and the neurosis are characteristically feminine’.

What seems to happen is that the desire to validate the preoedipal instance as resistance to the oedipal structure itself leads to a ‘materialization’ of the bodily relation that underpins it, so that the body of the mother, or more properly the girl’s relation to it, is then placed as being somehow outside repression. What we then have is a constant assimilation in feminist texts of the maternal body and the unrepressed (see Montrelay, quoted at the beginning of this article), or of the maternal body and the dream (Kristeva: ‘different, close to the dream or the maternal body’), or of the maternal body and a primary autoeroticism (Irigaray) whose return would apparently mean the return of the (feminine) exile. In the case of Kristeva, the relation to differing modes of language is made explicit to the point of identifying a preoedipal lingustic register (rhythms, intonations) and a postoedipal linguistic register (the phonologico-syntactic structure of the sentence). Hysteria, therefore, and the poetic language of the woman (which becomes the language of women poets, — Woolf, Plath, etc.) are properly then the return of this primary and bodily mode of expressivity.24 It is no coincidence that at this stage it is schizophrenia that is invoked as frequently as hysteria, since the relation between schizophrenia and poetic discourse is a recognized and accredited one within psychoanalysis itself. It is in a sense a feminist version of Laing, but having to include the transference neurosis (hysteria) since the relation of the latter to the feminine is too heavily attested to be ignored. More often than not, the two forms are assimilated the one to the other, so that what happens is that the specificity of the two types of disorder is lost. It is worth, therefore, looking again at Dora’s symptoms, and then (in the next section) at what Freud said about schizophrenia in its relation to language, in order to see whether such a position can be theoretically sustained.

A number of points about Dora first. First, as we saw above, Dora’s bodily symptoms (the aphonia, the cough) are the expression of a masculine identification, through which identification alone access to the maternal and feminine body is possible. This access then threatens Dora with a physical or bodily fragmentation, which constitutes the symptoms of conversion. Thus access to the (maternal) body is only possible now through a masculine identification, which access then threatens the very category of identification itself, that is, Dora as subject. Thus at neither point of her desire for Frau K. can Dora be placed as a ‘true’ feminine, since either she is identified with a man or else the movement is toward an instance in which the category of sexual difference is not established and that of the subject, on which such difference depends, is threatened.

Second, in the second dream, in which Dora’s desire could be defined as the desire for self-possession, her position as subject is at its most precarious. The dream most clearly articulates the split between the subject and object of enunciation at the root of any linguistic utterance (the speaking subject and the subject of the statement), here seen in its relation to the question of sexual difference. Thus, if Dora is there to be possessed, then she is not there as a woman (she is a man), and if she is not there to be possessed, her place as a woman is assured (she remains feminine) but she is not there (Lacan’s lethal vel).

Third, and as a corollary to this, what is revealed behind this dream is nothing other than this question of woman as representation: ‘Here for the third time we come upon “picture” (views of towns, the Dresden gallery), but in a much more significant connection. Because of what appears in the picture (the wood, the nymphs), the “Bild” (picture) is turned into a “Weibsbild” (literally “picture of a woman”)’, and then of woman as query, posed by Dora herself, of her relationship to a knowledge designated as present and not present — the sexual knowledge that is the secret behind her relation with Frau K.: ‘Her knowing all about such things and, at the same time, her always pretending not to know where her knowledge came from was really too remarkable. I ought to have attacked this riddle and looked for the motive of such an extraordinary piece of repression’. Thus nothing in Dora’s position can be assimilated to an unproblematic concept of the feminine or to any simple notion of the body, since where desire is genital it is charted across a masculine identification, and where it is oral it reveals itself as a query addressed to the category of sexuality itself (Frau K. as the unmistakable ‘oral source of information’).

Perhaps we should remember here that Freud’s work on hysteria started precisely with a rejection of any simple mapping of the symptom onto the body (Charcot’s hysterogenic zones). By so doing he made of hysteria a language (made it speak) but one whose relation to the body was decentered, since if the body spoke it was precisely because there was something called the unconscious that could not. At this point the relation of dreams and hysteria, from which we started out, can be reasserted as nothing other than the inflection of the body tiz language in its relation to the unconscious (indirect representation). When Lacan writes that ‘there is nothing in the unconscious which accords with the body’, he means this, and he continues: ‘The unconscious is discordant. The unconscious is that which, by speaking, determines the subject as being, but as a being to be struck through with that metonymy by which I support desire, insofar as it is endlessly impossible to speak as such.’30 We saw this above in the split between subject and object of enunciation, Dora as subject literally fading before her presence in the dream.


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Sexuality in the Field of Vision
A pivotal work in the history of feminism and a groundbreaking intervention into film theory, Sexuality in the Field of Vision is a brilliantly original exploration of the interface between feminis...

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