Melvyn Bragg, hysteria and the indubitable flatness of the earth
Thursday 22 April 2004
IMAGINE THAT YOU
INNOCENTLY tune in to Radio 4 one Thursday morning
and hear the familiar tones of Melvyn Bragg presenting an
edition of In our time devoted to geography. He
introduces his first guest, Professor Smith and asks her for
her views on the shape of the earth. 'As all educated people
know', she says, 'the earth is perfectly flat.' 'Remarkable, but
quite evidently true,' says Bragg. He then introduces his second
guest, the eminent geographer Professor Jones. 'Yes,' she says,
'there's really no doubt about it at all. The earth is as flat
as flat can be.' The third guest, the well-known historian
of navigation Mr Black, is then invited to join the discussion.
'It certainly is as you maintain,' he says. 'During my research
I've interviewed any number of sailors who simply sailed as far
as they could go and then fell over the edge. Why, only last
night BBC television showed a prime-time drama for which I was
the consultant. It presented the case of the mariner who fell
off the edge of the earth without any warning at all. Hundreds
of geographers were there at the time and they all agree that
this is what happened.'
'It's quite extraordinary,' says Bragg in his most measured
tones, 'that the Greeks realised the earth was flat more
than two thousand years ago. And, of course, they were right.'
'O they were, they were,' says Professor Smith. 'So absolutely
wise and right,' says Dr Jones. 'So far-seeing, and so
scientifically ahead of their time,' says Mr Black.
And so the
discussion continues for another twenty-five minutes with barely
a doubt expressed and never a suggestion that anyone
has ever seriously proposed that the earth was not flat,
let alone ventured the extraordinary idea that it might be round.
Were you to hear such a programme you might be forgiven for
wondering whether Melvyn Bragg and his eminent studio guests had
entirely taken leave of their senses, or their sanity, or both.
Yet the edition of In our time about hysteria which was broadcast this
morning was almost as remarkable as the fictional programme I
describe. Every one of
the three studio guests stood in relation to Freud scholarship
and medical history rather as flat-earthers do to modern
The three credulous contributors were, in order of their
appearance on the programme, Juliet Mitchell, Professor
of Psychoanalysis and Gender Studies at the University of
Cambridge; Rachel Bowlby, Professor of English at the University
of York, who has written the introduction to the new Penguin
translation of Freud and Breuer’s Studies in
Hysteria; and Brett Kahr, Senior Clinical Research Fellow in
Psychotherapy and Mental Health at the Centre for Child Mental
Health in London.
Given the beliefs and affiliations of these guests it was
hardly surprising that they had so little difficulty in agreeing
with one another. Brett Kahr was a particularly topical choice since he had
acted as consultant for
May 33rd, the drama
documentary by Guy Hibbert, broadcast last night, which made an
extraordinary (and highly dangerous) attempt to rehabilitate the
idea of satanic ritual abuse, presenting it in the context of
discredited 'syndromes' such as Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD)
and Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).
For those who seek an alternative to the flat-earth theories of
hysteria promulgated by Bragg's guests, I have been moved to put
two new, substantial extracts from my Freud books online.
Both approach hysteria as a pseudo-diagnosis which functions
principally, as the psychiatrist Eliot Slater once put it,
as 'a disguise for ignorance and a fertile source of clinical
error'. The two articles are:
Freud, Charcot and hysteria: lost in the
labyrinth, which is
an extract from Freud (Weidenfeld 2003), and
Hysteria, medicine and misdiagnosis,
which is taken from Why Freud Was Wrong
(Harper Collins, 1995).
Thursday 22 April 2004
For a critique of the In our time programme by Freud
scholar Allen Esterson,
© Richard Webster, 2004