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15.10.29, Doty and Ingham, The Witch and the Hysteric

The Medieval Review

15.10.29, Doty and Ingham, The Witch and the Hysteric

I was delighted to review Alexander Doty's and Patricia Claire Ingham's The Witch and the Hysteric: The Monstrous Medieval in Benjamin Christensen's Häxan. The work is slim and categorized as fitting into the critical lens of both film studies and medieval cultural studies (which renders simply as cultural studies). The text was put out by Punctum Books and rounds out to 68 pages which includes such front matter as an open dedication to the late co-author Alexander Michael Doty, an introduction, five chapters, a conclusion, and a "references" section of six pages. What follows is a review of each section offered with commentary on the work, which aligns with occult studies as intellectual history.

With a brief capture of the pathology that such a Swedish/Danish film captured, Doty and Ingham admit that Häxan "won't let its audiences go" (2). Moreover, as a demiurgic conflation of film, history, documentary, surrealism and so on, no one has bothered to comment on its existence critically. Enter Doty and Ingham's The Witch and the Hysteric: The Monstrous Medieval in Benjamin Christensen's Häxan, put out by Open Access resource press Punctum Books. They succinctly offer: "no one has yet explained the film's uncanny mix of documentary and fantasy, history and theatrics or queried its odd juxtaposition of past and contemporary culture" (2). Advancing the idea of conflation, Doty and Ingham conclude that there exists what I call a hyphen-existence between the "medieval" witch and the "modern" hysteric. In their words: "...Christensen’s häxan (the Swedish word for witch) is, we will argue, a monstrously medieval figure" (3). Still, the medievalism used in Häxan is confusing at best or perhaps categorically resistant and difficult to pin-point in any context of consistency. This, however, has not deterred the authors in the slightest, as the chapter reviews that follow will support.

In the opening chapter "Seasons of the Witch," the authors offer a re-positioning of that which is on display, or the monster figure as also allied to the witch-figure. I am reminded of David Williams' Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Mediaeval Thought and Literature (1996) as offering a similar rhetoric of dis-figurement and documented monster. Doty and Ingham’s critique on häxan adds to the rhetoric of the monster suggesting: "The witch's monstrosity is more diffuse, a figure and a body produced in cultural transactions across a range of times, places, figures, and disciplines" (9). And indeed if this is the case then the range of their commentary can be equally justified as it too can register as fluid, mobile and historical. On this latter point of history the authors contend that the figure of the witch, as a dialectic subject existing between the planes of the fantastic and historical border lines, "can shed considerable light on how monsters can confront historical change" (10). Moreover, this is not only the case in the realm of religious errata but also scientific errata. That is to say, the witch as monster is a puzzling site which teems with the possibility of misreading(s) across the religious and scientific borders. This is further problematized when the borders are blurred and the figure involved is equally mistrusted. Doty and Ingham further advance that Christensen's witch "returns as the 'hysteric' not so as to track 'progress' from religious superstition to scientific rationality, but precisely as a figure for category crisis, for unsolvable epistemological problems" (16). In sum, the chapter concludes with an attempt to locate Christensen's use of medievalism via the work of two different representative text narratives which focus on the subject of maleficia the first, is Kramer’s Malleus Maleficarum (1486) and Johan Weyer's De praestigiis daemonum (1563). The witch with its confusing categorical status is apparently locatable and tracked in Christensen's interpretation "in a time out-of-joint" (17).

Chapter 2, "Maleficia and Belief," relies on Kramer and Weyer to track the "doctrinal difference and reformist critique" of maleficia. Moreover, the authors arrive at a position that the "saint or mystic might be serve as an historical Doppelgänger to the witch" (22). Working in tandem, Kramer and Weyer's theological polemic on the matter of witchcraft and demonology sparked an on-going debate that included "religious superstition and scientific knowledge" (29). The authors suggest that it became a driving mechanism for häxan. And where superstition and medievalism merge, Doty and Ingham offer: "this influential association explains in part that film's [i.e. Häxan's] fixation on witchcraft as an instantly medieval phenomenon" (29). Christensen's film hopes to provide a voice for the witch as "testimony" here but as the following chapter will attest reliability proved a daunting task.

In one of their shorter chapters, Doty and Ingham argue that the female subject as sufferer from unreliable testimony to abused figure of maleficia contributed to the "knowledge/power systems" (35) as ocular proof. In chapter 3, "Testimony Troubles" seeing is not only believing but accounted as evidence. Moreover, such a "proofing" figure of the female subject as a witch underscored the same figure as a hysteric. In their own words, "Like Freud, Christensen's 1922 film considers certain women of the Middle Ages alongside certain women of the 1920s, and all under the sign of the 'witch'" (39). Such an influence by Freud's reading of the "witch" informed the final chapter of Christensen's häxan. Doty and Ingham suggest that such a union outlined, although unconvincingly, the position of psychiatry as well as the position of anti-clericalism through the medium of film.

Using the position of history in chapter 4, "Witch, Past and Future: the Politics of Retroactive Diagnosis,"Doty and Ingham finally begin their analysis and critical commentary of Christensen's häxan. Of strong interest is the shift from credible testimony and gender anxiety to discredited Church and scientific enlightenment that occupied much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This chapter moves beyond the last section regarding the disparity between medical science and religious auctoritas and focuses more on what Christensen as demiurge is hoping to accomplish. Christensen then in interpreting and documenting the historical witch according to the authors attempts "an account of history whereby a monstrous medieval religiosity is superseded by a putatively more benevolent and modern scientific rationality" (44). At the axis of these perpendicular sites, and as outlined in part by häxan, was the figure of woman as witch that remained at the very least a suspicious entity. However such misgivings by the film's accounting leave the very medieval men portrayed equally confused and unable to confidently identify the questionable figure represented by Christensen. Doty and Ingham use this chapter to identify the sections or segments of Christensen's documentary juxtaposing the varied uses of excess that are distilled to the position of an uncanny formulary: men=science, women=black magic + sex. Epistemologically-speaking the men, according to Doty and Ingham, are "secure" while the women are at best and in a Freudian sense rendered possessed or hysterically-medieval (50). Of course this idea points back to the volume’s main title adjoining the witch and the hysteric as reflective entities. This however proves an unstable enterprise by Christensen's häxan, and ostensibly offers a reliable case of the fantastical and resistance to simple explanation.

In one of the more telling statements in chapter 5, "Documenting the Fantastic," Doty and Ingham argue that "Christensen's film can't quite clearly establish the borderline between fact and fantasy" (52). This inability to decipher what can be true or historical from what is false or a-historical "plays" into Christensen's häxan, especially in the case of a silent film. The audience is kept and sustained by the sense of sight rather than by the sense of sound and thereby reaffirms the earlier anxieties pertaining to eye-witness and ocular proof as testimony to be supported. I wonder if this is the reason the viewer is so interested in coming back again and again and again in order to make sense of the seen unknown. It certainly proved the case when Christensen injected himself into the very role of disturbed maleficia while portraying the devil in the 1941 re-production of häxan. This of course opened critical opposition to the distancing necessary by a director and his supplemental role as an actor of the fantastic. Moreover, such a disturbance offered a platform for those who would review Christensen's work and ultimately deem it to be fantastical propaganda and dismiss it from US viewership amidst other censorship treatments. Still, the film as this book's opening suggests "entranced, entertained, shocked, and puzzled" accordingly (1).

In their final installment, "Medieval Monsters Don’t Let Go," the authors are complimentary of Christensen's prescience to create like a demiurge a work that resists compartmentalization. Häxan is equally representative of the disturbances it raises featuring the figure of woman as medieval monstrosity vacillating between the poles of witch and hysteric, a possible visual in part of Kramer's Malleus Maleficarum and even as a work resistant to epistemological technologies. Also, the critical commentary provided by Alexander Doty and Patricia Clare Ingham is succinct and sheds light on an otherwise occult film; and, thanks to them it may not remain in obscurity. Closer to the point, if the small volume here is representative of its subject matter, then it is meant as a provocation to not only be considered but to continue its fascination and search.