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Den sårade divan: om psykets estetik Karin Johannisson, Den sårade divan: om psykets estetik (The Wounded Diva: On the Aesthetics of the Psyche)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2015.

Reviewed by Deborah Bragan-Turner in SBR 2016:1

Review Section: Non-fiction


The novelist Agnes von Krusenstjerna was born in Växjö in 1894 and grew up in an aristocratic family in Stockholm. Her first novel was published in 1917 and she went on to gain critical recognition with her later fiction. Modernist painter Sigrid Hjertén was born in Sundsvall in 1885, trained to be an art teacher, and studied in Paris under Matisse. Poet and playwright Nelly Sachs was born in Berlin in 1891. Her books were burned by the Nazis in 1933, and in 1940 she fled to Sweden, where she obtained citizenship in 1952. What links these three successful women, whose literary and artistic output has survived, is the fact that all were diagnosed with a mental illness. They all spent time at Beckomberga Hospital in Stockholm, one of the largest psychiatric hospitals in Europe, which opened in 1932 and closed in 1995 and has been immortalised in Sara Stridsberg’s novel Beckomberga (Bonniers, 2014). Agnes von K and Sigrid H were also admitted to the neurosurgical ward of Stockholm’s Seraphim Hospital, where both died after unsuccessful operations on the brain, in 1940 and 1948 respectively. Nelly S died of cancer in 1970.

In Den sårade divan, Karin Johannisson, professor emeritus of the History of Science and Ideas at Uppsala University and member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, investigates what constitutes female madness, how women are placed outside the bounds of normality, and to what extent normality for women has been narrower than for men. In focussing on the cases of Agnes von K, Sigrid H and Nelly S, she studies the interaction between the individual and the identity illness affords. Her research is based on close examination of their medical records in the context of culture, psychiatry, gender, the body and sexuality. She seeks to discover what lies behind ambiguous and often contradictory images of woman in the first half of the 20th century, and to shed light on the underlying paradox of emancipation and deviancy in the ‘new woman’. ‘How grandiose, eccentric, depressive, suicidal, bizarre, queer or sexually affirmative can a woman be before she is labelled insane?’

The subject of woman and madness has been a staple in feminist studies since the 1970s. By exploring three diagnoses in depth – hysteria, schizophrenia and paranoia – Johannisson brings a new dimension, testing her theory that a diagnosis of insanity can be used by a woman as part of her identity. From the point at which Agnes von K, Sigrid H and Nelly S were diagnosed, their achievements were seen through the prism of their illness. The wounded diva in the title refers to women who, in contrast to most women under psychiatric care, maintained and developed their professional identity. Drawing on numerous examples from the history of psychoanalysis, literature and film, Johannisson shows how they used their diagnosis as a mask.

More than half of the book is devoted to the three case studies. Although they were born at around the same time, the women were hospitalised in different decades of the 20th century and their experiences differed greatly (even though all three had private resources, their own clothes and a degree of freedom in managing their own situation). While undergoing ‘continuous bath’ treatment for hysteria, Agnes von K would smoke; she studied fellow patients with a keen eye, joked with doctors and complained about the nurses’ lack of sex appeal. Sigrid H was angry and stubborn, she dressed in the latest fashions, read newspapers, ordered food from exclusive shops in Stockholm and went for outings in her husband’s car; she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Johannisson observes that whilst she was the one who seemed most unwell, it is doubtful whether her initial symptoms would be regarded as psychiatric illness today; being locked up in hospital appeared to aggravate her condition. In contrast, Nelly S, who was diagnosed with paranoia, loved the protection the hospital gave her; she stayed in her room to write and developed a close relationship with her doctor. When she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966, he was her escort to the ceremony.

In her illuminating and wide-ranging study Johannisson reveals how each of the women used her diagnosis to strengthen her identity and refused to become a victim of it.


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