In Part 1 of this series, I explored how George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil presents an image of double consciousness akin to dissociation.
Source: Belinda Fewings/Unsplash
Anticipating later theories of trauma psychosis, The Lifted Veil offers the possibility of emotional shock and psychological trauma as the root of Latimer’s double consciousness. Latimer’s childhood trauma was the loss of his beloved mother:
I had a tender mother: even now, after the dread lapse of long years, a slight trace of sensation accompanies the remembrance of her caress as she held me on her knee–her arms around my little body, her cheek pressed against mine… That unequaled love soon vanished out of my life, and even to my childish consciousness it was as if life had become more chill.1
Following his mother’s death, Latimer spent his childhood and early adulthood years thinking of himself as an “unimportant being” who was “neglected” and “unloved.”2 The loss of his mother meant, to him, the total loss of love and he registers this profoundly.
To fill this emotional void, Latimer searches for acceptance and love in nature and in his friendship with Charles in Geneva. Writing about nature, he states, “it seemed to me that the sky, and the glowing mountain-tops, and the wide blue water [of the lake] surrounded me with a cherishing love such as no human face had shed on me since my mother’s love had vanished out of my life.”3 The direct invocation of his mother evidences the lingering pain and emptiness of his loss. He speaks of his new friend Charles as one with whom he shares a “community of feeling” and one who loves him.4
However, a serious illness puts a stop to his time in nature with Charles. Following his illness and necessary separation from Charles while recuperating, Latimer divulges that he was “perpetually craving sympathy and support.”5 His first vision of Prague comes shortly after his separation from Charles. I propose we call his vision a dissociative episode in the language of trauma theory that anticipated Janet’s theories.
Pierre Janet’s Theory of Dissociation
Elizabeth Howell explains how Pierre Janet was the first psychologist to forward a theory of dissociation and to link it with psychological trauma and the subconscious.6 In his 1907 The Major Symptoms of HysteriaJanet explains dissociation as a “diminution of personal synthesis.”7 This lack of one “I” or personal synthesis can manifest in different types of dissociative experiences such as somnambulism, fugue states, paroxysms, anesthesia, or visions.
Reading The Lifted Veil Through Janet’s Lens
Somnambulism seems most relevant for Latimer’s experience in The Lifted Veil, Somnambulism involves a shift into a different consciousness and a contracture of focus so that the somnambulist sees and hears only what he or she envisions independent from what is happening in the exterior world.8 The person slips into a different layer of consciousness and, while they appear to be awake and functioning, their focus is on altogether different sensory details and visions. So, when Latimer slips into his visions of Prague, he may have shifted into a different layer of consciousness and truly sees and hears in that moment all of the vivid sensory details of his new location: Prague.
Janet’s theory of fixed ideas can also help shed some light on Latimer’s mental and physical experiences as dissociative events indicative of unresolved past trauma. Janet outlines the process by which “fixed ideas” “lead to somnambulism.”9 First, an emotional shock occurs from “an affecting event.”10 The emotional shock causes nervous exhaustion that leads to a “weakness of personal synthesis,” or an “undoubling” of the personality, and a formation of fixed ideas.11 Fixed ideas form “in an automatic manner outside the will and the personal perception of the patient.”12 This splitting off of consciousness allows the fixed ideas to continue to exist without having to be united with and synthesized into the normal consciousness and personality.13 It is, in short, a coping mechanism.
What happens then, is that “those neglected psychological phenomena,”14 which are psychologically isolated from general consciousness, can intermittently move into normal consciousness and give “birth to these odd deliriums.”15 Janet theorizes how “these fixed ideas, these parasites, may be very dangerous to normal consciousness, and that in many circumstances general disturbances of the whole thought may be the result of the development of fixed ideas.”16 Latimer’s mental experiences may be moments when his own fixed idea, normally isolated from general consciousness in his daily moments, interjects into that general consciousness.
Janet describes fixed ideas as springing up from emotionally traumatic events and the death of a loved one is continuously repeated in Janet’s work.17 The death of Latimer’s mother could serve as his fixed idea. While he acknowledges his mother’s death in his writing, the grief, emotional shock, and ensuing nervous exhaustion could have caused the idea of the death of his mother to be split off from his general consciousness as a means of coping. As a stage of grief, he both knows, but also does not have to process and know, of his loss.
Not just somnambulism and visions result from this splitting off; the voices Latimer hears can also be symptoms of the fixed idea moving into general consciousness. The voices would not actually be supernatural windows into others’ thoughts but rather Latimer’s own unconscious projection as a symptom of his dissociation.
Why does his mother’s death lead to visions of Prague and the hearing of others’ thoughts? Janet explains that the content of fixed ideas–here, arguably his mother’s death– bears no relation to their expression. Moreover, there is no direct cause and effect between being reminded of or thinking of his mother’s death and the expression through vision and voices.18 Simply having a fixed idea at all is enough grounds for the intermittent and random expression through dissociative experiences, whether this be delirium, somnambulism, voices, etc.
Eliot’s model of the dissociative mind differs from Janet’s in one great respect: while Janet imagines two distinct consciousnesses that send communication between the different layers, his patients have no recollection of their visions or voices when they have transitioned back into general consciousness. This is a model of the mind that is even more divided than the model of the mind that Eliot writes.
Writing in the 1880s, Pierre Janet offered the most complete and, in today’s terms, fairly modern theory of dissociative identity. But his work was overlooked through the early and mid-twentieth century and it was not until post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) entered the APA’s DSM in the 1980s that Janet’s work began to appear more relevant. Howell explains that Janet’s work actually serves as the foundation for much of our understanding of DID, trauma, and dissociation today.19The Lifted Veil Thus appears strikingly modern in its model of the mind.
Part 3 will explore dissociation today and mind-body techniques for dissociative episodes.