6 May 2015


Catherine Clément, The Call of the Trance, Seagull Books, 2014.

If one wants a highly idiosyncratic book in which personal speculation instantly becomes sweeping statement that instantly becomes fact, this is for you. It is also for those who might consider Sigmund Freud the absolute last word in wisdom and acuity.
True, Madame Clément does a sound job of introducing us to the trance state involved in traditional shamanism and trance-based systems such as voodoo, not to mention the demented hysterics of the likes of the ‘possessed’ nuns of Loudun and the Convulsionnairies.

Basically, if she’d stuck with hysteria, or even actual trance, this might not have been the kind of book that one argues with page by page until giving up the unequal battle (with perhaps an appropriately Gallic shrug).

We are treated to a profoundly confused chapter on multiple personality, beginning with the success of the book The Three Faces of Eve (1957) and the fact that after its publication, together with the movie of the same name, therapists received many calls from women complaining of the same symptoms. The author adds, ‘The success created the syndrome’. Perhaps, but then just as likely is the possibility that these women realised they were not alone in suffering from this hideous mental phenomenon.

In discussing the modus operandi of the many personalities that inhabit one body, the author remarks ‘How do they show themselves? By a period of blankness, followed by amnesia. A blackout. A discreet trance, but a trance assuredly.’

One might suggest, on the basis on some actual knowledge about this phenomenon, that while blackouts feature in some cases of multiple personality, it is not a universal occurrence. But sweeping statement and crow-barring virtually all abnormal psychology into her thesis on trance is par for the course here.

Take her rather baffling inclusion of anorexia as an aspect of trance. She attempts to explain – some might say ‘excuse’ – this as follows: ‘The violent coming and going of the alimentary bolus inside the body is a trance. Filling and emptying one’s internal plumbing violently, making the abominable “thing” [food] enter and leave one’s body is an imposed trance.’

Perhaps the only answer to that is ‘Oh come on.’

Then on the next page we’re told that the aim of anorexics is to live forever, to become gods. Although some famous historical anorexics were marathon fasters in nunneries, just because they say on ‘pro-ana’ web sites ‘No way we’re giving in’ and ‘pro-ana for a day, pro-ana for ever’ it doesn’t mean even the most dedicated anorexics see themselves as some kind of saint or goddess-in-waiting.

Sometimes the author edges into gobbledygook, saying of hermaphrodites: ‘They don’t exist, of course, and yet look, they do … one of the oldest fantasies in the world is in rude health…’

Her near-desperation to link certain topics to her alleged theme of trance is sometimes almost too excruciating. For example, in discussing the admittedly weird phenomenon of pregnancy denial she writes, ‘To eclipse yourself in a trance you have to know how to vomit. To wait for a child to arrive too. There’s no vomiting in the denial of pregnancy but there certainly is in phantom pregnancies.’ Then on we go to something else …

The author is very fond of loading symbolism onto everything, then unpicking it to suit herself. True, Madame Clément is presenting the now discredited theories of Margaret Murray about, inter alia, the ‘pagan’ sacrifices of Joan of Arc and her greatest supporter, Gilles de Rais. But she can’t resist adding – in order to make the symbolism as neat as possible – ‘Joan of Arc and Gilles de Rais were burnt as sorcerers’. Pity, then, that Gilles de Rais was actually hanged.

She free-ranges over a host of only loosely connected subjects, in a sort of stream of consciousness crow-barring in of symbolism and metaphor, inviting the reader to join in. Discussing how scarring and tattoos ‘in our world spell danger’ she offers up for examples how the Nazis ‘lowered the trousers of Jewish men and boys to find their circumcised victims ….’ And how they ‘conferred a new identity in the accountancy of death’ by tattooing the inmates of the extermination camps, asking whether the adolescents of today know this as they submit to piercings and tattoos? With a quick aside about controls for health reasons, she says ‘But the symbolic rules aren’t fixed at all. They’re fluid and hazy.’

Indeed. Rather like this book. -- Lynn Picknett.

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