Carol Morley's film about fainting fits in a girls' school is the latest in a long line of depictions of swooningby Naomi Booth / June 25, 2015 / Leave a comment
Carol Morley’s new film The Falling is a dreamy exploration of mass hysteria, depicting an outbreak of fainting at a girls’ school. Beautifully shot, the film vividly evokes the texture of its young characters’ faints, portraying the ways in which the richness of certain adolescent experiences (colours, music, erotic sensations, the intensity of friendship and its loss) can become overwhelming. Morley researched “mass psychogenic illness” as she wrote the film, discovering a strong connection between fainting and gender. She claims that “90 per cent of participants in reported epidemics are female.”
While Morley’s research reflects contemporary associations between femininity and fainting, we haven’t always thought of swooning as something that affects only women. In the literature of the medieval period, for example, knights and ladies swoon with equal regularity, and the swoon is a sign of strength of feeling (usually grief or love) rather than of a faint or hysterical heart.
In some of its earliest literary appearances, swooning is induced by childbirth. In The Life of Mary Magdalen (c 1290), a medieval hagiography, a princess is overwhelmed by birth pangs; she passes in and out of consciousness and then appears to die, along with her child. But the princess and baby are eventually awoken from long swoons by “Saint Marie,” and rise to partake of the new life offered by Christ. The Swoon of the Virgin became a popular subject in medieval art, despite the absence of any Biblical authority for the trope. Artists depicted Mary fainting and weeping at the foot of the cross, and her sympathetic swoon shows her sharing in the suffering of the Passion (and belatedly experiencing the birth pains that she is spared in Biblical accounts). These early swoons symbolise the power of maternal agony to produce new life; swoons are used to dramatise different kinds of dangerously intense experience.
In the 18th century, however, the swoon becomes connected with a different kind of femininity. The novel has a long (and lurid) history of depicting falling and fallen women. The rise of the novel coincided with the “cult of sensibility,” a cultural current that prized the demonstrations of feeling and refined sensitivity that were thought to be particularly feminine. The sentimental novel, a crucible of tears and swoons, was often characterised (and later stigmatised) as a feminine literary form, and the swoon was used by many writers to dramatise vulnerabilities that our culture has imagined as specifically feminine: vulnerability to hysteria, to certain forms of illness, and to sexual exploitation (think, for instance, of Samuel Richardson’s heroine Clarissa, subject to innumerable faints and falls, culminating in the drugged unconsciousness during which she is raped by Lovelace).
Depictions of female swooning in this period fall uneasily between sympathy for the female swooner and voyeurism. The cultural conflation of swooning and feminine helplessness caused the young Jane Austen to caution one of her characters: “beware of swoons, Dear Laura … Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint.” Despite Austen’s satirical advice, several centuries later we find frequent outbreaks of girls-only swooning in erotic fiction, and the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, and Grey, the version told from the man’s point of view released last week, has given us a notable example of a female protagonist whose frequent faints necessitate the exercise of well-exercised biceps to catch her fall.
But if the swoon has more recently been used to iconise feminine frailty, it has also been deployed by many writers as a means of rejecting mainstream definitions of health and virility. The swoon might be pathological, but it can also be an act of resistance, a dramatic rejection of a culture’s available language. Morley’s The Falling demonstrates this: her characters’ faints are presented as a kind of compulsive pathology, but also as acts of defiance, producing a brief burst of collective feminine resistance. Morley’s film coincides with a long tradition of the swoon as a means of describing new ways of experiencing the world. In her verse novel Aurora Leigh (1856), Elizabeth Barrett-Browning used the swoon as a way to figure the transformation of the woman into the poet: “I did not die. But slowly, as one in a swoon/ To whom life creeps back in the form of death,/… I woke, rose up.” Here, waking up from the swoon is waking into a different world, transformed by symbolic dying—a world in which women are able to speak and to write.
Other writers, such as Keats, Poe and Joyce, make use of notable male swooners to describe the possibility of new ways of being in the world. Poe, perhaps, takes this furthest: in his macabre tale “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1842), he describes swooning as the beginning of an aesthetic experience. “He who has never swooned” is to be pitied: he will not see beautiful shapes doubling the flames of a fire, nor be struck by the suggestive scent of a flower, nor experience the true intensity of music. He will not “return to life” with a new sense of the world, as the swooner does. For many writers, the swoon has been a way to describe the power of aesthetic experience to revive us, to alter our consciousness and to awaken us into new worlds.
The swoon’s dreamy power is akin to the power of art and literature to overwhelm us, and to transform us. When Stendhal visited Florence in 1817, he described his encounter with the art there as “a sort of ecstasy … I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves.’ Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.” Stendhal syndrome has since been used to describe the most profound experiences that art can produce. The literary critic Nicholas Royle has more recently described the uncanny effects of witnessing a fall: a fall “can produce the dawning of a ‘dark knowledge’ that unsettles any sense of the ‘human psyche’ as ‘unified”’. People fall, and things begin to fall apart. This “dark knowledge” is, I think, what makes passing-out so interesting to writers and artists, to readers and to fainters. In my own novella, The Lost Art of Sinking, I attempt to describe the experience of swooning, but also to create a kind of swooning structure for the reader: a brief, lulled, dreamy, haze, followed by an abrupt ejection back into waking life. The swoon is a dramatic way to figure the possibility of altered consciousness: passing out predicts a coming-round, a waking-up to new engagements with the world.
Naomi Booth’s debut novella, The Lost Art of Sinking, is published by Penned in the Margins