In 2017, photographer Diane Fenster was diagnosed with Stage 1 endometrial cancer. A complete hysterectomy followed, and after that, a series of wondrous images about the essence of femininity. Where does it reside? In those two ounces of tissue removed by the surgery? In one’s memories, like the phosphorescent core of a glacier? Or does it wander the imagination, never stopping long enough to become one thing?
In Greek mythology, the uterus itself was thought to wander the body. A coughing spell might result from wayward detours into the throat. Chronic sleeplessness might indicate some kind of uteral insomnia. Until relieved by sexual union, the womb could inflict endless torment. And thus ensued two thousand years of medical malpractice. “Hysteria,” from the Greek, hystera (womb, uterus), was treated well into the twentieth century with—well, you name it: balms, fumigations, electrical probes, and domestic solitary confinement (the “rest cure”).
In Diane Fenster’s series HY•ST•ER•IA: Body as Battleground, a difficult recovery is underway, not only of the body but of the womb from its ancient pathologies. Dresses linger like apparitions of a lost cause. But through the muslin and silk a battle rages. Rage against cancer’s indiscriminate abuses. Shock at the loss of something so personal, so part of oneself. Nevertheless, the silhouette of a woman remains, resists. She emerges prominently in the final image. What that says about the idea of the feminine and its connections to the body, only the photographer knows. But at the very least, the creative force, the incorruptible nascency of this work, speaks to the undoing of an old story and the birth of something new.
Plato’s Timaeus (360 BCE) yoked women to hysteria in a myth that would influence western thought for centuries. Translated by Benjamin Jowett, this section of Timaeus is on the origins of women and the wandering womb:
Thus our original design of discoursing about the universe down to the creation of man is nearly completed. A brief mention may be made of the generation of other animals, so far as the subject admits of brevity; in this manner our argument will best attain a due proportion. On the subject of animals, then, the following remarks may be offered. Of the men who came into the world, those who were cowards or led unrighteous lives may with reason be supposed to have changed into the nature of women in the second generation.
And this was the reason why at that time the gods created in us the desire of sexual intercourse, contriving in man one animated substance, and in woman another, which they formed respectively in the following manner. The outlet for drink by which liquids pass through the lung under the kidneys and into the bladder, which receives then by the pressure of the air emits them, was so fashioned by them as to penetrate also into the body of the marrow, which passes from the head along the neck and through the back, and which in the preceding discourse we have named the seed.
And the seed having life, and becoming endowed with respiration, produces in that part in which it respires a lively desire of emission, and thus creates in us the love of procreation. Wherefore also in men the organ of generation becoming rebellious and masterful, like an animal disobedient to reason, and maddened with the sting of lust, seeks to gain absolute sway;
and the same is the case with the so-called womb or matrix of women; the animal within them is desirous of procreating children, and when remaining unfruitful long beyond its proper time, gets discontented and angry, and wandering in every direction through the body, closes up the passages of the breath, and, by obstructing respiration, drives them to extremity, causing all varieties of disease, until at length the desire and love of the man and the woman, bringing them together and as it were plucking the fruit from the tree, sow in the womb, as in a field, animals unseen by reason of their smallness and without form; these again are separated and matured within; they are then finally brought out into the light, and thus the generation of animals is completed.
HY•ST•ER•IA: Body as Battleground just received Honorable Mentions in two series categories of the 12th Julia Margaret Cameron Awards: Fine Art and Digital Manipulation. The series will also be included in the upcoming issue of Femme Fotale, Volume VI Health and Healing, a photography book created by four photographers with the intention of representing the talent and diverse skills of women and gender non-conforming artists. For more from this series and others by Diane Fenster, check out her page on LensCulture. And be sure to follow her on Facebook for new work!
Feature image: “A Hard Stick” © Diane Fenster