In Praise of Freud’s French Readers

Training for Vietnamese Translators in Social Sciences and Humanities,
a project funded by EUNIC Global.

A review of Elisabeth Roudinesco, Philosophy in Turbulent Times: Canguilhem, Sartre, Foucault, Althusser, Deleuze, Derrida,  Columbia University Press, 2008.

By Etienne Rolland-Piègue, Director of Institut français du Vietnam

Originally published in French as: Elisabeth Roudinesco, Philosophes dans la tourmente, Fayard, 2005.

Elisabeth Roudinesco is the self-proclaimed guardian of the psychoanalytic temple in France. She patrols the Freudian field, and falls down on any intruder who trespasses without authorization. She uses anathema to disparage those who cast a doubt on the therapeutic effects of psychoanalysis, or point toward the inconsistencies of some of Freud’s interpreters. Attempts to submit psychiatric treatment to the rigorous tests of scientific evaluation are dismissed as a ploy waved by big pharma firms in cahoots with the medical establishment and bent on transforming free-thinking individuals into submissive consumers. Those who stand at the other end of the intellectual spectrum are the targets of personal attacks: they are said to develop a « philosophy of submission, » an « ideology of expertise, » and to be motivated by hatred, jealousy, and resentment.

The Freudian legacy

For her, Freud was a radical thinker whose revolutionary potential was fully revealed only when his thought was combined with the Marxist tradition and transformed into a powerful mix turned toward contestation and subversion. France was the country where this combination between Marx and Freud took place, and the philosophers who stood at the vanguard of this conjunction are the heroes of Philosophy in Turbulent Times. Canguilhem, Sartre, Foucault, Althusser, Deleuze, and Derrida: they have few things in common, except perhaps their support for various left-wing causes and their personal involvement with psychic disorders and psychoanalysis. They do not really form a generation: the first two reached intellectual maturity before the war, whereas the others were mostly active in the tumultuous decades of the sixties and seventies. Roudinesco’s privilege was to know most of them on a personal basis–as student, colleague, commentator, or fan. Her specific angle is to connect them to the Freudian legacy, providing a fresh perspective on aspects of their doctrines or lives that are usually overlooked by critics and biographers.

Georges Canguilhem, the first figure, is the less well known of the six philosophers, but his influence on French postwar thinking was pervasive. A philosopher of science, he wrote a hefty volume on The Normal and the Pathological, containing famous nuggets that are often quoted in isolation: « Action is always the daughter of rigor before being the sister of the dream; » « Pathological phenomena are identical to normal ones, with only a quantifiable variation of degree; » « It is the abnormal which arouses theoretical interest in the normal. Norms are recognized as such only through infractions; » « Physiology is the science of the stabilized forms of life; » « Mathematics are the sensible form of a conscious dream. » Canguilhem is also the author of a moving eulogy of his friend Jean Cavailles, whose death in the hands of the Nazis interrupted a promising debut in the same discipline.

Himself a resistant, Canguilhem notes that philosophers who put at the center of their system the abstract notions of the concept, of knowledge and of structure, paid the heaviest price in the fight against totalitarianism during Nazi occupation, whereas the philosophers of existence and the subject, despite all their talk about political engagement, were passive bystanders during the same period. The reception of Husserl’s phenomenology in France cuts across this divide between a philosophy of the subject, popularized by existentialism, and a philosophy of the concept, with figures like Canguilhem and Koyre. For Canguilhem, as well as for his student Michel Foucault, there is an internal coherence between the fight for freedom and the philosophy of the concept: both are unconditional commitments and aim at the establishment of a superior order, for which one must be ready to pay the price.

The universal intellectual

Sartre is the intellectual giant of France’s twentieth century, the towering figure who ruled over at least three generations of philosopher apprentices and who defined the figure of the committed intellectual. His contributions to philosophy, to literary criticism, to the novel and to theater won him huge popular success and lasting fame. Less well known is the fact that he wrote a script for a movie on Sigmund Freud that was to de directed by John Huston and to feature Marilyn Monroe. The manuscript, published posthumously, gives Roudinesco the opportunity to survey Sartre’s complex relation to Freud and to psychoanalysis. This relation went through different phases. First, Sartre categorically rejected the Freudian conception of the unconscious and put in its place the notion of individual freedom, of intentionality, and of bad faith. In the same vein, he rejected Freudian therapy in favor of an « existential » psychoanalysis that would place at its center the radical singularity of a consciousness free of any determinant. He later applied this method of analysis to himself in his autobiographical The Words (« I have no Superego ») and to Flaubert in his monumental The Family Idiot (« Madame Bovary, c’est moi« ). Sartre then had a radical period when he espoused Freudo-Marxism. The two disciplines were seen as tools for emancipation and radical change–changing the self, changing society. Dialectic materialism on one side and psychoanalysis on the other could connect in the figure of the revolutionary hero, who sacrificed the self to the collective.

The movie script on Sigmund Freud that Sartre wrote in 1958 was only published after his death, but it shows yet another turn in Sartre’s interpretation of Freud. In fin-de-siècle Vienna, young women suffering from hysteria, such as Anna O., were blaming their father or other adults for having sexually abused them. These repressed memories of past traumas resurfaced when they were put on the couch of the analyst. For Freud, this simply couldn’t be true: the unconscious was here at work, with its complex mechanisms of phantasm, of projection and of transference. In his script, Sartre focuses on this moment when Freud solves the enigma of hysteria’s sexual origin. The sexual causes of trauma are real, but they did not need to have happened, for they belong to another scene that parallels reality with the logic of dreams and imagination. Anna O., the hysterical woman to whom Freud owes his discovery, was to be played by Marilyn Monroe. But the actress, under the influence of doctors and pills, refused the role and sank into depression. And the movie as imagined by Sartre never saw the day: his collaboration with John Houston ended abruptly after a dramatic confrontation at the moviemaker’s home in Ireland. But the clash of egos between the two giants, the American director and the French thinker, provides a fascinating tale of cultural chasm that could itself be made into a movie.

The specific intellectual

If Sartre was the embodiment of the universal intellectual, Michel Foucault claimed for himself the role of the specific intellectual, intervening in targeted domains and points of concentration where knowledge and power are shaping new forms of social struggles: the hospital, the asylum, the prison, the university, the feminist movement, minority rights, etc. Madness and Civilization, which was first published in 1961, was Foucault’s first major work and it eloquently and stylishly established the main themes of his later works: power, knowledge, confinement, and the genealogical method. Foucault’s sense of timing was impeccable: the political winds of change were just then starting to evince a tectonic shift of philosophical and critical thought. The deconstruction of the notion of mental illness and the contestation of the normalizing powers of psychiatry met with the positions of the antipsychiatry movement, which was experimenting new forms of therapy inspired in part by Sartre’s existentialism.

Born out of a doctoral dissertation Foucault drafted while teaching French in Uppsala, drawing from the rich collection of French medical treatises and archives that were stocked in the library, Madness and Civilization was not a conventional history nor a philosophical essay in the classic form. Needless to say, it infuriated both professions. Historians pointed out some shortcomings and errors of interpretation, and were challenged to produce alternative histories of the birth of psychiatry. While recognizing the importance of Foucault’s intellectual breakthrough, philosophers accused Foucault of romanticizing madness and of debasing the ideals of the Enlightenment. The gist of their critiques was that the book represented more the values and concerns of Foucault than an accurate and responsible history of mental illness.

Donning the armour of the avenger, Elisabeth Roudinesco sets out to defend her hero against personal attacks and historical revisionism. Alain Renaut and Luc Ferry’s vitriolic charge against « la pensée 1968 » (the French version of radical chic and political correctness) is dismissed as a reactionary tract. The carefully researched book by Swain and Gauchet on the birth of the mental institution is rejected as a symbol of « a complete absence of thinking ». Roudinesco considers that the hatred and vicious attacks against Foucault were motivated by the philosopher’s unconventional lifestyle. To undermine criticism, she exaggerates the accusations that were waged against him. Was Foucault really accused of being a « Nazi, nihilist, antidemocratic, and Islamist »? Has he really been considered by any critic as « the most infamous and perverted thinker of the second half of the twentieth century »? Roudinesco’s blinding admiration for Foucault makes her reject any attempt to engage critically with his work. Like Sartre’s Saint Genet, her Foucault is a modern martyr whose golden legend should be revered and placed on an unassailable sacred ground.

Praise and hagiography

Roudinesco confesses that she never met with Michel Foucault and that she only admired him from a distance. By contrast, she had close contacts with the three remaining figures in her gallery of intellectual heroes. She received frequent visits from Louis Althusser at the time the Marxist philosopher was suffering from heavy mental stress, and she continued to see him regularly after the personal tragedy that transformed him into a living dead. She attended Deleuze’s seminar after 1968 at the time of the drafting of Anti-Oedipus, whose iconoclastic content was partly shaped by the atmosphere of classroom discussions. She benefited from Jacques Derrida’s friendship for close to twenty years, and addresses him a moving farewell by discussing the eulogies and obituaries he wrote for various members of his generation. But she lacks Derrida’s gentle irony and generosity that used to disarm even his staunchest critics. There is no denying that Derrida and the other philosophers discussed in this book were often the object of vicious and personal attacks. But they do not need hagiography or counter-attacks to protect their memory against trespassers. Their best line of defense lies in their works, which will remain long after Roudinesco’s Philosophy in Turbulent Times will have fallen into oblivion.

Catégories : Book reviews