ASYLUM - an interview with Martine Deyres and Camille Robcis
Updated: Sep 26, 2021
Late last year, a friend invited me to watch a film called Our Lucky Hours. Directed by Martine Deyres, it tells the fascinating story of the psychiatric hospital at Saint-Alban-sur-Limagnole in France. I was gripped by it in part because it's such a beautiful, subtle film, but also because it seemed to narrate a previously-unknown ancestry to my professional and personal convictions. Scouring the internet, I could find no comprehensive accounts of Saint-Alban written in English, no English-language films about it, no translations of the many books and articles written by the people who worked there. My essay, Asylum, published today by Aeon, is an attempt to remedy this situation.
In the course of researching the essay, I came across the work of Camille Robcis, Professor of History at Colombia University. Among the few people writing in English about Institutional Psychotherapy, as those at Saint-Alban named their practice, and an expert in the area, her work exploring was a vital resource. Her new book, Disalienation: Politics, Philosophy, and Radical Psychiatry in Postwar France, has just been published by the University of Chicago Press.
I spoke to both Martine and Camille, via video link, earlier this week. Below you can find the audio from this conversation and an English transcript.
For the best reading experience, I suggest watching Martine’s film before reading/listening to the conversation. Here's the trailer:
And here's the interview:
BPM: First of all, thank you so much for your work, both of you. Martine, the film is very beautiful and such an education. Very, very inspiring. And Camille, I think - is it right - you are one of the few people writing in English about the subject?
CR: Yes. I mean, there's starting to be a little group but it's still starting. It's still kind of blooming, I'd say.
BPM: Maybe, could we start with you? Maybe you could say something about why is the subject of Saint-Alban and Institutional Psychotherapy so relatively unknown in the English-speaking world? Do you have a feeling?
CR: In the English-speaking world? That's a good question. I think some of the texts have not been translated, for example the work of Tosquelles is still not very translated; the work of Oury is not widely available. It was mostly known through people like [Felix] Guattari here or people like [Franz] Fanon but I think the specifically Institutional Psychotherapy part of their project was kind of eclipsed. People said, for example, in the case of Fanon, Fanon was a psychiatrist also, but they didn't really relate it to this longer tradition of Institutional Psychotherapy. So, I think there is a problem with translation. I think it's also perhaps that they're difficult texts to read. They're difficult theories. It requires a solid background in Freudian psychoanalysis and Lacanian psychoanalysis. I mean, obviously there's a group of enthusiastic readers of Lacan in the English-speaking world but it's not, let's say, as widespread as in the French speaking world… would be one of the answers. I think also in terms of the practice, there's very few practices in the U.S.—and it seems to me in Britain also—that have taken up these ideas. So, all of this, I think, might have explained the relative obscurity of Institutional Psychotherapy in the English speaking world.
BPM: And how did you come to it? What drew you to it?
CR: I'm an intellectual historian. My first book was on Claude Lévi-Strauss and Jacques Lacan, so I had already been thinking about Lacanian psychoanalysis for several years. My first book was about the conservative uses of Lacan and Lacanian psychoanalysis and French law, the ways in which French judges and legislators were using these complicated Lacanian notions, like the symbolic, to pass a series of laws on the family. I had a chapter in that book on critiques of the symbolic order in the 1970s and I wrote about Deleuze and Guattari’s book, Anti-Oedipus, which is from 1972. And in that context, I first heard about [Francois] Tosquelles. And I thought that he was this really fascinating figure. I wanted to learn more about him and I started to dig into the history of Spain and the 1930s, the POUM [the Workers Party of Marxist Unification, in Spain]—I guess we'll return to all this later—but little by little, I started to kind of draw a map of Tosquelles’ world and then eventually I travelled to La Borde, also met [Jean] Oury, sort of realized the importance of Oury for a book like Anti-Oedipus. And the rest of the people that I write about in my book were people that I had been teaching for many years since I teach intellectual history—so, Fanon, Guattari, Deleuze, et-cetera, Foucault—all of those people I had been teaching but I hadn't necessarily fully understood the importance of psychiatry to their work. And this was an attempt to do that.
BPM: And as you say, the theoretical texts—things like Anti-Oedipus—are very dense, not easy to pick up if you're just a lay reader. But the story, the human story of Saint-Alban is it very, very accessible, very simple and charged with these really urgent, dramatic, very, very human questions and challenges and fears. And what surprises me is that, that story—the simple human drama—hasn't been told more often. That's where Martine comes in with this amazing film. Would you be happy to put the question to her, the same question really, about what drew her to that story and how did she arrive at it?
MD: For me, it's not Deleuze and Guattari at all. It's not that story at all. It is rather through Fernand Deligny, through the film Le Mondre Geste [The Slightest Gesture, 1971]. It is first through Deligny and then my totally personal journey. I knew a little about the clinic at La Borde with all the clichés we have of it. Then all these clichés fell away, through the rigour of work which brings greater understanding. But initially it was through Deligny, by roundabout paths.
BPM: And is it true, Martine, that you just found this archive material in the hospital at Saint-Alban, is that right? In just like a pile? Or in a box?
MD: Yes, so it’s not so extraordinary, either. They were stored in the library. The library was a very active, very lively place for years. And today it is not. And the films were stored in the library, probably waiting for someone to use them. It's not a treasure chest either. It’s the logical work, I want to say, that was going on in that place and that was archived.
BPM: It's breath-taking. It's such a gift, the fact that this material exists, that you were able to create this story for a wider audience.
MD: Yes. The nurses were filming but primarily it was Dr. Tosquelles who initiated this process. But I think it was a time when Super 8 cameras got around quite easily; people made films of their families and in the hospital they made films. I think these are very modest films which are like what we call family film. And at the same time I think it's not just that. It’s also corporate film. It was Institutional Psychotherapy and it is institutional footage because there was the will of Doctor Tosquelles to teach with these films, to transmit. These are not just private films in the hospital. Like the Trait d’Union newspaper [the hospital’s internal publication], it did not leave the hospital but was a therapeutic tool. Little is known about the process that led to their filming. There was both a spontaneous approach that corresponded to the era but also a desire to transmit the life and the very process of Institutional Psychotherapy.
BPM: I wanted to ask, Camille, you said in an email that the film had helped you in your process of writing your most recent book. Can you say more about that? What did you learn from the film that you haven't seen before, or you weren't aware of, or did it simply flesh something out for you?
CR: So, I met Martine at a conference a few years ago in Barcelona. I was still in the middle of thinking about the book so for me it was really helpful to talk to people—there were also a lot of people there who worked on Art Brut—and to kind of put together these connections. And Martine, at the time she hadn't finished the Saint Alban movie, but she had finished the movie on Oury [The Underbrush of the Senseless, 2015], which was also amazing. So, I think now that I've seen the Saint Alban movie it's amazing, to see these things that you've read about visually enacted. The clips, for example, even the trailer, when they go on vacation. So, all of these things that they talk about and you understand the therapeutic goal, but to see them actually enacted live is really helpful. Again, the theory of Institutional Psychotherapy can sometimes sound very abstract. If you're reading Oury on psychosis, for example, it can sound very abstract. It's about foreclosing of the signifier or things like that, so you don't actually see how that would translate in a practical experiment, on a practical plane. Even though I think both Tosquelles and Oury insisted that the theory and the praxis were really, really linked, that they were not separated, that the theory came out of the praxis and the praxis was a reflection of the theory—so it's not like there was one in the other—still, I think for me, because I'm a historian, I'm not a clinician, I'm not a psychoanalyst and I'm not a psychologist so, you know, when you hear about something like ‘burst transference’, I don't know what that means. It was great in Martine’s movie to see what that could look like in the space, for example, of the Club. The Club is the kind of cafe, if you like, and a kind of self-managed union, where they all hung out. So, you have a sense of what this looks like.
BPM: I'm going to share the screen a moment because I wanted to share one of the images that the film actually opens with. It’s of a group hiking expedition and, Martine, in this part of the film I think maybe you're interviewing two former employees, workers from the hospital who were describing this expedition.
[Photograph courtesy of Yves Baldran]
BPM: And they say, “Look, you can see the children of hospital staff are sitting with “les fous”, “avec les fous.” And they say, “This is how it was.” I feel like this is such an impressive and relevant and striking illustration of the principle, the practice of Institutional Psychotherapy. Martine, can you say anything about this image and about how it helped you to understand Institutional Psychotherapy?
MD: Already this image is incredible, it’s in the middle of nature, they are together, it's an outing... I find that this image is extremely revealing of what was invented in Saint-Alban: leaving the hospital, being together with the children who are there. I find this photo absolutely beautiful. The film’s journey was also my own journey in approaching this story. So, at the same time, I wanted this to be where the viewer entered this story. That is to say that it was first of all the nurses, in the village, the former nurses, retired of course, who led me into the history of Saint-Alban, recounting their memories of youth, of having avoided the rural exodus to work in the hospital. And it was fundamental, the way that their lives were transformed, at once a personal edification and at the same time a closeness, an obvious matter to be with the sick, which is unfortunately surprising compared to what we see today. So, this journey of their own gaze in relation to mental illness, I wanted it to also be that of the viewer entering the film. I wanted the nurses to open the film, their voices, and for them to direct the viewer's gaze and to teach the viewer to look in turn. Rather than it being me who zooms in so that one enters the image, I wanted the image to be fixed and for the nurses to invite us to explore, so we too discover a child, a second child, and it will be the very nature of the film to have somewhat appropriated the title of Mario Ruspoli, who had made this film in Saint-Alban, Regard Sur La Folie [Look at Madness, 1961]. That's why I wanted to open the film with the sound of their voices and with a still image.
BPM: Martine, Do you feel that the proximity, the closeness of the village and the hospital, the reliance of the village on the hospital and and vice versa, do you think that was an important condition, a factor in making this unusual community possible, this unusual way of working possible?
MD: Yes, the fact that the hospital is in a remote, rural village, I also believe that this was quite common—each department had an institution. Before Dr Balvet's arrival, there was no connection between the villagers and the hospital. It was the nuns who ran the hospital. The nurses told me was that as children they heard the cries of the sick carried on the wind. So, they didn't know anything about those who were locked up there. The hospital is above the village, so the villagers knew little about the people who were locked up there. It was the arrival of Doctor Balvet who started to open things up and then the conditions of the war. That’s what is paradoxical, that the hospital rediscovered the meaning of the word ‘asylum’ in the sense of welcoming, protecting, and at the same time opening up to the outside world to work for the survival of all with local resources, with the sick who would go to work on the farms outside to bring back food and, as Tosquelles puts it, also on the black market.
The effort of Institutional Psychotherapy was to feed the patients so they didn't starve but also to rethink the basis of psychiatry, to ask how is it that psychiatry was able to close its eyes and even to participate actively in this genocide
BPM: In a way it feels like these few people arriving at Saint-Alban because of the war, Tosquelles being exiled from Catalonia and Balvet moving to help—in fact he moved just before the war, didn't he? And then Bonnafé arriving in order, partly, it seems, to hide, that's my sense, that he was on the run...
CR: He was in the resistance.
BPM: Yes. So, of course events were driving these people to this place, but from what Martine is saying, it feels as though it very much was the intellectual conviction and the ethics of these people that drove the origins. It couldn't have happened without them. Is that, is that fair, do you think, Camille?
CR: Yes, very much. I think that's very fair. And I think, for me, the context of the war is absolutely essential to understanding what happened at Saint Alban. As you say, is it the people, or is it the events? It's both. It's definitely the events because they wouldn't have necessarily gathered at this place. I think it's important to mention that Saint Alban is really un trou—we would say in French [‘a hole’]. It's really far from everything. It's hard to get to it, it's in a mountainous region, it's difficult to get there on public transportation. So the fact that these people gathered there during the Vichy occupation is very important. So, of course, you have Tosquelles, who fought Spanish fascism during the Spanish civil war and who ends up in a concentration camp and then ends up at Saint-Alban—all of these experiences are really, really important to him to develop his awareness of what he calls ‘l’esprit concentrationaire’, the concentrationist spirit, and thinking about institutions. I think what he says throughout his life is that the camp was really important. It taught him to do psychiatry everywhere but also it taught him that concentrationism was always a kind of menace. That you cannot explain fascism if you don't understand people's propensity to support fascism. But you can also say the same thing about Stalinism. I mean, in Barcelona, he was in a group called the POUM, which was militantly anti-Stalinist. And Stalinism was in many ways the example of an institution gone wrong, of Marxism becoming concentrationist, authoritarian, hierarchical, oppressive. This is what happens if you don't renew institutions, if you don't rethink them. So, that's for Tosquelles, but all of them were really brought out there by the context of the war. I think the fact that they were there also gave them a sort of freedom. I mean, there's a lot of speculation—I don't know if Martine knows more about this— but Balvet supposedly was a Petain supporter, that's what Tosquelles said, I don't know if it's true, that he was at first and then he changed his politics obviously later on. But that gave them a kind of carte blanche to do some of the more experimental psychiatry that they were conducting. The other thing we haven't mentioned but that's very important is that, of course, World War II is a moment of eugenics and you could even say genocide of the cognitively disabled in psychiatric hospitals. In Germany—this is very well-documented—with Aktion T4 there was up to something like 200,000 deaths in Germany. But what's interesting is that the French case has started to raise a lot more attention, and historians have estimated that 40,000 psychiatric patients died in psychiatric hospitals. So obviously Tosquelles, Balvet, Bonnafé, all of those people were extremely aware of the genocide that was occurring in psychiatric prisons and part of the effort of Institutional Psychotherapy was to counter this, as Martine was saying, to literally feed the patients so they don't starve but also to rethink the basis of psychiatry, to ask how is it that psychiatry was able to close its eyes and even to participate actively in this.
The question is less, ‘How can a community of this kind endure?’ and more, ‘What's the next way to keep these ideas alive?’
MD: If I can add one thing, it seems to me that if there is something extraordinary about this story, it is not that they were all there. It is the permanent transformation of one in contact with the other. Because they were people who were networked. I think it's a little hard to imagine that people were very committed and in the 1930s there were radical (anti-fascist) commitments. The people involved were connected with each other. Lucien Bonnafé, when he was very young in Toulouse, was part of the anti-fascist movements. He was also linked to the Surrealist group. These are networks that existed in a very, very strong way. Between the Italians and then the Spaniards, he had a very powerful commitment from the youth. There were very assertive people on the far right and very assertive people in the anti-fascist movements. And it was very much in-your-face, it existed. So, it's not very surprising either that these people brought their entire network to Saint-Alban. What is more astonishing is that… Balvet… Pétainiste, I think you have to be careful with that. Balvet says he admired the Petain of the War of 1914. Then Balvet was transformed, internally, by his encounter with Tosquelles. He says, ‘Tosquelles transformed my life,’ and he then became a communist. I also believe that posting Pétain's photo in the hospital was protective. It is still very ambiguous. Then Tosquelles, the POUM activist during the Spanish civil war and Bonnafé the militant get along and work together. These people were smart enough to transform each other when they came into contact. This is what I find extraordinary and magnificent in this story, it is this permanent transformation with each other, the patients as well as the doctors who made Saint-Alban, as well as the villagers. It’s that no-one came out unscathed. No one left Saint-Alban the same as they arrived. Each took what he already was to Saint-Alban. I also mean that it was a very isolated place but that resistance networks existed. And Saint-Alban was part of the circulation of clandestine publications which left for Switzerland or the unoccupied zone. I think it's not just an isolated village, a lost hole. I have a hard time saying it's ‘a hole’. Yes, it is isolated from Paris, but there are people, networks of solidarity and peasant ways of life. They were found there but between the University of Strasbourg and Clermont-Ferrand, they were all in contact. That is, active resistance was extremely alive.
CR: Yes. When I say that it's isolated, it's certainly isolated from say the centre, if you're talking about something like Lacanian theory or Lacanian psychoanalysis. Of course there's political resistance but academic life is so centralized in some ways in Paris and yet what's amazing is that they were already printing some of the early work, for example, of Lacan, and photocopying it in their own presses and sharing it with the patients, with the doctors and reading really some of the most avant-garde theory. One of the things that I was really interested in my book is that the story we usually get, for example, of Lacanian psychoanalysis, is that it gets diffused through surrealism, that's the Elisabeth Roudinesco story, which I think is true, but this is a different story of the transmission of Lacanian theory. It's a story of a transmission that goes through medical journals. The Saint-Alban people are the first ones to cite his work in medical journals before it's even published. So, I think it's a kind of radical psychiatry, radical politics, as Martine was saying, but also art and philosophy, and it's the junction of all of these different currents that makes it a really, really unique and exciting place. A lot of these are doctors, they go to medical school, and yet they're writing about Gérard de Nerval and psychosis and they read Kierkegaard and they're reading, obviously, Freud and Marx and everybody else. So, it’s this solid training in the humanities and in social sciences which is still rare in psychiatry, but it was certainly rare at the time.
BPM: That's so interesting. So, maybe a link I hadn't made, but a line of thinking I've had for a while, is about how the absence or the weakness of humanities training in the sciences and in particular medicine, so often results in a professional class who, if your work involves encountering it, there's this really stark absence or weakness in critical thinking, in situating decision-making, for example, or understanding a wider social sciences context to the really important decisions that are being made around people's lives and treatment. In my own work background I saw this a lot around life and death decisions being made sometimes for people in critical medical conditions, made by doctors, based on really nothing other than a set of medical categories and personal impulse, nothing else. No sense that there might be more than one way of understanding an idea like quality of life, for example: quality of life equates to impairment, and that's it. ‘It's not the kind of life I would want to lead.’ I've heard neurosurgeon say that very phrase. ‘Well, I've seen patients a few years down the line after a brain injury and it's not the kind of life I'd want to lead.’ That's it? That's the decision-making paradigm?
CR: This is the thing about psychiatry; at the end of the day, you can look in the brain as much as you want but you're not going to find a place in the brain that has schizophrenia. It doesn't mean it's completely unrelated to neuroscientific processes. But the hypothesis of Institutional Psychotherapy is that the social, the neurological, the familial, the psychic had to always come together, you couldn't do one. Also, you couldn't just say it was just culture. Obviously, there was a biological, a medical side to this also. It was about balancing the two.
What I found very beautiful in the testimonies of the elder nurses from Saint-Alban, was how much they enjoyed working there
BPM: And that's what's extraordinary about this community is somehow the ability of those involved to synthesize all of these perspectives in one effort, one exercise. So, just going back over what you've both been saying, what it leads me to is this feeling: I know that Institutional Psychotherapy did have some important effects on the French system of healthcare and the French legal system. But I'm also aware that, latterly, Saint-Alban no longer practices in that way, or certainly not anything recognizable. I know that, Camille, when you met Jean Oury, he was very concerned about the condition of the practice in France and that his project might not continue in the way that he'd hoped after his death. What I would want to ask you is, to the extent that La Borde has inherited that tradition, is it possible outside these most desperate circumstances—the Occupation and this remarkable chance of these people coming together in this very isolated place with these very particular conditions—what are the hopes for these ideas, but more importantly these practices and these ethics to occur elsewhere? And to survive or to see the light of day when they're so urgently needed? For me, this humanizing ethic is so desperately in need in our culture now, certainly within psychiatry and in the way that vulnerable people are situated or supported, but much more broadly. These ethics apply across the way we treat one another. What's your feeling? Have you seen other projects, perhaps that echo those ethics, if not the theory, then perhaps the ethics?
MD: I wouldn't ask the question like that. When you sent us questions yesterday, you were wondering ‘is it possible for this kind of community to continue?’ It seems to me that what is very specific to Institutional Psychotherapy is to think about everyday life and what conditions are necessary to create an atmosphere day after day, hour after hour, for the collective to exist and for each person to exist in the collective. That is to say, so that everyone has an active part in collective life and at the same time that the very organization of collective life allows everyone a freedom to exist. And that requires thinking in a very subtle way about all the cogs of how a day is organized. I think that's what is very specific and I find it very beautiful as a way to think of an institution. And it seems to me that the question would be more how to make sure that you don't freeze things from one day to the next rather than think about keeping things going. It seems to me that places are disappearing but others are appearing elsewhere and this is the very movement of life. Then, the situation of Saint-Alban was not at all the same as the situation of La Borde and today the situation in which we are politically, socially is not at all the same either. So, I think it's more of a way of thinking sensitively about relationships, daily life, exchanges, and more formal, administrative organization, to prevent anything bureaucratic from crushing life. And, as Doctor Oury explains very well, and as we see in some images of Saint-Alban, the emergence of life each day is difficult for some people. It requires a lot of precautions, a lot of subtlety. So, it's more how to counter what prevents. Today the political system is not the same, neither is the economic system. But the liberal system produces norms all the time, and asks to us conform with norms and therefore prevents the work ... but what I found very beautiful in the testimonies of the elder nurses from Saint-Alban, was how much they enjoyed working there. Something valued them and they themselves participated in the collective life, it's very beautiful to hear this personal and permanent edification. Today the modes of thinking concerned with the short-term and with cost-effectiveness permanently hinder initiatives. I believe that what was at work in Saint-Alban during those few years was a permanent invention. And it is this term ‘permanent’ that is being crushed today. I think the aim is not so much to make it last because otherwise it would freeze and then it would be giving the impression that there would be a method, a recipe. However, it is precisely a movement. And this movement is at once extremely powerful but also extremely fragile. Doctor Oury spoke a lot about precariousness, in the best sense of the word. If you freeze, be careful because you can crush anything that is permanent inventiveness and bursting with life wherever it can be. So, it seems to me that that would be good to think about, and this is what’s extremely difficult in the massive attacks that are taking place today at the level of schools, universities or psychiatric institutions. Wherever there should be transmission and pedagogy—what could be more beautiful than pedagogy?—is totally crushed by a movement which goes against sense, and which has no sense anyway. Just to finish, it seems to me that there was also something at work in La Borde and at Saint-Alban, it was to be caught up in a movement bigger than yourself, in collective development, to have an aim that is beyond us. I think the terrible thing today that weighs on all of us is that each of us becomes the little entrepreneur of our life. So, you have to present yourself in the phone images... but it is no longer a collective construction of a movement in which we move together. Today, the massive movement is to crush Institutional Psychotherapy in favor of a form of psychiatry much closer to biology, to neurology. It rather emphasizes the norm. If you are abnormal, we will adjust your behavior to bring it back to normal. It is a story of normal and abnormal behavior. But it is not an existential story. Madness touches on something existential and this was something very powerful at Saint-Alban. The surrealist movement also brought about the unconscious and that's what is being crushed today—this notion of the unconscious, of psychoanalysis, of connecting with a language that has to do with poetry as well. Which is not the language of normality. So, this is a whole different, sensitive relationship to what one considers to be human. So, it seems to me that maybe this notion of ‘enduring’ is not the point but rather to identify what thwarts any form of life. I think the conditions were terrible in Saint-Alban. There were no other circumstances than the circumstances which they had the audacity to create, to invent. But the enemy was identifiable, anyway. Today it is perhaps a little more submerged and massive.
CR: If I could just add one thing, I think that what's been interesting is also to think about the relationship between a movement like Institutional Psychotherapy, for example, and the anti-austerity movements of the 2000s, 2010s. This is what I sort of ended my book on, in the conclusion, where I tried to put these things together. I think it goes back to Martine’s comment about longevity. A lot of the people who wrote about those movements, whether the Occupy, or the Nuit Debout, or Los Indignados in Spain, it was always like, ‘Well, there was short lived.’ But their short-livedness is part of the process of what happens to prevent reification, to prevent stagnation. These groups are all very conscious of how do we stop from becoming closed onto oneself? How do we let people speak, very simply? Who gets to speak when? So, all of these kinds of rules that these political groups were experimenting with—not all of them, obviously—but some of them could be related, I think, to the kinds of questions that were central to Institutional Psychotherapy. Again, how do you set up a meeting, how you set up a day, as Martine was saying, how do you set up an activity to prevent the ‘small kingdoms’, as Oury would say, from taking over. Someone becoming too used to taking a particular role or taking a particular thing. There's never a point at which you say, ‘Oh, now, now we're disalienated.’ It's always a work in progress. And the energy comes from that movement.
BPM: It’s so interesting to think about. I could ask so many questions.
CR: It's obviously hard to put numbers. It's hard to give results. It's not the same kind of results that a pill gives you or that a cognitive behavioural therapy gives you. So, I think people can see it and seem exhausted before it begins.
BPM: So, in a way, the question is less, ‘How can a community of this kind endure?’ and more, ‘What's the next way to keep these ideas alive?’ Maybe. ‘What's the next thing anyone can do to keep these ideas, or to reinvestigate, or to re-form the question?’ You have to keep reforming the question, perhaps.
CR: One of the things that Institutional Psychotherapy showed us is the centrality of psychoanalytic concepts to thinking through politics: from the unconscious to desire, to fantasy, to projection, you cannot understand the phenomenon of Brexit or Donald Trump if you don't have these categories that help you understand how a group can actually desire these forms of authority. So, I think one of the lessons of Institutional Psychotherapy can also be to try to think about the unconscious not as a kind of an add-on but as the mechanism through which the group can avoid closing on itself—it's through the unconscious.
The question is, what conditions are needed to support the sensitive awareness of all living beings—that is to say, for nature, plants, animals, as well as men?
BPM: It's now ten past four for me. Do you have time for one more question or do you need to go?
CR: I have five minutes.
BPM: The only one I was thinking about was the question of art, whether art will always emerge in this situation. Is there an intrinsic link between art practice and anti-fascism? Maybe you want to give a short answer? What I said was, ‘I want to claim that humanistic psychiatry and anti-fascist practice are in certain respects, the same thing.’ So really, do you agree with that, would be my question.
MD: In Institutional Psychotherapy they spoke about double alienation: about both social alienation and insanity. Obviously, that calls into question the notions of hierarchy, of decision, so we can see that authoritarian systems would not work. After the term ‘anti-fascist’, one cannot say that today one is in a fascist regime. ‘Fascist’ has a meaning, a historical meaning. I don't think, for example, that the condition of the internees in the hospitals of the Soviet bloc was any better. It seems to me that this is more the concentration camp issue. Saint-Alban is marked by the words of a nurse, Marius Bonnet, who had been in captivity in Germany during the war, who wrote a magnificent text and who, at the end of the war, said to himself ‘We cannot treat the sick as one treated prisoners’. So that’s the realization and in my opinion that’s still the question. More than words like ‘anti-fascism’. How is it that at one point a man can alienate another man, allow another man to be locked up or tied up? It’s more like that. And in many political regimes it can happen. I think it would be over-simplifying today to leave that to the fascist camp. Beyond that, I would like to think that art would cure us of everything. But there are great artists, writers, especially in France, who supported the Vichy regime. I don't think artists have a virtuous position. One can have great humanistic ideas and be a poor artist. Conversely, unfortunately, one can create forms of great power, which will enlighten others and be a bad guy politically.
[Stills from Our Lucky Hours, showing the sculptures of Auguste Forestier, courtesy of Martine Deyres]
It seems to me that it would be better to formulate the question of what conditions are needed to support the sensitive awareness of all living beings—I find that today we are at a good moment for that question—that is to say, for nature, plants, animals, as well as men. It's more about what conditions we create so that our sensitivity is not crushed and so that we can be available to forms that do not correspond to an academic art. That’s what occurred at Saint-Alban with [Jean] Dubuffet. But art in itself…? There are great artists today who participate in the degradation of the world with a consumerist disposition that suits them very well. I don't think there is an inherent anti-fascist virtue in art. I don't think there is anything angelic to be found. What was very beautiful in Saint-Alban was the allowance, for example, of Forestier. To be there but not too much. It's not a moment, the artistic practice, on Thursday from 3 a.m. to 4 a.m., everyone will be creating. It seems to me ... artistic power, creative power, it's rare. And so much the better. On the other hand, it can help, and everyone can find their way in practices, of course. But I don't think there is, at least for me, any angelic situation where we would all become creators.
BPM: Thank you both so much.
CR: And thank you, Ben, for having us. That was a really interesting conversation.
My thanks to Camille and Martine for taking the time to talk to me, and to Camille for helping Martine and I understand each other! Thank you also to Eleanor Nairne of the Barbican for introducing me to Martine’s work and to the story of Saint-Alban. If you're still hungry for more, below you can watch a conversation about Our Lucky Hours between me, Eleanor and Sarah Lombardi, director of the Collection de l’Art Brut, recorded in March, in conjunction with the Barbican's Jean Dubuffet exhibition: