2008/09/18

The Hospital is Ill an interview with Jean Oury

Oury was Guattari's friend, colleague and the man who hired him to work at La Borde, where he worked until his dying day.

The Hospital is Ill: An Interview with Jean Oury
David Reggio and Mauricio Novello


The name of Jean Oury is synonymous with La Borde Clinic, which he founded in 1953 when he was twenty-nine, in an old chateau in the picturesque region of Cour-Cheverny, as a home for ‘institutional psychotherapy’. In the English-speaking world, La Borde and the practice of institutional psychotherapy are most likely to be encountered in association with the work of Félix Guattari, collaborator of Gilles Deleuze. Its history and significance – institutional, intellectual and political – and the vast developmental landscape of medico-philosophical enquiry out of which it emerged remain largely unknown. The term ‘institutional psychotherapy’ was introduced in 1952, by the psychiatrist Georges Daumézon (1912–1979),1 but the practice to which it refers dates back a decade earlier, to the wartime clinic of Saint-Alban.2 For the movement of institutional psychotherapy was to a large extent the outcome of a particular experience of war.

At the psychiatric hospital of Saint-Alban, faced with the eugenic ideology of the then Vichy minister of health, Alexis Carrel,3 a group formed around the figures of Lucien Bonnafé (1912–2003) and François Tosquelles (1912–1994), comprising patients, neurologists, phenomenologists, surrealists, resistance fighters, refugee psychiatrists and scientists. Bonnafé baptised the group the ‘Société du Gévaudan’. Its aim was to ‘resist and create’: to resist the policy of natural selection that was killing the mentally ill, to resist the Vichy regime that was propagating it, and to resist the broader tendencies of homogenization and segregation that characterize the treatment of the mentally ill; to create a therapeutic conviviality in the face of segregation, and with it, to create a new direction in psychiatry – a psychiatry that would be a living ‘art of sympathy’, not an alienation but an ‘accompaniment’ of the victim.4

Tosquelles arrived at Saint-Alban in 1941, from the Setfonds detention camp for Spanish refugees in the French department of Tarn-et-Garonne, north of Toulouse. Under his arm he carried Hermann Simon’s La Psychothérapie à l’asile (1933) and Lacan’s doctoral thesis, De la Psychose: Paranoïaque dans ses rapports avec la personnalité (1932). The former he translated at the clinic and disseminated in pamphlet form; the latter marked the focus and orientation of the meetings, through which, in Oury’s words, Tosquelles ‘rethought all the concepts of psychiatry’. An intimate relation developed between the humanitarian urgencies of history and the development and techniques of psychiatric assistance. At Saint-Alban,

[There was] a matrix … a conjuncture: the war, isolation, the fact of being cut off from the state.… It was a crucible, a melting pot, because the fact was that we had to survive – the patients, the nurses, in the fight against starvation – meant it was necessary to go out from the hospital, to go to the farmers … and to hide the Resistance. Such training is extremely didactic. It was an ultra-privileged history.5

Jean Oury, the junior of Bonnafé and Tosquelles by twelve years, arrived at Saint-Alban in September 1947. Then in his fourth year of medicine, he discovered it to be a place of ‘effervescent’ research. In 1948 and 1949, Oury and Tosquelles went ‘into the mountains’ in search of ‘complicated’ cases. This was a time of financial destitution: they sold lead, sinks and beds on what became a psychiatric black market. For Oury, these experiences constituted a sectoral politics, a ‘psychiatry of the sector’ – one day selling things, other days being stuck in the snow, ‘finding food for the hungry at midnight in the forest’, ‘being confronted with a man enclosed within a house with a gun, tormented, where you had to speak to lift the walls.’6

The year 1948 was also when Tosquelles wrote his doctoral thesis for the University of Paris, ‘Essai sur le sens du vécu en psychopathologie’ (The Psychopathology of Lived Experience).7 The work declared the ‘intra-disciplinary’ paradigm of what would become known as Institutional Psychotherapy. Part gestalt psychology, part phenomenology, part neurobiology, part psychoanalysis, it revived the Hippocratic notion of the medic–philosopher – iatros philosophos. Oury completed his doctoral thesis, ‘Essai sur la conation esthétique’, in December of 1950. Early in 1951, the fifteen-year-old Guattari arrived for ‘psychotherapy and re-orientation’. It was now, for Oury, that ‘things began to really move’8 at Saint-Alban – in much the same way they had done with the arrival of Tosquelles a decade earlier. Together they read a ‘quantity of books’ and talked ‘into the early hours of the morning’. These psychiatric and political discussions soon grew with others participating. It was out of these activities that Oury and Guattari coined the phrase ‘prolegomena for a non-deductive ontology’ – the signet of La Borde. As Oury later confirmed, ‘What we do at La Borde is a non-deductive ontology … to create a space of syntax.’9 It was in these spaces of syntax, or ‘spaces of the saying’, that an entire postwar generation of French youth would find inspiration. And the paradigm of this enterprise? Guattari, faithful to his mentors, put it succinctly: ‘ethico-aesthetic’.

An introduction to Jean Oury is an introduction to a legacy and a tradition that ‘resists and creates’. Oury stands alongside Jacques Schotte (1928–) and Henri Maldiney (1917–) as one of the last living figures of what the phenomenologist J.H. Van den Berg called ‘a new orientation of psychiatry’.10 His main works, L’Aliénation (Galilée, Paris, 1982) and Création et schizophrénie (Galilée, Paris, 1989) have been translated into numerous languages – other than English. The interview that follows is the first to be published in English.

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The pity is, as with so much else, the actual interview is not available at the site listed below, unless you become a subscriber.
So it goes.
Eh, Felix.






Issue: 143 - May/June 2007

Radical philosophy -interviews may/2007