Write-up – Françoise Davoine

2nd Wilhelm Reich Center Conversation

February 24, 2024


Françoise Davoine,

 “I turn to stone and my pain goes on,” said Wittgenstein, in his Philosophical Investigations. (§ 288)[1] . He had suffered from PTSD for 10 years after his return to Vienna from WWI and captivity. His embodiment of dissociation, due to extreme traumas was not pathological would say  Bessel Van der Kolk in his book “ The Body Keeps the Score[2],  but a tool of survival  when, , according  to  his Investigations, (§ 41)   “the tool of the names is broken.” That’s what happens indeed in major catastrophes: trust collapses and one can no more rely on the given word which is destroyed by a ruthless agency for whom the other does not exist; Hence the embodiment of   what happens, as “a witness of events without a witness” says Dori Laub.[3] ,   

Wittgenstein went through this experience during the war, claiming at the end of his Tractatus Philosophicus [4] written on the front lines; “ Where of one cannot speak one should stay silent”, leaving him in a  suicidal  and  disturbed  state during his Vienna years during which he abandoned philosophy until 1928 when  he returned to Cambridge and resumed philosophy “as a therapy”, changing the last sentence  of the Tractatus into “ Whereof one cannot speak, one cannot help showing what cannot be said.” The quest for an address   is at stake.

 I am going to give you an example of this passage from the embodiment of traumatic dissociation toward speech by finding an address that happened to be me.

 The date of the story is 1975 when I started to become an analyst   in a public psychiatric hospital situated in the North of France, on the battle fields of successive wars until WWII.   There, in the common room, I saw a mute lady standing like a statue in front of a radiator, with her blue eyes wide open.

Without thinking, I stayed at her side regulary for some time, talking about what came to my mind.  After several months she opened her mouth and said: “I heard a great YES and now I can speak.”  I published that story some 20 years later in a book entitled Mother Folly[5].   Her embodiment ; through petrification, showed what had happened during WWII,  40 years earlier. She related it to me in the present tense, as if it occurred in the present, and indeed it was the case, .    

She is 8 years old Her father is at war and her mother keeps a sluice on a canal, in the North of France. As she  disappears every afternoon, the little girl follows her one day and sees her, with German soldiers. in the moats of a little town nearby. Back home her mother who spotted her, shouts while raising her skirt:  “You want to know what I do; Look!” Her  daughter jumps into the canal. The fish look at her, the weeds caress her, she said.  She is rescued by a mariner who jumped from a barge which was moored by the sluice.   

She remembered the name of the barge, “Quand j’’y pense: When I think of it,”  worthy of Surrealism — a word invented by Polish poet Guillaume Apollinaire  who volunteered in WWI to become French, and wrote poetry on the front lines, to  express  a surreal reality. Indeed, space loses all limits,  and  time stops at the site of  catastrophes , while  “I can speak ” is impossible.  

For the little girl, who, at some point,  had overwhelmed the adult woman,  the freezing of time on that unspeakable , therefore unthinkable event,  was put into motion, after some months  during which I  spoke  aloud my thoughts  without thinking. This apparent oxymoron stems from my own childhood, as I realized afterward. Wondering what had driven me at the side of this mute lady, I discovered that it   was a familiar experience.

  I was in my mother’s womb when she was arrested while crossing  the Demarcation line unlawfully in the autumn of 1942; just before it was suppressed.  She was incarcerated in three successive prisons: Chalon sur Saône, Autun,  Compiègne, from where the trains departed toward Eastern concentrations camps, and never spoke about it, except to say “ Had I been  Jewish, I would not be here”; Me neither who was born in June 1943 after my father’s resistant network in the Alps managed  to get her  release..  Sometimes she  turned into stone, she was elsewhere,  and I used to talk and talk, saying  what  came to my mind, as far as I remember.  After she died in 2003–the year when  Jean Max and I published History beyond Trauma[6] –I regret to have  “respected”  her  silence.

So to our question “How are trauma and dissociation embodied”, I   may add: “How to  turn that embodiment into a “Yes I can speak”.

This turn from mainstream psychoanalysis occurs through an interference with the analyst’s  story at the crossroad with  History. .

[1]  L.Wittgensteein, Philosophical Investigations, Oxford University Press 1983.

[2] B. Vab der Kolk The Body keeps the Score, Penguin Books 2014

[3] D. Laub, Shoshana Felman, Testimony, Routledge 1992.

[4] L.Wittgenstein. Tractatus Philosophicus, Routledge 1992.

[5] F. Davoine, Mother Folly, Stanford University Press, 2014

[6] F. Davoine, Jean Max Gaudillière, History Beyond Trauma Other Press 2004.