Fiction and ‘la guerre des psys’ in France

Simon KempIn a recent issue of French Studies, 62(4), Simon Kemp examines the recent fictional works of Marie Darrieussecq. His discussion of her novels, starting with Naissance des fantômes, focusses on her use of models drawn from psychology.

Her fiction makes use of the discipline’s discourse with and against the grain, creating micro-narratives of the mind’s surface level and present moment which contrast sharply with more familiar psychoanalytic perspectives. Narrative form in Darrieussecq, I argue, can be characterized as a stream-of-consciousness, which, while failing to conform to the literary model set by Dujardin and Joyce, is in fact closer to the original psychological conception of the term. (p. 429)

The article’s literary aspects are interesting. What will ultimately be more important for the readers of AHP, however, is Kemp’s short discussion of a contemporary dispute in French psychological scholarship: CBT vs. psychoanalysis.

…it is in this practical arena of psychotherapy that the disciplines’ disputes have come to public attention. In France this has sparked what L’Express has dubbed ‘la guerre des psys’, a cultural phenomenon which must now form the background against which Darrieussecq produces her fiction.  The French media widely discussed a controversial 2004 report by the Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale (INSERM), Psychothérapie, trois approches évalués, which found psychoanalysis ineffective in the treatment of schizophrenia and depression, and vaunted the benefits of cognitive behaviour therapy. By late 2005 this controversy had led to what Gilbert Charles describes as an ‘avalanche de livres’ [avalanche of books] criticizing psychoanalysis, notable among which is the best-selling Livre noir de la psychanalyse [Black book of psychoanalysis], impugning the discipline’s pertinence as a model of mind and its efficacy as a therapy, the publication of which was heralded thus by an edition of Le Nouvel Observateur devoted to the question: ‘Faut-il en finir avec la psychanalyse?’ [Should we not be done with psychoanalysis?]. With a number of books published in riposte by prominent psychoanalysts, and a fierce debate which has led in one instance to libel action, the study of the mind is currently under question in France as it has never been before. (pp. 339-440; my trans. in brackets)

In the English-speaking world, it seems practitioners have been less critical in their acceptance of cognitive-based therapies. It may therefore be enlightening for historians of psychology to examine France’s “guerre des psys” in greater detail.

Yet it is also worth noting, for those who might be interested in reading Kemp’s essay and pursuing his insights further, that he seems to use the term “cognitive science” as a synonym for “psychological science” (in specific contrast to psychoanalysis).  However, in psychological circles (in North America at least), “cognitive science” means something else entirely than what is implied by his usage (see e.g., History of Cognitive Science at AHP).

A free PDF of Kemp’s paper is available for download here.

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About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

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