Knot of the Soul

Madness, Psychoanalysis, Islam

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Stefania Pandolfo
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , April
     384 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


An epigraph to section 7 of Stefania Pandolfo’s book, Knot of the Soul: Madness, Psychoanalysis, Islam, comes from Frantz Fanon, “But can we escape the vertigo? And who dares affirm that vertigo does not haunt each and every life?” (221). The quotation struck a chord. I had been feeling vertigo for at least the previous hundred pages. The book is unsteadying for the novelty of the path it cuts between anthropology, psychoanalysis, and Islam and for the shock of how that path leads to a vista that is both revelatory and familiar. It takes place in the Moroccan cities of Rabat and Sale, in the first decade of the 21st century. Pandolfo spends time in a psychiatric hospital, in homes and cafes, and in the clinic of a Qur’anic healer. Each locale backgrounds her profound relationships with her interlocutors and vertiginous explorations of the themes of the book’s subtitle.     

In Fanon’s telling, vertigo is endemic to the human condition because, “our actions never cease to haunt us” (Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, Grove Press, 2004). This observation comes in the context of a description of a case in which his patient, a former anticolonial fighter, experiences vertigo after befriending nationals of his country’s former colonizer. The case unveils the entwinement of personal and collective history and their shared, recurring traumas (223). Knot of the Soul creates vertigo in its readers because it confronts us with this colonial trauma, implicating us in its history. Pandolfo reminds us of Freud’s “uncomfortable” reflections on World War I, how we take secret pleasure in war’s spectacle and how “none of us is immune or external to participating in the violence” (277). As a contemporary American singer-songwriter Jason Isbell puts it, “There’s no such thing as someone else’s war.”

The war, in this case, is the continuation of colonialism into the Moroccan present and the related phenomena of inequality, poverty, consumerism, and state violence. Part 1 contains four sections in a psychiatric hospital, where we hear the voices of patients and doctors as they struggle to come to terms with colonial and psychic rupture. In part 2, we find a debate between young friends on the ethics of attempting the perilous, undocumented crossing to Europe. Here, Pandolfo’s method is on full display: she holds her conversations up to the archives of psychoanalytic and Islamic thought, reading with sophistication and seriousness.

She explains the despair these youths feel with reference to the theorist of Qur’anic healing, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 1350). The vertigo of Pandolfo’s description is, for me, particularly acute at this point. Despair—a pervasive phenomenon in Morocco (122)—rushes at the reader, channeled through the specificity of these two youths’ conversations, washing us in the psychic effects of dire and deadly global inequity. Pandolfo commented in a recent blogpost on seeing life “from the perspective of the Last Judgment.” By juxtaposing such finely drawn ethnographic portraits with abyssal descriptions of Muslim eschatology, she achieves this perspective and firmly reminds us that, at least for some, this inequality may yet be redeemed. (For a brilliant analysis of the book’s psychoanalytical-ethnographic method: Ali Mian, “The Play of the Qur’anic Trace: Engaging Stefania Pandolfo’s Knot of the Soul,” Qui Parle (2019) 28 (1)).

The book does not expend much energy on meta-analysis of questions of the secular and the recently more recondited (though related) question of the ontological status of supernatural beings (Mian, “The Play of the Qur’anic Trace”). Pandolfo forestalls these questions by identifying a family resemblance between Islam and psychoanalysis. Part 3 details Pandolfo’s encounter with a figure she calls “the Imam,” who practices Qur’anic healing. The Imam engages in a form Qur’anic recitation (ruqya) that seeks to reveal the jinn who has possessed a patient. The revelation of the jinn in the act of recitation means that there is still space between possessed and possessor, through which the patient may regain some “margin of reason and discernment” (266). Pandolfo relates the theory of the jinn to Lacan’s idea of extimacy: “I therefore read the Imam’s understanding of jihād al-nafs [spiritual effort] with Lacan’s moving ‘beyond’ of the Aristotelian ethics of the good, and towards an ethics of vulnerable struggle, a kind of wrestling, with an intimate exteriority: an extimité” (321). The jinn usually relate to histories of familial and colonial trauma. They embody the past and thus concern the patient’s vertiginous relation to her fractured world; they are sites of struggle and desire, at once within and without the patient.

Pandolfo rarely reflects on how the book’s diverse parts relate to one another. Instead, like a rope tied into a knot, it twists back to touch itself. It’s a dazzling stylistic decision, one of the ways that the book’s form matches its content, but I was still left with questions. For example, is there a connection between the mass desire to emigrate and the recent resurgence of Qur’anic healing? Let me explain: Qur’anic healing is opposed to “traditional” healing, which implies the longstanding Maghrebi practices of tomb visitation, divination, and amulets. For the Imam, these practices represent demonic intervention. Qur’anic healing supplants these older Moroccan forms and thus, like migration, could be called a form of deterritorialization. Do emigration and Qur’anic healing share a common etiology? Perhaps as a consequence of her principled (and welcome) refusal to pathologize Islamic revivalism, Pandolfo does not conjecture.

Between parts 1 and 2 comes “Interlude: Islam and the Ethics of Psychoanalysis,” which details the fraught career of psychoanalysis in Muslim majority contexts, where it has been posited as a cure to the malady of religion. Pandolfo sides, instead, with Lacan, for whom the ethics of psychoanalysis imply a sense of opening to alterity, to the very transformation of psychoanalysis, and a refusal of “comfortable compliancy” (132). Like befriending a former enemy, this too resonates with Fanonian vertigo. Pandolfo explains that, “In the postcolonial returns, the vertigo of history becomes for Fanon an ethical site of vision” (243). Vertigo, then, is an aim and an outcome of this remarkable book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Samuel Kigar is Assistant Professor of Religion at University of Puget Sound.

Date of Review: 
March 18, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stefania Pandolfo is Professor and Director of the UC Berkeley Medical Anthropology Program on Critical Studies in Medicine, Science, and the Body at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Impasse of the Angels.


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