Launching book forum: Knot of the Soul

This wshajarat al-hayat [the tree of life]eek we’re finally launching a book forum that has been in the works for much of the summer: on Stefania Pandolfo’s remarkable Knot of the Soul: Madness, Psychoanalysis, Islam (Chicago, 2018). The publisher description and endorsements follow here:

Through a dual engagement with the unconscious in psychoanalysis and Islamic theological-medical reasoning, Stefania Pandolfo’s unsettling and innovative book reflects on the maladies of the soul at a time of tremendous global upheaval. Drawing on in-depth historical research and testimonies of contemporary patients and therapists in Morocco, Knot of the Soul offers both an ethnographic journey through madness and contemporary formations of despair and a philosophical and theological exploration of the vicissitudes of the soul.

Knot of the Soul moves from the experience of psychosis in psychiatric hospitals, to the visionary torments of the soul in poor urban neighborhoods, to the melancholy and religious imaginary of undocumented migration, culminating in the liturgical stage of the Qur’anic cure. Demonstrating how contemporary Islamic cures for madness address some of the core preoccupations of the psychoanalytic approach, she reveals how a religious and ethical relation to the “ordeal” of madness might actually allow for spiritual transformation.

This sophisticated and evocative work illuminates new dimensions of psychoanalysis and the ethical imagination while also sensitively examining the collective psychic strife that so many communities endure today.

Talal Asad, City University of New York: “Knot of the Soul combines sensitive ethnography, Islamic practices of healing, and suggestive encounters with psychiatry and psychoanalytic theory. Pandolfo has written an unusually insightful work that serves as an excellent example of the riches that these three different traditions, in conversation with one another, can offer our contemporary understanding of madness and reason. It deserves to be widely read and pondered.”

Joan Copjec, Brown University: “Knot of the Soul is a stunning breakthrough book. Creating its own genre—not by mixing existing genres but by seeing beyond their divisions—it exposes the profound homologies between Sufi philosophy and psychoanalysis and the structural madness that haunts the subject, for good as well as ill. Beautifully written and conceptually precise, it cannot but convince readers of the timeliness and inestimable value of these marginalized discourses.”

Veena Das, Johns Hopkins University: “Reading this book is both an intellectual and an aesthetic experience. Pandolfo’s subtle and nuanced rendering of the meandering life of reason, unreason, terror, and hope is unparalleled in anthropological and psychiatric literature. Her deep knowledge of Islamic theology and poetry, her mastery over anthropological and psychoanalytical theory, and, above all, her capacity to listen, show what an anthropological devotion to the world might mean.”

I’ve already elsewhere commented on two of the book’s methodological interventions. It refuses the dominant academic historiography of modern Islam (organized by the tropes of rupture and continuity); and it stages an unprecedented conversation between Islamic medical-theological reasoning and the unconscious in psychoanalysis. But it does so through a dense poetics–refracted through and across the lives of her interlocutors–that cannot easily be abstracted (figura) into an argument with one or another scholarly literature. Across its ethnography of postcolonial psychiatry, imagination at its tormented limit, and the jurisprudence of the soul, the event of madness appears as the possible disclosure of a divine address.

I’m eager to watch the conversation around this book unfold, with commentary from Adam Kotsko, Marika Rose, Aaron Eldridge, Anthony Paul Smith, Rajbir Singh Judge, Daniel Colucciello Barber, and Ali Altaf Mian, and closing out with a response from Pandolfo herself.

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