I should constantly remind myself that the real leap consists in introducing invention into existence. In the world in which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself. And it is by going beyond the historical, instrumental hypothesis that I will initiate my cycle of freedom.
Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
Thinking amidst the ongoing catastrophe of colonialism’s legacy in Morocco; in homes, hospitals and sacred places riven by trauma; alongside families, doctors and imams seeking if not for healing then for ways to survive, Stefania Pandolfo invokes Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. A central question of Knot of the Soul has to do, she says, ‘with the possibility of reorienting the existential and ethical position of the subject in the world by an act of imagination; of interrupting a habitus of entrapment, resentment, and self- reproach in relation to a history of loss, thereby transforming one’s relation to that history, opening up the possibility of living again— of futures unforeseen.’ I was struck, by the book’s resonances with the work of Sylvia Wynter, whose ‘Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth /Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation – An Argument’ ends by invoking the same text: ‘The true leap, Fanon wrote at the end of his Black Skins, White Masks, consists in introducing invention into existence. The buck stops with us.’
For Wynter, the central struggle of the contemporary world is between, on the one hand, those who seek to ensure that a particular (white, Western, masculine, property-owning) conception of the human continues to be seen as universal and normative and, on the other hand those who work instead for ‘the well-being, and therefore the full cognitive and behavioural autonomy of the human species itself/ourselves.’ There is a complex interplay in Wynter’s work between, on the one hand, her rejection of modern accounts of the human and, on the other, her affirmation of our need to recognise that human life is what we make it, to take responsibility for our own collective self-fashioning, what Fanon called sociogeny; between, that is, the rejection of modern notions of sovereignty and the affirmation of human responsibility. I want to suggest that Pandolfo’s work is located in the middle of this tension.
Knot of the Soul plays out around two key figures of human life – the figure of jihad, struggle, and the figure of ibtila, ordeal. Jihad signifies struggle against the world and the self in order to transform them. It is both the ongoing grappling with ‘an internal enemy, impossible to eliminate, and in fact also necessary for life’ and also ‘a war against an external enemy’ the fight against the injustice and violence of the world which threatens to violently tear apart social bonds of care and solidarity. Ibtila, ordeal, calls instead for endurance and discernment; the ordeal ‘is not just what falls on us, what breaks our lives and hurls us into bereavement or disablement; it contains an address, the sign of a divine interpellation, even when we don’t understand its meaning.’ To struggle with the world but also to bear it; to resist violence and trauma but also to suffer them.
If the birth of modernity is characterised by the secularisation of theological concepts, including the transfer of characteristics previously attributed to God onto the figure of sovereign (white, wealthy, rational) Man, then the Copernican revolution of which psychoanalysis is a part signifies a second decentring of the world. Not only are human beings not the centre of the universe, Freud teaches us, but we are not even the centre of our own selves. For all that it might seem as though our minds revolve around our conscious intentions, for all that we might envision ourselves as prime movers of our own being, eppur si muove; we are in the hands of unconscious forces, endlessly locked in an ordeal in which we must endure what we is given to us, including our own selves. What does it mean, Pandolfo’s book asks, to struggle for a better world when we cannot control even that which is most intimately our own?
The book is marked by a commitment to kind and careful examination of madness, by an affirmation of Piera Aulagnier’s suggestion that sometimes, often, ‘people said to be crazy in the ordinary sense of the term, show us what it was necessary to do in order to survive’. It is significant, then, that the key moments when Pandolfo struggles to reconcile herself to her interlocutors’ ideas are those where she finds her belief in the crucial importance of revolutionary struggle to be at odds with that of the Imam (a Qur’anic scholar and healer, her most important interlocutor), for whom the Arab Spring is better understood not as faithful jihad, but as a refusal of ibtila. Like ‘people in the West’, too many of those around him ‘want to be the way they themselves want, but life, our life span, is decided by God. They end up clashing with the real … They are hit by reality; and in the end become sick.’ A similar conflict plays out too, in the theological debates Pandolfo describes between Kamal and Jawad, two young Moroccan men, who argue whether the decision to risk one’s life in the attempt to migrate illegally to Europe (l-harg, the burning), is better understood as the struggle for a better life for oneself and one’s family or as a failure of patience and endurance. What is at stake in this disagreement is not, for Kamal and Jawad, merely a question of tactical wisdom. Like the passage to Europe itself, the question of when to act, to struggle against the world, and when to endure, to bear with what is given to us, evokes ‘the sirāṭ, the traverse or narrow bridge over the chasm of Hell; the bridge thinner than a blade or a thread, which will widen up like a highway to let across the saved, or instead shrink like a blade to make the damned fall, pushed down into eternal fire.’
The buck stops with us; and to fully assume this responsibility Wynter says that we must come to sociogeny as a new object of knowledge, to learn how we are formed by the narrative principles which create the worlds we inhabit so that we might re-write them, tell different stories about our selves, introduce invention into existence. What Knot of the Soul suggests is that that task of knowing ourselves is endless; that to be human is to be constantly following the thread which ties our individual self to others, and to our cultural, linguistic and religious heritage. The ‘knot of the soul’ is the name that a mother Pandolfo speaks to gives to ‘a wound … the intertwining of her suffering with that of her son’; because what we are is the ways we have been broken by the world, the ways we struggle against and bear with that brokenness, the ways we inherit and transmit that brokenness. The buck stops with us; yet we are not ourselves but, as Lacan has it, that which is in us more than ourselves, that which is to be struggled against and endured, that which goes by the name of God, or the jinn; that which is nameless and unknown.