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From Totem to Art: Religious Symbols, Subjective Change, and the Limits of Psychosis

Updated: Jun 13, 2019

(Conversions Cartel 2)


This was composed as my opening response for the second meeting of Conversions Cartel for the 2018 series, “Healing, Demise, and their Concurrence,” where we discussed Part 2 of Stefania Pandolfo’s Knot of the Soul: Madness, Psychoanalysis, Islam.


I envision this contribution as, at once, a loose engagement with Pandolfo’s chapter, “Ta’bir: Figuration and the Torment of Life” and a citational collage developed around it. Of course, I also had in mind questions that emerged in our collective discussion of the first part of Pandolfo’s book. Among others, some were about the different kinds of healing that shrines and mental hospitals might facilitate, questions of anthropological and psychoanalytic methods (at what points they might converge or diverge), and questions about the author’s notion of “the cure.” – rhr


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"[I]t is not just a matter of referring concepts back to their historical or cultural environments. I want to take them into account for what they can elucidate, for the worlds they make possible, within and in spite of the gap of translation. To ask about the status of the images in Ilyas’s painting amounts to asking about their activity, agency, and effectiveness, their relation to trauma and psychosis, their bearing on the possibility of being, and (stressed in Ilyas’s own reading) their relation to the manifestation of a divine gaze" (Pandolfo 174).

A French sign leading to the apartment of Pandolfo’s interlocutor, Ilyas, reads “Ilyas danger,” which could be read as a kind of appositive equating Ilyas with danger, as much as it could be read as a statement of warning, something like “there is danger” or “there you have risk.” Like the paintings Ilyas makes in moments of psychotic unraveling and breakdown – what he refers to as a hāla or “state” – the sign outside his living space suggests a dense symbolic knot involving multiple concurrent meanings on various registers. To draw upon a parallel made by Pandolfo, perhaps the sign inscribes at once, an acknowledgement of or an “encounter” with illness as well as “a kind of cure.” The majority of Pandolfo’s chapter attends to the knots of meanings presented in Ilyas’s paintings, the interpretations he and his partner Samia (who also struggles with periods of depletion and unraveling) provide for the paintings, as well as their memories and experiences of periods of illness.


As part of Pandolfo’s relation of a painting Ilyas made of a serpent, she draws, in part, upon Ilyas’s own interpretation of the image – he claims that his snake was not the same as the cobra of the classical Islamic ordeal of the “torment of the grave” (‘adhāb al-qabr) because it had horns, etc. Here, Pandolfo follows a similar argument to the one made in the selection with which I opened this response:

"Ilyas’s snake straddles the borders of a recognizable symbol within a cultural or religious tradition. Its emergence undoes the coherence of the cosmos, disconnects the faithful, and sets him adrift from the community of trust in which he can belong" (149).

Pandolfo develops anthropological and psychoanalytically-informed interpretations, that relate symbols to individual experiences, which, of course, do not occur outside broader cultural or religious symbolic constellations. I want to argue that Pandolfo’s work with the question of religious symbolism is part of her broader attempt to bring a different account of the subject (the soul) into anthropology.


Early anthropological touchstones for religious symbolism were developed, perhaps most prominently, around the totem – a natural entity (an animal, plant, etc.) that a clan collectively identified with. In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), the early twentieth century French anthropologist Émile Durkheim saw in the totem a religious symbol, and argued that totemism was the basis for all religion. The term, initially discussed by anthropologists in Ojibwe and Algonquin contexts, had general anthropological usage by the time of Durkheim’s Elementary Forms. While Durkheim held out room for the existence of individual totems, he downplayed their significance by suggesting, in part, that not all tribes had them. Nevertheless, the totem stood as the most important religious symbol – the totem was, first a foremost, “a symbol, a tangible expression of something else,” and, for Durkheim, the "something else" was clearly society. The ways in which totemism entailed society’s symbolization “of itself to itself,” was, like Pandolfo’s symbol, not merely a question of meaning, but also a question of sentiment and affect, captured by Durkheim in terms like “contagion” and “collective effervescence.”


While Durkheim’s well-known argument is plagued both by empirical and interpretive problems, and while the general construct of totemism was critiqued by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (in Totemism, 1963), the idea that religious symbols are inherently social and collective still has broad currency. Pandolfo is certainly not the first anthropologist to deal with questions of personal religious symbols – later in this series, we will also see Gananath Obeyesekere’s ideas about the development of personal religious symbols in Medusa’s Hair, where such symbols also develop in intersections between the religious, the traumatic, and the ordeal. However, Pandolfo does engage the symbolic in ways that provide analytical openings:

"In its aftermath, the fresco of the Snake can only be read – by a witness who is no longer in the event – as is the text of a dream upon awakening. Yet any simple notion of the hermeneutic deciphering or symbolic interpretation fails to appreciate the nature of those images, their persistent energetic quality as ‘emergent’ forces. Its status as an image is what Ibn ‘Arabi calls an ‘imaginal presentation.’ It is a ‘shape’ that makes visible, in a sensible form, in Ilyas’s words, ‘the form of a human being imprisoned in life’ (bḥal shkil masjūn, shī insān masjūn fī l-ḥyāt). A form that is also, by the same turn, an effective manifestation of the power of God.
"Understanding Ilyas’s explanation of the figural logic of the paintings calls for a different philosophy of the image, one that is not confined to a concern with representation, but instead is capable of grasping the image’s fundamental relationship with divine self-disclosure. Only from this angle is it possible to apprehend how, for Ilyas, the painting of the Serpent can become the transformative stage of an actual confrontation where the coordinates of the subject’s position in the world can be reordered through a passage through madness" (168).

Pandolfo presents Ilyas’s production of images on walls when he is in his hāla (“state”) as both a source of encounter with illness and as a refuge – “In the shade of the serpent he could finally sleep.” Whether we think of Ilyas’s image-making as “art,” “ritual,” or use other categories to talk about it (Conversions Cartel participants raised the problem of whether or not we should consider Ilyas’s image making in states of psychic turmoil as “art”), it is clear that Ilyas’s image-making involves materialization and encounter with his illness – a point at which the symptom and the cure seem to be aligned.


And, in fact, Pandolfo’s broader inquiry into madness and artistic production is part of a broader conversation. For instance, in her recent book Incandescent Alphabets: Psychosis and the Enigma of Language (2016), Annie Rogers includes a chapter entitled “Hallucinated bodies: art and its alphabets in psychosis,” where she engages with paintings and drawings composed mostly by people who resided in psychiatric hospitals. Her writing resonates with Pandolfo’s when she reflects on a drawing by Aloïse Corbaz, a diagnosed schizophrenic who died at La Rosière asylum at the age of 78:

"This is a bodily experience in which the ‘I’ becomes vast, as the body is remoulded to support a new universe or a new humanity. Religious motifs put to some idiosyncratic use no longer belong to collective belief, but are part of the artist’s singular vision" (55).

Rogers invites readers to consider the possibility of whether contemporary medical treatments of psychosis might limit artistic production or about how the art world has appropriated and imitated “psychotic art.”


Though her interpretive mode differs from that of Rogers and Pandolfo, in her case study entitled In the Hands of the Living God (1969), the psychoanalyst Marian Milner discussed a 20 year-long treatment of a patient, Susan, who enjoys drawing and interpreting her doodles as part of the analytic process. Susan’s doodles, too, frequently take up Christian repertories (virgin, devil, chalice, cross…).


In tracking different interpretations of religious symbolic engagement – from totemism to psychotic art – I’m left to wonder what kinds of expediency the image-making discussed by authors like Pandolfo and Rogers has outside the spheres of madness and psychosis. In other words, might one general way to think about "religion" be as a domain that offers symbolic repertories, open to various re-toolings, re-makings, functions, and potentials – pathways for transformation – not only a representationally interpretable symptom (something like Durkheim’s totem as “a symbol, a tangible expression of something else”), but also as a not-totally-resolvable knot that has something to do with how one enjoys (what psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan called the sinthome, in his later work)?

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