The Schizo and the City: Jacques Besse’s La Grande Pâque (AAG paper draft)

This is a draft of the paper I will be presenting in a few weeks at the AAG. It represents a translation project that I am currently polishing, a sliver of much more intensive translation work related to CERFI and the journal Recherches, as well as some writing more related to my dissertation (I actually just submitted an article on that work last week). The adjunct teaching load has been HEAVY but I’m happy that I’ve been able to get some of this work done too.

The Schizo and the City: Jacques Besse’s La Grande Pâque

“Seek the poet, not the patient, behind the words”
– Jacques Besse


This paper is the product of my setting myself a deadline for completing a draft translation of Besse’s novella. The book itself is not long – about 21,000 words – but the language is strange and poetic. However, once I completed that task, I realized that presenting the work would be a different kind of challenge. The angle I have taken might best be described as an attempt to write a translator’s preface, wherein the translator’s motives are double. First, I am trying to direct people’s attention to this “forgotten writer” (Dussert 2013) by highlighting both his biography and rendering his work accurately. This impulse is directed toward filling in a historical gap and providing more people with the opportunity to experience the novella. Second, and perhaps of more interest for academic audiences, his life and work were also drawn into Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophical system, which is something that my primary research agenda both investigates and strives to transform into ontology for critical urban inquiry. This motive is different from the first because it is strategic. I discuss this more at the end of the essay but, in short, Besse’s account of Paris illuminates the position of the artificer as an interface between tumultuous flows of desire and their surrounding environment. In Besse’s case, he creates words and affects, but in my own work, I am thinking about those other creators: designers, developers, policymakers and so forth, who shape urban environments. Therefore, this paper is a product of those two impulses, and contains biography, excerpts of translations, connections to Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy, and references to my own primary work.

Deleuze and Guattari (and Besse)
In Anti-Oedipus – their first coauthored book – Deleuze and Guattari (1983, 87) write:

In a great book by Jacques Besse, we encounter once again the double stroll of the schizo, the geographic exterior voyage following nondecomposable distances, and the interior historical voyage enveloping intensities: Christopher Columbus calms his mutinous crew and becomes admiral again only by simulating a (false) admiral who is simulating a whore who is dancing.

The great book here is La Grande Pâque, a beautiful novella that chronicles Besse’s experiences of the Parisian streets over the long Easter weekend of 1960. The schizo on a walk – a figure of great importance in Anti-Oedipus – is a model for what they call desiring-machines. He moves about in physical space, breathing fresh air, perpetually connecting and disconnecting with the world around him, while simultaneously constantly producing internally. On the first page of their book, Deleuze and Guattari make an ontological claim – “Everywhere it is machines – real ones, not figurative ones…” – and for them, no one better expresses this better than the schizo, the “universal producer” (1983, 7).

Besse is by no means the only example of the schizo on a walk that Deleuze and Guattari reference – they also mention characters in Buchner and in Beckett – but he nevertheless occupies a unique position for at least two reasons. First, he is the protagonist of his own work, but second – and more importantly – he was a patient of Guattari’s at the La Borde psychiatric hospital from 1955 to 1999 (Besse actually outlived Guattari, who succumbed to a heart attack in 1992). While his influence on Deleuze and Guattari’s thought may not have been more important than these other literary figures, it is nevertheless safe to say that it was at least more direct, and this, I believe, reason enough to devote some time to both his biography and his work.

Jacques Besse was born in 1921 in southern France and was a successful philosophy student who attended Jean-Paul Sartre’s lectures, although his studies were interrupted by World War II. After the war, he had some success as a composer for both the stage and the screen: in 1943 he became the musical director of the Charles Dullin Company, where he composed the music for Sartre’s play Les Mouches (“The Flies”), and he also wrote the score for Alain Resnais’s 1947 short film, Van Gogh, Yves Allégret’s 1948 film Dédée d’Anvers, and Marcel Blistène’s 1951 film, Bibi Fricotin. As a supporter of Algerian Independence, he visited the country in 1950 and evidently walked back to Paris alone, before his life collapsed (Dosse 2010, 48). He spent the next five years “bounc[ing] between prisons and psychiatric hospitals,” (Ibid.) before Guattari and Jean Oury brought him to La Borde.

La Borde is nothing if not a heterotopia – to borrow Foucault’s coinage for a realized utopia, a place that is both set apart and still connected to the “rest” of society, and which has its own specific function and rites of passage. It was a nineteenth-century chateau set in the bucolic Sologne region of north-central France. Central to its treatment was upending the traditional psychiatric approach of isolating psychotic patients and instead mixing them with the staff and interns, of which there were many. François Dosse (2010) – upon whom I am drawing this account – has provided an excellent history of the clinic and its relationship to the St. Alban clinic farther south, in Lozère, in his biography of Deleuze and Guattari, but the main point I want to highlight here is that St. Alban was, during World War II, home to resistance fighters, conscientious objectors, as well as François Tosquelles, a Trotskyist militant and the psychiatrist who had fled Franco’s fascist Spain. This combination of radical politics and psychiatry led to treatment in the form of “geopsychiatry,” which sought to integrate patients with the local community. After the war, in 1947, Oury went to St. Alban to train, and stayed until 1949, when he was asked to take over a small clinic at Saumery, near Sologne, where he imported this model of treatment. Facing institutional barriers to expanding the clinic, he bought the dilapidated La Borde chateau in 1953, and took his staff and patients with him to develop his own practice.

Dosse (2010, 44) relays the three guiding principles of La Borde: management by democratic centralism, a communist utopian organization of intellectual and manual labor for all staff, and an antibureaucratic communitarianism that organized daily tasks and salaries. Guattari – who had been a high school student of Oury’s older brother Fernand – had met Oury before the latter went to train at St. Alban, and had chosen to study psychoanalysis under Lacan after visiting him Lozère. After opening La Borde, Oury invited Guattari to come work with him; Guattari accepted and moved to the clinic in 1955.

It was in this environment that Besse could flourish in his own way, particularly through participating in cultural evenings. Agnès Bertomeu (2013, 148), a psychologist and linguist who practiced La Borde and participated in its cultural and social life, recalls singing Besse’s songs in the choir while Besse – whom she calls an “exceptional composer” – accompanied them on the piano. Besse also wrote the play Exotique Occident (The Exotic West) which was produced at La Borde and published in Recherches, the journal that Guattari had created to disseminate the transdisciplinary work from the Federation of Study Groups and Institutional Research (FGERI), which he created in 1965. Besse also published poetry, music theory, and a short story – in homage to the legendary polymath Boris Vian – that scrambles the line between political satire and science fiction – in Recherches, and authored a radio drama that I have yet to track down. As Dosse (2010, 48) notes, Besse took advantage of La Borde’s openness, and

often wanted to leave the clinic to walk around Paris to draw inspiration…Guattari would give him a five-hundred-franc bill whenever he went to take a stroll; Besse would spend the money on alcohol and once was committed to the psychiatric hospital at Ville-Evrard, after which he was brought back to La Borde.

La Grande Pâque is a testament to these sorts of wanderings, or what Besse calls a déambulation (which translates as a walk without a precise goal, a stroll). In his book of portraits of forgotten writers, Éric Dussert likens the book to a road movie, and calls it a record of the “timeless [in the sense that it is occurring outside of time] and poignant dérive of a man who is alone and penniless during a long weekend” (Dussert 2013, 525, my translation). It is filled with references to specific locations in Paris, which if mapped, would appear as a rhizomatic scribble across the Seine, from the Luxembourg Gardens up to Les Halles, then extending as far Northeast as the Parc des Buttes-Chaumount and Southeast to the Chevalaret Metro Station. As Dussert notes, the book opens in such a way that one is struck by the anxiety of the narrator: “he has something to tell us about and he wants to do it quickly” (Ibid). Besse writes:

I had to leave rue de Turbigo on April 17, 1960. I set out for my brother’s place – he is the manager of a building toward the Paramount and had respectfully agreed to loan me 200 francs for the Easter holiday. With a few days of hunger behind me, my nerves were especially bad. My attic room had become unspeakable – and the concierge too, who insulted me on the staircase. The vulgar howling rarely stopped; it was almost impossible to find a rhythm. The house shook on its foundations, with at least two floors playing out a terrorist attack.

This velocity continues throughout much of the book, but it is also interspersed with moments of extreme deceleration, which often gives way to reverie. Besse’s work recalls Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion in A Thousand Plateaus of the book-as-rhizome, in particular the passage where they say that Kleist invented this type of writing:

The ideal for a book would be to lay everything out on a plane of exteriority of this kind, on a single page, the same sheet: lived events, historical determinations, concepts, individuals, groups, social formations. Kleist invented a writing of this type, a broken chain of affects and variable speeds, with accelerations and transformations, always in a relation with the outside (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 9).

It is worth noting that Besse’s decelerations frequently occur in relation to poetry or music – two forms of art that seem to have the capacity to hold his attention for a significant amount of time – although he always almost instantaneously swings back into action. For example, he writes of one particular encounter during his wandering:
At noon I met a young stranger from Toulouse who told me his name was Bernac. We did not speak to one another much. The air began to warm. Yet, I learned that he – being from Toulouse – had a certain sense of mythic poetry about him. I believed that we had suddenly fallen into intimate harmony. He had no money so I gave him three or four thousand francs…then I quietly discovered that we were the Count of Toulouse and the Prince of Baux. The church was glowing. As is necessary at noon, he told me that he needed a bite to eat. In my room on rue de Turbigo, I peacefully showed him some verses. I was still supported. He left and all of a sudden I became obsessed with being in a woman’s presence.

The peace that accompanies Besse’s sharing of poetry with Bernac is indeed short, but this is the second time in the first three pages of the novella that his anxiety decreases (the first time is when foresees his suicide in a newspaper and realizes that it will reduce the craziness of an unspecified group). The support that he receives from sharing his verses with Bernac is evidently key to freeing him from his consistent anxiety about falling from the artistic world, which is a refrain that reappears through the book as members of the public allegedly recognize him – even in his tattered trench coat – or as he sees, or hallucinates, former friends and acquaintances.

Moreover, this passage also expresses his constant references to history and mythology, with his mention of medieval political powers: the Count of Toulouse and the House of Baux. This too resonates with Deleuze and Guattari’s assertion that schizophrenia is in fact universal production – that is, uncontained desire that has been influenced by the entire sociopolitical state of affairs, rather than Freud’s oedipalization that only sees desire as being organized within the family. Referring to Freud’s famous (mis)reading of Judge Schreber’s delirious memoirs, Deleuze and Guattari (1983, 89) write, “All paranoiac deliriums stir up similar historical, geographic, and racial masses.” Their point is that desire is influenced by the entire weight of history and geography. Besse illustrates this tendency beautifully and continuously makes these leaps far beyond his own corporeal time and space. My point here is that Besse is an especially important case because he is explicit about his triggers, which litter the urban landscape.

A little later in the book, after a night of hunger and wandering, he manages to sleep for half an hour back in his apartment on rue de Turbigo under the pretext of picking up some of his belongings, but he quickly heads back out toward Buttes-Chaumont, where he thinks he is recognized by a little girl, hears his named used as a general concept for a crazy person, is hassled by a police officer for sitting on a bench, and thrown out of a café for asking for a glass of water. His anxiety is finally tempered after finding water at another café, before he embarks on an approximately 4 mile déambulation that is as much an intensive journey as it is an extensive one. I quote him at length:

I head toward the canal and I love life madly. And I call one of my women again. It is Rofo who appears. She is afraid of me and laughs suspiciously. Maybe she’s the “main mistress” of the guy coming to hurt me? I do not understand anything about mankind anymore.

But the Saint-Martin canal is sublime in the light of the afternoon. I keep going, I forget everything. The mountains – they are far away. Linking up with rue la Fayette, falling toward the center of the city, and we’ll see…
Under its straight sky, this is the only street in Paris that resembles New York. I hurtle toward the Paris Opera. Two minutes later, anguish overcomes me. I find my lucidity again. Where am I going, what did I do? I am very unhappy, I go right through rolling destinies that would make me kneel in the street if I succumbed to their hypnosis. The street is straight and I also go straight ahead – so much for the walls that love me and await my genuflection. I hope that bastard of café manager will have some problems. In the heat, I turn into Faubourg-Montmartre and wonder how to find my Saint-Germain-des-Prés again. […]

I enter Singe-de-Prés like a wet towel…but hang me if this fever in my heart is wrong. I bury myself in the streets to the south of the Seine. Quartier des Beaux Arts. Not a franc. I am terribly thirsty and dead broke. By chance, I run into an old friend. He is bourgeois but a good artist. “Hello, you wouldn’t happen to have a hundred francs, would you?” He’s scared, the bastard, but he hands me the dough. I have a hundred francs and pleasantly look for a bar.
Skipping all pleasantries, I grab a small beer. Oh my body! I drink it in a swig and marvel philosophically at the formidable coolness that grows in the depths of my entrails. I go out to the boulevard Saint-Germain. It is 1:15 pm in Paris.

Here, we experience large swaths of Paris at an incredible velocity – Besse is the anti-flâneur, moving at speeds approaching that of thought rather than that of one walking a tortoise on leash, as Benjamin famously relates in his discussion of the gentleman stroller in The Arcades Project (1999). Unquestionably situated in the specific geography of central Paris, the space of Besse’s thoughts and passions reach out externally to the mountains (300 miles away) and across the Atlantic, but also internally to the depths of his anguish and of his entrails. Again, it is precisely this incessant production that couples up with the external world while simultaneously generating new sensations and new thoughts that is the model for Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of desiring-production.

Implications for critical urban inquiry?
But what, if anything, can we learn from Besse’s account or from the way that Deleuze and Guattari read it? My primary research interest has to date been to understand how Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophical framework relates to the majoritarian line of critical urban inquiry, which I take as coming down to us via Lefebvre, by way Harvey, Castells, and more recent works by scholars such as Jamie Peck and Neil Brenner. My general stance is that this line has led to a focus on political economy that dominates all other forces behind the production of urban environments. This is not at all to say that political economy is not a crucial force, but is rather to say that there is a variety – or a multiplicity, to use Deleuze and Guattari’s language – of forces driving urbanization. Through a lengthy study of the redevelopment of the South Lake Union neighborhood in Seattle from a mostly sleepy warehouse and small retail district into an information technology, global health, and biotechnology hub, I discovered that there were at least three types of forces behind the way the neighborhood changed: political economy, ethics, and aesthetics. But after reading and translating Besse as an illustration of, not to mention an inspiration for, how Deleuze and Guattari understand the relationships between our experiences and our environments, I am forced to ask myself whether the aesthetic realm – taken not to mean beauty but rather in the Greek sense of the word of aesthēsis, or the general perception of something through all the bodily senses – might in fact be the rightful point of departure for studying urbanization.

This question is not without precedent. For example, David Hume, who was a huge influence on Deleuze, insisted that our sense of morality was based on our perceptions, and that all motivations stemmed from sentiments, rather than rationality, while the contemporary affect theorists Brian Massumi (the English translator of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus) make similar arguments and also point to the ways that the current era of neoliberalization has greatly influenced our sentiments. My question, then, is this: could Besse’s account of Paris be a model for understanding the motivations of the individuals driving the urbanization process? If one could sit the developers, the designers, and the policymakers down, and somehow access how their creative actions correspond to the intersections between their desires and the surrounding landscape, would we have a better idea about what causes them to effect the changes that they do upon it? This is precisely what Deleuze and Guattari call the first task of schizoanalysis – that is, digging through the channels through which one’s desires have been constrained, and striving to understand where they might flow if allowed. Besse’s work is a monumental testament to where his desires are invested and how they are modulated; they cover the political, the economic (at one point he calls the Paris stock exchange an “atrocious temple”), the religious, the mythical, the ethical, and the beautiful. By way of conclusion, after soaking in Besse’s thoughts, I cannot help to wonder what might our built environments look like if their producers could bracket their training and responsibilities, and try to engage with places in a way similar to our antiheroic schizo, Besse, who writes:

The Chevalaret station is also calm. It is the desert, the desert rebuilt in the middle of one of the biggest cities on earth. The silent arches supporting the overhead tracks are like fossils from a vanished civilization. And there are no longer any hotels around. Wait, I see one, barely illuminated in blue. I am suddenly taken by desire – it’s crazy. These desires caused by hunger interrupt my thoughts like blades cutting through straw. Where is the moon? Oh, yes, the boulevard does not really have – uh, yes it does…my footsteps go over it again and suddenly: the noise from the soles of my shoes on the asphalt, and the Chevaleret station, and a clean and normal train that rushes through the nocturnal agora. Two travelers are coming down to lose themselves in a wonderful paradise! A single flat note from a detuned flute comes from the Seine. Quick, return to the Seine and something that resembles geography.

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3 Responses to The Schizo and the City: Jacques Besse’s La Grande Pâque (AAG paper draft)

  1. dmf says:

    ” If one could sit the developers, the designers, and the policymakers down, and somehow access how their creative actions correspond to the intersections between their desires and the surrounding landscape, would we have a better idea about what causes them to effect the changes that they do upon it? ”
    is this really a mystery, in my various meetings with such folks they seem pretty transparent in their agendas and their shortsightedness.

    • Keith Harris says:

      agreed, but i think that sometimes that shortsightedness might have to do with their roles as professionals rather than their own personal investments in the worlds they are building, as if the routes they have taken are the only ones available to engaging with the places that move them. it’s something i experienced as a professional coming up against the actual mechanics of urbanization and something i see in students who want to build worlds but are frustrated by the realities/parameters of that process. it’s something like a crisis of imagination around how someone can engage with the environment, the willingness to be ‘captured’ so that one can participate, or the fear of extracting oneself from the industry as it stands that i’m trying to get at.

      • dmf says:

        I guess, not sure it’s more (or less) complicated than the market forces (who to work for, what sells, etc) and how increasingly dependent cities are on developers (rather than taxing the rich for real infrastructure development ) and some version or another of the delusions of trickledown economics and technocratic solutionism (as Evgeny Morozov calls it).

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