“The unbearable remains. It can never be overcome.” This is the reminder and unsettling warning of Knot of the Soul at a time of hubris and mass dispossession. In pursuing what it might mean to risk a relation to the incurable, the book also achieves what it calls a “contrastive proximity” between Islam and psychoanalysis, or “a possible conversation” between their terms. But calling it simply a “conversation” is quite the methodological understatement.
On the one hand, the story of modern Islam across multiple disciplines has for decades been organized by a figure of crisis survived or undergone: the disparate practices of contemporary Muslim life are what survive of Islam after colonialism, after the consolidation of the nation-state, after the demise of local community, after the codification of Islamic law, after the domestication of sufi charisma, after the globalization of the world. According to this utterly dominant academic historiography, Islam today is marked by historical rupture, and the task of social science is to account for the fate of Muslims in its wake.
On the other hand, psychoanalysis approaching postcolonial Islam works in a resolutely diagnostic mode. In Fethi Benslama’s paradigmatic (if frequently insightful) version of this analysis, the psychoanalyst reveals and redresses a traumatic caesura in the modern Muslim subject now bereft of the cultural institutions that once maintained the theological economy of the drives. In the absence of such institutions, only a “torment of origin” and mass despair remain. But conditions and oppositions internal to Islam allowed for this mutation, the psychoanalyst comments.
Knot of the Soul refuses both these powerful modes of writing Islam. Instead,
In dialogue with psychoanalysis and anthropology, as well as with Islamic theology and spiritual pedagogy, and from the particular context of Morocco today, the book asks, What are the ethical and political implications of such an engagement—which is also an engagement with human vulnerability and unreason, violence, and destruction—with the “non-temporal” and the scene of the soul? And what does it mean to pursue these questions in the vocabularies, imagination, and practices of a contemporary Islamic tradition, where they resonate within an ontology and a cosmology that grant a cardinal place to divine reality and discourse, and in dissonant encounter with psychoanalysis and psychiatry?
Instead of measuring the difference between classical and modern Islam or otherwise diagnosing its present, Knot of the Soul engages an intimate exteriority (Jacques Lacan’s extimité) through the singular lives of its interlocutors: among them Amina, whose psychic pain is transmuted into wandering voice, absent any witness save God; Reda, for whom literature provides space for the expression of his uncanny experience; Ilyas and Samia, whose paintings are imaginal presentations that disclose also the story of their shared life; Z, whose longing and intimacy opens onto the Quranic story of Yusuf as a means of reencountering past violence; Hind, whose song delivers a traumatic scene under gaze of the jinn; Hayyat, who seeks the capacity to struggle with the intractable, passionate jinn within her; Kamal and Jawad, who “burn” for Europe; and the Qur’an scholar referred to as ‘the Imam’, who leads Pandolfo through the shari‘a cures of the jinn and a living conception of the soul (nafs), its potentiality and passions.
Taken together, these lives also provide a very different answer to the question of inheritance. Where the social scientist seeks a line of continuity—a robust cultural institution to guarantee the integrity of the religion—Knot of the Soul reveals that interruption and ruin can themselves be modes of the life of tradition. The book follows Michel de Certeau among the “ruins of symbolic forms, exploring the possibility of transmission for a tradition uprooted from its system of reference . . . a possibility open at the very site of agony.” Pandolfo seeks to “outline a form of life and produce, by the same turn, a particular angle of vision.”
Reading Knot of the Soul as an ethnography of inheritance, of tradition at the cusp of experience, also clarifies the status of Islamic authorities in the book. Pandolfo refers to Ibn Kathir and Ibn Zakariyya al-Razi, Ibn Qayyim and Ghazali, Ibn Sina and Ibn Khaldun. These figures do not align in any conventional genealogy of the Islamic Revival. Nor does she argue (for example) that the Sufi imagination or Avicennan psychology she elaborates should establish a new paradigm for interpreting Moroccan Islam. A social scientist might here observe that the Muslims she writes about do not abide by a sectarian grid of intelligibility (Sufi or Salafi, traditionalist or modernist). But Pandolfo is unconcerned by what the social scientist would read as eclecticism or hybridity. Rather than referring to preexisting contexts (authorized through her scholarly imprimatur) to interpret a given situation, Knot of the Soul enters the singular lives of its characters for how they encounter what furrows them, and then seeks out a language adequate to it. For example, Pandolfo writes in part 2 of the book that “understanding what Ilyas means by ramz [cipher] and ta‘bir [figuration]” as he discusses his paintings “requires considering . . . an Islamic metaphysics of the image.” Or when Kamal and Jawad debate whether risking passage to Europe is suicidal despair or ethical striving, Pandolfo seeks to understand their theologico-political disagreement through modern reformist and revivalist Muslim thinkers—as well as classical ones, for the link between social critique and eschatological concerns is not limited to the Islamic Revival of the last century. Yet she also shows that the debate between Kamal and Jawad is not finally reducible to any of these frameworks, for it is also worked out in the immediacy of their own lives as they confront the limits of belonging and of faith.
Analysis that referred Islamic concepts to their “historical or cultural environments” would organize the ethnography through the tropes of rupture and continuity, where the ethnographer forensically accounts for the concepts’ remaining influence over modern life. In contrast, Pandolfo “wants to take [such concepts] into account for what they can elucidate, for the worlds they make possible, within and in spite of the gap of translation.” And she does so without valorizing their practices—the figural and exemplary, the imaginal and dramaturgical—as peripheral to orthodox Islam, starkly separating vernacular or popular practices from literate or scholastic ones (a habit making a return in anthropology). Instead, through her conversations with the Imam, she shows how tradition itself practices a pedagogy of imagination among the shrinking of life.
Knot of the Soul seeks its “possible conversation” with psychoanalysis through an ethnography of hospitalized madness, the imagination, and the jurisprudence of the soul. Engagement across these sites, Pandolfo writes, “requires admitting a subject whose freedom and finitude, responsibility and praxis, are articulated in relation to God, and who is simultaneously ethically active in relation to others in a community,” where the possibility of cure must be relinquished and the event of madness may be the disclosure of a divine address. This approach is no bourgeois psychology (she cites Lacan): madness presents radical vulnerability, the ontological insufficiency of the human. There, a dialogue of resonance and dissonance is possible, “if one cares to listen.”
This work leaves the reader acutely attuned to ambivalence, a lesson (if differently) of both psychoanalysis and of submission (islam) if there ever was one. “What if the heteronymous agency of the drive were seen from the perspective of Islamic eschatological ethics as having the structure of the ordeal?” The “ordeal” (ibtila’) is the event that “puts you to test,” through illness and adversity but also through health and success. It seizes you and addresses you, if you can hear it. The book teaches the ambivalence of desire, both necessary and dangerous; ambivalence of passage, at once potentiality and risk; ambivalence of the ordeal itself, for welcoming a divine trial does not give security against its ravages or its pain (though it can shift the coordinates of the real by providing for an ethical engagement with the incurable—opening a confrontation with the torment of life where one’s very existence is at stake).
And, ultimately, the book teaches the ambivalence of witness. Pandolfo finds an example for thinking testimony in Frantz Fanon, who recurs across different sites in the book when considering the thorough work of destruction. Mais la guerre continue, but the war goes on. Mais pouvons-nous échapper au vertige? Qui oserait prétendre que le vertige ne hante pas toute existence? But can we escape the vertigo? And who dares affirm that vertigo does not haunt each and every life? And of culture in agony, in the space of the unconscious: à la fois presente et momifiée, elle atteste contre ses membres, at once present and mummified, it testifies against its members. Such testimony is far from the longstanding conceit of “the anthropologist as witness,” however neutral or committed she may be. Instead such testimony participates in what Blanchot called “being as an impersonal field,” and in its ambivalence it is first turned against the witness-bearing subject. In Knot of the Soul such testimony is also revealed to be eschatological, for the Qur’an (e.g., 24:24) describes the vulnerable naked bodies of the risen—tongues, hands, feet—bearing witness against themselves, a condition of existence without solace or refuge that is withdrawn into the incommensurable alterity of God.
Rather than simply staging “a possible conversation” between Islam and psychoanalysis, then, the “particular angle of vision” crafted by this book demands that we reprise both the prevailing historiography of modern Islam and the secular immunity of psychoanalysis. Rather than recoursing to tropes of rupture and recuperation, or to a juridical notion of psychological autonomy, Knot of the Soul presents our own time as marked by a nontemporal “lapse” from whose outermost limit one can see life and death, repetition and interruption, the personal and collective together on the same plane. It echoes the work of the Imam, who “summons the afflicted to a temporality of the hereafter, a space of danger and reckoning, a space of trembling, where the illness of the soul may become a site of awakening, and of a reconfiguration of existence.” It is in that staggering vertigo that Knot of the Soul traces the encounter with the traumatic real.