Forms and figures of modern psychomachy, 20th-21st century (Montpellier)

Call for papers for a study day

Forms and figures of modern psychomachy (XX-XXI century)

“Literature and New Media”

May 15, 2023, St-Charles site of the University of Montpellier 3

We readily observe, through various contemporary media, this recurring pattern of a figurative representation of mental life, taking place in the spatialized mind of the protagonists: we find it in the cinema ( Being John Malkovich, by Spike Jonze, 1999) where a closet door takes us into the thoughts of the eponymous “character”; we find it in the series where it abounds, whether it is, among others, the famous “Black Lodge” of Twin Peaks (David Lynch, 1991), from the episode “International assassin” of season 2 of The Leftovers (Damon Lindelof, 2015), where the character, suspended between life and death by a sort of voodoo sorcerer, finds himself mentally transported to a hotel to shoot down the image of his nemesis or even of Legion (Noah Hawley, 2017), which places us inside the head of a protagonist suffering from demonic possession reimagined as multiple personality disorder; it is finally found in video games, for example in the “Wabbajack” episode of the Mind of Madness quest by The Elder Scrolls V: SkyrimBethseda, 2012), in which the hero heals the soul of another character by slipping into his dreams to overcome his paranoia, his night terrors and his fits of anger.

The hypothesis of this study day is that the description and analysis of such a scheme would benefit from being brought back to the ancient notion of psychomachy – generally translated as a battle of the soul taking place in it or – to put it another way – that such representations can be thought of as an evolution of this notion.

If the term “psychomachy” is more particularly associated with the work of Prudence (4th century) which depicts the epic confrontation of vices and virtues in the allegorical form of Christian and pagan figures, the success that this has encountered in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance almost gives it the status of a genre or a subgenre, in particular through its association with the theater of the “Mysteries”, where angels and demons frequently fight for the dead soul , and more particularly still, with the genre of the allegorical dream. We think in particular of theHypnerotomachia Poliphili by Francisco Colonna (1533) which refers to it in its title, and which narrates the amorous and metaphysical initiatory journey of a sleeper through an architectural and allegorical mental space. It is also not uncommon to find analyzes that associate psychomachy with Dante’s Divine Comedy or even the Elizabethan theatre.

Psychomachy, in this generic sense, could also characterize a certain number of dreamlike or visionary modern works, in which the spirit deploys its own space and its own spectacle, Oven Zoas from Blake, whose mythological figures are both mental faculties and ideological postures, to the Songs of MaldororPassing by Aurelia without forgetting the “mental epics” that constitute the second Faust, Peer Gynt or The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Flaubert. Formally, they establish, in the sense of the theories of fiction, a “secondary world” which can dispense with a primary world (this is the case with Blake) or, on the contrary, reveal a structure made up of both continuities and contrasts with this primary world that range from the simple admission of a dreamlike experience (Alice in Wonderland) or visionary to a more developed parallelism (in the second part of theHypnerotomachiaor in The Songs of Maldoror).

Naturally, such representations are destined to evolve with the conceptions we have of the mind, the soul, dreams, visions, sudden or provoked hallucinations, near-death experiences, so many states of modified consciousness, pathological or not, which naturally favor their appearance and constitute, so to speak, their natural environment. In his History of Madness in the Classical Age, Foucault thus remarks that if Madness did not appear in the Psychomachie of Prudence and its derivatives, on the other hand from the 13th century, “it is common to see it appear among the bad soldiers of Psychomachy”. One could add that the association operated between mental disorders and moral questions, on the one hand, and oneiroid models in the broad sense, on the other hand, remains in various forms a cultural constant. James Hillman, in Healing Fiction (1998) uses the term psychomachy precisely to define the Freudian and Adlerian “intrigues”, in which the dreaming or sick psyche thinks of itself on the model of a “conflict” between the different topical instances – id, ego and superego – constituting the subject, even if such a war is of course less epic and frontal than made up of “symbolizations, defenses, disguises, reaction formations, coded messages and censorship”. If Jung disputes Freudian conceptions in part about the univocal nature of such a plot, his own conceptions of the process of individuation, and his method of “active imagination” are powerful producers of psychomachy, as evidenced by his own red book, or even the hallucinatory episode – written in the wake of a Jungian psychoanalysis – of the “magic theatre” in The Steppe Wolf (1927) by Herman Hesse, which figures to the point of vertigo the internal multiplicity that constitutes the subject. It would be necessary to add to these references another, more foreign and distant, but since appropriated and declined by Western culture (precisely by Jung, among others): that of Tibetan Book of the Deadwhich takes the deceased subject through a whole imaginary world of opponents and helpers.

Of course, we are in this modern and contemporary setting far from the supposed axiological and ideological univocity of Prudential allegory or medieval dreams. Philippe Dufour in The novel is a dream (2010) precisely tells a story of the novel according to the progressive detachment of this allegorical model, in favor of the aporetic complexities and contradictions of human psychology. One could also evoke the uncertainty, even the opacity that characterizes collections of decontextualized dream stories, such as those by Perec (La boutique obscure, 1972) or Burroughs (Mon éducation, 1984), which certainly do not lack combat scenes, or more broadly bear witness to both individual and social oppositions, but fiercely refuse to interpret them.

This opacity can also be explained by the fact that such structures of opposition are not simply to be considered as a conflict between clearly defined images. The articles that Georges Didi-Hubermann devotes to “psychomachy” as it is used and understood by Aby Warburg, suggest that such images are also, each and in themselves, as well as in their mutual relations in the cultural field , dynamic battlefields between opposing forces, sites of constant tension between coherence and chaos.

It is therefore the bet of this study day that such a “psychomachic” tradition, rethought in the context of “psychic conflict”, can by its very plasticity contribute to enlightening these figural representations of mental life in the 20th and 21st centuries. century and the imaginal space that is specific to them, whether in the fields of literary fiction, dream narrative, testimonies on pathology (if the Memoirs of a Neuropath by Paul Daniel Schreber are not a psychomachy, what is?) of the theater (The dream of Strindberg, for example), comics, cinema, series or video games. All specialists in these fields will obviously be welcome.

It will be held on May 15, 2023 at the site St-Charles from the University of Montpellier 3.

Paper proposals should be sent to in the form of a one-page project, accompanied by a short bio-bibliographic notice, by December 15, 2022. A response will be given before the end of the calendar year.

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Forms and figures of modern psychomachy, 20th-21st century (Montpellier)

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