Out of the long night

Stéphanie DurdillyCommunications and Editorial Support Officer of Humanitarian Alternatives
Rêves et cauchemars des personnes exilées Armando Cote et Jacky Roptin (dir.) Éditions Érès, coll. Centre Primo-Levi,2022 (published in French)

The Primo-Levi Centre – a multidisciplinary care and support centre for victims of torture and political violence – is behind the creation of an eponymous collection of works published by Érès and providing a forum for collective reflection, research and discussion on trauma-related issues.

Rêves et cauchemars des personnes exilées (Dreams and nightmares of the exiled) is a collective anthology, written by a multidisciplinary team of doctors, psychologists and social science researchers and which explores the theme of the nightmare in all of its meanings. This multi-pronged approach to nightmares is most certainly what makes the work interesting: if nightmares occur at night in the form of traumatic and recurring nocturnal dreams, they also take the form of Kafkaesque asylum-seeking procedures that draw the traumatising anguish of nocturnal nightmares into the reality of diurnal life. The book takes a polyphonic approach which is effective at showing how nightmares are not just something we experience when asleep, and its eloquent semantic allegory is interwoven throughout. While troubling at first (we might have expected a solely and already rich psychoanalytical approach), the metaphor ultimately politicises the entire collection of articles.

In the opening article, Michel Augier[1]Anthropologist, researcher at the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (Institut de recherche pour le développement) and director of studies at the School for Advanced … Continue reading invites the reader to deconstruct[2]Author’s italics.and examine the notion of “foreigner” using three cursors: a geographical cursor (“being more or less at home anywhere”), socio-legal cursor (“having more or less rights in any country”) and cultural cursor (“finding more or less cultural recognition anywhere in the world”). These cursors allow readers to position themselves in relation to the subjects of the book (the exiled) and begin to take stock of the hegemony of the western conception of who is (in its own eyes) a foreigner in the current global context. This shift in perspective is indispensable if one is to understand the issues presented in the pages that follow and the power relations at work in asylum-seeking procedures. It also begins to familiarise unaccustomed readers with the psychoanalytical notions of subjectivation, emergence and disappearance of a subject during a migratory journey.

In a subsequent article, neurologist and sleep specialist Isabelle Arnulf[3]Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital’s Sleep Disorders Clinic, Paris. Isabelle Arnulf is also a professor at the Sorbonne University, Paris. provides a clinical description of nightmares and presents a useful classification system for ­grasping their origin, their complexity, the diversity of related symptoms, the impact upon the present life of the subjects and the medical support available.

Aurélia Malhou, a lawyer at the Primo-Levi Centre, describes the process of supporting people in exile through the “nightmarish” asylum-seeking procedures referred to in her article’s title, and which she compellingly portrays through telling examples and figures.

The book continues, alternating contributions from practitioners (psychoanalysts and psychologists), substantiated by a great number of examples and patient “case studies” (in particular patients supported by the Primo-Levi Centre), and articles with a greater focus upon social science research and a perspective that is more global and political than individual. The diversity of fields of study covered gives readers a broad vision of the topic and insight into the complexity of thinking. Authors in turn cite and contradict based on current research Freud and Lacan, quote Foucault, explore the literature, exchange and develop ideas, listen, share first-hand accounts and admit to not knowing everything. The work offers an extremely rich debate, a discussion between passionate specialists, concerned about the subjects that they care about. It is unfortunate that by the end of what comes across as more of an overview readers have not been brought deeper into the topic. But maybe this was the book’s intention? It is nonetheless a ­relevant broad sweep of an extensive issue, still only in the nascent stages of exploration by medicine and social science. Once informed by this first collection, it befalls readers to keep looking elsewhere and to delve deeper. They may then hear the voices of those directly concerned, which are painfully absent here.

Translated from the French by Naomi Walker

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1 Anthropologist, researcher at the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (Institut de recherche pour le développement) and director of studies at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (École des hautes études en sciences sociales – EHESS).
2 Author’s italics.
3 Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital’s Sleep Disorders Clinic, Paris. Isabelle Arnulf is also a professor at the Sorbonne University, Paris.

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