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I, Little AsylumReview - I, Little Asylum
by Emmanuelle Guattari
Semiotext(e), 2014
Review by Kristen A. Schmidt, MD
Aug 4th 2015 (Volume 19, Issue 32)

Such a title, three lovely, lilting words, lingers like a child's soon forgotten lullaby. A comma so delicately placed offers a polite pardon for the "I" while simultaneously creating a distinct space or asylum for the individual syntactically. Wedged between this specious paradox is something not yet grown, at once looking behind itself towards its shadow of subjectivity and ahead into the realm of being among others. Like its title, this novel delicately explores the tension between a world that was and is becoming through the gossamer lens of a young girl's experience of childhood's senescence at the psychiatric clinic of La Borde.

The novel is divided into two distinct books, demonstrating demarcations between thematic dichotomies explored by Guattari.  These include conceptions of before vs. after, childhood vs. adulthood, the natural world vs. man-made modernity as well as the individual's identity challenge among the collective.  Manou, our protagonist, narrates her vision in a way consistent with positive identification with all of the former categories in Book I. 

In the first four lines of chapter I entitled, My Brother, growing large is associated with death. Her brother warns that her tonsils may become "bigger and bigger until you die." Manou's apposite smallness is quickly demonstrated by her following the authority of her brother's demands and nearly drowning under water for five franc's promise. In so doing, she quashes her individual instinct to avoid the water in order to surrender to the wishes of her elder and affirm the utilitarian value of the collective represented by monetary gain. The fact that she nearly dies implies a not so subtle peril associated with an individual's surrender to the collective. 

The following chapter explores the relationship between the natural world and modernity. Nature's surrender to modern evolution is assumed in the unlikely figure of a pet African monkey Boubou. Boubou is initially introduced as a frail little creature that is so unknowing in its youth it supposes a human male to be its mother. Along with the chain around its neck, the creature collects a name and sex, as Manou points out "it" is a "she." The natural world soon becomes domesticated as Boubou swiftly grows quite fat, a fact repeated by the narrator within the slim chapter. After growing fat (growing up), Boubou leaves the home like any well-developed child and escapes the asylum of her perceived mother's place. Interestingly, the monkey goes back to the home preserved by memory and her natural instinct. We are told in a tone of indifference that she is found dead in a tree. The author observes that the chain (that linked her to humanity) remains in place. Despite growing up, Boubou carries a reminder of two childhood's past: her own nature and man's attempt to substitute itself as a surrogate modern mother.

It seems curious and worth pondering that Guattari leads us through Manou's precarious swimming lessons and the death of a chained monkey before we glimpse the residents and walls of La Borde in Chapter 3. Needless to say, within these walls, we observe Manou's efforts to comprehend the difference between the residents and children of La Borde. Ultimately, she admits that the distinction can only be learned. She recognizes the residents as other by extracting herself from home and attending pre-school, a social intermediary. Despite this knowledge, however, she reports that in the eyes of the children, these Madmen were grown up, and thus received the same recognition as adults with authority and strength. Therefore, to Manou, the distinction between child (not grown) and adult (grown) supercedes the distinction of sane and mad. In her world, authority is conferred by physicality and strength. Once authority is invoked, it is not long before we hear of regulation. Adults are viewed as enforcers. Running becomes forbidden; raised voices become disallowed. And, of note, the dreaded comptroller visits and is likened to a "great scythe, demanding and radical; an austere reminder that the 'party' is over."

Guattari expands on the natural habits aged authority seems to assume in the following chapter. Manoux narrates a scene with fear and disgust whereby elder pigs trample their young in an effort to consume. She observes that the "old pigs are trying to feed so ardently that they would crush their young in the ruckus." Moments later, however, she describes a scene at La Borde where the elder children squeeze the slimmer kids through the Castle basement windows in order to secure sustenance. This parallel sequence between the pigs and children hints at the exploitative potential conferred by age and authority while simultaneously extinguishing the distinction between beast and human.

A lack of such distinction grows uncomfortable for grown men. Nothing demonstrates this quite so well as the restriction regarding the shitpit. Manou reports, "under that open sky, [one] cannot possibly fathom the extraordinary range of colors, shapes and textures of that human creation." For the children, human refuse takes on a magical, fantastical quality that makes them "defy all rules." Once the adults become aware that their restriction has been trespassed, the shitpit becomes a landfill. Human refuse is exalted to the status of industrial waste which distances itself from the human body to attenuate shame.

Shame reproduces and attaches itself to perceptions of the residents at La Borde.  In this same chapter, we learn that Manou becomes embarrassed of the residents for the first time while attending higher education. We are also told that the children collect the residents' "butt-ends" (one step removed from the "shitpit") for communal smoking and are caught by a Christian demi-god tutor reminiscent of the comptroller from the preceding chapter. Through the intervention of religion, education and interdiction distance is created: distance from the body, the domestic and non-rational. The familiar is made strange and as a result, many children separate themselves from La Borde to settle in the city. Unsurprisingly, this is followed by a re-invocation that the party is over.

There do appear to be exceptions to the constricting, controlling and deadening vision of adulthood Manou encounters. One such exception is typified by The Tench in Chapter five. She is a woman who is likened to a fish, which instantly places her inside the natural realm and outside of the realm of man-made landfills. We are told that she prefers her cigarettes "unfiltered" and despite her age, Manou emphasizes her smallness, suggesting that her hands were "like those of a child." Of significance, the Tench refuses to get married, preserving herself from society. This does not appear to dampen her association with things maternal, however, as Manou reports she always bought fresh cream, butter and milk. This was the consequence of having lived through society's war and a seeming determination to continue the "party" while she can.

The Tench appears to be a stark contrast to Manou's mother, who is also introduced in this chapter. It is unclear what the association is between the two women, which appears to be deliberately ambiguous on the part of Guattari. While we learn Manou's mother also has "small" hands (and therefore may be trusted as a non-adult), Manou reports that she was scared by the world and the war. Her mother required medications for relief rather than fresh milk. Manou grapples with her mother's death and in a nod to the power of industrial society, believes there is an administrator who controls death. Reminiscent of Kafka's famed Man Before the Law, we leave Manou at the terminus of the chapter sitting every day in a café waiting for such an administrator to grant her wish to see her deceased mother one more time.   

In the following three chapters, the notion of industry usurping naturalism is revisited. Guattari presents us with Manou's disgust at lemon yogurt in chapter 6. She refers to the yogurt as a relic perpetuated by the "sadism of industrial statistics." In so doing, she suggests that even systems have memories. Manou is paralyzed by the yogurt, a word that is repeated in ensuing chapters, collecting significance as it creates its own memory through the utility of language. While repetition may accrue significance, it is also removed from the authenticity of the original. Perhaps this is why the author chooses to introduce us to Manou's stepmother in the same chapter we learn of the relic yogurt.

Manou's distance from her original mother is captured in Chapter 7 wherein maternal intimacy and connection is replaced by a series of beeps. An electronic switchboard becomes a modernized, hysteria inducing umbilical cord. Displeasure with a modernized maternal surrogate is exemplified by Manou's ensuing descriptions in Chapter 8 entitled, "Regilait Milk." Pragmatic powdered milk purchased by her father replaces the fresh milk afforded by our likeable La Tench or the natural milk associated with motherhood. The children quietly rebel by tossing the substitute milk onto the lawn. We learn that not only do the flowers not survive this shower (confirming that the milk itself is unnatural), but that Manou's stepmother is unable to recognize artificial milk as responsible for the flower's ruin, preferring to blame the foundational soil instead.    

Chapter 9 marks the transition point before the beginning of Book II. As such, it possesses a hazy, fantastical quality appropriately characteristic of liminal space. We are revisited by the author's use of the word "paralysis" just as Manou is revisited by the father she had presumed was deceased. This occurs amidst a natural world that has now become foreboding, likened to a cage or drowning place. Manou has become concerned with her pretty little shoes and warns her father about self-efficacy without financial or domestic resources. Hesitant to place her pretty shoes in the grass and perceiving her father, fearfully, as a Madman, it appears Manou has begun to grow big. 

Vaguely reminiscent of the first scene in Book I whereby Manou is nearly swallowed by water, Book II opens with a motor vehicle rollover threatening the lives of Manou and her brothers. Natural perils have been replaced by industrial ones as Manou begins her ascent towards adolescence. In this chapter, it is Manou's brother who nearly loses his life. Of note, Guittari has him fashioned in a cowboy outfit, a relic of a former time when man utilized horses for transportation. After his brush with death, Manou's brother refuses to consume the fresh milk offered by the farm lady for relief. Such weaning may signify his overcoming the infantile need for a mother or the comforts formerly offered by the natural world. The death of naturalism in favor of modernity is further symbolized by the "fat" dead fly rising to the surface of the unconsumed milk. The fly's swollenness is a tacit reminder of the same gluttony and growth that threatened Manou's tonsils in chapter one as well as Boubou's fattening before fugue in Chapter 2.

Modernity's intrusion persists in the following chapter entitled Algerian War. In fact, it comes to reside in the diaper of one of Manou's newly born siblings. Much like the open placement of the purloined letter in Poe's precisely named short story, the baby's disturbing cry calls attention to the obvious placement of coveted government documents. However, government officials fail to recognize the obvious and fail to search the baby's diaper despite its incessant wailings. Such an open secret relies upon the power of shame associated with the baby's fabricated "shitpit." Knowledge of mutiny is not strong enough to transgress man's restrictions regarding human refuse.

While natural processes appear to save Manou's family from impending disaster in the preceding chapter, it becomes clear that she and her family have moved beyond the ability to return to nature with ease. A tranquil moment on the Loir is ruffled by remembrance of a lit stove at home. As they attempt to return to their residence, nature becomes an encumbrance to domesticity. One thinks of Boubou, who in his return to nature, could not help but be saddled with a domestic chain on his neck. In Chapter 13, Manou's family goes into active combat with the natural world, which has crept into their domestic residence in the form of a rat while they watch television. The rat is viewed as a trespassing invader and Manou's father attempts to kill it. During his effort, the rat counterattacks, nearly plucking out his eyes. This modern Oedipus will not be supplanted, remarking that his glasses have truly saved him. The implication is that surrogate sight, a modern instrument, is the perfect defense from nature's attack.

Even Manou's earlier conception of "small" (offered by the Tench and her mother's hands) as safe becomes strange in Book II. She watches Monsieur Belin calm the seas of asparagus and as his profile becomes smaller and smaller, Manou cries out in fear. Manou enjoys watching the man organize and arrange the farmland in front of him, without the mistrust she had before for organizing systems likened to "the sadism of industrial statistics" in Book I. Yet, while she seems to be adjusting to modernity in the wake of her family's acceptance of it, she also displays ambivalence about deserting the natural roots of childhood. She reports another event of paralysis associated with the frozen tiles covering the soil leading to her new and modern bathroom. This is followed by a nostalgic vignette of her mother gathering forbidden acorns as a child (natural world) that is violently truncated by the reaping of a male authority figure. Guattari reminds us once again that the non-natural world consists of a comptroller, a Christian demigod, and a consequential party's end.

Guatarri plays with the significance of consumption in the next several chapters. Chapter 16, entitled The Meat, is vaguely reminiscent of Pink Floyd's thematics of adult enforcement and childhood conformity captured in The Wall. Enforced consumption for Manou can only lead to growth and fattening, which is the progression towards adulthood and death.  In Chapter 17, the old dinner bell represents time for repast for Manou's family based on their inheritance at La Borde. However, we quickly discover that the toll signifies fire and destruction to the town's people. Thus, symbols are imbued with meaning based on their chronological context. In this way, age transcends the individual as history creates meaning for entire societies.

Symbols without contextualization create confusion. In Chapter 18, Guatarri gives us many examples of this. One is Manou's stepmother, who represents the maternal by title, but contextually leaves Manou alone in the car during her appointment with Lacan (prior to his rescuing her) likening her to a pet dog. This is followed by a snippet of Manou's family inside their vehicle in an African park, surrounded by animals that have been taken out of their natural context for the purpose of modern entertainment. The animals do not observe rules of politeness and it is not long before a giraffe intrudes into their vehicle in order to consume straw in the likeness of a hat.

Problematic political ramifications of decontextualization are expressly acknowledged in Manou's observation of an apartheid poster in Chapter 19 entitled, Outspan Oranges. The poster demonstrates the image of a black child being squeezed into an orange press representing a corrupt adult political system's attempt to disenfranchise a nation's inhabitants. And yet, Manou also acknowledges contextualization's limitations. She remarks, "That furniture, and those objects, left me with the same malaise I felt from old photographs where the pictured individual's outdated costume weakens the empathy in the viewer's gaze, loosens the ties of our humanity, and prevents us from acknowledging the slow fading that awaits us all." This is a wizened, humanistic view of universality (or being with others) distinct from the sadism of comptrollers and demigod systems previously offered in the novel. This perspective arrives in a chapter where Manou acknowledges her childhood's senescence, stating that it has worn itself out among the grown-ups.   

As we see Manou move through the final three chapters, a redemptive quality to the presence of others emerges. The possibility of communion while maintaining a separate space for the individual is suggested. In the penultimate chapter, Manou experiences love, which is the ultimate gift of being in the presence of another. With the Stag, Guattari's final chapter, there is a final nod to the dichotomy of naturalism and modernity that parallels the dichotomy of childhood and adulthood offered throughout Guatarri's fantastical vignettes. As Manou's friend complains of modern woes, a brilliant wild stag enters, making its way through the unkempt, wet grass and Castle mist. In this delicate space of containment, one may imagine the dissolution of prior distinctions. One may even dare to dream that the magic of Manou, and the world's, slumbering childhood vision remains ever extant--if but cloaked in eyelash crust of Castle mist and dew.


© 2015 Kristen A. Schmidt


Kristen A. Schmidt, MD is a psychiatric resident.


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