On Receiving the Merck-Serono Prize

Villa Miani, Rome, July 9, 2009


The honor accorded me today touches me deeply. Because it is addressed to an aspect of my life and work—the meeting of literature and science—which has been very important for me, and which remains bound up with my present preoccupations and projects.

My connection with science was established in the field of medicine, more precisely in medical practice. My experience was in hospital care, not in the laboratories of basic research, where biological knowledge is constructed with the help of the so-called hard sciences. A degree in classics was followed by medical studies, which did not keep me from performing the functions of an instructor in the Literature Department at the University of Geneva. For five years I was an assistant in the Cantonal Hospital of Geneva, in the internal medicine section. I could still see, at the end of the forties, how people in a prosperous country died of poliomyelitis or tuberculosis. I had the good fortune to be able to administer the new remedies that scientific progress put into our hands: antibiotics, corticosteroids, antihypertensors, anticoagulants, vaccines. Thus I saw the fate of the sick change and life expectancy extended as the repertory of therapeutic resources was increased. The progress I witnessed made me little hospitable to the various challenges to modern medical science that have appeared since then.

Later, in 1957–1958, when I joined the medical staff of the Psychiatric Hospital of Cery, near Lausanne, I witnessed other changes. The calm in the rooms and corridors was recent. But it was alarming. Chlorpromazine (its brand name was Largactil) had proved effective against agitation in schizophrenics. But many of these patients, grown somewhat rigid, began to show symptoms of a Parkinsonism induced by the medication. It was an impressive proof of the importance of “side effects” in pharmacology. In that same year of 1957–1958, my colleagues and I also gathered observations on the new medicines for depression: imipramine, under the name of Tofranil, had just appeared, and its effectiveness was remarkable. Major depressives miraculously came out of their prostration. However, this medicine obliged us to keep a close eye on its effects, because, with the return of motor responses, we might see the awakening of suicidal impulses. Considerable progress was still necessary for the relief of depressive suffering. As it happened, my participation consisted in an historical work. By 1958 I had already published various articles of literary criticism, but the academic ritual still required that I submit a written work in order to receive the title of Doctor of Medicine. I did so, based on my recent medical experience and my earlier classical education, by writing a History of the Treatment of Melancholy, which appeared, hors commerce, in the series of Acta Psychosomatica of the Geigy Laboratories. My work bore the subtitle “From the Beginnings to 1900.” The temporal restriction of the work might seem strange. Why had I stopped at the arbitrary date of 1900? Why not include the twentieth century in my account, since its innovations were so important? The truth is that I was quite ready to take it on. But the task had already been assigned, and in the most judicious way, by the editors of the Acta. The study of the recent history of the treatment of depression fell to Roland Kuhn, who had been the discoverer of the anti-depressive effectiveness of imipramine. In his capacity as head doctor of the psychiatric hospital of Münsterlingen, in the canton of Thurgovia, he had agreed to test this new substance, which the laboratory that produced it hoped would be effective in a totally different area than depressive psychosis. The attentiveness, the methodicalness, the clinical sense of Roland Kuhn led him to discover the essential properties of this medication, which would thereafter make it and its analogues indispensable in psychiatric practice. But, for various reasons, Roland Kuhn had to give up writing the monograph on the history of melancholic depression and its treatment in the twentieth century. The announced volume never appeared. In the meantime, we had written to each other and become partners in dialogue: friends by correspondence. What I liked about him, and what seemed to me of the highest importance in the psychiatric discipline, was his way of bringing to bear a complete medical and psychiatric approach, which drew upon intellectual acts of two different but complementary orders: scientific explanation on the one hand, and enlightened sympathy, that is, understanding felt and recognized by reflection, on the other. Karl Jaspers, in his General Psychopathology, had insisted on the necessity of making this simultaneous distinction and conjunction. He affirmed a double legitimacy: on the one hand of the search for causal relations going back to cellular biology, and on the other of the grasp of the “lived” and its analysis. Roland Kuhn was a close friend of Ludwig Binswanger, head doctor of the famous Bellevue Clinic in Kreuzlingen. They both expected a great deal from a practice of Daseinsanalyse, that is, from a phenomenology attentive to all the manifestations of the “lived.” It is interesting to recall, incidentally, that the French translation of Binswanger’s study, Dream and Existence, was one of Michel Foucault’s first works. I have a sense of finding myself, at that time, at an intersection where many itineraries of the past century crossed.

Roland Kuhn had written a fine study on the Rorschach test and the perception of masks by certain subjects who underwent this test. I wrote a review of the work for the magazine Critique, edited by Georges Bataille and Eric Weil, because I had been drawn to the question of the mask on the level of literary expression. More precisely: my attention had been drawn to literary works whose aim or theme was the denunciation of deception and inauthenticity. My first project for a thesis in literature, submitted to my teacher and friend, Marcel Raymond, was entitled “The Enemies of Masks.” I envisaged speaking, in one volume, of Montaigne, La Rochefoucauld, Rousseau, Stendhal, Kierkegaard, and Valéry. To them I later added Freud, less as a “master of thought” than as a subject of study. For certain of them, it had to be admitted that these lovers of truth had not hesitated to resort to pseudonyms, that others had identified themselves with various figures of history or fiction. . . . My works became amplified and dispersed at the same time. It was the time when French existentialism took up an old debate on the question of “authenticity” in personal existence. I wanted to examine, with as close a reading as possible, the way in which the critique of deception and illusion, the desire to attain to the being behind appearance, had been formulated. I wished to bring to light, in its multiple versions, the gesture of “unmasking,” its staging, and above all the illusions that had managed to accompany it. I even fell into the trap of becoming an unmasker of the unmaskers.

My interests had taken shape in Baltimore. Thanks to the friendship of the literary critic Georges Poulet, who taught French literature at JohnsHopkinsUniversity, I had had the luck to become his colleague. During the three years I spent there, from 1953 to 1956, I encountered the practice of the history of ideas, in the form developed in the most demanding way by Arthur O. Lovejoy and his successor, George Boas. In their eyes, scientific thought and literary works deserved joint attention. In his fundamental work, entitled The Great Chain of Being, Lovejoy showed how the ancient notion of the great chain of beings had been temporalized in the form of the theories of evolution. Lovejoy and George Boas also had the great merit of having collected and annotated, in the Western literary tradition, documents illustrating the representation of the supposed happiness of primitive ages, even of animal existence. It was on their example that I later undertook a medical and literary history of nostalgia, starting from the invention of the term in the seventeenth century: this was an occasion for showing that there exists a history of sentiments bound up with that of the words that designate them. In it I was stirred by the memory, itself nostalgic, of the ideas exchanged among representatives of the “scientific” and “humanistic” disciplines during the sessions of the History of Ideas Club, which Lovejoy and Boas had inaugurated at Johns Hopkins in 1922. Among philosophers, research scientists, historians, it was constantly a question of the transformations of the world picture occurring between the “classical” world and the present time. The history of ideas, as they practiced it, was not confined to intellectual history alone. It was closely connected to the history of human relations and social structures. For the linguist and stylistician Leo Spitzer, for the great historians of medicine Ludwig Edelstein and Owsei Temkin (who read Arabic as well as Greek), economic and political contexts had their importance. Their works served me as examples of the way to examine, in a sort of enlarged comparativism, the works of philosophers, of scientists, and those of writers of various epochs and cultures. At the Johns Hopkins Institute for the History of Medicine, in 1953, I attended the lecture by Alexandre Koyré that constituted the first version of his great book entitled From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe. Much later, I was asked to present a paper in the same series of Noguchi Lectures. Remembering Koyré, I tried to bring together the most notable documents on the application of the lexical couple “action-reaction” in the field of the various sciences and, well beyond mechanics or chemistry, in the areas of literature and the language of politics.

This turn of mind, this sensitivity to the history of ideas and intellectual practices, which I encountered in the United States, differed little—at least at that moment—from its European counterparts. In this field of research, because in it one considered the variety of cultural identities without confusing them, a polyglot hearing seemed indispensable to me. In Paris I had found this attention to the plurality of languages—science, history, poetry—in the Décades de Royaumont and at the Collège de Philosophie founded by the philosopher Jean Wahl. I had the luck then to meet Eric Weil, Yvon Belaval, Henri Gouhier, Gaston Bachelard. Then, at the Collège de France, it was the attention paid to the varieties of poetic experience in the classical age and in modern times, under the guidance of Yves Bonnefoy and with the contributions of Marc Fumaroli. In Italy, I am greatly indebted to the works of Franco Venturi and Gianfranco Contini, to the openings onto the history of science proposed by Paolo Rossi, the reflections on literary language developed by Cesare Segre and Maria Corti, the meetings of the Lessico Intelletuale Europeo organized by Tullio Gregory, and the encounters fostered by the Corsi d’alta cultura of the Fondazione Cini, directed by Vittore Branca and Carlo Ossola. The gratitude I am expressing here to those who were masters and friends also extends to postwar Germany, and more especially to the group Poetik und Hermeneutik, which included me in its annual meetings. The conviction has remained with me that, without any mixing of genres, poets are already interpreters themselves, and that the interpreters, if their science is precise and light, can rejoin the poets.

Scientific work has endowed men with immense powers. What science does not tell us is the use that ought to be made of them, or ought not to be made. What it is incapable of telling us are the moral imperatives that must be respected, both in the acquisition and in the application of scientific knowledge. A man of science may perhaps tell us that out of personal conviction: but it will not be scientific knowledge that tells us. The notion of our neighbor, for example, and the imperative to respect others, are not products of science, because all that science yields is measured and verified facts. Hence the imperative of respect for others takes on all the more importance in that it is not guaranteed by any “objective” proof. With regard to the acquisition of knowledge and its application, it must never be permissible to say: Faciamus experimentum in anima vili (Let us make an experiment on a base-born soul). These words, from a seventeenth-century account, are those of an unscrupulous doctor in a hospital where the poor were cared for. Lying on another bed in the same hospital room, the humanist Muret, having heard these words, exclaimed: “As if it was base-born, this soul for which Christ did not scorn to die!” These words of protest were not dictated by scientific knowledge, because science itself has no argument to forbid the abuse of its power. I know Muret’s exclamation because Diderot, that unbeliever, cites it twice in his writings. I hope that that at least marks a point of agreement between those who believe that Christ died for all men and those who consider the earth our only, our unique garden.


 [Translated by Richard Pevear]