Amuse-Bouches I – The Yerodia Case
This is Abdoulaye Yerodia Ndombasi, helping Lacan into his car as he leaves his seminar in March, 1980.
And this is Yerodia again, around the time of the international arrest warrant issued against him by Belgium, for serious violations of international humanitarian law under the Geneva Convention.
This short article is about his story.
But more generally, it is about what psychoanalysts should do in the face of ethical dilemmas.
It is based on Dany Nobus’ solid appraisal of the Yerodia case and the issues it raises, which was published last year in the excellent journal Psychoanalytic Discourse.
Abdoulaye Yerodia Ndombasi (Abdoul to his friends; Yerodia hereafter) moved to Paris in December 1960. Like many of the young student revolutionaries and Maoists that surrounded Lacan, Yerodia was already deeply political. But unlike many of his fellow students, by the time he arrived in Paris he had already fought in guerrilla campaigns in his native Congo. He even counted himself among Che Guevara’s comrades. He also had a doctorate in philosophy. This propelled him towards Lacan’s Seminar at the École Normale Supérieure and helped ingratiate him with members of Lacan’s inner circle.
In 1967 he married Gloria Gonzalez. Gloria was Lacan’s long-serving secretary, but her responsibilities went much further, encompassing every part of his life. Lacan’s biographer Élisabeth Roudinesco tells us that she looked after his diary, greeted all his patients, took care of his correspondence and manuscripts, and even supervised his bank account.
In everything, her husband assisted her. “From 1970 on, Gloria and Abdoulaye were entirely absorbed into the Lacan household”, Roudinesco reports (Jacques Lacan, p.345,). Yerodia assumed the mantle of butler, assistant private secretary, and chauffeur until Lacan’s death in 1981.
It is fair to say he could not have been any more central to the Lacanian world at that time.
In the years after Lacan’s death Yerodia moved back to what was by then the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and in 1998 took up the first of many high-level posts in the government of Laurent Kabila.
At the start of August that year, fighting broke out between rebel forces in the east of the country and Kabila’s government. The DR Congo accused neighbouring Rwanda of inciting the rebels, and by the end of the summer the whole situation has escalated into what was to become known as the ‘Great War of Africa’ drawing in countries running the entire length of the continent.
In the middle of all this, on 27th August 1998 Yerodia went on the radio to announce that the government needed to impose a curfew so that the army could pursue the “eradication and total crushing of this vermin”.
This triggered a genocide. The massacre of ethnic Tutsis started the following day, with hundreds of charred corpses reportedly strewn across the land surrounding Kinshasa. Although it was widely reported in the press at the time, Yerodia didn’t hesitate to praise what he saw as the purging of the rebels, comparing it to the liberation of the French people at the time of the Revolution.
Here he is, talking unapologetically about events that summer:
In April 2000, Belgium (the country’s former colonial ruler) lodged an international arrest warrant against Yerodia under the Geneva Convention, hoping to bring him in front of the International Criminal Court. It wouldn’t matter, they thought, which country issued the arrest warrant as Yerodia was accused of breaking international humanitarian law.
But in October that year the DR Congo filed an opposition to the warrant with the International Court of Justice. This was none of Belgium’s business, they argued, and in any case because Yerodia was still serving as Minister for Foreign Affairs he enjoyed diplomatic immunity.
The International Court of Justice eventually ruled in the DR Congo’s favour, a decision which has become famous in international law. “Jurisdiction does not imply absence of immunity”, said the judge. Yerodia would have to be stripped of his immunity by the DRC before Belgium could have him arrested. On Valentine’s Day 2002 the ICJ cancelled the arrest warrant.
Yerodia went on to become Vice-President of the DR Congo in 2003 – a ceremonial position created especially for him, perhaps to guard against his deportation – and remained in that post until 2006.
At time of writing he is still alive, aged 87.
In his article Nobus highlights that throughout all of this the psychoanalytic community remained pretty silent. The only voice that spoke up publicly was that of psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Patrick Valas. At the time of the genocide he penned an article for French newspaper Libération calling it out. “We followed the same teaching. That of Jacques Lacan, who had never ceased denouncing racism and genocide”, he emphasised.
Even as this was going on, Valas noted that Yerodia remained a member of the École de la Cause freudienne (of which Lacan was the founder and president) and the Association mondiale de psychanalyse (its international extension) throughout this period. Nobus also adds that in 1999 the ECF made Yerodia an honorary member. Even when the European Court of Human Rights temporarily ratified the Belgian request, he received no sanction from either the ECF or AMP.
Unphased by the media attention, Yerodia repeatedly justified his role in the genocide. But he did so with a direct appeal to psychoanalytic doctrine.
In an interview with the New Yorker magazine in 2000 he said,
Indeed, as late as 2006 Valas reports Yerodia was still threatening the Tutsis with extermination. “You will suffer the same fate that Hitler inflicted on the Jews”, he warned.
What do we, the psychoanalytic community, do in the face of serious ethical issues like these?
Nobus’ article offers three options. These can be summarised as:
1. Assert a more robust ethical stance.
2. Junk ethics from psychoanalysis altogether.
3. Re-define what it means to be ethical.
Let’s look at them one by one.
This is the position associated with French-Canadian analyst René Major. But Nobus points out it is Derrida to whom Major is most heavily indebted. Specifically, to an intervention Derrida made at a 1981 conference in Paris attacking the lacklustre response of the IPA to torture and human rights abuses in Argentina at the time.
Psychoanalysis should get stuck in with helping to develop a kind of meta-ethics, Derrida thinks. A bit like the one held by Amnesty International or proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Psychoanalysis is unique in understanding human suffering, he argues. Even if such a stance isn’t entirely apolitical – and even if psychoanalysis shouldn’t be solely responsible for developing this ethics – it shouldn’t be afraid of throwing its hat in the ring of this dialogue (source).
All sounds great. So what’s the problem?
Firstly, Derrida’s not really saying very much. Who really disagrees with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or Amnesty International? We don’t need psychoanalysis in order to come up with this kind of ethical vision, nor does psychoanalysis really add anything to it. When Derrida admits that psychoanalysis doesn’t have an ethics of its own but is best placed to inform law, ethics, and politics he accepts for psychoanalysis a quite limited role. On his model, psychoanalysis does not really address the issue of torture, only psychical torment. But this is a problem if the condemnation of torture is the issue at hand. To paraphrase the art critic John Berger, psychoanalysis speaks to the wounds but not to the torturers.
Secondly, it’s vague. “Is that to say that there is no relation between psychoanalysis and ethics, law or politics?”, Derrida asks. “No, there is, there must be an indirect and discontinuous consequence”, he answers.
But what does that actually mean?
The second position Nobus associates with Jean Allouch, and is the exact opposite of the first. Who is really against ‘ethics’, Allouch asks. No one is going to disagree with a proposal to take a more ‘ethical’ stance in psychoanalysis. The problem is that evil itself has an ethical ‘vision’ – it’s perfectly possible to torture and commit human rights abuses and still claim to be acting ‘ethically’. Yerodia did just this, telling a Belgian journalist in 2001:
So is ethics itself the problem? Allouch’s argument is based on the fact that any ‘ethical’ stance we could come up with for psychoanalysis wouldn’t be able to escape the same self-rationalisation Yerodia exhibits: that, in whatever minimalist way, it aims to make better human beings. This project is exactly what Yerodia advocates in the quote above.
Of course, Allouch’s position is itself ethical, as Nobus fairly notes. From where does the psychoanalyst stand to put him or herself ‘above’ ethics? Is ethics itself really the problem, or does a psychoanalytic ethics we already assume contradict a more generalised ethical position? What should we do if, for example, a torturer wants to come into a psychoanalysis? Surely to refuse them would be to make a judgement on the part of the analyst, and therefore adopt a moral position. Jacques-Alain Miller, for instance, argues that “there are no contraindications to the encounter with the psychoanalyst”. That is, there is no situation in which psychoanalysis should not be appropriate.
But would such a stance be tantamount to complicity? If – as is the state of the law in the UK – an analysand were to admit to actively abusing children, the analyst is obliged to report this to the authorities. Although no analyst would advocate child abuse, note that the choice is effectively made for them in this situation. Ethical decisions are, at a practical level, delegated to the state. The position of psychoanalysis in such matters becomes commensurate with it (even if many psychoanalysts would like to think of their ethical position as being independent of the state).
The third option is the one Nobus attributes to French philosopher Alain Badiou. Virtually everything about modern ethical ideology is opposed by Badiou. Even the most minimal ethics – the ‘do no harm’ model or so-called ‘Golden Rule’ – is derided on the grounds that it functions to keep the status quo where it is. Western liberal notions of ethics – including charity, compassion, and brotherly love – are nothing but the guarantors of conservatism, for Badiou. They serve to stifle all radical engagement. Even – let’s note – when it is violent.
Badiou doesn’t have a great track record here. He famously penned a piece for Le Monde in the late seventies in support of the Khmer Rouge, even as it was becoming clear that the regime had ushered in a wave of frenzied genocide against imaginary foes among its own people.
Despite having later issued a somewhat qualified mea cupla, the dirt continues to stick.
But rather than aligning himself with Allouch’s position and suggesting we junk ethics altogether, Badiou proposes his own: the ethics of what he calls the ‘truthful event’. Although much could be said about the idea of an ‘Event’, we can roughly describe it here as a point that disrupts and completely changes the established order of a given situation. Fidelity to the event is the most important thing for Badiou, and it matters more than whether someone is considered evil or not. Everything else is just embracing conservatism.
His reasoning is that we shouldn’t work on identifying evil, and then decide to do good; we should decide to do good, and then identify evil. We only become evil when we lose sight of the truth of the event, so we need to focus remaining faithful to this. In a manner that is just as obtuse as Derrida, he puts his commandment in these terms:
Practically, this leads him to advocate an abolition of the International Criminal Court and the European Court of Human Rights. Many could write about how nuanced and clever his argument is, but the practical result of subscribing to it could be – as we have seen – catastrophic.
Where does he get this from? Nobus suggests it’s based on Badiou’s reading of Lacan’s Seminar VII, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis:
The problem here is that Badiou’s stance lets violence in through the back door. His position is falsely radical. As Nobus correctly points out, there is a massive difference between a universal ethical rule and Lacan’s ‘don’t give up on your desire’. The latter is not a maxim for Lacan. He’s talking about guilt quite specifically in the passage Badiou is referring to (Seminar VII, p.319), and quite specifically to the psychoanalytic setting. Moreover, fidelity to desire doesn’t necessarily impose an obligation to do something on us, but perhaps to not do something. That is, to keep desire going, metonymically, as a protection from a more deadly jouissance. (Incidentally, Lacan is most certainly not saying ‘do whatever you want, only you are the judge of the good’. What if – Nobus wonders – my desire is to exterminate Tutsi rebels?)
One particularly brilliant observation Nobus makes is how easily violence can shade off into aesthetics. Although Nobus doesn’t reference it explicitly we find this idea in Seminar VII. In his reading of Antigone, Lacan claimed that Beauty is the last barrier before the encounter with the Thing (Seminar VII, p.248). In other words, an appeal to aesthetics is frequently invoked just before the most horrific acts of violence and suffering are committed.
Think of the way that Sadean victims remain beautiful even in spite of their tortured suffering, or how the scene of the crucifixion has becomes such a venerated theme in art (Seminar VII, p.261-262). Beauty is the ultimate veil of horror. (For more on this topic, read the article on jouissance here). Nobus reports how, at a 1998 press conference during the genocide, Yerodia waxed lyrical about blossoming trees and singing birds as he recounted his vision of what the extermination of the Tutsis would bring. An appeal to beauty is very dangerous when invoked to put someone beyond the reach of ethics.
So where does all this leave us?
Nobus points to instances where Freud himself suggested it was altogether too ambitious to task psychoanalysis with the aim of making better human beings. To do so would be to put too much weight on its shoulders.
As for Lacan, the very first thing Lacan says as he opens Seminar XX in 1972 piques Nobus’ interest. Looking back on his seventh seminar, Lacan remarks:
The one thing we don’t find in Seminar VII, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, is an ethics of psychoanalysis. Why not? Nobus takes the above remark very seriously (maybe more so than Lacan intended), detecting in it a fundamental pessimism about ethical interventions. Lacan is not an Allouch – he does not want to junk ethics altogether – but like Freud he is resigned to his conclusions about flawed human beings.
Instead, Lacan says in Television that we have a duty to be “Well-Spoken” (devoir de bien dire, Television, p.41). Is this enough to constitute an ethics of psychoanalysis? Jacques-Alain Miller seems to think so (Pas de clinique sans éthique, 1983). Nobus is not so sure. Lacan’s position is not a refusal of ethics altogether, but it’s also not the decisive answer many look for from Lacan and – here as on so many topics – never find.
For his own part, Nobus suggests we remove from the ethical realm the expectation that a psychoanalyst should unconditionally accept anyone and everyone into analysis:
But what else is this criteria except an ethical position? Nobus is not proposing we accept everyone, or only accept certain people, but simply that we could exempt such decisions from ethical questioning. This seems slightly unrealistic. Surely we have to make a call on this to avoid the complicity problem. What’s more, Nobus’ proposal only seems to move the problem one step back. Practically, it would surely devolve responsibility for ethical issues to a body like the state, a situation psychoanalysts throughout the years have sought to oppose.
What would Lacan do? As we’ve seen there are few clues, and we can’t equate what appears as indifference to deferral, devolution, or disinterest on Lacan’s part. In his conclusion, Nobus suggests Lacan offers us only a technical approach to knowledge itself. In the face of ethical dilemmas we have to “work through knowledge in order to discover its point of impossibility”, he says.
It’s up to the reader to judge whether or not this just deflects the burden of real, live ethical questions onto the terrain of epistemology. The real test is the one we faced with Yerodia – what to do, in practical terms, with someone involved in situations of violence, torture, or genocide. This is the question we have to answer.
Psychoanalysis speaks to the wounds but not to the torturers.
Amuse-Bouches is a series of short articles on LacanOnline.com offering glimpses into psychoanalytic issues that are often overlooked. This article was first presented as a paper to the Earls Court Clinical Group in London on 27th July, 2017. The paper by Dany Nobus to which this article refers can be found here.
By Owen Hewitson, LacanOnline.com
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