Fighting Melancholia: What Don Quixote Teaches Us, by Françoise Davoine |



The Therapist as Therapon: A Healing Sancho Panzo

The success of Cervantes’ classic novel Don Quixote – reputed to be the second bestselling book after the Bible – is no doubt due in large part to the author’s remarkable skill in telling a story, as he puts it, “to fight melancholia”. Indeed, the original idea for the eponymous hero first appeared to Cervantes while he was himself imprisoned in Sevilla, on a false accusation – a melancholy experience that triggered memories of a previous traumatic incarceration, when twenty years earlier he had been captured by Barbary pirates (as a soldier fighting against the Ottoman empire) and spent five years as a slave in Algiers.

Being a psychoanalyst specialising in psychosis and traumas, I understood Cervantes’ tale of adventure, military engagement, and subsequent dejection as a narrative with profound relevance for today’s veterans – and indeed for anyone fighting melancholia. When I meet with delusional patients, they often tell me of the incidents and events of their past as if they were encounters occuring in an arrested dimension of time.  They commonly experience a deep and disturbing sense that “the time is out of joint”, as Shakespeare – interestingly, writing at exactly the same period – so vividly and accurately put it.  In particular, I was struck by the similarity between these repetitive and well-known frozen, dislocated episodes – always coming back to square one – and the failures of psychoanalysis in engaging with or healing such cases.  Don Quixote teaches us how to put time back in motion.

Simple causality is of no use here. For it needs the flow of time, from a previous cause toward its effect afterward. Thus, in Cervantes’ novel, every episode in which the melancholic knight falls flat on his face is followed by a helping, integrative “talking cure” with Sancho Panza. Exactly as it happens in our work, the focus is then enlarged toward new horizons: as for example, in the famous scene where Don Quixote begins to tilt at windmills and ends up fighting an international war in the guise of a flock of sheep. The repetition of psychotic and traumatic crises each time opens up the horizon of erased or repressed matters, ensuring that the patient is not left in an absolute loneliness. Similarly, thanks to the echoes triggered in the analyst’s own background – from an unconscious which is not repressed but rather suppressed – a new tale can be told.

This formula was coined by W.H.R. Rivers, an English psychoanalyst who worked with young veterans during the first world war, including the poet Siegfried Sassoon (who was suffering from what was then termed “shell shock”).  I consider that in such cases, the therapist is a form of Sancho Panza. Indeed, the very etymology of our word “therapist” recalls this role, deriving as it does from the Greek term therapon, denoting a trusted second-in-command – as in Homer’s Iliad, where Achilles’ therapon is Patroclus. Similarly, the contemporary therapist is, like Patroclus and Sancho Panza, a form of comrade-in-arms for the patient, an attentive aid and reliable assistant in his or her battle against the treachery and terror that they face.


Despite its “pathological” appearance, the at times seemingly quixotic adventures of the psychoanalyst with severely disturbed people therefore encompass the role of a reliable ‘other’, when all former bearings have collapsed, or become stuck.  A “new loyalty”, as Rivers used to say, occurs through what psychoanalysis calls “transference”. I do not invent the fact that Don Quixote, in the middle of the book, becomes a psychotherapist of a mad man, Cardenio, in the Sierra Morena. And after an initial failure, the knight manages to create a new social link, a new social world, around himself. In the famous inn, some twenty people learn to connect again after having endured catastrophic ruptures. At that point, Cervantes himself makes his entry into the novel, under the character of a captive escaped from the prisons of Algiers and is able to “tell” his war.

“Don Quixote’s folly is a fight against the stoppage of time in areas of death and mourning”

Don Quixote’s apparent folly is thus a fight against the stoppage of time in areas of death and mourning. The rhythm of his adventures reawakens us to life.

Françoise Davoine worked for thirty years as a psychoanalyst in public psychiatric hospitals in France, and as an external consultant and is currently in private practice. She was a Professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Movements, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris, where she and Jean-Max Gaudillière conducted a weekly seminar on ‘Madness and the Social Link’. She has also made numerous presentations at the Austen Riggs Center in Massachusetts (USA), as well as elsewhere in the US, in England, Sweden, Finland, Greece, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and Switzerland. Dr Davoine is the author of many articles and books, including Wittgenstein’s FollyMother Folly, and History Beyond Trauma (with Jean Max Gaudillière). Her latest book, Fighting Melancholia: Don Quixote’s Teaching, is published this week by Karnac.

‘By turns playful, ironic and fierce, Françoise Davoine’s brilliantly Quixotic book moves back and forth from the clinical situation to literature and history, showing us what powerful resources the latter can bring to the work of clinical psychoanalysis. Lamenting the loss of the person in contemporary approaches to severe emotional disturbance, Davoine argues that trauma and psychosis go hand in hand, that in fact the deeply troubled patient is carrying out a mad research into family trauma cut out of the official narrative. It’s her bold assertion that Cervantes knew this about his own life, and that his characters teach us what it takes to treat these personal catastrophes of history, lessons also brought to life in the stories – startling in their raw authenticity – of her patients. Davoine’s advice that we take Don Quixote as our supervisor may both puzzle and amuse us, but she means it and she tells us why.’
M. Gerard Fromm, PhD, Senior Consultant, Erikson Institute, Austen Riggs Center, and editor of A Spirit that Impels: Play, Creativity, and Psychoanalysis

‘When I approached this book, I asked myself: Should I try to understand the rationale for its writing? Look for a story behind the story? Piece together and trace the master plot? Find the hidden meaning? When all these attempts led nowhere, I realised that the only thing to do was to completely surrender myself to the reading, which was effortless despite abrupt changes in place and in time frames. The book is tightly held together by the resurfacing personal memories of a child of two, of events close to the end of World War Two. This child is the central narrating ‘I’, who creates the unity from which the book expands and branches out.’
Dori Laub, MD, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Yale University School of Medicine

‘Françoise Davoine has an extraordinary capacity to connect mind, myth and technique to illuminate how we can understand and treat madness or melancholy. She writes with an intense intelligence, luminosity and wit – one of the few theoreticians whose works are literature in themselves.’
Jane Ryan, Director of Confer, and author of How Does Psychotherapy Work?

‘In this remarkable book Françoise Davoine shows how literature is a site of madness as well as a source for its healing. Don Quixote is, in her reading, both madman and therapist, and Françoise Davoine herself, speaking as therapist, brilliantly draws for her healing inspiration on the legacy of her own traumatic past. A work of imagination, history, trauma, and life.’
Cathy Caruth, author of Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History and Literature in the Ashes of History



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *