Laure Murat – “The Man Who Mistook Himself for Napoleon”

            Laure Murat was born and educated in France, where she received her doctorate degree in History. She came to the United States in 2006, and started teaching in the department of French and Francophone Studies at UCLA, where she received tenure in 2009. Murat currently teaches 19th and 20th century French literature and a course on the cultural history of Paris at the university.

Laure Murat has published a number of books and essays, for which she has received a number of different awards, among which are the prestigious prix Goncourt of biography for her book La Maison du Docteur Blanche (The Clinic of Doctor Blanche), and the prix Femina de l’Essai for L’Homme Qui Se Prenait Pour Napoléon (The Man Who Mistook Himself for Napoleon). She was also recently awarded the 2012 Guggenheim Fellowship grant, which she is planning to use to spend a year in Europe conducting research for a new book. The book, which is tentatively titled “ Women as Symptoms, or Madness at Work,” will explore “ how madness and creativity together are at work inside a family with a member who is succumbing to mental illness”. She will be examining cases such as James Joyce’s daughter Lucia, and Victor Hugo’s daughter Adèle, among many others.

When asked about the differences between French literary thought and American thought Laure Murat points to an interesting issue. She explains that French theory was very strong in the 60’s and 70’s, and it was at that time that it had a huge influence on the United States. For example, Foucault’s history of sexuality gave way to queer studies and gay/lesbian studies in the United States, and the United States created queer theory for instance, however, while there was an influence of French literary thought on the United States, there was no return of these thoughts and theories from America to France. While many theories and ideas came to the United States from France, not many of these ideas went back to France once they had evolved. According to Murat, there is in a way a sort of impoverishment or weakness in France in this sense, it is a sort of lack of intellectual energy, not among the French intellectuals but in the French university. These theories were transported to America and evolved but never really returned to France. An example of this trend can be Modern Art, which was very strong at the beginning of the 20th century in France, and especially in Paris, however it then went to New York, and the United States used it as a tool and elaborated on it and made it what it is today;  and while it is very strong in New York at the moment, it is not as strong in France anymore.  Laure will be expanding on this issue at Vis a Vis during a panel discussion featuring Sylvère Lotringer, and Noura Wedell, where they will be discussing “French theory in America and French theory in France: The Semiotext(e) experience”.

Here is a presentation of “The Man Who Mistook Himself for Napoleon. For A Political History of Madness.” (Paris: Gallimard, 2011).

            “Ambitious monomania”, “césarite”, “revolutionnary neuroses”, “morbus democraticus” (the malady of democracy): from 1789 to 1871, French physicians have coined many “diseases” related to political convictions. How can one read today this epistemological construction? Is French history legible through registers of lunatic asylums and how? How can primary sources inform us about the discourse of madness in relation to the political? Based on unpublished archives and materials of the nineteenth century, The Man Who Mistook Himself for Napoleon explores the relationship between ideology and pathology, attempting to understand how political events such as revolutions and advent of new systems of government affect mental health and/or can be represented as delirious in the French psychiatric and literary discourse. Rather than denouncing wrongful confinements, this study aims to analyze what is at stake in the intertwined discourses of madness, psychiatry and political theory.


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