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Conversation with Boris Cyrulnik

Neurologists and Psychiatrist

by Caroline Gaudriault

« Destruction of the family, of the couple, of gender… The paradigm is personal fulfilment !»

Only a couple of generations ago, the heroisation of women was based on maternity, while the heroisation of men was based on violence. Today, that no longer makes any sense. An attitude that once conformed to the social norm is now obsolete. Gender theory derives from the new condition of women, which has transformed social structures. Legislation reflects the evolution of mentalities, even if it that evolution prioritises, above all, the pursuit of personal pleasure. But what awaits as at the end of the tunnel may not but light, but instead loneliness.

Interview de Boris Cyrulnik pour par zigzag-blog

Caroline Gaudriault - In social terms, the question of gender theory has become an issue of central importance. Even the French National Education system is asking itself whether or not gender distinction should be addressed in school books. It is as if the binary view of the world that held sway until very recently – black/white; night/day; man/woman – is now being called into question.

Boris Cyrulnik - In effect, it was a facile, binary way of thinking. Everything that isn’t big is small, everything that isn’t fat is thin, and everything that isn’t a man is a woman. You need to have had a certain experience of life to be able to put all that into perspective and realise that one can be bigger or smaller, fatter or thinner, more of a man or more of a woman. Why is this sort of question being asked today? I think that it’s probably due to the Feminine Revolution, or, in other words, the new way of being a woman. Not so long ago, sexual categories were well defined: men went down the mine, they had to be violent because violence makes society, as Freud, Lévi Strauss, René Girard and the great anthropologists claimed. “Humanity is founded on crime.” Today, violence is no longer an adaptive value; it is merely destructive; destructive of the group, of the couple, of the individual.
Only one or two generations ago, women were encouraged to despise men who were not violent, because they weren’t brave enough to fight, to go down the mine, to be heroic. Women were heroised in a different way: through maternity, which gave them access to a kind of divinity for which they paid a horribly high price, since, on average, they died at the age of thirty-six, after thirteen pregnancies and seven children.
So, the heroisation of women was based on maternity, while the heroisation of men was based on violence.
What I’ve just described has no sense today. Yet that’s what our society stems from and now, thanks to technological and intellectual progress (human rights), problems are being posed in a completely different way.

But there is no progress without side effects. There is always a time when we go too far and end up having to pay for it. We still don’t know how we’re going to pay for the new condition of women – a condition which is not yet a status.
The paradigmatic order, or, in other words, the organising principle of our society is self-fulfilment. Women had neither the right nor the possibility to attain self-fulfilment: their wombs belonged to the State because they had to churn out as many children as possible, preferably boys. They died at a very early age … Young people can’t even imagine those kinds of conditions.
The new way of being a woman has revolutionised values. For forty years, when I was a doctor, I treated men, here near Toulon, who went down the mine and who only saw the light of day for one or two months a year. They worked twelve hours a day. When they got home, they were so tired they couldn’t sleep. Their wives served them dinner – whence the feminist misunderstanding –, washed them (because their backs were scarred due to pieces of coal falling on them), and then put them to bed hoping that the sexual beast wouldn’t stir that night.
The context has changed a great deal and so have meanings. Gender trouble has become an issue for society. In fact, it’s probably the first time in human history that the issue is really being examined. In the past, a false, abusive style of thought was dominant. Today, progress in technology and human rights has led to the emergence of the new condition of women, and therefore of men, and, consequently, of a new image of children, who won’t have the same model with which to identify. It’s a whole way of living together that’s being called into question.

Caroline Gaudriault - Wouldn’t it be true to say that we’re now living in a time of universal values ? After all, Judith Butler’s notion of transgender doesn’t just make a distinction between male, female and another gender; it actually equalises genders. Aren’t genders being effaced ?

Boris Cyrulnik - I think that people tend to caricature Judith Butler. From what I’ve read, she doesn’t deny physiology, but says that, based on that physiology, there different developments are structured by different cultures.
We become either male or female when we are still an embryo. Later, when we start talking, we become a man or a woman. Even babies live in an environment structured by cultural narratives. These narratives organise completely different interactions for little boys and little girls, and provoke different kinds of developments.
Gender is defined and encouraged by surrounding narratives.
That’s pretty much my reading of Judith Butler and I feel fairly close to this way of posing the question. You can’t make a boy with just anything: there has to be a male determinant which defines the family and the culture. The same applies to the female determinant.
Does that lead to equality between the sexes or to a lack of differentiation between the sexes? I think it’s a utopia. To make it really happen, we would have to forbid girls from having long hair and make boys grow theirs. Male and female first names would have to be banned. Above all, sexual penetration would have to be outlawed because it represents a blatant form of sexual asymmetry. Statistically speaking, it’s women who fall pregnant; no one’s ever seen a pregnant man.
In some cultures, a twenty-five year old woman who hadn’t had a child yet was considered a blasphemous woman because she had failed to give life to a God-worshipping soul. Today, most twenty-year old women don’t have children and feel no shame about it. On the contrary, it gives them time to think, to enjoy a social adventure. Virginity is a social signature: you will only have the children that the priest and society give you. That has no sense today in Western societies.
It seems to me that the concept of undifferentiated genders is impossible to attain, even if North European countries seek to …

Caroline Gaudriault - … So what do you think of creches and primary schools where gender distinction is banned; cloakrooms designed for a “different gender” …Is this a caricature or should we take it seriously because it might lead to something interesting ?

Boris Cyrulnik -Both, I think. It is a caricature, but it should be taken seriously. There’s an element of truth in all caricatures. But in this specific case, we would have to ban male and female first names, proscribe sexual penetration … In all that I fail to see where the drama of being a woman is, even though I’m convinced that being a woman involves a natural encumbrance, a kind of cultural burden. In the Congo, life expectancy for women is forty years. Their living conditions cost them a great deal. Female fulfilment is therefore a sign that the social and technological structure in a given society functions effectively. I think that when the technological and political aspects of a society are weak, women really pay the price. And in the Congo, when culture returns, when men’s behaviour changes, the life expectancy of women will rise.

Caroline Gaudriault - I’m not sure that the transgender question is a big issue in the Congo … What I mean is that, surely, this kind of issue is characteristic of societies in which the struggles of minorities in terms of claiming a right to their own identity and combating discrimination are further up the agenda. And that’s what the French National Education system is discussing. If you’re against it, then you’re being discriminatory.

Boris Cyrulnik - Yes, in effect, it’s even a criminal offence. It’s been done for people who don’t have the same colour skin, and now it’s being done for people who don’t have the same gender. Anything that categorises people abuses them. Discrimination is a crime. There was a time, not so long ago, when it was said that the superior man was blond with blue eyes and a specific cranial structure. That idea led to some of the greatest crimes in human history. It was a theory informed by abusive categorical visions. According to that theory, humanity could only develop according to the rules laid down in a single template. People would develop through obedience. German feminism was Nazi, even though there have been few theories more scornful of women than Nazism.

Caroline Gaudriault - That’s a very forceful example. Is it the same kind of discrimination ?

Boris Cyrulnik - There are people who would like it to be. In the Near East, for example. Even in the United States, a country I like very much. Even if that kind of discrimination is not as violent, when a child is developing and is troubled by sexual uncertainty, it finds itself in a violent situation. For society as a whole, it isn’t as violent as the example I’ve just given, but at the level of the individual it’s very violent. The number of suicides and depressive illnesses and the sheer unhappiness caused by being defined ambiguously, or not defined at all in the way society would want you to be in order to conform is substantial to say the least.

Boris Cyrulnik à La Seine-sur-Mer, 2013. Boris Cyrulnik à La Seine-sur-Mer, 2013.   

Caroline Gaudriault - Legislators want to reflect the evolution of mentalities. Is it their role to make people more open-minded ?

Boris Cyrulnik - Legislators make the laws that structure our way of living together. Those laws are influenced by philosophical and social debates; novelists, film makers and advertising creatives also have an important role to play in this regard. They are the ones who map up the initial contours of cartography for collective living. Sometimes absurd theories have been used as the basis for legislation in all eras. Love had nothing to do with marriage, which was no more than a social determinant; just like sex had nothing to do with pleasure, which was a sacred determinant (creating a soul). Laws are made to evolve and everyone has an opinion to express.

Caroline Gaudriault - Between nature and nurture, it seems that, today, we are opting for nurture…

Boris Cyrulnik - The nature/nurture question is a conceptual dead end. The innate/acquired question that has poisoned debate for so long is bereft of meaning. Name me a single strand of DNA capable of developing without an environment. Name me a single environment capable of triggering the creation of a man or woman without a strand of DNA? You can’t. It’s a transaction between genetic potential and the pressures of the milieu. Since, in biology, the distinction between nature and nurture was rejected, researchers have been developing a new kind of biology. In fact, from DNA strands up, environmental pressure modifies genes to an enormous degree. At the moment, experiments are being carried out on animals. For example, in a certain milieu, a DNA strand from a rat produces a large red-haired rat, while in another the same strand produces small, hyperactive rats with black and red hair. So, the same DNA strand will produce different outcomes depending on the milieu selected by the researcher.
Today, although not excluding nature, human beings essentially live in a representational world of art, words, narratives and theories. The repertoire of self-representation is infinite. Personally, I’ve rejected the innate and the acquired. On the other hand, I’ve opted for the argument that I’ve just put forward: the transaction between genetic potential and the pressure of a milieu that provokes original developments.

Caroline Gaudriault - Don’t people today feel a little cramped by technological developments such as nanotechnology and bio-engineering? Aren’t they, to put it crudely, quite simply obsolete ?

Boris Cyrulnik - The last fifty years represent a major evolution in terms of technology (90% of all technological discoveries were made in the last half-century or, in other words, in the space of a mere two generations). In this new way of being human, there is no point in having a human body.
I believe that as soon as human beings started to think of themselves as such, or, in other words, as a kind of supernatural nature, they effectively began to imagine themselves as supermen. They have always wanted to go beyond nature, to deny its influence. Human beings do not feel subject to the laws of nature.
From the moment when Narcissus came to represent the new values of Western culture, things began to work in a different way. We have less and less need of the family (which is a hindrance), of the couple (which is becoming a burden), and of children (who restrict our actions).
While society is characterised by well-organised technological advances, social structures are becoming obsolete, because they represent a hindrance to personal pleasure.

Caroline Gaudriault - So the evolution of humanity is now informed by the pleasure principle ?

Boris Cyrulnik - Pleasure is immediate, so what we’re talking about is more like the happiness principle, a life project. In the notion of happiness that emerged in the French Revolution, with Saint Just, it was a life project, which isn’t the same thing as pleasure. Having a family, making great efforts … This way of living means that our society is increasingly becoming a culture of leisure characterised by instant pleasures. A whole industry of “non-work” is developing (holidays, leisure activities, etc.). But that isn’t what provides meaning. Meaning metamorphoses the way in which we experience the real. The real would exist even if I didn’t. Reality only exists because I seek it out and find some way of representing it. In other words, the industry that provides pleasure to people who want to work less and less represents progress in terms of pleasure but not in terms of meaning. The price to pay is that the family becomes a hindrance, whereas it used to be a protective sphere. The couple becomes simply a pleasure; it is either sexual or a kind of mutual help arrangement. It is the new condition of women which is completely changing the human condition.

Caroline Gaudriault - If you don’t mind, I would like to finish by quoting Engels: “This sham humanity of the Moderns hides a barbarism of which their predecessors knew nothing.”

Boris Cyrulnik - Yes, Paradise Lost. People have been saying that since the time of the Greeks. Effectively, we live with a feeling that we have been cast out of heaven, but when you look at daily life in the past, it was by no means heavenly; in fact, it was full of fear. A fear of invasions, bandits, of rain ruining the harvest … I think that when people lived in a distressing environment, the social groups provided comfort: a strong man was called for. Even when there wasn’t any love in the couple, when eroticism didn’t exist, the social structure had a comforting function. Love had existed since the Neanderthals, but it had nothing to do with the family, with children … Today, everything is being called into question, which is fascinating. This implies philosophical debates in which philosophers must give meaning to technological progress. Take the example of the pill. Scientifically speaking, blocking ovulation is hardly an innovation. But in terms of changing a society, it transformed the condition of women and humanity as a whole.
Like all progress, we are probably going to experience a backlash. The price will almost certainly be paid in loneliness.

La Seyne sur Mer, 2013.

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