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Review – La méthode Coué

For decades, the shifts on the field of psychotherapy have produced an ever sharper historical demarcation of ‘the’ discipline of psychology. Whereas the rising hegemony of psychoanalysis during the Trente Glorieuses has produced a hegemonic understanding of the history of Freudian therapy, the so-called ‘guerre des psys’ during the 1990s has only further stressed the perceived antagonisms between psychoanalysis on the one hand and cognitive and behaviorist psychologies on the other. At the same time, however, historians of psychology have been questioning the firmness of these boundaries. Ever more, mutually exclusive categories have been analyzed as historical constructs, inherent to the making of scientific discipline. Even if the American historian Frank Sulloway often figures as the most radical proponent of this deconstruction, his provocative Freud, Biologist of the Mind. Beyond the Psychoanalytic Legend (New York 1979) represents only one out of many attempts to lay bare the merely undefined character of key concepts such as the ‘unconscious’ during the first decades of the twentieth century. What was to become a war zone of theory, has once been a field of intense interaction between such different driving forces as Naturphilosophie, experimental science, medicine, religion and even esotericism.
Hervé Guillemain, in a well documented and imaginative account on the French therapist Émile Coué (1857-1926), lays bare a similar framework of interwoven ‘psychological’ tendencies at the beginning of the century. After having studied the two way traffic between religious healing practices and medico-psychological practices in his powerful doctoral thesis Diriger les consciences, guérir les âmes. Une histoire comparée des pratiques thérapeutiques et religieuses, 1830-1939 (Paris 2006), the French historian of psychology has turned to the ‘unidentified historical debris’ of the méthode Coué and its mantra-like recipes of ‘conscious autosuggestion’. Formulas of the sort “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better” are traced back to the historical reality of Coué’s therapeutic practice and to the contemporary cliché in which ‘Coué’ figures as a metaphor for the ridicule of exaggerated voluntarism (esp. in France). In Guillemain’s account, the development of Coué method is carefully reconstructed from Coués interferences with the famous Ecole de Nancy (and especially with Ambroise-Auguste Liébeault) before and during the First World War, to the remarkable Anglo-Saxon success of the therapy during the 1920s, the complex struggle for Coué’s legacy during the 1930s and the rapid eclipse of the Coué ‘school’ after the Second World War.
Quite convincingly, Guillemain demonstrates to what extent the contemporary ‘unidentified’ (and ridicule) character of the Coué method reflects its simultaneous tributary to fields that have become completely antagonistic in the course of the century. Guillemain lays bare, for example, Coué’s careful distancing towards the practices of magnetism, hypnosis and suggestion in which his method was nevertheless firmly rooted. Coué took refuge in a ‘conscious’ and ‘client-driven’ approach at a time when the perceived unhealthy authority of hypnotic healers was put under increasing religious and medical scrutiny. In a similar manner, Guillemain discusses the specific representation of the ‘unconscious’ that was put forward by Coué. Although this kind of purely reactive, reassuring and joyful ‘unconsious’ was clearly distanced – both by Coué and Freud himself – from psychoanalysis, many patients as well as some psychoanalyst practitioners nevertheless preferred it above the ‘demonic’ Freudian unconscious.
Whereas Guillemain discusses this disciplinary interweaving as well as the religious connotations of ‘Couéism’ with great care, its socio-political context is touched upon more superficially. Although the implicit presentation of ‘Couéism’ as a Totem of the ‘return to normality’ in the veteran cultures, the urban consumerist and professional cultures of postwar society may look sound, some readers might like to learn more about the specific gendering of the Coué movement. The attested prominence of female assistants around Coué suggests smooth integration at a time when the psychological ‘profession’ yet proved highly inaccessible for female students. It remains unclear, however, in what manner these women figured as idols of religious servility or as New Women who took advantage of the ‘method’ in their urban lives and at the office. Again, ‘La méthode Coué’, functions as a crowbar to resist easy though a-historical categorization. It is clear that Guillemain has opened up much more than a seemingly ‘insignificant object’.

Evert Peeters, SOMA

Hervé Guillemain, La méthode Coué : histoire d’une pratique de guérison au XXe siècle (Paris: Seuil, 2010).  978-2020993425, 21 €.

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