Louise Bourgeois’ selected writings
April 24, 1952

My mother left me behind two winters.
winter of 26 - 27 when she went to Pau
I wanted to go away and save people from evil  Travail devoir veu
T D V.  This lasted for years.  I was 16 years old.
My father never belonged to the house.  felt at the hotel des anges with the three girls.  and the mannequin in his bed.
The long search for a father who would belong to the house.  In St Sulpice and St-Germain-des-Prés. I feel at peace.
guilt feeling and need to be punished or atone for.  Unable to blame a parent some children accept the guilt as their own, and want to pay for it.  If my father had been unsuccessful in his bad behavior the way a foolish drunkard is we would have been glad to help him and like him and feel sorry for him.  But my father was not pitiful, he had pleasure, unjustly, and did not pay for his leaving his family.  He even put God on his side, at the dame time making fun of the religion and preaching “honesty.”
On top of that it was my innocent mother who suffered, there was two injustices.  My father stood as a figure of success in the family, community.  He was rewarded by both pleasure and standing.  Pierre never got either.

LB-0127 (c. 1958)
The analysis is a jip
                        is a trap
                        is a job
                        is a privilege
                        is a luxury
                        is a duty
                        is a duty towards myself
                        my husband          my parents
                        my children           my
                        is a shame
                        is a farce
                        is a love affair
                        is a rendez-vous
                        is a cat + mouse game
                        is a boat to drive
                        is an internment
                        is a joke
                        makes me powerless
                        makes me into a cop
                        is a bad dream
                        is my interest
                        is my field of study -
                        is more than I can manage
                        makes me furious
                        is a bore
                        is a nuisance
                        is a pain in the neck–

LB-0513 (c. 1953)
I was always conscious of a
possibility of silence falling like the
lid of a Lorsqu grave and engulfing me
for ever and ever.
            The silence invaded the room
and I was afraid to hear my heart
beat. this danger was coming from within
and that this only inincessant [sic] flow of
words could keep it at bay if not
master it.
to hear chaos, a cascade.
the Marne locks – Beethoven
a river that carries
rocks and trees
The thunder rolling

I read before falling asleep Sartre 10pm
Le Mur and the room
I cannot fall asleep I wait
awake until 2:30AM . then take
an aspirin. I dream of a family
scene where life is calm The
mother is very tall corseted formidable
but nothing unpleasant ever
occurred -
All of a sudden a person the gifted stocky
type asks do you know what
a symbol is - It is something that
pretends to be something else .
You know this women that you call your
Mother . she really is “Death” her
body is like a wicker basket
underneath her dress - I am atrociously
flabbergasted to have lived  so long
without knowing and thank God without
being in conflict with her

LB-0124 (17 de septiembre de 1959)
After Maman’s death, I started to be afraid
to leave the house especially after lunch
Sometimes I was thinking that if someone were putting
 poison in her food she would be out like
a light - Then I started to forbid people to
cook for her, also I mounted guard and I was afraid
that people would hurt her - after she was dead I said
that at least she would not suffer any more. I was definitely
relieved by her death and I put myself in her bed
and forbade people to come in her room after mother’s
death I felt lighter too and kept her souvenir alive
in the children’s memory as an atonement.

LB-0768 (c. 1959)
the forehead
the ears
the base of the skull
the back of the neck
the back between the shoulder blades
the base of the ribs  -
the solar plexus   -
the stomach the esophagus the throat -
the intestines - the anus
the pelvis bones the joints
the legs thighs ankle toes
the arms forearms and hands
the breathing the tr
he palpitations
the hot flashes
the pains – the cramps -
the sweaty smell of the stalked
animal  extreme  tension

LB-0234 (c. 1961)
The dramatic quality of the black wood statue
comes from: 1˚) the verticality indicates an effort or élan
            or a rush from the id -

2˚) the horizontals are like “stops”, checking,
worries, conventional, an effort to curb instincts
representation of an inner conflict,  where there is élan and
frustration13 = tormented Baudelaire  “-I felt
today the wind blowing…”

LB-0516 (c. 2008)

Never let me be free from
this burden that will never
let me be free
                        Louise Bourgeois


1 Meyer-Thoss, 202. Once, apropos of La Fontaine’s Le loup et l’agneau, she remarked: “the loup comes and pontificates to the agneau, in order to eat him – that was my father!” Kuspit, 32.

2 Bourgeois concludes, “sculpture is the body, and my body is the sculpture.” Meyer-Thoss, 195.

3 LB-0036 (17 October 1955).

4 Allan Bloom wrote that all Frenchmen are either Cartesians or Pascalians.  (See The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1987), 52.)  If the Cartesian worldview is rationalistic and posits a mind-body division, the Pascalian emphasizes the power of intuition and the limits of reason (as in the famous wager of faith). Bourgeois’s remark that she is “trying to be a Descartes. […] I think, therefore I am; I doubt therefore I am; I am deceived, therefore I am” (Meyer-Thoss, 71), may seem somewhat counterintuitive since she is so clearly on the Pascalian side of the ledger. It may be that she is merely appropriating here the syntactic structure of Descartes’ most famous proposition. More likely, in my view, her wish to adopt a Cartesian position privileging mind over body expresses a wish to escape the anxiety that torments her.

5 Diary entry, 22 February 1949: “the aetiology of hysteria by / Freud / hysterical symptoms can / always be traced to / repressed sexual memories / usually having occurred (experienced) / the memories may become / conscious much later, at puberty / my father walking around in / his nightshirt holding his genitals.” LBD-1949.

6 “I’m afraid of power. It makes me nervous. In real life, I identify with the victim, that is why I went into art. In my art, I am the murderer. I feel for the ordeal of the murderer, the man who has to live with his conscience.” Meyer-Thoss, 195.

7 Christiane Meyer-Thoss, p. 202. A propósito de El lobo y el cordero de La Fontaine comentó: “el lobo sermonea al cordero para comérselo, ¡igual que mi padre!”, Kuspit, p.32.

8 Bourgeois concluye: “la escultura es el cuerpo, y mi cuerpo es la escultura”. Meyer-Thoss, p. 195.

9 LB-0303 (17 de octubre de 1955).

10 Según Allan Bloom los franceses son cartesianos o pascalianos. Si la cosmovisión cartesiana es racionalista y postula una división cuerpo-mente, la pascaliana destaca el poder de la intuición y los límites de la razón (como en la famosa apuesta por la fe). Cuando Bourgeois observa que está “tratando de ser una Descartes. […] Pienso, luego existo; dudo luego existo; me engañan, luego existo” (Meyer-Thoss, p. 71), el comentario puede resultar un tanto contrario a la intuición si se piensa en su clara inclinación por Pascal. Puede que simplemente se esté apropiando de la estructura sintáctica de la célebre proposición cartesiana. Su deseo de adoptar una posición cartesiana que privilegie a la mente por sobre el cuerpo parece expresar más bien, a mi juicio, un deseo de escapar de la angustia que la atormenta. 

11 “la etiología de la histeria según / Freud / los síntomas histéricos se / originan siempre en / recuerdos sexuales reprimidos / que por lo general ocurrieron (experimentados) / los recuerdos pueden hacerse / conscientes mucho después, en la pubertad / mi padre caminando por ahí / con su camisón sujetándose los genitales.” Entrada de diario, 22 de febrero de 1949. DLB-1949.

12 “El poder me da miedo. Me pone nerviosa. En la vida real, me identifico con la víctima. Es por eso que me dediqué al arte. En mi arte, soy la asesina. Me da pena el suplicio del asesino, el hombre que debe vivir con su conciencia.” (Meyer-Thoss, p. 195)

13 Cf. diary of 4 April 1954: “insist on the impossible / insist on the absolutely unnatural / short of an unceasing vigilance / Deny force of gravity. Insist / so they stiffen and straighten up / + stand vertical when their own / weight and shape brings them / back down to the ground constantly - / Psychology view of my work / trouble with the bases / inhibition about the bases[.]”

14 The allusion is to Baudelaire’s “My Heart Laid Bare” (Mon Coeur Mis À Nu, 1864): “I have cultivated my hysteria with joy and terror. Now I am always dizzy, and today, 23 January 1862, I received a singular admonition, I felt pass over me the wind of the wing of imbecility.” (“J'ai cultivé mon hystérie avec jouissance et terreur. Maintenant, j'ai toujours le vertige, et aujourd'hui, 23 janvier 1862, j'ai subi un singulier avertissement, j'ai senti passer sur moi le vent de l'aile de l'imbécillité.”) (I am indebted to Françoise Gramet and Richard Sieburth for identifying this allusion.)



Introduction to pshychoanalytic writings
Philip Larratt-Smith


[…] It might strike the reader as odd that Bourgeois considered the output of the writer superior to that of the artist. It was her view that the writer engages in an intellectual process and has the ability to prove and persuade, whereas the artist is caught up in self-expression. In the end, however, she distrusted words:

The existentialists disappeared when the structuralists came in. Lacan came in. The structuralists were interested in language, grammar, and words. Sartre and the existentialists were interested in experience. Obviously, I am on the side of the existentialists. With words, you can say anything. You can lie as long as the day, but you cannot lie in the re-creation of an experience.

As La Rochefoucauld said, ‘Why do you talk so much? What is it that you have to hide?’ The purpose of words is often to hide things. I want to have total recall and total control of the past. Now what would be the sense in lying?1

The body, with its functions, dysfunctions, failures, and rich panoply of sensations, does not lie. Bodily distempers give her access to the realm of the unconscious, which is the royal road to the otherwise unrecoverable past. So she studies closely and compulsively records her menstrual cramps, stomach upsets, headaches, and spells of insomnia because “the fears of the past were connected with the functions of the body” and therefore “they reappear through the body.”2 Bourgeois:

            The premenstrual tension shows – withdrawal
            self degradation, suspicion + guilt – There is
            something wrong with me + it is my fault
            the post menstrual tension is revengeful + agressive [sic]
            there is something wrong with me but it is
            “your fault” you did it (the recipient of the
            accusation is the mother figure)3

At the same time Bourgeois displays that particular talent of the French for parsing emotions in the language of rationality. There are writings where she observes herself as if from a distance, as if the psychic events being recorded – which following Cézanne she called her petites sensations, and which appear to be bubbling up from her unconscious unimpeded – were actually happening to somebody else. Her penchant for making a rational analysis of her emotions, fortified by a detached and almost clinical tone, may derive in part from her early study of mathematics and philosophy at the Sorbonne, where she wrote her thesis on Pascal. Bourgeois was a true Pascalian, and quotes with approval one of his best-known aphorisms: “Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît pas.4Other writings, by contrast, give us a raw, uncensored stream-of-consciousness that seems to emanate from an irresistible compulsion to spill her guts or assuage her guilt. This compulsion is related to the parallel need to faire le vide, to empty her body or her house as much as to evacuate her mind – a need that coexists, once again, with an opposing drive to fill in empty space, as if under compulsion of a horror vacui, as in the sheets filled with repetitive injunctions (“calme toi,”“ne pense à rien”) or in her drawings of webs and skeins wherein everything is continuous and interconnected. In some cases the stream of her associations is triggered, à la Proust, by a sensory stimulus that throws open a vista on a hitherto unremembered incident from her past. In others it is an encounter with another person that brings the unconscious to the fore. In still others her associations appear to be the result of an exercise in automatic writing deliberately undertaken as a method of unlocking the past.

Bourgeois once described the process of drawing as a journey without a destination, and the same could be said of her writings. Closely aligned to her practice of drawing, they often have a strong visual dimension that evinces the same obsessive, repetitive mark-making. There are texts where her lines are written in tight spiral configurations, and texts where they radiate outwards like spokes from a hub. Sometimes she illustrates a given point with drawing elements. Her exhaustive lists of people, places, and things are often organized in a column, like one of her stacked segmented forms from the early 50s. She catalogues the rivers she knows, the houses she has lived in, the ateliers she has attended. She runs through the conjugations of a verb, or the permutations of a given phrase, or the associations of the colour pink. Occasionally she imagines how each of the members of her two families of five would behave in the face of a sexual attraction. Elsewhere she asks and answers the most elementary questions in an interior dialogue, like a catechism.

Thus her collections and recollections of names and place-names are as much aide-mémoire as exorcism: the valences may shift from positive to negative or vice versa but the underlying mechanism is the same. Bourgeois is compelled to remember everything in order to hold on to her past, and at the same time wants to forget the past in order to live in the present. Her past has never lost its magic, mystery, and drama precisely because it is also the site and origin of the trauma to which she must eternally return. “To unravel a torment”: the process of tracing her anxieties back to their root causes allows her to make the shift from the passive, a victim of fear and depression, to the active, the author of her own destiny.5 Yet each state is dialectically dependent upon its opposite. So, for example, her aggression, which is as prominent in the psychoanalytic writings as it is in the physical act of carving wood or marble, is actually a defense mechanism. The marble Femme Couteau series reverses the standard associations of femininity with passivity and withdrawal, proposing instead a fusion of woman with knife. The iconography of knives, scissors, guillotines, disjointed forms, and dismembered body parts in her work gives symbolic form to a marked conflict between maternal and paternal identifications – a conflict that is thus tethered not only to aggression but also to frustrated sexual desire. Likewise the psychoanalytic writings show her attacking her husband as a way of warding off unwelcome feelings of castration. Yet she frequently identifies Robert with her mother, which adds another layer of complexity (and eventual remorse). Femme Couteau takes on the phallic form identified with the aggressor.6 But her own acts of aggression invariably end in guilt and depression because they undermine her sense of femininity, her identity as a woman. The result, as the writings attest, is almost always a crisis. […]