Farewell to Renaat Devisch

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In a landscape tight like a sheet, where barns seem to float above the fields of barley, where the air sags in a minor heat, as farmers work everywhere, even in fierce rain, when a scourging wind rises from the sea, a boy cycles along the Gemeneweg – the common road – which is also called Chemin Mitoyen. The village of Leiséle, the Westhoek.

The road with the double name lies exactly on the border, it is neither Belgium nor France. With his bicycle, the boy drifts from left to right and back. From home land to foreign land  and back. He imagines that he can grasp the frontier’s line like this, and shift it, much like a curtain of rain moves across the farmland. As if he is playing with frontiers, with danger, with a greater world.

His name: René, or Renaat, Devisch, farmer’s son, youngest of three. Designated by his father Omer to take over the farm, but his mother Bertha disagrees, she sees no future for her children at the Schreve. The boy feels torn apart, can’t choose and makes a radical move.

To everyone’s surprise, he enters the Jesuit seminary in Drongen. Studies philosophy in the DRC, and leaves the Jesuits behind. He lived with the Yaka in South-West Congo for almost three years, returns as an anthropologist, sets up a magnificent family with Maria, becomes a professor and enchants his students with stories, rituals and myths. He receives an honorary doctorate in Kinshasa, becomes a psychoanalyst, and as an emeritus he continues to publish and sets up two groups for psychoanalysts and anthropologists.

Renaat knew that we would all be together here, in this place, at this moment. He asked me not to boast. We will do our best to remain objective.

But what a remarkable man Renaat was, a child of Vatican II, Charles de Foucauld and the liberation theology, the anti-Vietnam protests and in May 68, Leuven-Flemish and the Club of Rome. His anthropology is inspired by Lévi-Strauss, Victor Turner, Bourdieu and the late Lacan to name just a few. But his true teachers were the Yaka of Kwango. He remained fascinated by them for life.

But let’s dwell for a moment on those Jesuits. Renaat didn’t like old-fashioned missionaries with their urge to convert, he did not like institutions, authorities, experts. From the Jesuits though, he learnt a distinction of spirit, the method for making difficult life choices. This meant becoming quiet, looking inside your own life. Not to make quick decisions, but carefully balance the pros and cons. In the quality of feeling itself, something is said about yourself. It is then you realise which kind of spirits drive you on.

A sense of duty he learnt there too, and affection. He found them strong, driven, never overly pious. The fact that they had nothing personal gave them enormous freedom, ready for any journey at any moment of their lives. When he met some of them again, years later, he belonged to them again. ‘I am still in their hearts, that remains,’ he stated.

Let’s return to Kinshasa, in a home for Jesuits, studying Merleau-Ponty and Senghor, Renaat saw them walking in the street: men behind one another, ragged, thin and exhausted. With a heavy load on the head, a thin stick in the hand, a slovenly loincloth. The Yaka, who for five hundred kilometres had come on foot from Kwango.

He would go and live with them for three years, in the villages. It was the greatest gift he had ever received in his life, he said. They told him they knew he was coming. They had already seen him in their dreams.

There he found other forms of knowledge. Each time he asked: What is this? What does it mean? When he spoke to his students, he immediately added: this is about life itself; we are not going to exoticise things, not use colonial words, this is not about poverty, but rather: about how these people go through human life.

How they too look for words for dimensions that transcend words. What escapes us? What is that? He got to know their rich culture, their rituals, their diviners and healers. How they do not predict, but rather unravel, interpret signs, discover what is beyond a family’s grasp. Messages of mourning also circulate in Congo, and yesterday I read on Facebook – how they address a dear father – tata – Tata Professeur Devisch, il était le nôtre. Il nous a adopté et nous l’avons aussi adopté. Nous te disons que la terre de nos Ancêtres te soit douce et légère. We let you know that the earth of our ancestors will be soft and light for you.

What a remarkable man Renaat was. He was convinced that just about any event with effect and aftermath could be a sign.  A sign that resonates in a larger symbolic sphere, that perhaps nothing happens by chance, in the moment and in hindsight.

That you can look at yourself as part of a family tree of humanity.

That you may trust connections with the past, because things and people, if they are influential, somehow recover and return. Finally, as you look around you, you simultaneously learn to look inside yourself.

As an elderly man and a scientist, Renaat appeared to become even more like the person he always had been. Sophisticated and searching, engaged and vulnerable. He was fascinated by signs in the shadows. God he did not mention, that was too concrete, but the Unspeakable he did. How do people handle what we cannot name or understand? Life and mortality, coincidence and fate, guilt, evil and all the moods that bewitch us in this respect.

I liked to talk to him about that one human species, that special kind of person who deals with those delicate issues. They have talent and a sensitivity to talk about the unspeakable, to help people, and even to bring the community together around such concerns.  I am talking about priests and shamans, doctors, therapists, psychiatrists, physiotherapists and nurses, also thinkers and artists.

People healers enfin.

What is this? What does it mean, he asked once again. Are they mediators, seers, predecessors through which you can hear the ancestors?

And so he returned – in his thoughts – to his own sources of West Flemish fervour, his strong persistence and restlessness, nevertheless tender. His gloom too, the doom of ancestors. At the same time, a dear, affable Renaat talked about ordinary and special conversations with his wife, their children, family and many friends. These were moments in which we transcend space and time, a sudden rupture into the open. It is apparently not about us as individuals, it is much wider.

I asked him how he imagined that end. He said: ‘together with children and partner, a peaceful moment of farewell, life has been beautiful and painful, there was a lot of friendship and love, and at the same time, we sometimes have been a burden to each other. It is both. We don’t even choose life. Life happens to us just like death.  After reflecting on it, having expressed ourselves one-to-one, we can say that it has been good enough’.

Author of The People Healer, a novelistic biography of Renaat Devisch


To cite this article:

PEETERS, KOEN. 2020 ‘Farewell to Renaat Devisch’. Obituaries. Royal Anthropological Institute, February 2020. (available on-line: https://therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/farewell-to-renaat-devisch)


STOEKEN, KOEN. 2020 ‘Renaat Devisch’. Obituaries. Royal Anthropological Institute, February 2020. (available on-line: https://therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/renaat-devisch)