Jeffrey Ford, author of A Natural History of Hell
It is the summer of 1914. As the world teeters on the brink of the Great War, a callow American painter, Francis Wyndham, arrives at a renowned European insane asylum, where he begins offering art therapy under the auspices of Alessandro Caligarisinister psychiatrist, maniacal artist, alleged sorcerer. And determined to turn the impending cataclysm to his financial advantage, Dr. Caligari willfor a priceallow governments to parade their troops past his masterpiece: a painting so mesmerizing it can incite entire regiments to rush headlong into battle.
The Asylum of Dr. Caligari is a timely tale that is by turns funny and erotic, tender and bayonet-sharpbut ultimately emerges as a love letter to that mysterious, indispensable thing called art.
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The Asylum of Dr. Caligari
By James Morrow, Jill Roberts
Tachyon PublicationsCopyright © 2017 James Morrow
All rights reserved.
Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
— Karl Marx
From its birth during the Age of Reason until its disappearance following the Treaty of Versailles, the tiny principality of Weizenstaat lay along the swampy seam between the German Empire and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg like an embolism lodged in an artery. Ruled by a succession of harmless hereditary monarchs whose congenital mediocrity enabled their respective parliaments to run the county without royal interference, Weizenstaat was for many generations a prosperous and idyllic land. Then came the Great War, and when it was over this polyglot nation had simply ceased to exist, annexed by Luxembourg without the consent of the principality's citizens, who were accorded the same measure of control over their fate that a cow enjoys in an abattoir.
Prior to its dissolution, Weizenstaat was known primarily for three institutions: bedrock political neutrality, a banking system sympathetic to the requirements of monopoly capitalism, and a sanitarium called Träumenchen Asylum. So successful were the treatments pioneered at this maison de santé — most famously the eponymous Caligari system — the people of Weizenstaat took to joking that their country's principal import was irrationality and its principal export rehabilitated lunatics.
My personal journey to Träumenchen began many miles from Weizenstaat, at the 69th Regiment Armory in midtown Manhattan. On the 17th of February, 1913, the Armory opened its doors to a month-long exhibition of modern European paintings and sculptures (complemented by some indigenous pieces), the most audacious such show ever to disturb the digestion of an American critic. Having recently graduated from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, aflame with the naïve notion that avant-garde images were destined to cure the complacency of the bourgeoisie, I could no more have passed up this landmark event than the moon could waltz free of its orbit.
Because my story is inextricably linked to the Great War, its genesis in a military reservist training facility seems poetic to me. The Armory Show changed my life. It changed many lives. Words can never convey the exhilaration of my encounter with Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, that fragmented Cubist figure in whom the sensual and the mechanistic existed in such riveting equipoise. My pen will never rise adequately to the occasion of Henri Rousseau's Jaguar Attacking a Horse, the violent event playing out in a jungle at once savage and serene. No earthly language is equal to Bourdelle's gilded bronze masterpiece, Herakles the Archer, the demigod taking aim at theStymphalian birds while balanced on a rock from which he has seemingly sculpted himself.
So what does a bookish farm boy from central Pennsylvania do upon realizing his eyes are in love with Pablo Picasso's Woman with Mustard Pot? He learns to speak rudimentary French, borrows two hundred dollars from his doting Aunt Lucy, assembles a portfolio of his best charcoal sketches, watercolors, and unframed oils (most of them tableaux of urban life rendered in his impression of Impressionism), and finds a job peeling potatoes aboard a freighter bound for Le Havre.
My crossing occurred without mishap. I proceeded directly to Paris by train, hoping to locate Señor Picasso and perhaps find employment as his apprentice. Although my Pennsylvania Academy diploma read "Francis J. Wyndham," I'd decided to represent myself as "Zoltan Ziska, descended from a line of North American gypsies famous for their spare but powerful folk art."
Things did not go as planned. Enraged by my presumption, Picasso escorted me to the second-floor landing outside his Montmartre studio, threw my portfolio down the escalier, and, taking me by the shoulders, pushed me in the same direction. I tumbled to the bottom, humiliated but unharmed. Rube Descending a Staircase. As the coup de grâce he hurled a jar of azure-tinted turpentine toward my recumbent form (he was evidently still in his Blue Period). The glass struck the wall and, shattering, stained my white shirt with pale blotches. For several weeks I declined to wash the shirt, regarding it as a Picasso by other means, but in time I decided that the afternoon's true artistic event had been the spectacle of my ejection from the mad Spaniard's life.
Chastened though I was by this experience, I didn't stop trying to insinuate myself into the Paris circle. Despite my dogged persistence (which occasionally shaded into boorish impertinence), none of the other artists I tracked down assaulted me. This felt like progress. Marcel Duchamp spent a full minute perusing my portfolio, then furrowed his brow and said, "I suggest you learn a vocation, Monsieur Ziska, since you'll never live by selling your paintings. Brick-laying is an honest trade, and artistic in its own way."
Georges Braque was more considerate of my feelings. "I think that at present you paint like an American in Paris. Come and see me after you start painting like a Frenchman in Babylon."
Henri Rousseau was the kindest of all. "Whenever I am visited by a young artist whose work does not speak to me, I try to recall the lesson we all know from Hans Christian Andersen. Who am I to tell an ugly duckling he will never become a swan? Keep on painting, Monsieur. Something may come of it."
Of course such encouragement did nothing to alleviate my impecunious circumstances. Man does not live by bread alone, but it's a good idea to start with the bread. After three months of subsisting on restaurant scraps and street market discards washed down with public water, I was ready to enroll in bricklayer's school.
On a congenial July morning in 1914, I entered the atelier of André Derain, who had agreed to give me "ten minutes of my valuable time and a glass of second-rate Bordeaux." Derain was among the artists whom the critic Louis Vauxcelles had disparagingly branded les Fauves, the wild beasts (the most famous was Matisse), and while Derain's contribution to the Armory Show had struck me as paradoxically domesticated, a combination still life and landscape titled La Fenêtre sur le parc, I was mesmerized by the work-inprogress on his easel, an impiously Cubist interpretation of the Last Supper. Even more enthralling was his assessment of my work. In smoothly flowing English he called it "unassumingly intense" as well as "a portal to new possibilities in Impressionism." I nearly swooned, partially from hunger but mostly from the praise.
"Monsieur Ziska, I have a proposal for you," Derain continued, "a scheme that promises to free me from an awkward situation and improve your personal finances. I shall begin by requesting your real name."
"Bullshit. Isn't that what Americans say? Merde de taureau."
The Fauve took a drag on his cigarette. "Mr. Wynd-ham, did you read in Le Soir about the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary? A Slavic radical, one Gavrilo Princip, shot him during a state visit to Sarajevo."
Although I had no interest in politics, I affected a somber countenance and said, "Oh, yes, an international crisis to be sure."
"Princip was a nasty little crackpot, and nobody much liked Ferdinand either, but the rulers of Austria-Hungary believe in punishing terrorist acts severely. Last Tuesday, with Germany's blessing, they declared war on Serbia and bombed Belgrade. Serbia's staunch ally, Russia, is mobilizing even as we speak, and Russia's staunch ally, France, is doing the same. Yesterday my conscription board told me I must put on a uniform, which means I cannot honor the commitment I made last month to Alessandro Caligari, the Italian alienist. Dr. Caligari runs the Continent's most celebrated mental institution, Träumenchen Asylum in Weizenstaat. He planned the building himself. I had contracted to become a teacher there, giving painting lessons to lunatics."
"Exactly. The latest thing, very avant-garde."
"I'm flattered that you think me the right man for the job."
"To be honest, Mr. Wyndham, were I to leave Dr. Caligari's employ without providing a replacement, I fear he would exact some highly unpleasant retribution. Reading between the lines of his letters, I sense that he handles disappointment badly and nurtures grudges eternally. When in Herr Direktor's presence, pass up no opportunity to call Sigmund Freud a charlatan."
"Next you'll be telling me he throws people down stairs."
"He's not a Picasso, if that's what you mean. Patronize his eccentricities, laugh at his jokes, and all will be well. The position pays two hundred francs a week, and you'll receive free meals plus your own apartments in the asylum. I'll send you off with a letter of recommendation and the hundred-Deutschmark retainer I received from Caligari's private secretary. If you depart from the Gare d'Orsay early tomorrow morning, you'll stay ahead of the troop trains. Get off in Lyon and change there for Kleinbrück, the sort of municipality that in Weizenstaat passes for a city. Your indifferent French will serve you adequately, though the citizens normally speak German. Once you're inside the asylum, you'll be pleased to discover that English is the lingua franca."
"I'm impossibly grateful to you."
"There's something else you should know about Herr Direktor. He fancies himself an artist. He mailed me photographs of his paintings."
"And your verdict?"
"The man is not without talent. Despite his Italian heritage, his heart belongs to German Expressionism. His images are quite grotesque, shocking — horrific actually."
"Might we infer Caligari is applying art therapy to his own troubled psyche?"
"He may be troubled, but no more so than the gentility presently contriving to visit an apocalypse upon Europe. Je vous souhaite bon chance, Monsieur. God go with you — and with myself as well. I don't relish getting shot at by the Kaiser's soldiers, but it will be amusing to show the world that a Fauve can also be a patriot."
Forty-eight hours later, on Friday the 31st of July, I detrained in Kleinbrück, luggage in hand. As dusk dropped its chiaroscuro veil on the station platform, I hunched protectively over my portfolio case and made certain my wallet still held the vital hundred Deutschmarks. According to the last letter M. Derain had received from Caligari's secretary, the new painting master was to spend the night in the town, then arrive at the asylum in time for a three o'clock interview with Herr Direktor.
I faced the Moselle River, its spirited flow spanned by a wide wooden footbridge leading directly to a neoclassical marble building that my guidebook (a gift from Derain) identified as the Kleinbrück Kunstmuseum. A zigzag passageway, closed on all sides, with portholes instead of windows, connected the museum to a ponderous concrete edifice that was surely Träumenchen Asylum. Thrusting upward in a series of immense but ever-shrinking layers, the topmost surmounted by a bell tower supporting a gigantic clock (the whole arrangement oddly canted to the south), the sanitarium suggested nothing so much as a cake confected for some Brobdingnagian wedding feast. I'd been expecting a more graceful and therapeutically soothing structure, but who was I to criticize the great Caligari's vision of the ideal mental institution?
According to a map posted in the train station, the center of town was only three kilometers away, and so despite my burden of luggage I decided against hiring a private conveyance, and within the hour I stood before a charming hostelry called Das Blaue Einhorn — the Blue Unicorn. After securing my lodgings and receiving the key, I asked the clerk to arrange my transport to Träumenchen the following morning, whereupon his face acquired an expression of supreme dismay. When I asked what was wrong, he attempted to assume a nonchalant demeanor, then told me, in broken English, that if I was determined to work for Caligari, a hired car would be waiting for me at ten o'clock.
I ascended to my chamber, deposited my luggage beside the world-weary mattress, and, upon returning to street level, entered the dining room, where I ordered sauerbraten and a tankard of pilsner. Shortly after my meal arrived a florid man sidled unbidden into my booth, assumed the opposite bench, and introduced himself as Herr Janowitz, the proprietor.
"Please sit down," I said in a sardonic tone.
"Sie sind also geschäftlich ... I understand you have business at the asylum," said Janowitz.
"I'm the new painting master. Herr Direktor likes to supplement his methods —"
"As, yes, the famous Caligari system."
"With art therapy. I've heard his techniques are quite efficacious."
"Frequently an entire family will stay here prior to leaving a relation at Träumenchen, which means I've observed many a patient firsthand. I particularly remember a catatonic so severely afflicted it took three nurses to feed her. She returned from the asylum completely cured and eager to study modern dance."
"For a second I imagined you were about to warn me away from the place."
"Then there was the deluded young man who fancied himself Jack the Ripper. After his stay at Träumenchen, he became a tailor, sewing pieces of fabric together to make women's gowns."
"My employer sounds like a miracle worker," I said.
"A miracle worker but also, if the gossip is correct, a sorcerer," said Janowitz.
"This is the twentieth century."
"Not for people who choose to live in the Renaissance. It is rumored that Caligari dabbles in alchemy and occasionally raises the dead."
"At some point in his career, I imagine, anyone who heals by unorthodox techniques is subjected to slander."
"Did you know you had a predecessor? Werner Slevoght from Bremen?" "Let me guess. He went to work at the asylum and was never heard from again. Really, mein Herr, this is all too banal."
"No, he went to work at the asylum, and two months later Caligari arranged for his conscription into the German Imperial Army. The last time I saw Slevoght, just before he marched off with the Sixth Corps, he told me, 'The magician must be stopped.' I hope I haven't spoiled your appetite."
"Not at all, but if our conversation continues, my dinner will get cold."
"You have no belief in sorcery?"
"Neither do I. What I fear are people who lack the good taste to disbelieve in sorcery and thereby end up practicing it. Enjoy your supper, Mr. Wyndham." Although Herr Janowitz's warning about metaphysical anomalies at the asylum seemed ludicrous to me, like the rant of a decadent aesthete in a Huysmans novel, I awoke the next morning in a state of low-level paranoia. I ate a hasty breakfast in the hostelry dining room. The promised motorcar, a Daimler, was waiting for me, driven by a voluble French-speaking chauffeur who couldn't stop lamenting his son's decision to enlist in the Belgian Army.
Ten minutes later, having paid the driver and collected my luggage, I approached the Moselle River, its churning current spitting flecks of foam, then crossed the footbridge to the museum. The sign on the lawn read Einritt nur mit Einladung — Admission by Invitation Only — an assertion corroborated by the chain slung across the oaken doors in a stark iron smile. Träumenchen was likewise sealed, its windows crosshatched with metal bars, its ramparts rising at least twenty feet, its main portal fitted with a high steel gate. It made sense, of course, for Caligari to have conceived the place as much along the lines of a penitentiary as a maison de santé. Obviously the inmates must not be allowed to wander away and make mischief in the town.
A mustachioed guard inhabited the sentry box, his authority advertised by a holstered Mauser. He scanned my introductory letter from M. Derain with a gaze of quintessential suspicion, likewise the letter to Derain from Caligari's secretary stipulating the three o'clock interview, but eventually he allowed me to enter — the massive gate encompassed a door of begrudgingly human proportions — and proceed along a narrow, brick-walled lane to a second sentry box. Here I was again treated with gratuitous incivility, the beady-eyed armed guard perusing my credentials twice before raising the saw-toothed boom barrier.
Checkpoint number three was a cottage defaced by gingerbread decoration, beyond which a radiantly green lawn spread in prelude to a multilayered château. The grounds thronged with free-roaming inmates, some wearing costumes congruent with their delusions: Arabian sheikh, Roman senator, Joan of Arc, Jesus Christ. The present sentry — a walrus of a man with a freckled face — was the rudest yet. After a protracted interval he cranked up his intramural telephone and proclaimed my arrival to whomever was on the other end.
Excerpted from The Asylum of Dr. Caligari by James Morrow, Jill Roberts. Copyright © 2017 James Morrow. Excerpted by permission of Tachyon Publications.
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