REVIEW: James Morrow’s The Asylum of Dr. Caligari


James Morrow’s The Asylum of Dr. Caligari is a short novel big on ideas.

Let’s get the obvious question out of the way from the start: yes, the title character is taken from Robert Wiene’s 1920 German expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In fact, the description of the asylum, with its sharp, odd angles, could act as a description of any of the buildings in the film. More importantly, the basic story of the film (Caligari travels through Europe with a man he claimed to have kept in a somnambulistic trance for 15 years) is related at least twice in the novel.

In Asylum, Caligari has opened a psychiatric clinic in the European principality of Weizenstaat which, we are told on the first page, will not survive World War I; his methods are, to say the least, exotic. As he explains his main thesis: “We charm the patient into embracing a self-image incompatible with the behaviour that brought him here. Does he suffer from split personality? Then convince him, through drugs and hypnotism, that he is the God of the Jews, that is, the most monolithic entity imaginable.” In short, embrace the neuroticism. The method doesn’t appear to have any success in the book, but, then again, the methods of Herr Dr. Freud, whom everybody in the book seems to despise, were not without their controversies in their early datys.

Unbeknownst to all concerned, Caligari, a sorcerer, has painted a vast canvas that evokes a blood lust in all who see it; after the outbreak of the war, he is paid large sums of money by generals on all sides of the conflict to parade their soldiers past the painting before sending them into the trenches.

The main character is – okay, before we go any further, I should say that I am not overly fond of speculative fiction stories that give alternate explanations to historical events. The record shows us that human greed and stupidity were responsible for WWI; any other explanation reduces human agency and, ultimately, human responsibility for what happened. Morrow, a smart writer, seems to be aware of this problem: towards the end of the novel, one of the characters muses on the effect of Caligari’s painting, making the point that, human nature being what it is, the carnage would likely have been just as bad had it not been created.

So. As I was saying before I so rudely interrupted, the main character is Francis Wyndham, an artist taken with modernist non-representational art forms who, through a series of coincidental events, becomes an arts therapy professor at the psychiatric institution. It is there that he discovers Caligari’s monstrous plan and, enlisting unlikely allies, finds a way to thwart it.

A scene from the 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Morrow’s use of language is precise. On the first page, for instance, there are two metaphors which foreshadow the violence that is to come. This starts with the novel’s opening sentence: “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.”

He also has fun with language. At one point, Wyndham describes his unfortunate meeting with Picasso as “Rube Descending a Staircase” (a reference to Marcel Duschamp’s “Nude Descending A Staircase,” which Morrow conveniently name-checked on the previous page). At another point, Caligari discusses convincing female patients who exhibit signs of uncontrolled female desire that they are actually Sisters of the Carmelite Order, calling them “nunphomaniacs.”

Language is also an important pointer to the themes of Morrow’s book, as when Caligari comments: “The aesthetic intensity of this war will be beyond imagination.” To the fraught question of whether art has any visible or lasting effect on society, Caligari answers with a resounding, “Yes!” However, one of the plots to undo his evil involves making a duplicate painting that inspires romantic lust, rather than blood lust, in those who see it, a ploy which works until it is discovered by Caligari. Could it be that good art can counteract bad art? Or, is it just that every art movement supplants the one that came before it, regardless of its social value? (Personally, I’m not that concerned about the social effects of art. For those of us who are enlightened or moved or merely entertained by art in the moment in which we encounter it, its value is self-evident.)

One of the joys of The Asylum of Dr. Caligari is its portrayal of the intellectual ferment of the first two decades of the twentieth century. Discussions of the value of the new science of psychology, of non-expressionistic art forms, of philosophers such as Nietzsche and of the evolution of warfare are strewn throughout the story. Despite the horrors depicted in the novel, it portrays the early 1900s as an exciting time to live.

As a result, the novel left me with a sense of sadness. Partly, this was because its ending was downbeat, with two of the main characters condemned to live an eternity in a netherworld of avant garde art. Mostly, though, what saddened me was that, when I look at the current intellectual and creative output of humanity, I see little that comes close to comparing to the culture of a century ago. To be sure, there are both great artists and thinkers doing great world; but, taken as a whole, the excitement of cultural discovery isn’t here.

This may be a matter of perspective. Few people at the beginning of the twentieth century had heard of Caligari or Cezanne or Munch or Freud. The passage of time was necessary for most people to recognize how rich the culture they had lived with was; perhaps time will reveal the intellectual and creative richness of the present moment.

Somehow, though, I have my doubts.

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