Madness and Glory (30): A Dinner

The story of Philippe Pinel, father of modern psychiatry.

Posted May 31, 2019

Chapter 30

“Is Robespierre really planning a return to religion?” asked Antoinette Venables, wife of deputy Maurice Venables.

“No, not religion, actually,” answered Camille Raston, sitting at the head of the table. It was a common practice for the Rastons to have dinners for deputies, republicans, and their spouses.

“What then?” asked young deputy Fourier, sitting nearby.

“Affirming the belief in a supreme being,” Raston said.

“What supreme being?” Antoinette Venables asked.

“God, I suppose. But he doesn’t want to use that word, just says ‘supreme being.’”

“The clergy will rejoice,” said Fourier.

“No, it is not to reinstate the clergy. Not the point. Robespierre believes the attacks on priests and church have gone too far, denying any deity.”

“Not far enough for me,” said Antoinette Venables, whose husband, listening a short distance down the table, nodded.

“Antoinette, my dear,” said Veronique Raston, at the other end of the table, “Have you had unfortunate experiences with the clergy?”

“Not just my own observing. You remember, don’t you, that our priests urged the people to spit on the Constitution and to abuse the uniforms of the National Guard.”

“But don’t you think the church may be stabilizing – I mean, has an important stabilizing effect on the country?” Veronique Raston asked. Having often insisted to Genevieve that her friend Lalladiere was both weak and irreligious, she wiggled her eyebrows meaningfully at her daughter.

As part of her campaign to disrupt Genevieve’s relationship with the inmate, she had taken care to seat her daughter between two young and attractive men, an army officer and a deputy. Within the dining room full of zestful, well-dressed people, the officer, Antoine Vaillier, distinctly stood out as dashing and quite handsome. The composition of his well-fitting blue uniform, gold braided epaulets, and perfectly aligned red sash heightened an impression of immaculate facial orderliness. Both his hair and carefully trimmed, narrow moustache were shining black and smooth. The deputy, Christiane Desrouches, was also good-looking but in a more rugged, casual appearing way. He wore a large, ballooning scarlet cravat, which in his case accented both the square lines of his jaw and the edges of his darkly outlined but shaven beard. His coat was loose, tailored with minimal care, and he wore long hemmed pants. Both men displayed special interest in impressing Genevieve.

“I hear Robespierre’s planning to have a festival celebrating this new project,” Vailler said with a smile to Genevieve. “Wouldn’t that be the thing, waltzing supremely before a supreme being?”

Before Genevieve could answer, Desrouches responded.

“Lieutenant, you jibe. But do you not believe we need something to inspire us further now, a sense of higher purpose?” He gazed briefly at Vaillier as he spoke, then turned sideways toward Genevieve. There was a glistening look in his eyes.

“Surely so, deputy,” Vallier answered, “but we are at war. This is no time for frivolous spectacles. Don’t you agree, citizenness?”

Genevieve was at that moment distracted. The lieutenant’s use of the word ‘inspire’, had put her in mind of a recent visit to Guillaume. Always before, he had been so inspired, and for a long time, so inspiring to her. Now, although he increasingly spoke more clearly during her visits, his eyes remained dull and spiritless. She took a labored breath and tried to shift her attention to the lieutenant’s question.

“I believe that Robespierre is sincere in his belief in a deity,” she said, well aware that both men were vying to gain her favor, and attempting to side with neither.

“Robespierre is a discerning leader,” Desrouches said, displaying his own political acumen. “He thinks carefully about every step he takes.”

“A leader, or anyone, engaging in a strategy may still, at every step of the way, be sincere. It is, for me, an issue as well,” As she spoke, Genevieve thrust her head slightly backward while twisting a curl. Her face, enlivened by an awakening of interest, looked vivacious and pretty.

“Oh? How is that?” Vaillier asked.

“Why, I write every day. And at night when I read what I have done, I tear it all up and start again the next day.”

“Oh, that seems a great pity, such a drain on time, pleasure, and future prospects. But I, of course, know very little of writing,” Vaillier said, giving Genevieve a significant look when referring to future prospects.

“I suppose, citizenness, you are very careful,” Desrouches said.

“As for the government leaders, my charming hostess,” Vaillier put in, stiffening his already tightly upright back, “not one of them, I do believe, has been to the military academy at Autun. When leaders who do not have Autun use strategy, they should, at the very least, be sincere.” He paused, then added with a sudden twinkle in his eye, “And autun-o-mous as well.”

“Joking can, I imagine, be helpful these days for lightening the fear around us,” Genevieve said, forcing herself to be gracious.

“Robespierre constantly has proclaimed, “Desrouches said, distinctly serious, “that excessive privilege, church ownership of massive amounts of property, exclusion from paying revenue, justifiably set the people against the sacred orders from the start.” Believing, with this, he had scored a hit with any strong republican, he looked now directly into her eyes.

“And now, of course, we are instead told,” quickly interjected Vaillier, not to be outdone, “that ethics, social order, and virtue are under the guidance of a supreme being,”

“Yes, that’s right. I am sure you yourself must believe that you have supreme guidance when you go into battle.” As he made his point, Desrouches leaned forward toward Vaillier, tilting his shoulder and almost touching Genevieve.

“I believe – I think of my musket and my sword, the musket and swords of my men, and our capacity to use them.”

“Really, lieutenant, you don’t think also about the republic, the cause we’re all fighting for?” Genevieve asked, unstirred by Vaillier’s bravado.

“Without a doubt, citizenness, I think of little else. My sword in hand, my finger curled on the musket trigger, are for the glory and triumph of the republic.”

“But not the grace of deity?”

“No, not for deity, supreme being, or whatever you choose to call it. Is this disturbing to you?”

“I have felt despair,” Genevieve said sadly. “And I have hoped for help from a deity. Or from – I don’t know, something inside myself, perhaps.”

“Did help come?” Desrouches asked, his warm tone reflecting his pleasure that Genevieve challenged Vaillier, standing for the republic and supporting his own position.

“Possibly so.” Genevieve said, thinking to herself that, despite his continued lack of spirit, Guillaume was being helped, becoming progressively less strange. He was getting regular treatment, she was told, from the chief physician who met with him frequently. Her godsend may be the transfer to Bicêtre which she pushed for.

“I am delighted it may be so,” Vaillier said, “for a lovely woman such as you. You are a devoted patriot, a supporter of the Revolution, and I am certain you need no celebrations, no spectacles of devotion that really serve for the glory of a single person,” Vaillier spoke earnestly, his suspicions of Robespierre’s motives for this festival were shared, less openly, by many others, military and non-military, throughout the country.

“Such talk, lieutenant, could earn you quite a bit of discomfort nowadays,” Desrouches said, leaning again, this time letting his hand graze Genevieve’s on the table. Inconspicuously, she moved it away. “Robespierre,” he continued, “has forwarded the Revolution, and with the aid of Saint-Just, he has done more than anyone to protect the gains – alerting us to corrupters and traitors, helping us root them out. You cannot say Robespierre is for himself alone. His price controls have staved off famine and he has spearheaded the abolition of slavery. He has conducted the war –”

“Conducted the war, you say?” Vaillier, who had become increasingly irritated by Desrouches’s civilian arrogance together with his not-so-subtle advances toward Genevieve, now became irate.

A vigorous argument ensued. Vaillier, pounding the table, cited the large number of military losses in the North; Desrouches, hand still close to Genevieve, lauded the Safety Committee’s authorization of Lazare Carnot and minutely described this military engineer’s work on a broad plan of retaliation. The lieutenant, more softly then but with continued spirit, insisted that the politicians were unable to run a war, pointing out numerous current and historical examples. The deputy brought up what he described as brilliant political actions that led to the already great republican victory achieved at Lille. He shifted several times in his chair, showing his agitated dedication while causing his knee to contact Genevieve’s thinly covered one.

She tried to avoid his unwelcome touching by increasingly determined withdrawals. Also, as the conversation seemed staged and unreal, she again switched to thoughts of Guillaume, to her last visit when he spoke about their walks on the banks of the Seine. Not too many words, but she was moved when he made a connection between her having worn a striped white tunic over a red dress – a lovely one, he said – that was similar to the outfit she had on that day. Also, he spoke coherently about the Bicêtre, saying he was not sure about all of the attendants but was glad not to have bloodletting or the bath of surprise.

The noisy contest, the thrust and parrying of words wasted on the inattentive female prize, attracted the notice of others at the dinner table. Host Raston, though a staunch believer in open discussion, decided he should try, out of consideration for the comfort of his guests, to tone the overly vigorous contenders down. He addressed some questions to Desrouches, found that the discussion involved Lieutenant Vaillier’s criticisms of Robespierre and thought it best not to intervene further. Others at the table became quiet, turned toward the two men to stare and listen.

“Do you mean to say,” Desrouches asked, turning back to Vaillier, “that you think our leaders are conducting the war in a slip-shod manner?”

“Yes, decidedly so.”

“That they pay no attention to advice of the commanders?”

“Almost never.”

“And there is trouble in the military about this?”

“The politicians constantly countermand orders and undermine the morale of the soldiers.”

“You embellish and overstate everything you say, monsieur.” Desrouches, now distraught, had lapsed into a challenging use of the proscribed and unrevolutionary honorific title. He also forgot about his stroking pursuit of Genevieve.

“Our soldiers are nowadays punished with death. The strategist General Custine ended up guillotined, do you remember that travesty?”

“Indeed, any soldier who speaks treason can be subject to death,” Desrouches, glaring, blurted angrily.

Vaillier jerked further upright at Desrouches’s threatening remark. Realizing he was under scrutiny by the dinner assemblage, and concerned primarily about any slur on his patriotism, he suddenly stood up, lifted his wine glass in a toasting gesture toward his host Raston, and began, in a loud clear voice, to sing the words of the revolutionary song, Ça Ira. Surprised, Raston and all the dinner guests rose and slowly joined in. Genevieve also, roused from her detachment, stood up, barely managing to avoid tripping over Desrouches’s outstretched foot.

Lalladiere, lying on his cot at Bicêtre, was feeler calmer. He was making progress in the meetings with Dr. Pinel. Despite his hearing a continuing drone of voices and the ever-present fear of Ajacis and his threat, he could talk to the doctor more freely. The voices still warned him not to say too much, not to trust this doctor or his asylum, not to trust himself, especially not to consider himself anything but the lowest of the low. But Dr. Pinel’s continuing interest, his reassuring acceptance of the possible reality of the conspiracy, his support and perception of the saner self, helped Lalladiere push forward and loosen some of their hold. He allowed outlines of his feelings to come through, even though he could not then know anything about them. He knew neither the contents of the feelings nor their names. He continued to try to find a way to speak of them because that seemed each time to make him feel better.

Pinel did not pursue close questioning about the conspiracy or touch on other charged topics. He was aware that Lalladiere was reluctant to talk about his mother, and also could not follow up on the confessed betrayal of Minister Necker, but he could not decide about the medical importance of these matters. In his morning discussion with Pussin regarding Lalladiere, he told the attentive governor he was interested but had never heard of direct connections of such factors with insanity.

“Why do you continue to pursue these long discussions? What do you hope to find?” Pussin asked. His way was to be brief, sympathetic, and consistent.

“We must observe, Pussin. Constantly observe. Types of symptoms, behavior. That will clarify the nature of the illness and eventually its causes.”

“And the matter of betrayal of the minister and the reluctance to speak about the mother are observations?”

“Yes, he appears distinctly frightened, remorseful, regarding both. I am not sure what that is about.”

“Perhaps it is simply wild imagining.”

“Perhaps so.”

“Are there other things you observe that are important?”

“I’ve noticed that he often moves his lips as though he is talking to someone else.”

“Hearing voices.”

“Yes, I think so. And I intend to find out more about that. The type and, if possible, the content.”

“What about more medication, Dr. Pinel. Don’t you think we could help Lalladiere control himself better that way?”

“Observation again, my worthy governor. I just wrote something about the use of medication in this journal of our activities here I told you about. Come, I’ll show you.”

Pinel retrieved the journal from his desk and read aloud: “In diseases of the mind, as well as in all other ailments, it is an art of no little importance to administer medicines properly: but, it is an art of much greater and difficult acquisition to know when to suspend or altogether to omit them.” He tapped the corner of his eye, smiling. “That, Pussin, is based on my observations and documentation.”

“My wife and I are enthusiastic about the things you’ve done here. And what you do.”

“Fine. We’ll all need steadfastness in these days.”

Meeting in the afternoon with Lalladiere, Pinel brought the symptom up: “I have noticed that you sometimes seem to be talking with someone else while we sit here. What is it you hear?”

Don’t tell him.

“The sound of your voice.”

“No, I mean are there other voices you hear speaking to you?”

Hesitation, then, “Yes.”

“What do they say?”

Lalladiere looked sideways. No attendant was in the room with them, Dr. Pinel having declared it unnecessary and safe, but Lalladiere was reluctant to disclose the fearsome condemnations, the just verdicts.

“These voices are not your friends,” Pinel said.

“They...” he started.

No.No.

He shrugged his shoulders forcefully, as if throwing off a burden. “They tell me I am the lowest of the low. A betrayer and a worm. Profane and obscene.”

“But how could this be? What is the reason for that?”

“They tell me not to trust you, that you, like others, are out to kill me.” Saying it out loud made Lalladiere again feel strangely better. Perhaps there could be change.

“Why would I want to kill you?” Pinel put the question firmly, his tone soft.

“Because I have done terrible things.”

“What are these terrible things?” Pinel thought of the confession. Maybe he could trace some connections. “Something to do with Minister Necker?”

“The betrayal. Yes. And there is worse.” Pinel noticed that, as Lalladiere said this, his eyes shifted anxiously from side to side. He stopped speaking.

“You seem to believe you are betraying someone right now by speaking with me,” Pinel offered.

“She had to hide in the corner.”

Pinel wanted to ask “who?” but decided to be silent and wait to see whether Lalladiere would continue.

“She stayed there all day, and it was all my fault,” Lalladiere said, quickly. “I didn’t mean it, but she came and saw me. Stood there and watched me. Stood there and knew. Watched.”

“And then?” Pinel asked, unsure what to make of what he was hearing.

“She went into the corner of the kitchen. Shaking, crying, and huddled herself into the corner. All day, she stayed there. Nothing I could do would get her away.”

“What did she see? What were you doing?”

“I cannot say. You know what it was.”

“Who was she?”

“My mother.”