Madness and Glory (35): Downfall

The story of Phillipe Pinel father of modern psychiatry

Posted Jun 03, 2019

 Chapter 35

A month later, in the hottest part of the summer, during the time on the revolutionary calendar called Thermidor, the conspiracy against Robespierre was realized. Tallien, ever skillful, played a dramatic part in the final scenario. Later, he was known as a Thermidorean hero.

After the Festival of the Supreme Being, where Robespierre’s power had peaked, he steadily lost influence in both the Committee of Public Safety and the Convention at large. Government issued paper money sank to 36 per cent of its face value, there were severe food shortages, and bread prices reached an all-time high. Robespierre’s continuing pursuit of virtue in all parts of the government was, as Tallien predicted, wearing thin, grieving and frightening many of his influential but flawed, sometimes outright dishonest, colleagues.

Early in the summer, allegedly for reasons of health, Robespierre absented himself from governmental meetings. Many suspected he was using the time to build a case for more arrests and guillotining. He, on the other hand, spoke with visitors, deputies and associates, about moderating the terror, leading the country primarily by exhortation to sacrifice, and with even more constancy and intensity than before, the presentation of high principles and incorruptibility.

Robespierre’s absence and ambiguous rumors about intensification or change of his policies were exploited to the full by Tallien, Barras, and Fouché. Behind the scenes, and sometimes through implication on the floor of the Convention itself, each in his own way made sure that deputies with reservations about any facet of the administration believed they had become marked men. Robespierre, together with Saint-Just, was surely working diligently on extensive cases against them. To an equally large number of those, otherwise, who feared Robespierre’s rumored plans for moderation of the terror because in that case they would lose their influence, the three conspirators emphasized imminent realization of their worst anxieties. Dissenters and traitors would soon no longer be brought to swift and total justice, and the current government, including these hard liners in particular, would be completely undermined.

When Robespierre finally came to the Convention and made a speech seeming to embrace both positions, he played right into the intrigue. He alluded to the corruption of a number of deputies, refusing, for the moment, to give specific names, and spoke at length of his absolute devotion to high principle and great sacrifices he made for the safety of the Revolution. Then, for the first time in Robespierre’s tenure with the Convention, the speech was not routinely referred—later believed by many to be the work of conspirators—to be printed for the records and for wide distribution. It was therefore downgraded in importance and could not be studied or re-assessed. The next day, when Robespierre was prepared to speak again, “He will denounce you,” was whispered from deputy to deputy. And he was prevented from doing so.

Saint-Just spoke first. When Robespierre came to the rostrum, Tallien immediately moved forward and raised a point of order. Robespierre tried to reply, but the president of the Convention, Collot d’Herbois, as previously arranged in cahoots with the plotters, began ringing a signal bell that drowned him out. Tallien then took out a silver handled knife, which had been provided to him for the occasion by Thérèse, and held it threateningly over Robespierre’s head. A moment of shocked silence followed in the meeting hall, and he thrust it, with a sneer and a flourish, toward his own chest. Holding the knife point perilously close, he shouted to the entire assemblage that he would rather die than be led by a tyrant. Much noise from every side. Wide confusion. Robespierre again tried to speak and the bell again obscured his words. One of the deputies in the rear of the hall shrilly called out that Robespierre should be arrested. Another stood up, demanded attention—no bell sounded—and he harshly ridiculed Robespierre’s claims of purity and self-sacrifice. Loud denunciations rang out throughout the hall, one deputy poignantly reminding everyone of the death of Danton and accusing Robespierre of betraying him. Robespierre turned for help from his former supporters but, by then, all had abandoned him.

The arrest and guillotining followed swiftly. After Robespierre and some cohorts were taken from the Convention hall, an attempt was at first made to save them by the still loyal National Guard. A special military force, however, was dispatched by the Convention—Barras judiciously arranged to get himself appointed as the commander—to take Robespierre into custody. That night, at 2 A.M., Barras boldly led his soldiers to assault the city hall where Robespierre and his close supporters—Saint-Just, Couthon, Augustin Robespierre, among others—had taken refuge. Within a few hours, they were all taken by cart past the tightly shuttered windows of Robespierre’s own dwelling on the rue Honoré to the Place de la Republic, to be beheaded.

Lalladiere heard the story of Robespierre’s death from Genevieve during one of her visits. Although they now talked regularly and without strain about all current matters, he, with a sharp intake of breath, suddenly stopped the conversation completely. He sat motionless, mute for several minutes, and Genevieve began to worry about what might happen. He was not, she knew, completely well yet. He still referred at times to people talking about him. And she never did fully understand his conviction about a plot against Danton and Robespierre. But he was trying, struggling to emerge from his morass. For so long, she had felt pity and remorse for him, and now she had recovered her early intense feelings of love. She thought constantly about the visits, before and after, couldn’t wait to see him, and would have come daily if the asylum rules permitted. His rich, full-bodied voice, ranging once more expressively from high to low, thrilled her. He talked again of real emotions, loyalties, and perceptions, and she felt glad, warmed inside. She knew him always to be reflective, but he seemed now even wiser than before. He commented with striking knowledge and perception on the news she brought him, regularly relayed to her by her father, of inside government doings. When she went home to write her account of the Revolution and the times, she imagined herself to be somehow putting down his history also, to be tracing, on better days, a turn upward from madness. Like a butterfly, she thought, he was emerging from a long enclosure in a hard chrysalis, beautiful but delicately made and subject to capricious damage.

The news of Robespierre’s death did not undo him. After the silent minutes while Genevieve fretted, he brought himself to speak of a discussion he had with Denis about the distressing recent attempt to arrest Dr. Pinel. Both, in the courtyard, had seen the look of worry on the doctor’s face, that momentary lapse of courage. Lalladiere told Denis his own summoning up of courage, facing down of the group of  sans-culottes, had come to him from Dr. Pinel—the courageous strikes against the commonplace, the standing up and forwarding, against significant opposition, medical and governmental, of which all there were aware, of freedom and humane treatment at the asylum. And relating this to Genevieve, he added seriously, from the courage required by Dr. Pinel to stick with a lunatic like him.

Lalladiere’s report of the conversation was spotty, as the death of Robespierre kept pushing at the edges of his mind. He was glad though that he was able to convey the essence of what he said to Denis about the doctor’s courage. Doing that brought back to him some courage to face the plight of the nation. Later, alone in his cell, he realized he was angry. Not vehement, overwhelming rage, but anger, a feeling he had not allowed himself for a long, long time. And as he turned over in his mind the condition of the country and the sequences of events leading to Robespierre’s demise, his anger became sharp and focused. The conspirators he overheard, Tallien and Barras, were victorious. They managed—how, he couldn’t tell, except that dedicated guile and hypocrisy often had far-reaching effects—to elevate Robespierre, induce him, in a twisted series of events, to eliminate Danton, and then undo himself. As they predicted, Robespierre very likely had set himself up for some of his undoing, and they pushed it, enlarged it, and brought it to a finish.

He heard a whispered voice. Degenerate reptile. No, he said out loud firmly. “Not this time. This time I was not at fault. I tried over and over to tell about the conspiracy but no one would listen. Because of my insanity.” Then, quietly to himself: damn it all, insane or not—back then I couldn’t tell—none of them wanted to know anything about it. Only Dr. Pinel seemed to believe me. He didn’t do anything, though. Didn’t report the conspirators or stop them. The doctor did nothing. The anger grow greater, included Dr. Pinel, and it began to torture him. He couldn’t stand feeling angry at the man—as he believed—of courage, the one who really helped him. Once again, he spoke aloud, “I was not responsible for this thing, for the victory of the conspirators.” The whispering voice was troubling him no longer, but anger at the doctor tore at him. He lay down on his mat, tried to sleep. Disturbing dreams beset him throughout the night.

Pinel, after his arrest and deliverance in the courtyard, could not bring himself to visit the inmates who had spoken in his behalf. It was not because he wasn’t grateful. His life, he knew, had been at stake in that ominous intrusion and arrest. On the contrary, he felt overwhelmed by the debt he owed his patients. It was he this time who had been so needy, desperately needy. He could express appreciation, and soon after he did so without fanfare. But he felt now he could not do enough for them, live up to their needs, fix them right away. He must make sure to do everything right, save every single one. Challenged, and flooded with feelings, he decided, for the time being, to retreat.

He continued to supervise all inmates’ treatment. And he put into practice his unique plan to spend time regularly with the attendants, together with governor Pussin, to get as much information as possible. Despite embarrassment about his current reticence, he repeated to all his usual exhortation to observe—”observe carefully, observe well.” At first he learned little that was helpful. From Ajacis, who had never been found out, mostly the reverse: he at length described each inmate’s more disgusting habits. He talked of frequent challenging encounters and threatening behavior, making thinly-veiled protestations that all must again be chained. He tilted his head, looked leeringly at Dr. Pinel, and when the doctor did not look either impressed or distressed, he piled on further exasperating details. Other attendants, less rancorous, brought in bits of useful information about an inmate speaking constantly about financial reverses, another having episodes of mania only in the evenings, or one fearing to go into the mess hall because of seeing ghosts at the door. For Denis, these reporting sessions were welcome. He was especially glad to have an opportunity to present observations from the disturbing visit of Lalladiere’s mother and stepfather. That episode continued to puzzle him, and he recounted it to governor Pussin and Dr. Pinel as though he were revealing a humiliating secret. He reproduced it for them word for word.

“Very disturbing. Terrible,” Pinel said immediately. “Have you seen the like, Pussin?”

“Visitors are odd at times, but these people seem much worse.”

“Relentlessly coarse and brutal, I think.”

“It was like there were two animals,” Denis volunteered. “Mad dogs or rats tearing the man apart.”

“The mother may herself be insane, or close to it,” Pinel declared.

“Not to presume, doctor, but I myself thought that. I said to myself, ‘maybe I should put her into one of the cells. She sure is doing nothing good for this inmate, if she ever did.’”

“We cannot let them visit anymore,” governor Pussin said, shaking his head.

Pinel nodded silently, wrapped in thoughts about the mother’s behavior.

“I can’t think in this case,” Pussin went on, “of things to do to help the inmate with this.” Pursing his lips, a jagged furrow lining his already craggy face, he added, “What is this, doctor? Is the craziness in the blood?”

Pinel roused from his musings with a laugh. “In the blood, Pussin? What blood is this you speak of? Blood sucked out from the scalp to cure the lunatics, or that which flows from the severed necks on the guillotine supposedly to cure the ills of our nation? The blood of the wounded and dying which stains the ground of the battlefields? Or is it perhaps blue blood, the kind recently alleged by the sans-culottes to be flowing through my own veins?”

“No, doctor, nothing like that. And we don’t make light of your ordeal. A terrible event. My wife and I watched, not knowing what to do, but were very concerned.”

“I understand,” Pinel said warmly. Then, still smiling as he turned to Denis, “Do you recall how my not-so-long arms and legs were likely to be torn apart, pikes all around me and the captors pulling me every which way?”

“I certainly do, doctor. I tried to intervene, tell them of your patriotism.”

“Now, don’t worry a flyspeck, both of you. I have learned much from my close call. I understand that I cannot become self-satisfied with good intentions. That all can be taken away for reasons having little to do with what you are and what you have accomplished. And I have had the wondrous opportunity to see our patients improved, rising above themselves to help another.” Pinel bowed his head, and eyes still twinkling, he addressed Pussin:

“But, then, good governor, I do not know the answer to your question.”

Leaving the meeting soon afterward, Pinel felt better. His joking about the dangerous event and the responses relieved some pressure from his own fears and resentments. He thought of Lalladiere’s appeal in the courtyard, his moving affirmation of himself and the other inmates as human beings. Living, breathing, sensing human beings. He felt admiration for the man, and encouragement. As for the mystery of a connection, of Lalladiere’s parents’ effects on him, Pinel knew that the great Rousseau, for many the wellspring of the Revolution, convincingly affirmed that all children were born with a clean slate, tabula rasa. If, therefore, insanity were produced by effects in the environment, by actions of human beings upon each other, then he was on the right track. Insanity could also be reversed by human action. He resolved to overcome his vanity and sensibility about meeting with the inmates. He would learn more, arrange to see and talk with them, especially Lalladiere, again.