Madness and Glory (40): Truth in Dreams

The story of Phillipe Pinel father of modern psychiatry

Posted Jun 03, 2019

 Chapter 40

For several months before his arrest, Lalladiere had been having ordinary dreams. Unlike the waking dreams that plagued him, the terrible unseen voices and non-existent visions, these dreams of sleep came because of his improvement, a returning ability to tolerate the contents of his inner world. During the night after Genevieve left, he slept, despite bleak forebodings, fairly well. But he had many disconnected dreams.

He was in an open field in a park. Children were playing nearby, a girl spinning a hoop with a rod, two small boys playing sticks and marbles. An older boy was trying to fly a kite. Although he watched them all carefully, no one paid him any attention. Then, out of the surrounding woods came a light-haired young woman together with a short, stocky but muscular young man. He could see neither of their faces, but knew the woman was beautiful and the man had distorted shoulders and hands. Trying to move toward them, he slipped on the grass which he abruptly realized was quite wet with a substance that was not water. He couldn’t tell what it was but when he got up and tried to walk, it became sticky and rubbed off in cream-colored little lumps. The man and woman saw him trying to approach them and, in unison, they turned and returned into the woods.

He continued to try to reach them, moving slowly because his feet were still covered with the sticky substance, and leaves lying where he walked became attached. Unaccountably, clusters of leaves began moving upward and clinging to his calves and thighs as he went onward, so by the time he came to a small clearing in the woods he was weighed down, laden with a foliage skirt. Though at first quite dark, the clearing quickly became perfused with sunlight, and in the center he saw the man and woman. The woman’s hair was in disarray and stood out from her head in spikes. She was shouting at the man who sat with his back to her, nonchalantly smoking a small pipe. Lalladiere started to move toward them, the restricting leaves fell away, and he suddenly awoke.

He lay on the mat in his cell as part images from the dream continued to pass across his half-closed eyes. He couldn’t tell who the man and woman might have been although both seemed quite familiar. As he started to fall back asleep, he tried not to go back to the park in his mind, but to think of city scenes.

He was in the central room of a stone city house. In the corner of the room, he sat by himself facing the wall as he worked on stacking rags for the paper mill into separate piles for his father. His mother, he knew, was somewhere behind him, sitting and peeling potatoes. A small bug, probably a cockroach, scampered across the floor near him and he stopped work for a moment to follow its path, sensing it might hurt his mother. The bug lurched in her direction, growing larger as it did so. He turned in his chair to watch it, at the same time seeing his mother place the sharp side of the potato paring knife on her inner forearm. As she began a slashing motion, he jumped up from his stool, and with a single leap was at her side firmly grasping the hand that held the terrible knife. She looked at him with hatred in her eyes. From another room, he heard, but could not see, his father laughing.

He woke again. Looking around at his cell’s grey stone walls, not very different from those usually surrounding him at Bicêtre, he thought of the dream knife in his mother’s hand and shook his head forcefully. Soon, the next day perhaps, he too would face a terrible knife. The guillotine. He shuddered and lay for several minutes frightened. Then he tried again to go back to sleep. The dreaming, although disturbing, seemed an accounting of his life.

This time, he was a child walking through hallways of a familiar looking building. He recognized that it was an asylum but not one he had been in. It was very large, larger than Bicêtre, and when he peered curiously through the doorways that he passed, he saw that the inmates were all women and most were chained. Dimly, he guessed it to be the asylum of Salpêtrière he knew about, where madwomen, prostitutes, and female criminals were all kept together. He looked into each room, searching to see if he could identify a prostitute. In one alcove, he saw a chained woman wearing a thin, brocaded dress and shivering. He approached her, and coming close he recognized the face of the former Queen Marie Antoinette looking as on the day she was guillotined. He felt terrified and ran out of the room, entering into a maze of endless corridors. He ran and ran until, for no accountable reason, he was stopped by a man who looked quite familiar. The man, whose face gradually became that of his father, pointed to a woman seated by herself at a table. All these were now together in the same stone city house he had dreamed of before. Although the rooms seemed overly large, he recognized he was in his childhood home. He knew, though her face was distorted, that the woman was his mother. Her head was lumpy and large, her hair disheveled, and this time she was sitting at the table speaking in a loud voice to the empty air around her. There was spittle at the corner of her mouth, and when he looked at her eyes, he saw they were glazed. He watched her, and as the dream continued, the clear thought came to him, “If I don’t do something right away, she will lose her mind.”

He touched the side of the table, salt had been spilled all over it. He put his finger in his mouth and found the salty taste at first quite pleasant, but soon it became bitter and burning in his mouth. Then, he changed. He saw himself crouching down on the floor of the house, unable to move his limbs. He began, in the dream, to hear echoes all around him of the same voices that plagued him before. He saw snatches of himself in the cells of the Hospice d’Humanité, then climbing over roofs and running clumsily but frantically through the alleyways of Paris. His mother, whose face remained at the edges of the dream, was now smiling, her head smooth and her hair neat. As she got up from the table, he knew she had stopped talking to the air. She walked over to the shadowy man in the corridor, put her arm under his, and together they left the stone building, which now resembled an asylum for the insane. Still frozen on the floor, Lalladiere watched them leave. His mother turned around to look at him and her face was that of Genevieve.

He woke, but this time more slowly than before. The events of the dream were vivid in his mind. Saved from lunacy. She never fell through, never went, as he did, all the way insane. It was either one or the other. He always knew, she always made him feel, told him, it was his to do. He gave her bad feelings, put thoughts in her head, could save her or make her insane. And he thought then of the two of them together, he a child, and his mother holding and rocking him, her long chestnut hair falling softly on his shoulder.

A man entered his cell and woke him. It was hard at first to break out of the dream, especially the end part. The man looked like a barber, short-jacketed, striped pants, strip of linen in his hand. The jailer, standing behind the man, ordered Lalladiere to sit on the stool in his cell.

“He cuts, for today’s event, the hair off the back of your head,” the jailer explained derisively. “Nothing must slow the swift falling of the blade.”

So, it will happen today. He knew it now, today is the end. He sat quietly, listening to the clicking of the scissors behind his head. There was a clutching panic in his chest, then grief for himself verging on tears, and then a hollow sense of resignation. Sitting alone afterward, he tried to imagine what death would be like, wondered if there really could be bliss, as they said. How did it feel, what did bliss contain? Love? Ecstasy? Satiety? Understanding? He then considered extinction, total extinction, and thought about nothingness, no consciousness. He remembered, though it was now hard to do so, the absolute nothingness in his mind he had known before.

An hour later, the tumbrel came to the front of the Conciergerie and he, together with another man and a woman, were pushed by three soldiers inside. The man, older than Lalladiere, looked like a petty official and the woman, also older, looked fairly prosperous wearing a satin dress and shawl. The ribbed cart bounced roughly over the cobblestones of the rue Honoré, going on the same route that previously led him to the queen’s execution, passing the site of his hopeless cause at Robespierre’s house. He noticed fewer spectators, or even stragglers, standing or walking along the street, and wondered whether commerce had been dropping off or perhaps executions were not quite the high sport as before.

Lalladiere looked carefully at the faces of people they passed, the tight brows and jutting jaws of those who were scornful and angry, drawn cheeks and staring eyes of the wistful, puffed up cheeks and quivering mouths of the eager and excited. Several belligerently met his searching eyes and shouted epithets—”Traitor,” “Degenerate,” “Schemer,” “Shitface aristocrat”—at him, but many turned away, glancing from side to side or else quickly downward.

Still seeing anew the unnoticed world around, he followed the windows of the storefronts they were passing. He saw carefully rolled bolts of fabric in one, a cobbler tapping a single shoe in dim light inside another, a dressmaker energetically sewing the thin hem of a dress, and cooling rows untended of lined-up crisp crusted loaves of bread. When they came abreast of number 366 where Robespierre lived, he looked up at the shuttered second floor window, and shook his head both with anger and regret. Robespierre and the others had also died in vain. He glanced at his companions in the tumbrel, the petty official was pale, sweating despite the coolness of the day, and the well-dressed woman rocked in a corner, sobbing.

As they came closer to the Place de la Républic, where the crowd had thickened, he tried to see if he could find Genevieve. Not far from the entryway, inside the large expanse, he thought he saw her curls and bonnet. But as the tumbrel moved nearer he realized he was mistaken. When they came to the scaffold of the guillotine, he saw in a nearby grouping the lean figure of Dr. Pinel turned slightly aside and speaking vigorously with a man standing next to him. The man, it appeared, was a government official although Lalladiere did not recognize him. He’s working to get me off, Lalladiere thought, right to the very end. The tumbrel stopped. Pinel abruptly discontinued his entreaties and turned toward it. The doctor’s face, in Lalladiere’s presence usually calm or sympathetic or noncommittal, was now drawn and cracked with anguish.

Then he saw Genevieve. She was standing together with her father amidst the crowd a short distance behind Dr. Pinel. Her face was bloated with crying, her mouth set in a grimace of unbearable pain. Lalladiere thought he could see, despite the distance, a look of enormous fear in her eyes. She saw him. And realizing he was looking at her, her expression changed, her eyes glistened—he could see them—with a feeling of love. She was forming words with her mouth, the same, he was sure, as what she showed in her eyes. But he could neither hear nor actually know.

As he fearfully mounted the scaffold, he thought about his dreams of the night before. “It was love for her”, he said to himself, “love, despite all, throughout my life. It came from love, protecting her from the salt field, the abyss, lunacy. She or me, it was she or me, the—my—giving up of heart and mind.” A feeling of calmness replaced his fear.

The executioner strapped him to the flat board and slid him face down between the supports of the guillotine. “I am free,” he thought. He heard a high-pitched swish above him. Then, no sight, no sound, no feeling, no thought. Absence.