Madness and Glory, Chapter 27

The story of Philippe Pinel, father of modern psychiatry.

Posted Jun 12, 2019

Chapter 27

In time, the springiness left his legs and he went ploddingly slow. The cloud within his mind persisted. But the minister—even though Lalladiere’s performance at work was deteriorating with his late arrivals, lack of attention, and even outright mistakes—hardly took notice. Given his extremely high level of competence, the changes had only minimal effects. He still managed, despite his inner turmoil, to produce financial reports, anticipate Necker’s special needs for meetings with members of the Finance Committee, the Assembly and the King, provide background information for myriad consultations and other duties. But he continued to slip and could do little about it. He started to neglect the more complicated accounting, not requiring immediate completion or presentation. Gradually, he postponed any long-term planning, and for extended periods stared obliviously out of the little window in the finance office room.

It was the end of winter in the year 1790, a report on the deficit was due in the Assembly in March. Over several weeks, he slowly managed to bring together previously completed work having enough accuracy so that Necker could meet the deadline and provide an estimate for the following six months. In his sparse and irregular meetings with Genevieve, he found her increasingly irritable and distant. He worried constantly that she was very high strung and had the persistent thought, one he could not at all shake, that she was going insane. He felt sure she was seeing other men, and the dimness in his mind was pierced with the clear idea, repeated over and over, that he needed to do it, make it all right, in order to save and keep her. She was always oversensitive when they were together, took easy offense at things he said, eyes tearing or voice sounding shrill, then was quiet unless he spoke. He must succeed to save her from breakdown and disaster. To save himself.

Necker ordered a full and complete budget account to be prepared by the end of May. For chief assistant Lalladiere, this was his most important assignment. Necker’s reputation and popularity arose early from his management of the budget. He gained widespread national allegiance by his unprecedented step of making publicly available the official government budget, the Compte Rendu of 1781. Later, he elevated himself further in the popular esteem by recommending the re-assemblage of the country’s most broadly representative body, the Estates General, and then arranging doubling of the non-aristocratic, non-clerical representatives, the Third Estate. This made their numbers equal to the other two Estates, the clergy and the aristocracy, combined. Despite subsequent apparent failures of that early budget, he remained a hero and the revolutionary body of that period, the Assembly, was expecting him to save the country from deteriorating financial affairs. Lalladiere’s meticulous accounting had long been invaluable to Necker, and busy with daily pressures from the Assembly and the king, Necker relied on him fully.

Lalladiere, summoning up a reserve of energy, tried to apply himself to the gathering of accurate reports of collections and expenditures. But soon his preoccupations overwhelmed him and it was excessively difficult to concentrate. He assembled tallies and documents brought to him by other assistants, piled them on his desk, then spent hours alternately staring at the pile or at the sky outside the window. He went out frequently, on the pretext that he was consulting with financial institutions throughout the city, but then walked aimlessly through the streets or along the Seine. Giddyheaded, he sometimes tried to look for Genevieve, whom he met with rarely during that time, in the places where they had spent time together near the river or in cafés. He saw the minister one time walking there with someone. He watched from a distance and was startled to see who it was. Feeling devastated and lost, he walked away and avoided them.

Weeks passed. He counted each day, aware of the approaching deadline, but felt he could do nothing. Managing to carry out small or routine daily activities and assignments, he glossed over details when asked, and assured the minister he was making progress. His appearance, previously impeccable, wretchedly declined. His face was poorly shaved, coat frequently unbuttoned, cravat ruffled, shoes dank and dulled. The other assistants and the minister, noticing the marked change, attributed it to his fervency on the task, a manifestation of his characteristic all-out focus on a crucial job. Often, he stayed all night in the offices, not knowing what else to do, and they believed he was working to get the estimate completed.

The end of May. The full accounting for the minister’s estimate, due now the next day, had only the smatterings of receipts and expenditures completed. Lalladiere came to the office overwhelmed with dread. His arms and legs trembled, his chest was constricted, and it was extraordinarily hard for him to breathe. So rapidly and loudly did his heart pound in his head, he thought others heard it, and he looked around anxiously. He was lost, surely about to burst apart, die—nothing he could do.

He stared at the undocumented tallies on his desk, at the partially filled columns in his ledger book. After what seemed a very long time, but was only minutes passing, he mechanically lifted his pen and, heart still pounding and head feeling caught in a viselike grip, started writing in figures for gross receipts. At the top of the page, under the section for farm taxes, on the line for tobacco taxes, he slowly penned out the figure 53. He waited a moment, looked around the room, then continued the entry with an additional 860,000 for a total amount of 53,860,000 livres (British pound equivalent). This was approximately twice the amount of the previous budget. Next, with vision slightly blurred, he painstakingly wrote large numbers for the tolls for entry into Paris, document taxes, and then sundries. Again, he hesitated. No one, he saw, was watching him, and with a shaking hand, he added the entire farm total up for the enormous sum of 195,162,930. Suddenly, he was panicked because he had, he thought, neglected to put in the controversial revenues from the salt tax (the gabelle), then with a sigh he remembered it had been abolished earlier in the year. When he came to the section on direct tax receipts, he began to feel slightly more composed. He pulled from his cramped memory some earlier estimates of taxes on wealth and property (taille, vingtièmes) and head of household (capitation), and the invention of a feasible total of 220,452,392 came to him more quickly. As he proceeded with each of the remaining categories his head became progressively clearer, and just as though he were adding actual sums from the neglected piles before him, he constructed amounts for post office services, road tolls, gunpowder, tithes on government salaries and pensions, casual revenue, general receipts from each of the provinces, and amounts due on loans to the United States of America. He no longer looked up to check for watchers, nor did he need to do so. Those nearby who noticed his constant activity grinned at the show of his usual diligence in the face of a deadline.

He finished, producing a figure which, if real, would attest to the glory of the revenue collecting of the government—a never previously equaled gross amount of 681,625,000 livres. Then, with a burst of energy and detailed attention to each and every category of expenses despite the periodic return of blurred eyesight and squeezing constriction in his head, he calculated a total expenditure of 645,210,000. The budgetary surplus, according to these accountings, then came to 36,415,000. The amount was high with numbers that had no meaning or portent in themselves but, for Lalladiere, these numbers and types of revenue would soon come to be imbued with stubborn eerie significance.

Necker went carefully over the budget the next morning. The estimate of receipts was a good deal higher than he expected but was in the same proportions as in previous accounts. He was troubled that the receipt total included payments of a large amount of what he considered to be unreliable revolutionary paper money. He spent time assessing the necessity of including such money and, while Lalladiere shook with anxiety, obtained a brief postponement of the deadline. Necker did not, at that point, question the receipt figure Lalladiere concocted because he relied fully on his proven chief assistant. He was sure of Lalladiere’s exacting diligence in reporting and accounting, his previously successful calculation of projections. And so, after short consultation and assessment, he decided there was no way around the bothersome collection of paper money. He took the apparently expertly constructed budgetary estimate to the Assembly, where he was pleased to report the projection of a considerable surplus for the last eight months of 1790.

Lalladiere was completely dismayed. In the succeeding days, he found it impossible to sleep, tormented constantly by fears of being exposed. His mind, preoccupied with his misdeed and no longer Genevieve, shifted from taut cloudiness to an uncommon sharpness and hyperirritability. Ordinary sensations bothered him, the pressure of the bedclothes against uncovered portions of his body at night, his shirt’s graze on his chest when dressing in the morning, sounds of people in the street outside his window throughout the day, and at meals the tastes of foods he had previously eaten with gusto and enjoyment. He thought of his falsifications over and over, sure they would be discovered. Frequently, he missed meals completely, tossed without finding a comfortable position in his bed at night, and took to loosening his regular clothing to the point of appearing slovenly. He was haggard and pale and spoke very little to those he had contacts with.

Patrons at work, and the other assistants noted these more marked changes, and they asked concerned questions. He thought them overly suspicious, enhancing his fears of imminent discovery. The minister, too, asked whether he was working too hard, was getting sick and needed rest. This solicitation pierced Lalladiere like a knife—it meant, he felt sure, that Necker guessed what he did and was preparing to send him away, so all in the ministry could without interference go over the budget calculations.

The financial reports of succeeding weeks did not immediately reveal marked discrepancies from Lalladiere’s inventions. Collecting such information was arduous and complicated, depending on the compilation of receipts from all the provinces, local and central recording of both indirect and direct taxes, co-operation of too-often lax or rebellious officials, as well as the financial stability of the notably unstable paper money. Lalladiere, now hyperreactive and infused with energy, went over each credit and debit, collected organized and disorganized bits of information from government and private financiers, and was able to see all the signs—which he revealed to no one—of the building up of an enormous deficit. Together with his fear of discovery, still bitingly intense, he was aware of his responsibility and felt hateful with remorse. How could he possibly have done such a thing? It was totally the opposite of every precept and scruple he had held all his life. He was racked also with thoughts about the injury he inflicted on his idol Necker, the undermining of the government economy, and the shattering blow to the Revolution. He sat night after night at his desk, alone and filled with the energy of desperation, going over calculations, again and again, to see if he could find a way to make the finances come out right, dreading the quarterly accounting to come. Lower tobacco, take out the tolls, cut down property taxes. Put it back. Put it back. Put it back. He avoided people outside the government offices, made no attempt at all to contact or see Genevieve, ate sporadically, and went whole nights without sleeping. When sleep sometimes overcame him, he was routinely awakened by dreams of physical torment.

Then, in September, an account on the fate of the budget was compiled by the Assembly’s Finance Committee. Rather than any surplus, the shortfall was calculated to be almost two billion livres, a massive amount. Necker was mocked and vilified. Members of the Assembly declared he was incompetent, angrily raking up charges that even his famous Compte Rendu, the publicly distributed budget in a blue binding, was wrong in many ways. In the sessions, these members revived an old shout of Necker’s enemies: Conte bleu, Conte bleu (blue fairy book). Disgraced and thwarted because he was unwilling to resort to the only possible alternative, the printing of paper money to defray the excess expenditure, Necker resigned. It was the third time he had left office, but this time he would never return.

Lalladiere retreated, staying completely away from work and the government offices. He lay, hour after hour, staring at a wooden beam in the ceiling of his bedroom, absent, unguided eyes following the splinters and cracks along its length. When, at times, he became inadvertently aware of what he looked at, only noticing damages and defects, he shuddered. He felt an immense load pressing down on his chest. The figures he had created danced in an imaginary sequence. He moaned as each full number passed. False. Fraudulent. Out of control.

A tumble of images passed before his shut eyes. Genevieve was lying naked in bed. Then she rose up and stared at him, looking insane. Her face was red and bloated, uncurled hair spiky and wild, saliva at the corner of her lips. He thought if he made believe that instead of her he was insane, that could satisfy them all. Did he, at the last minute put in a salt tax? He couldn’t remember, but if he did they would think he had fallen apart and was crazy. There was, everyone knew, no salt tax any longer.

In the end, he knew he was weak and deceitful. He altered facts and figures, accounts he previously worked over and over to calculate properly until the pens wore out or broke in his hand. It was really Necker’s fault, he paid no attention to what was going on, allowed him to falsify all. No, it was the fault of some perverted person. There was semen on one of the documents on his desk. Dark, dried semen. Whose?

No way out—it was he who destroyed Necker, the wisest and most stable man he ever knew. The government would be destroyed, too. He must go back and make believe he was a lunatic, put the salt tax into the budget. Put the budget into salt.

He pushed himself against the mattress, no cover or pillow. No sleep came.

A day passed, and then two more. No one attempted to contact him. No more chance for make-believe, the choice of faking insanity was turning into actuality. He did not rise for bodily care, either elimination or eating. Finally, after several more days, weak from lack of sleep and nutriment, he shifted away from his soilings, pushed himself off the bed and onto the floor. He laid there for an hour, rose, and used the chamber pot. Then he sat at his small table and chewed on a crust of bread. His head felt tight and heavy, the earlier load on his chest had shifted there and excruciating pain radiated from front to back. He paced back and forth, shaking his head, trying to reduce the weight and agony. The room felt hot and close. It was difficult to breathe. Not stopping to put on a coat, he bolted outside.

The low September sun burst into his eyes. The rays, though cooler than in summer, were extraordinarily bright. All around him he saw sparkling, bright light, and felt cold rather than warm. He walked quickly through the streets toward the river. People passing him in both directions wore clothing whose colors stood out, sharp and radiant. A stocking cap on the head of an old man lumbering along shone with an exquisite red. Fall flowers in the pots of window ledges he passed also displayed intense yellows, lustrous oranges, and vivid lavenders. They infused his nostrils with fragrances that became more pungent with every inhalation of breath. He hurried on.

The edges of the houses were sharply angled. On their gray surfaces, oddly raised and distinctly outlined corrugations reflected flashing tints of blue and white. He reached the banks of the river and there he could see the outline of every individual blade of grass and foliage leaf. They shone with iridescent green. The water moved swiftly, glimmering and exactly arced gray ripples swirled across the dark black surface. He felt amazed, transported by his surroundings, and began to run toward the Tuileries gardens. He came onto a dazzling spectrum of enhanced colors from the many flowers still in bloom. As he looked at each plant, he saw thin lines of shining green veins of the leaves, protruding yellow stamens inside the flowers. Breathing deeply with his running, pulsating intense aromas everywhere pervaded him. His head swam, feeling alternately light and heavy. In the trees and sky, he heard clear, shrill chirps and resonant trilling calls of birds.

He ran faster through the garden, wildly trying to take in all sights, sounds, and odors at once. The contours of each pebble, the dips and elevations in the surface of path, were defined through the soles of his shoes. Noticing his excited movements, garden strollers on the path in front of him moved aside to give him room. Behind them, a small child had separated a short way from his mother and was toddling forward. Lalladiere did not at first see him and caught in the momentum of his run, he was heading toward trampling the little boy. Then, almost upon him, the small curious face turned upward, Lalladiere managed to wrench his body sideways and while continuing to hurtle forward made a circle around the child. He brushed lightly against the mother walking nearby and glancing at her saw a look both of hatred and anxiety.

He went onward, shaking both from the close encounter and all his augmented sensations. He wondered whether the boy had been put in front of him intentionally. Was this a test to expose him to humiliation for what he had done? Had he been found out? Was he insane, and being tested to confirm that? In the midst of these frenzied questions, and the magnificently orchestrated performance of sights, sounds, and smells around him, he for the first time heard:

This is just the beginning, worm, betrayer. This world is not for you. You are the dirt, slime, scum of the universe.

He shuddered violently with terror as he ran.

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