In his latest novel, James Morrow tackles the seductive but repugnant nature of war. Morrow tackled this theme in his anti-nuclear fable This is the Way the World Ends (Henry Holt, 1986), in which the progenitors of a Third World War are put on trial for their crimes by the "unadmitted," undead people who would have lived had the nuclear holocaust not occurred. The Asylum of Dr. Caligari, by contrast, takes inspiration from the silent German feature Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920); the resulting novel reworks many of the themes implicit in the film in a way that is relevant to our Brave New Era of strident nationalism.
In several ways, the book can only be fully appreciated with reference to the original movie. The novel breaks the fourth wall at a number of points by referring to the artistic conventions of the movie as if they were unremarkable parts of the narrator’s fictional world.
That is, the original film is especially notable for its spiralling sets, which enhance its disturbing, dream-like nature. This set design was inspired by the expressionistic painting in vogue in the 1910s, and is anything but naturalistic, and yet we find echoes of it in Morrow’s descriptions. For example, the "Kleinbruck Kunstmuseum" is described as a neoclassical marble building connected to a "ponderous concrete edifice" by a "a zigzag passageway, closed on all sides, with portholes instead of windows." (The edifice is the titular asylum). Later, whilst in his room in the asylum, Wyndham notes that "the designer of the high casement window had an aversion to ninety degree angles, for every pane was a trapezium." So the distorted perceptions of the characters are reflected by the distorted angles of the space that they inhabit.
The invocation of the visual style of the movie is significant. At Yale's Modernism Lab, Merrick Doll notes that its expressionist style was intended to evoke impulsive emotional power, as opposed to intellectual or aesthetic appreciation. Morrow's novel, too, is intensely concerned with the aesthetic effects of art. Indeed, its protagonist is a talent-free graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Francis Wyndham, who on the eve of World War One moves to Paris under the conviction that his "avant-garde images" are destined to "cure the complacency of the bourgeoisie." He is thrown down a stairway by Picasso, rejected by Duchamp and Rousseau, and finally sent to Caligari’s asylum by André Derain, to act as an art therapy tutor to the inmates.
Traumenchen Asylum is situated in the fictional principality of Weizenstaat, between the German Empire and Luxembourg. Caligari himself is described as a man who "handles disappointment badly and nurtures grudges eternally." Rejecting Freud, he declares that "the future of psychiatry belongs to hypnotism," but his treatment methods merely trade "one form of derangement for another." Caligari also professes a nihilistic philosophy inspired by Nietzche, who in the novel is a former inmate. He holds that "nothing is true, everything is permitted, morals are nefarious, pity is for the weaklings." Caligari thus concludes that we should "turn our lives—and our deaths—into works of art."
The outbreak of war presents an opportunity for Caligari to put these views into practice. He describes the war as a "grand scale Nietzschean work of art," and contributes by creating a magical painting that can incite Kriegslust (war lust) in young men. Soon, battalions of soldiers from each warring nation are sent to the asylum so that they can be marched in front of this painting and incited to engage in acts of carnage.
The painting symbolizes the power of visual representations as propaganda. Perhaps the most iconic poster from World War One is "Lord Kitchener Wants You," a 1914 advertisement by Alfred Leete depicting the British Secretary of State for War, above the words "WANTS YOU". In the poster, Kitchener wears a British Field Marshal’s cap and points at the viewer, calling on him to enlist. Caligari’s painting can be seen as a souped-up version of this sort of iconic visual propaganda. Caligari shows no preference for either side in the combat, however: he sees himself as "a war profiteer, not a war criminal." Wyndham is appalled by this, commenting that Caligari had seduced both imagination and reason "into a condition of mutual betrayal, reason convincing fantasy that violent monsters were desirable, fantasy coercing reason into forsaking its tedious allegiance to facts."
Fortunately, Wyndham finds allies, the foremost being a patient, Ilona Wessels of "Holstenwall" (the fictional town in Das Cabinet). Ilona, convinced that she is the Queen of the Spiders, is a talented painter and Wyndham’s lover. Together, they conceive a counter plan, deciding to create a painting that will induce not war lust but Lebenslust, a love of life, in the viewer. This raises a moral problem, highlighted by the Spider Queen herself: in shaping the souls of unsuspecting schoolboys, she suggests, the plotters might be acting as hubristically as Caligari. Nonetheless, Ilona paints the new work, which is substituted for Caligari’s original. A number of battalions are exposed to this new painting before it is discovered and destroyed.
The actions of Caligari and Ilona mean that there are now three types of soldiers on battlefield: "avatars of Kriegslust," who are zealous fighters; those who are infused with Lebenslust by Wessel’s painting; and finally "Wehmutsvolk, the nostalgia infected conscripts who never saw either painting and simply want to go home."
In this way, Morrow's explicit concerns dovetail with the pacifism of Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, the writers of that original silent feature. In Das Cabinet, the eponymous the director of a local asylum in the town of Holstenwall, obsessed with the idea of subjugating a somnambulist to his will, has assumed the identity of the eighteenth-century mesmerist named of that name . The ultimate test of the subjugation he seeks to effect is forcing his unfortunate somnambulist to commit murder. This figure was inspired by a psychiatrist whom Meyer confronted during the war whilst apparently feigning madness to avoid the draft. The subtle differences in motivation between Morrow's Caligari and Janowitz and Meyer’s original are therefore worthy of note: whilst the latter suggest that an almost supernatural obsession drives Caligari, Morrow plumps for nihilism and capitalism.
A major issue linking both works, though, is the perverted use of fantasy to distort reality for malevolent purposes. When we first arrive at Morrow's asylum, we learn about some of the inmates’ private delusions. Ludwig "Ruttluff" has sexualized fantasies of the inhabitants of Ganymede; Pietro Barbieri imagines terrible, visceral catastrophes, and Ilona Wessel is obsessed with spiders, cobwebs, and the number eight. These delusions, expressed through their individual works of art, seem benign compared to the group fantasy of Kreigslust induced by Caligari. The irony is, however, that Caligari’s malevolent intervention in the War has possibly been futile: he eventually suspects that the generals don’t even need him. "They probably never needed me," he suggests, "Simple appeals to glory, God and xenophobia would surely have delivered eager regiments into their hands."
Morrow here refers to the wave of war enthusiasm that spread throughout Europe at the onset of hostilities in 1914. It is worth challenging the realism of this picture. There was enthusiasm for war in 1914, including celebratory crowds, and some observers like Bertrand Russell reported that the average man and woman seemed "delighted at the prospect of war." Despite this, other evidence qualifies the traditional view of widespread, even mindless war fever: Oliver Janz, has written that “the thesis of the general enthusiasm for war in August 1914 is one of the major historical myths of the 20th century” (Der große Krieg, 2013, p. 197); Gail Braybon, analysing crowd numbers in Britain, has argued that, "close examination of the 'pro-war' crowds in the metropolis during the war crisis causes them to dwindle almost to the point of disappearance" (Evidence, History, and the Great War, Berghahn Books, p. 71); and even Niall Ferguson suggests that "feelings of anxiety, panic and even millenarian religiosity were equally common popular responses to the outbreak of war" (The Pity of War, 1999, p. 177).
Nevertheless, ideas—aesthetic—are powerful and can manipulate opinion. In This is the Way the World Ends, Morrow suggests that the architects of nuclear death are guilty of entertaining the "bad ideas" that, in the novel, facilitate Armageddon. Asylum in many ways makes the same accusation: that cynical war "profiteers" like Caligari, the propagators of bad ideas, are culpable for their impacts, despite their denials. In an age in which warmongering hate-speech once more seems to have become almost acceptable, this is a charge we perhaps need to take very seriously indeed.
You might also argue that Asylum trades upon a rationalist myth that people need to be "deranged" or "delusional" to do bad things, which can seem somewhat of an oversimplification. To read Morrow’s work as a commentary on the recurrent, destructive, and eroticized insanities that seem to perennially infect the human animal, however, is also to make it seem as unfortunately contemporary as ever.
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