What the doctor saw

Peter Ackroyd

  • The Horror of Life by Roger Williams
    Weidenfeld, 381 pp, £15.00, February 1981, ISBN 0 297 77883 8

The title hints at something extravagant and strange: five 19th-century French writers – Baudelaire, Jules de Goncourt, Flaubert, Maupassant and Alphonse Daudet – are enrolled here because of their ‘unremitting pessimism and disgust toward life’. As it turns out, the book is more Marie Curie than Mario Praz. Roger Williams, a Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Wyoming, has supped his full of horror. He opens with a modest disclaimer: he began this study ‘with the understanding that all five had been syphilitic, and with the suspicion that disease had blackened their outlook.’ A good, probing start. But ‘my medical inquiry soon revealed that four of the cases were far more complicated than anticipated.’ Diseases spread across each page – colic, rheumatism, cerebral haemorrhage, epilepsy, tertiary syphilis, hemiplegia. These five apparently permanent invalids, breezily described as ‘Flaubert and Company’, seemed to pick up whatever was going; it is surprising that they found time to write anything at all.

It is not surprising, though, that Professor Williams should choose to describe their careers in terms of symptoms rather than books. Flaubert has a sub-heading, ‘Boils and Nerves’; Baudelaire is given ‘The Pox’ and Jules de Goncourt ‘The Obsession with Illness’. They might all have been drawn by Doré, against rather shadowy backgrounds, hands clutched to throats, legs tottering beneath spindly trunks, follicles white with the ‘horror of life’. In fact, this was often how they saw themselves. Disease may be the great leveller, the only effective manifestation of the democratic spirit, but for these men it often became a sign of grace and unique destiny. The 19th century was perhaps the only one that proclaimed that art was bad for you. Contemporary medical opinion suggested that any such refinement of intellect or feeling might have debilitating consequences. ‘Those men whose brains are continually active,’ a Dr Moreau wrote, ‘will experience both physical and mental disorders, poor health in general.’ It was the fate of the artist, or even the intellectual, to beat an already well-trodden path towards the sanatorium; now, of course, they simply join the BBC.

The relationship between creativity and physical disorder is not one necessarily to be dismissed. If the French Revolution can provoke an ode, so, just as readily, can a boil; and in its inflamed state, the boil will seem more important. On a more grandiose scale, the writer may invoke disease, like some malefic god, to remove him from the quiescent and diurnal state: in a mood of ‘ennui’, to borrow a word from Professor Williams, physical pain may become a source of troubled consolation. ‘I have been quite well,’ Flaubert wrote to a correspondent, ‘since I accepted being forever ill.’ This is not so much an expression of weary fortitude as an affirmation of the significance of physical pain. Flaubert considered himself to be the victim of his own society – and his illnesses provided him, in a tangible and specific way, with the marks of such a victim. If Sebastian had taken the arrows from his body, and brandished them at his accusers, he would have been an artist and not a saint.

Venereal disease, which is Professor Williams’s main subject despite his disclaimer, is an apt martyrdom for the writer, principally because it is self-induced: its sufferers have the luxury of blaming only themselves. It also acts as a literary rite de passage, the rash or chancre symbolising the transition from a deluded innocence to an anxious and often painful maturity. Like the shaman who undergoes a period of physical and mental attrition before emerging as the spokesman of the tribe, so the artist is strengthened, made articulate even, by his venereal malady. That, at least, is one theory. In practice, the suffering élite did not always live up to their responsibilities. Professor Williams gives an account of one dinner party, held in Paris in 1880, attended by Daudet, Edmond de Goncourt, Zola and Turgenev: ‘Daudet led off the conversation by relating how he had awakened to find the clot of gluey blood in his mouth, adding that he had subsequently experienced three similar incidents when in bed. All those present then recited their own ailments, and revealed their fears of impending death.’ Only Turgenev, who died three years later, could be said to have kept his appointment with destiny. The others dragged on into the 1890s, nervously anticipating their untimely ends. In our own time, they would, in the long years of waiting, no doubt have tried orgone boxes, acupuncture and Korean foot massage: anything, in fact, which ministered to their hypersensitive awareness of their own physical being. The ‘horror of life’ may simply camouflage an inability to experience it in other than a self-protective or etiolated form. Given the tenor of such lives, it is difficult not to sympathise with the doctor who treated Baudelaire: ‘Evidently,’ Professor Williams writes, ‘Dr Max suggested that he might be a hysteric, which led Baudelaire to dispense with his services.’ Baudelaire did, after all, have a horror of the obvious.

The diagnosis, however, was a perceptive one. It has been said that Baudelaire became ‘acutely conscious of being the victim of life’ when he contracted syphilis at the age of 18, but Professor Williams now disposes of that neat theory. He was simply ‘perverse’ and, in addition, got it wrong: the symptoms he manifested were merely those of gonorrhoea, small beer in the world of literary angst. The shock is profound: it is almost as if Les Fleurs du Mal had been written under false pretences.

Professor Williams is at his best with such medical matters: give him a vascular failure or a temporary lobe epilepsy, and he is off after his elusive prey, checking symptoms and suggesting diagnoses. He is not quite so adept with the nature of the writers whom he is investigating, or the character of their writing. He is better with the movement of the bowels than of the mind.

The case of Flaubert is of some relevance. Here, if anywhere in this whole unhappy history of neurosis and hypochrondria, was a man who literally destroyed himself. His illnesses, ranging from rotten teeth to what was apparently a form of hysterical epilepsy, characteristically manifest a form of violence against the self. Professor Williams simply ticks them off, like a receptionist in a surgery, equating them with ‘pessimism’ and, occasionally, with ‘creativity’. But the central point evades him: Flaubert’s case was one of deep and unmanageable internal conflict. He worked obsessively on his books, keeping fixed and stated hours, while ostensibly despising the work ethic of the French bourgeoisie. He wanted money, safety, respectability while, at the same time, vilifying those with souls like ‘grocers’. He was placed in a fatal compromise with a society whose values he implicitly shared, but which did not in return value him. Out of anger, and guilt, he turned upon himself with a ferocity that was only stilled by his death. It may be that Flaubert impaled himself upon a false distinction between Art and Life (he thought they ought to be separate, but could not make them so) – a position none the less painful for being entirely theoretical.

Professor Williams’s own explanation of Flaubert’s misery is more colourful. On one of the many visits which Flaubert paid to one of his many doctors, the doctor described him as an ‘hysterical old woman’. ‘A phrase,’ Flaubert remarked later, ‘I find profound.’ What is good enough for Flaubert is good enough for Professor Williams, who suggests that Flaubert had ‘a strong tendency to transsexuality’. I am willing to believe that almost anyone is a transsexual – these days, almost anyone is – but there seems remarkably little evidence in this particular case. It does, however, throw a more lurid light upon Flaubert’s celebrated remark: ‘Madame Bovary? C’est moi!’

The Horror of Life, then, is not so much an example of ‘What the butler saw’ criticism (which generally passes under the name of ‘biography’) as of ‘What the doctor saw’. But doctors, although on the whole more reliable than butlers, tend to be less interesting. They have a less highly developed sense of irony. Which explains, perhaps, why they dwell at such length on the physical complaints of literary men. It appears, from the footnotes to this book, that there exists a phalanx of medical men who devote their lives to exploring the illnesses of famous writers – Doctors Michaut, Gelineau, Fortin, Tourneaux, Binet-Sanglé endlessly trying to democratise their hypothetical patients by noticing only what they have in common with other sick and infirm people. Their efforts resemble those of commentators who ask actors for their political or social opinions: it would not be hard to find more reliable sources.

And so the reader finishes The Horror of Life knowing more about the Goncourts’ livers than about their work (it would be difficult, in their case, to know which was the less interesting), more about migraine than about literature. But I cannot help thinking that Les Fleurs du Mal is more remarkable than a case of badly diagnosed gonorrhoea, that Madame Bovary is more worthy of report than a handful of rotten teeth.