What made Albert run

Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen

  • Mad Travellers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illnesses by Ian Hacking
    Free Association, 239 pp, £15.95, April 1999, ISBN 1 85343 455 8

You wake up one morning, the whole world is grey, you have had enough of your cold, colourless life. You want to drop everything, escape, far away, where life is real. Who has not had this dream from time to time? Nothing could be more normal. The desire to escape, to travel, is deeply rooted in everyone, from the young runaway to the tourist, from the beatnik to the Sunday hiker. But suppose now that this desire to flee becomes an obsession, a truly irresistible compulsion. Suppose further that it all happens in a state of absence and you cannot remember any of it: you arrive somewhere, dazed, without the slightest idea of what happened in the interval. Obviously, you have become a pathological runaway, a mad traveller, fit for the asylum and for therapy.

So how do you get from normal escapist desire to mad travelling? What is the difference between these two, almost identical impulses? How did you become mentally ill? Besides, are you really ill? Ian Hacking has written a wonderful philosophical fable about these and several other equally fascinating questions. Its moral is simple, if somewhat untimely: what we call ‘mental illness’ is not a permanent, intangible reality. For it to develop, it needs a hospitable environment, what Hacking compares to an ecological niche. Without a facilitating environment, mental illness languishes, wastes away, disappears, or emigrates somewhere more propitious. You who dream of dropping everything, for example, there is almost no chance of your becoming a pathological fugueur. Our modern psychiatric bibles may still make room for the diagnosis of ‘dissociative fugue’, but there is no longer, in late 20th-century Europe, any ground on which that illness could truly thrive. A century ago it was different. Hacking is more precise (or peremptory): fugue, he claims, became an illness in 1887 with the publication of Philippe Tissié’s Les Aliénés Voyageurs, and it began to wane after the 1909 congress of alienists and neurologists in Nantes.

Hacking even gives us the name of the first pathological fugueur: Jean-Albert Dadas, an employee in a gas equipment company in the Bordeaux region. Tissié spotted him in 1886 at the Hôpital Saint-André in Bordeaux:

He had just come from a long journey on foot and was exhausted, but that was not the cause of his tears. He wept because he could not prevent himself from departing on a trip when the need took him; he deserted family, work and daily life to walk as fast as he could, straight ahead, sometimes doing 70 kilometres a day on foot, until in the end he would be arrested for vagrancy and thrown in prison.

This strange compulsion had seized him for the first time when he was 12. He had suddenly disappeared from the gas factory where he was an apprentice, and when his brother found him in a nearby town, he had seemed to awaken from a dream, astonished to find himself there. As a rule, his attacks were preceded by migraines, insomnia and sessions of intense masturbation. Dadas would then take to the road and walk, walk, till he found himself in some place that he had heard about: Paris, Marseille, Algiers, Frankfurt, Vienna, Moscow, Constantinople (Hacking provides us with a map of his impressive peregrinations across Europe). Dadas never remembered much, but Tissié quickly realised – this was 1886, the golden age of hypnotism – that you only needed to put him under hypnosis to have him recollect the sometimes picaresque details of his travels. Tissié also had photographs taken of Dadas, in which we see him in his different states: normal (perky, smiling at us); at the end of an attack (groggy, stupid); under hypnosis (asleep, eyes closed).

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