Thursday, January 10, 2013

Malte's medical visit

The 26-year-old would-be writer Rainer Maria Rilke arrived in Paris in the summer of 1902. He soon started work on his future great prose poem: The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, which would be completed in 1910. The squalid Left Bank setting in which Malte, the disturbed young Danish hero of the novel, evolved was no doubt familiar to Rilke, although we do not know to what extent Rilke might have been describing, through Malte, his own existence as a destitute poet in turn-of-the-century Paris.

In the life of Malte, afflicted by mental problems, a dramatic event was his visit to a doctor at the famous hospital of the Salpetrière in the 13th arrondissement of Paris, which looks like this today:

The excellent Gallica service of the BNF [Bibliothèque nationale de France] has provided us with a splendid photo of the Salpetrière hospital in 1899 (just before the epoch of Rilke/Malte), by the great photographer of Paris Eugène Atget [1857-1927]. I've therefore inserted this old image into the following excerpt from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge:

My doctor didn't understand me. Not in any way whatsoever. It was indeed difficult finding the right words. They wanted to try electric shock treatment. Fine. I was given a note: I was to be at the Salpetrière at one o'clock. I was there.

I had to go along past various huts and through several yards where here and there beneath the bare trees people with white caps were standing looking like convicts. Finally I entered a long, dark corridor-like room which had four greenish frosted-glass windows on one side each separated from the next by an expanse of black dividing wall. A wooden bench ran along the wall facing and on this bench sat those who knew me and were waiting for me. Yes, they were all there. When I'd got used to the half-light in the room I noticed that among the people who were sitting there shoulder to shoulder in an endless row there could have been a few other people, lower class people: tradespeople, housemaids, waggon drivers . Down at the narrow end of the corridor two fat women had spread themselves out on special chairs and were chatting to each other, concierges presumably. I looked at the clock; it was five minutes to one. In five, let's say ten, minutes from now it would be my turn, so it wasn't so bad. The air was stale, heavy, full of clothing and breath. At one particular spot the strong, smell of ether forced its way through a crack in a door leaving a chill as it rose. I began pacing up and down. It struck me that I had actually been directed here among these people, to this overcrowded public surgery. It was, so to speak, the first official acknowledgement that I belonged to the outcasts. Is that how the doctor had seen me? Yet when I had visited him I had on a reasonably good suit and I had sent in my card. Nevertheless he must have somehow found out. Or perhaps I'd given myself away. That being the case, then, I didn't find it so terrible. People were sitting quietly and paying no attention to me. A few of them were in pain and to make it more bearable would give a little swing sometimes to this leg sometimes to the other. A number of men had lowered their heads onto the palms of their hands, others were fast asleep, their faces weighted down with weariness. A fat man with a red swollen neck sat there bent over staring at the floor, and now and again spat with a sound like a slap at a stain as if it seemed appropriate to him. A child was sobbing in a corner; it had brought its long skinny legs up onto the bench and was now holding them in an embrace, pressing tightly as if it had to say goodbye to them. A pale little woman who wore on her hair a lopsided crepe hat trimmed with round black flowers, had the grimace of a smile about her meagre lips, but her sore eyelids were constantly brimming over. Not far from her they'd placed a girl with a round smooth face and bulging eyes that were devoid of any expression; her mouth hung open and one could see the white slimy gums with their old stunted teeth. And there were bandages everywhere. Bandages wrapped layer upon layer around the whole head until only a single eye was there and it belonged to no one. Bandages that hid and bandages that told you what was underneath. Bandages that had been opened and in which now lay as if in a filthy bed a hand that was no longer a hand; and protruding from the row a leg that had been bound up as big as a whole man. I walked back and forth and made an effort to be calm. I was much occupied by the wall opposite. I noticed it had a number of single doors and that it didn't reach the ceiling, so that this corridor wasn't entirely cut off from the rooms that presumably lead off it. I looked at the clock. I'd been walking up and down for an hour. A while later the doctors arrived. First a couple of young ones with looks of indifference on their faces went by, eventually the doctor whom I'd been to see came along wearing light-coloured gloves, a chapeau à huit reflets [1] and an impeccable greatcoat. When he saw me he tipped his hat and smiled absently. I now hoped I'd be called straight away, but another hour went by. I can't remember how I spent the time. It simply went by. An old man in a soiled apron, some sort of orderly, came in and touched me on the shoulder. I went into one of the siderooms. The doctor and the young men were seated round a table. They looked at me. I was given a chair. Fine. And now I was expected to tell them what exactly was the matter with me. As briefly as possible, s ' il vous plait. Because the gentlemen didn't have much time. I felt odd. The young men sat and looked at me with that superior, professional curiosity that they'd been taught. The doctor I knew stroked his black goatee and smiled absently. I thought I would burst into tears but I heard myself say in French: 'I have already had the honour, monsieur, of giving you all the details that I'm able to give. If you consider it necessary that these gentlemen be fully informed, then you are no doubt able, following our conversation, to do that in a few words, while for me it would be very difficult. ' The doctor stood up with a polite smile, crossed with his assistants to the window and spoke a few words which he accompanied with a horizontal rocking movement of his hand. Three minutes later one of the young men, a short-sighted and nervous fellow, returned to the table and said, trying to look sternly at me: 'You sleep well, sir?' 'No, badly. ' Whereupon he bounded back to the group. They debated there for a time then the doctor turned to me and advised me that I would be called. I reminded him that my appointment had been for one o'clock. He smiled and made a quick fluttering movement with his small white hands to indicate that he was tremendously busy. So I went back into my corridor where the air had become much more oppressive and began again to walk up and down though I felt dead tired. Eventually the accumulated smells of dampness made my head spin, I stood by the entrance door and opened it slightly. I saw that outside it was still afternoon and there was some sun, and that made me unspeakably happy. But I couldn't have been standing there for a minute before I heard my name called. A female who was sitting two steps away at a small table hissed something to me. Who had told me to open the door? I said I couldn't stand the air inside. Well, that was my affair, but the door had to be kept shut. Wouldn't it be possible then to open a window? No, that was forbidden. I decided to start walking up and down again, because it did eventually produce a kind of numbing effect and it harmed no one. But now that too displeased the woman at the table. Didn't I have a seat? No, I hadn't. Wandering about was not permitted. I would have to find myself a seat. There should still be one. The woman was right. Actually there was one free next to the girl with the bulging eyes. I sat there this time with the feeling that the situation I was in must definitely be leading to something dreadful. On my left was the girl with the rotting gums; whatever was on my right took me some time to make out. There was an enormous immovable mass that had a face and a big heavy lifeless hand. This side of the face was empty, completely without features and without memories and what was uncanny was that his suit was the sort they dress corpses in before putting them in a coffin. The narrow black necktie was fastened round the collar in the usual loose impersonal way, and one could tell that the jacket had been put on this limp corpse by somebody else. The hand had been placed on the trousers in the same position as this one here, and even the hair looked as if it had been combed by the women who wash the corpses and had been set stiffly like the hair on a stuffed animal. I oberved all this very carefully and it occurred to me that this seat then was the very one that had been destined for me, because I believed that now at last I had arrived at that point in my life where I would remain. Fate, indeed, moves in mysterious ways.  Suddenly there arose quite near me and in rapid succession the screams of a terrified struggling child followed by a low restrained weeping. While I was making an effort to find out where the screams could have come from, once more there was a small suppressed scream, and I could hear voices asking questions, and one, in an undertone, giving orders, and then, regardlessly, some kind of machine started to hum and continued without a care. It was then that I remembered that half-wall and it was plain to me that it was all coming from the other side of the doors and that people were working there. Indeed every so often the orderly with the soiled apron appeared and beckoned. I no longer gave any thought to it's possibly being me he had in mind. Was it meant for me? No. Two men came along with a wheelchair; they lifted the mass into it and now I saw that it was a lame old man and that the other side of his face was smaller, worn down by life and had one eye open that was dim and sorrowful. They took him into the other room leaving plenty of vacant space near me. And I sat and wondered what they probably intended to do the feeble-minded girl and whether or not she too would scream. The machine behind the wall hummed away so pleasantly in its mass-production kind of way that it wasn't disturbing at all.

But then everything went quiet and in the quietness a superior self-satisfied voice that I thought I knew said: 'Riez! ' A pause. 'Riez. Mais riez, riez. ' [2] I was already laughing. It was inexplicable why the man in there didn't want to laugh. A machine started rattling and immediately fell silent; words were exchanged, then again the same energetic voice made itself heard and commanded: 'Dites-nous le mot: avant.' Spelling it out: ' a-v-a-n-t ' [3] . Silence. 'On n'entend rien. Encore une fois...[4] And then, while the warm and squishy babbling continued on the other side, there, for the first time in many many years it was there again. That: the Big Thing, which had shocked me with my first deep horror when I was a child lying in bed with a fever. Yes, that's what I had always called it whenever they were all standing round my bed, feeling my pulse, and asking me what had scared me: the Big Thing. And whenever they sent for the doctor and he came and persuaded me to tell him, I would simply beg him to do everything he could so that the Big Thing went away, nothing else mattered. But he was like the others. He couldn't take it away, though I was small then and it would have been easy to help me. And now it was here again. Later on it had simply failed to appear, it hadn't come back not even during nights when I'd had fever, but it was here now and I didn't have a fever. Now it was here. Now it was growing out of me like a tumour, like a second head, and was a part of me although it couldn't belong to me since it was so big. It was there like a big dead animal that at one time, when it was still living, had been my my hand or my arm. And my blood flowed through me and through it, as through one and the same body. And my heart must have been under a great strain pumping blood into the Big One; there was hardly enough blood. And the blood, against its own will, entered the Big Thing and came back sick and corrupted. But the Big Thing swelled and grew before my face like a warm bluish boil and grew before my mouth and across my remaining eye ran the edge of its shadow.  I can't remember how I found my way through so many yards. It was evening and I'd become lost in an unfamiliar neighbourhood. I walked in one direction up boulevards that had wall after wall and when I could see no end to them I walked back down in the opposite direction as far as some square or other. There I began to walk along one street and passed other streets that I'd never seen before, and still more of them. Sometimes electric trams with their lights too bright raced up raced past amid a harsh clanging of bells. But their destination signs carried names I didn't know. I didn't know what city I was in or whether I lived hereabouts, or what I had to do so that I wouldn't have to do any more walking.

[1] stylish shiny top-hat 
[2] Laugh! . . . laugh. Come on laugh, laugh.
[3] Say the word 'before' for us.
[4] We can't hear. Say it again.


  1. Who was that Maltes guy? I saw that p<a href="”>i</a>c before.

  2. Dear Anonymous: You ask who's this Malte guy. It's a long story, but I'll give you a hint, of a negative kind. The Malte who interests me has nothing whatsoever to do with the Mediterranean island republic of Malta, whose name in French is also Malte.

    In a forthcoming blog post dealing with the history of my house in Choranche, I shall be referring to a medieval order of knights known in French as the Ordre de Malte. There again, my Malte guy is quite unrelated to these knights. Funnily enough, the knights themselves didn't have a lot to do with Malta. They had started their existence in Jerusalem, in the 12th century, protecting pilgrims. When the Arabs kicked them out of the Holy Land, they settled in nearby Cyprus and then Rhodes. It was only when the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V kicked the descendants of the knights out of Rhodes in the 16th century that they settled in Malta. Finally, Napoléon Bonaparte kicked them out of Malta, whereupon they acquired the protection of Paul I of Russia in 1798. These knights of the so-called "Order of Malta" had become extremely wealthy, and they had always been keen on investing in French real estate. In our region alone, in 1778, they had received as a gift from the king of France all the possessions of the ancient monastic Order of Saint Anthony, whose headquarters were located in a village, St-Antoine-l'Abbaye, not far away from where I live. In particular, they took over the priory in Pont-en-Royans.

    A few weeks ago, I obtained (by chance) from the archives in Valence a rough map sketched by a member of the Ordre de Malte in 1780, and I find my property mentioned there (in a way indicating that Gamone was one of the rare vineyards that did not belong to the Ordre de Malte nor to the Chartreux monks of Bouvante).

    Needless to say, in spite of the similarity of their names, my Malte guy has nothing to do with the barley grains that are processed into malt for the production of beer and whisky, not to mention the malted milk shakes of my adolescence in rural Australia. But, in mentioning my native land, I'm allowing myself to get led astray. I hope that these few elements of information will provide you with a better understanding of the identity of Malte.