Book Review: The Asylum of Dr. Caligari by James Morrow

Most people probably don’t start pondering the power of art after seeing the classic German silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. But then author James Morrow isn’t your average person. After all, he spent the 1990s “killing God” in The Godhead Trilogy. A self-described “scientific humanist,” Morrow’s last several novels explored the scientific worldview through the perspectives of the struggle between science and superstition in the early 17th century, genetic engineering and ethics, and evolutionary theory.

With his new book, The Asylum of Dr. Caligari, Morrow unmistakably moves from science to the humanities aspect of the definition of humanist. Morrow, who made 8mm and 16mm films in high school and college, uses the 1920 German silent horror film as inspiration and a foundation for the book. The movie is about a sideshow hypnotist, Dr. Caligari, who uses a somnambulist (Cesare) to commit murder and kidnap the narrator’s fiancee. When the narrator later follows Dr. Caligari, the hypnotist appears to be the director of an insane asylum. While some consider The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari the first true horror film, it’s best known for its visual style, one which has led many to proclaim it the quintessential cinematic example of German Expressionism.

The movie’s sets and objects deliberately and bizarrely distort perspective, scale and proportion. Sharp-pointed forms, such as grass that looks like knives, and oblique and curving lines dominate. Streets are narrow and spiraling while buildings and landscapes lean and twist in unusual angles. Some of the landscape is painted on canvas and shadows and streaks of light also are painted directly onto the sets, imbuing the film with a two dimensional aspect. While Dr. Caligari is central to Morrow’s book, The Asylum of Dr. Caligari is built around and focused on the extensive expressionist art motifs in the film. In fact, art is both a centerpiece and the vehicle of the book’s antiwar theme.

The story is told from the perspective of American artist Francis Wyndham, whose first name is also that of the film’s narrator. Through him, Morrow introduces art from the outset. Wyndham attends what is known as the Armory Show, a 1913 modern art exhibition in midtown Manhattan that introduced the American public to European avant-garde paintings and sculpture. Wyndham is so enthralled with what he sees there, he ends up setting out for France shortly before the outbreak of World War I. He dreams of being an apprentice to Pablo Picasso, who promptly throws him and his portfolio down a flight of stairs. Wyndham refers to his encounter as “Rube Descending a Staircase,” a takeoff on Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” displayed at the Armory Show. Undeterred, Wyndham seeks out other cubist artists, such as Duchamp, Georges Braque and André Derain.

When Wyndham meets Derain, the artist is being mobilized into the French military. He asks Wyndham to undertake Derain’s new position as art therapist at Träumenchen, an insane asylum. Located in the neutral fictional country of Weizenstaat abutting Luxembourg and the German Empire, Träumenchen is run by Dr. Alessandro Caligari. Echoing the film, Caligari is a former sideshow hypnotist and now an alienist who considers Freud a charlatan. Caligari believes hypnosis is the future of psychiatry and all treatment at Träumenchen on is based on the theory of heteropathy, in which a patient’s mental condition is treated by inducing an opposite disorder. (Cesare also resides at the asylum but in Morrow’s tale he is a black cat. Caligari’s sideshow somnambulist here is Conrad Röhrig, now his private secretary.)

Caligari also dabbles in painting, completing his magnum opus the night Wyndham arrives. Called “Ecstatic Wisdom” based on a chance remark by Friedrich Nietzsche when he was a patient at Träumenchen, the work is some 30 feet long and 15 feet high. Looking forward to the war’s “aesthetic intensity” and believing it “transcendentally meaningless,” Caligari created the painting with alchemical pigments. The alchemy enables “Ecstatic Wisdom” to brainwash men into kreigslust (“war lust”).

Here, the book shares a common analysis of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: Dr. Caligari represented the militarist German government during World War I and Cesare symbolized how, upon becoming a soldier, the common man is conditioned to kill. Seeing the painting as financial security for his asylum, Caligari charges each warring nation as they send a constant procession of troop trains to Träumenchen. The soldiers march by the painting and afterwards “radiated a boundless desire to find a battle, any battle, and hurl themselves into the maw.” This artistic war machine doesn’t just create the fodder. Within a month, the asylum is full of soldiers suffering from shell shock,

Throughout, Wyndham is teaching art therapy to a paranoid, a former chess grandmaster constantly narrating classic matches, a man who says he’s traveled the solar system in his private spaceship, and Ilona Wessels, who hails from Holstenwall, the fictional town that is the setting of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. She believes she is the Spider Queen of Ogygia, the island in Homer’s Odyssey, and she and Wyndham are immediately attracted to each other. Caligari encourages them to live together to provide Wessels “la cura amore” treatment. Knowing of Caligari’s painting and its effect, they form a cabal with other patients and employees to sabotage the scheme.

Morrow uses language consistent with a story being told by someone living in that period (‘batwinged incarnations of melancholia, catatonia, paranoia, and dementia praecox swirled all about me”), helping set the book’s narrative tone. A variety of Latin, French and German phrases dot the text so an online translator will aid readers. Likewise, due to the numerous art references, a reader is well-advised to have handy access to art history sources (or even Wikipedia). Surprisingly, though, Morrow’s pursuit of verisimilitude is undercut by either “artistic license” or an error in the first chapter. It has Wyndham meeting artist Henri Rousseau in Paris in the summer of 1914. Rousseau, though, died in September 1910.

That aside, the book is generally well-paced through Caligari’s discovery of the cabal, except for the space allotted to depicting the sexual adventures of Wyndham and Wessels. The last third of the book, however, feels a bit rushed and underdeveloped considering the cabal ends up on the Western Front and Wyndham, for example, doesn’t return for a month. The hurried feel is bolstered by the fact the run-up to and the ultimate denouement feel chimerical and even more fantastic than Caligari and his creation.

The Asylum of Dr. Caligari is an inventive homage to and extrapolation of concepts in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. At less than 200 pages, it’s also a pithy commentary on the power of art and the folly and hysteria of war. Ultimately, though, despite being a thoughtful read, the book does not wholly realize its aims.

Man does not live by bread alone, but it’s a good idea to start with the bread.

James Morrow, The Asylum of Dr. Caligari

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