Tuesday, June 20, 2017

"The Asylum of Dr. Caligari"

James Morrow is the author of the World Fantasy Award–winning Towing Jehovah, the New York Times Notable Book Blameless in Abaddon, and the Theodore Sturgeon Award–winning Shambling Towards Hiroshima. His more recent novels include The Madonna and the Starship, The Last Witchfinder, hailed by the Washington Post as “literary magic,” and The Philosopher’s Apprentice, which received a rave review from Entertainment Weekly.

Morrow applied the Page 69 Test to his new novel, The Asylum of Dr. Caligari, and reported the following:
As a writer, I have always been as excited by the medium of theater as by prose fiction. Over the years I’ve composed quite a few one-act comedies, and I would perhaps call myself a playwright manquĂ©. When I ponder my favorite non-Morrow novels, I’m content simply to revel in their existence, but when it comes to “the theater of ideas,” I find myself wishing I’d written Red Noses (Barnes), Angels in America (Kushner), Becket (Anouilh), The Royal Hunt of the Sun (Shaffer), and Marat/Sade (Weiss).

Because theater is for me a road not taken, it’s not surprising that page 69 of my new novella is a dialogue exchange. The speakers are Francis Wyndham, an art therapist working at a mental institution during World War One, and his gifted student, Ilona Wessels, who invents abstract expressionism a generation before it actually comes on the scene—though she wants Francis to help her give the movement a theoretical foundation. Francis speaks the first line, the subject being his own effort to create a painting that is only about itself (the title alludes to Blake’s “The Tyger”).
“I’m reasonably happy with it.”

“Our theory, or your painting?”

“Both. I call it Fearful Symmetry.”

“Is it finished?”

“I don’t know.”

“This is not quite what I had in mind, young Francis, but you are stumbling in the right direction. It invites the spectator to engage with the painting’s Existenz by way of the tiger’s Nichtexistenz.”

I took a long swallow of Riesling. “Ilona, this is perhaps a crude and tasteless question—”

“I understand.”

“You do?”

“The doctors around here are always asking me crude and tasteless questions. Why should my art therapist be any different?”

“Did Herr Slevoght become your lover, too?”


“I’m relieved.”

“He likes only men.”

“I see.”

“Evidently he and Conrad were the best of friends. But that isn’t why Caligari sent Herr Slevoght away. Dr. Verguin told me it was about philotopical differences—”


“I suppose I loved Herr Slevoght, though not in the way I love you, and not in the way I hated my father.”
Ilona’s aesthetic experiments and her hatred of her father are both subplot elements. The main narrative line concerns an enchanted painting by the asylum’s director, Dr. Caligari—a work so hypnotic it compels entire regiments to rush headlong into battle. Military leaders on all sides pay the sorcerer to parade new recruits past the painting, making him the ultimate war profiteer.

That said, page 69 remains dear to my heart. In the course of workshopping the novella among three colleagues—my writer-friend Daryl Gregory, my editor Jill Roberts, and my in-house manuscript doctor, Kathryn Morrow—it became obvious that my treatment of Ilona was woefully inadequate.

Not only did she function essentially as a mere creature of the plot (like Caligari, Ilona has supernatural abilities, which means she can counter his masterpiece with a Guernica-like rejoinder), but her relationship with Francis defined primarily by sex. In subsequent drafts, I added a Freudian mystery element (concerning Ilona’s parricidal impulses), and the bond between my hero and heroine acquired dimensions of artistic collaboration and intellectual exploration. “How marvelous that we have both of them in our lives,” says Ilona on page 55. “Both of what?” asks Francis. “Theory and fucking. Reason and Eros.”
Visit James Morrow's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Philosopher’s Apprentice.

--Marshal Zeringue