Notes from a Madhouse: A Story

With Respect to Nikolai Gogol

1835­­­­

Why am I here? What offence, what crime, what ungodly act have I committed to deserve such a fate as this? To be surrounded by madmen!

1835

Dear reader, whoever you may be, let me enlighten upon you my current situation. My name is Francis, and it is my misfortune to be confined to a madhouse. As I’m sure you can deduce from my eloquence and clarity in these writings, I am not mad. I am sane, sane as any normal man. Certainly I have my quirks, my flights of fancy, my oddities, but the same may be said of any man. It has been said I am strange. Indeed, I will acquiesce my melancholy: I am prone to bouts of silence and solitude spurred on by my own awareness of self. My appearance concerns me. I cannot help but pay attention to my looks, not out of vanity, but out of a simple desire to appear healthy and upright before God and Man. Should my hair be shedding about my shoulders, or my moustache thinning, or my hands cracked and dirty, I fall into a depression. I feel unlike myself. Some say that my behavior is unbefitting of a man, they call it “effeminate,” and of course they speak such words in whispers with dark gazes and small frowns hidden in the corners of their mouths. Perhaps. Perhaps such behavior is not befitting of a man, but to call such trifles madness? I do not know what I have done to deserve such a fate, only God, in his great wisdom, and you dear reader, with your patience, can see to offer me solace.

1836

Dear reader, allow me to describe to you the conditions I find myself in. This asylum disguises itself as one of those progressive institutions, furnished in niceties: marble halls connect parlors full of fine cushions embroidered with gold and pearl. Expensive meals of pheasant are prepared, cooked until the fat simmers, and drizzled with an orange glaze. We inmates are given wine, chocolate, and other hors d’oeuvres to placate bouts of belligerence. The mad ones (among whose number I do not count myself) enjoy adorning themselves in gaudy and garish clothing. They wrap themselves in purple silks, gold sashes, and fill the breasts of their coats with old pins and medals o give credence to absurd tales of brave and gallant acts upon the battlefield. While I do acknowledge my own fastidiousness given my appearance, I will not participate in foppishness. A simple suit of pale grey and a walking stick is enough for my daily ventures around the grounds. Oh, dear reader! Had I not mentioned the gardens? Yes, we are allowed outside but not beyond the gates. (It appears delusions of grandeur are the most common symptoms of madness, for we are told not to go beyond the gates unless we encounter “simple folk.” I can assure you there are plenty of quite simple folk trapped within these walls). I prefer to walk among the gardens, it offers me some peace of mind, away from the presumptuous tomfoolery of the other captives. It occurs to me, dear reader, that you may be confused as to why I am so distraught over my current situation. Surely this sounds like a paradise! But it is not. The superficial fineries of this establishment are not enough to make up for the abuse we suffer. Alas, dinner is being prepared, and they will seek me out soon and surely they will confiscate these notes should they find them. I will elaborate within my next entry.

 

1836 (Continued)

I am back again, dear reader, and in the interim of these entries I have prepared a list of the most terrible conditions of my imprisonment. Every one of the prisoners is given to a keeper who must keep watch on them, of course, these keepers are lazy and do not wish to keep us safe. Instead they simply abuse us to remind us of their power. My keeper is named Isabella. She is a rather mannish woman, and her face reminds me of a toad. She despises me, and finds my habits of hygiene particularly infuriating. Though I cannot say one way or the other, I suspect she finds my meticulous grooming so offensive because she herself does not look like a woman ought to. We certainly must make an odd couple when seen together on the grounds: a quiet, groomed man, accompanied by a boisterous, toad-faced woman. Luckily she does not seem to care much for my company. When she does see me she assaults me with the vilest insults, but for the most part I can escape her company. Furthermore, concerning the absolute lack of care in this institution, children are allowed to run about the grounds unsupervised. Surely the cannot be determined to be insane like the adults at so young an age? I am sickened by a suspicion that they come from an illegitimate union the only the overseers can claim responsibility for, but I dare not think anymore upon it. They are the only ones treated well here. The staff feed them treats, and give them praise. Even the mad ones are not so far gone as to withhold kindness from a child – a bit of food from their dinner, some candy, some time to play. Here is something placating about the imagination of a child. It draws out some kind of playful madness from all of us, and finds sanity in the insane.

1868

Apologies, dear reader, for the long time between these entries. Truly, life in a madhouse is so monotonous and boring I could not find anything else to write about after I divulged the secrets of our abuse. Something has happened though, outside of the institution. A change in leadership it appears, and it has forced our overseers to move us from Spain (did I mention we were in Spain? Apologies again for the oversight) and brought us all the way to France. Alas, it is little consolation. Isabella is now bitterer than ever. Furthermore, for some cruel political reason I cannot comprehend, I am forbidden from using my real name here! I am forced to call myself the Count of Maratalla, an absurd title, but it appeases the mad one’s thirst for fantasy. I feel like some poor peasant who has not only suffered the terrible misfortune of stumbling upon Don Quixote (complete with rusted armor, withered horse, and the eyes of the devil himself) but to have somehow tripped into some poor imitation of Cervantes’ tale, some world purely of such mad knights where my reason is made into madness and madness is all reason. Where queens scorn and abuse their kings, where a nom de plume is one’s legitimate signature. How was it not enough that I had to pretend to enjoy a madman’s façade? Now I cannot even pretend as myself, I must enact this dance as someone entirely else. I can assure everyone that the Count of Maratalla finds the whole scenario to be in poor taste.

 

1870

Some consolation: Isabella, having been removed from her original position in Spain, now sees no reason to be my keeper in France. She has abdicated her responsibilities towards me and, with them, her animosity has disappeared as well. I am certain she now sees that I am not mad. She smiles in my presence, shares stories and news, and sometimes walks with me in the gardens. It is my hope that with her assistance I can finally leave the confines of this madhouse.

 

1881

I am free, free to live as I please, free to live away from madness, free to live with love. Yet the specter of that place haunts me. It creeps within the guise of the mundane. In the reflective surface of a vase my eyes deceive themselves, by some trickery of their own senses I swear that the mirror image of my own eyes become the judgmental gaze of those lunatics. My past looms above my bed as the shadow of a dream. Nonetheless, I may find some happiness in my freedom, my new life, even in my friendship that has developed with Isabella. I have moved to the countryside, seeking out the solace of a simple life, much as I found solace in the gardens far from the court. Dear reader, if you’ve read this far, please trust in my advice: to live as royalty is to live in a court of madmen and fools. One cannot marry for love, nor live freely as one wishes. Flights of fancy and absurd manners rule the day. Seek happiness elsewhere, dear reader, somewhere far, far away from such a madhouse!

-Francisco de Asis Maria Fernando de Borbon, Duke of Cadiz, King Consort of Spain

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