The Irrepressible Adaptation Of The Mind

Several days ago I read one of Edgar Allan Poe’s lesser-known stories, “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.”  It was first published in 1845.  Readers may not be familiar with the story; but as it seems to offer a useful commentary on contemporary affairs, I wanted to share my thoughts about it. 

The tale begins with the narration of a young man traveling through southern France.  As their route takes them near a famous lunatic asylum–a decaying chateau–they decide to stop and visit it.  The narrator explains that the asylum had pioneered a unique system of patient management called the “soothing system.”  The narrator and his friend enter the grounds of the hospital and are introduced to the superintendent, one Monsieur Maillard.  The affable Maillard plays the perfect host as he shows the narrator the grounds.  He then explains the asylum’s renowned “soothing system”:

“I may state the system then, in general terms, as one in which the patients were managés, humored.  We contradicted no fancies which entered the brains of the mad.  On the contrary, we not only indulged but encouraged them; and many of our most permanent cures have been thus effected.  There is no argument which so touches the feeble reason of the madman as the reductio ad absurdum.  We have had men, for example, who fancied themselves chickens.  The cure was, to insist upon the thing as a fact—to accuse the patient of stupidity in not sufficiently perceiving it to be a fact—and thus to refuse him any other diet for a week than that which properly appertains to a chicken.  In this matter a little corn and gravel were made to perform wonders.”

Not only this, Maillard explains, but the patients were allowed complete freedom in the hospital.  Alas, though, the system had its drawbacks.  The narrator is told that the “soothing system” eventually revealed itself to be too dangerous for both the staff and the inmates.  Maillard invites the young narrator to dine with him and his administrators that night, where he will be able to explain more. 

Our hapless narrator then finds himself sitting at a large banquet table, surrounded by Maillard and his eminent administrators.  The table is heaped with elegant foods and wine, but to the narrator, something does not seem quite right.  The scene, in fact, has distinct overtones of weirdness:

Many females, for example, whose age could not have been less than seventy, were bedecked with a profusion of jewelry, such as rings, bracelets, and earrings, and wore their bosoms and arms shamefully bare.  I observed, too, that very few of the dresses were well made—or, at least, that very few of them fitted the wearers…The table was superbly set out.  It was loaded with plate, and more than loaded with delicacies.  The profusion was absolutely barbaric.  There were meats enough to have feasted the Anakim. 

Never, in all my life, had I witnessed so lavish, so wasteful an expenditure of the good things of life.  There seemed very little taste, however, in the arrangements; and my eyes, accustomed to quiet lights, were sadly offended by the prodigious glare of a multitude of wax candles, which in silver candelabra, were deposited on the table, and all about the room, wherever it was possible to find a place.  There were several active servants in attendance; and upon a large table, at the farther end of the apartment, were seated seven or eight people with fiddles, fifes, trombones, and a drum.  These fellows annoyed me very much, at intervals, during the repast, by an infinite variety of noises, which were intended for music… 

As the meal begins, various guests entertain the narrator with stories of mad patients they have supervised.  Maillard’s staff tell their stories, then disconcertingly demonstrate the insane quirks of their patients.  With a growing feeling of discomfort, the narrator begins to feel he is surrounded by lunatics.  Maillard, however, continues to maintain that all of the patients are safely locked up, and that the dinner guests at the banquet table are his staff.  Maillard also explains that the hospital’s new system was one pioneered by two men named Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.  The old system had proven to be unsafe, Maillard explains, after the patients rebelled, took over the hospital, and locked the administrators away in their rooms.    

At one point during the evening, the narrator hears pounding on the boarded windows, which he takes to be escaped patients.  To his horror, he eventually realizes that the pounding is from the asylum’s administrative staff.  The lunatics had, in fact, taken over the hospital, tarred and feathered the staff, locked them up, and made them subsist on a diet of bread and water.  Maillard, the superintendent, had himself descended into madness and staged the revolt of the lunatics.  The narrator receives “a terrible beating,” but manages to escape with his life.     

It is difficult not to read this unsettling tale as a societal allegory.  As we look around in our daily lives, we feel the press of unrestrained human egotism and desire.  Through the omnipresent medium of social media, we are made to be acquainted—more often unwillingly than not—with everything that is base, venal, and corrupt.  Our perspectives and stabilities are skewed by the elevation of the bizarre, the freakish, and the rare.  The media praises and rewards behaviors and habits that in previous eras would be justly condemned, mocked, or shunned.  It often feels as if the lunatics have taken over the asylum, and enjoy the bounties of the banquet table, while the normal members of society must sit and observe in stupefied silence.   

Yet the human mind always finds ways of adapting to difficult circumstances—even the most horrific circumstances.  I was recently reminded of this while searching through old photographs in the U.S. Marine Corps Archives.  This is a hobby of mine that brings me much satisfaction.  As I was poring over the photos in the John H. Craven Collection (a Marine chaplain), I came across one photograph that was one of the most remarkable Pacific War photos I had ever seen.  It was a picture of Chaplain Craven baptizing a man on the wrecked beach at Iwo Jima in 1945.  The beach is littered with the wreckage of war:  twisted metal, smashed hulks of ships, and debris of all kinds.  The picture appears to have been taken a few days after the fighting had ended, but I am not sure.  This is the photograph:

From the John H. Craven Collection (COLL/3505), Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections. Official USMC photograph.

The photo’s caption reads as follows: “Chaplain John H. Craven, regimental chaplain, 14th Marines, baptizes soldiers from the Army’s 476th Amphibious Truck Company in the surf at Iwo Jima. “Ducks” [DUKW landing craft] from this company carried the 14th Marines from LST’s to the beach at Iwo.” The baptized man in the surf was one of the drivers of the amphibious assault craft.  I imagine that, during the battle, he must have piloted many men into the maw of the Beast.  He must have been seeking a way to cleanse his soul, to purify his spirit, with some sort of ritual rebirth. 

To wash the stink and stain of death from his corporeal nature, and embrace a higher spiritual nature:  this, I imagine, must have been his unconscious motivation.  I only speculate; the specific details we will never know, nor do they really matter.  What matters, I think, is something truly remarkable about human beings:  the fact that even in the midst of horrific carnage and bloodshed, in the depths of unspeakable horrors, the human mind nevertheless retains a spiritual impulse that seeks ways of adapting and overcoming.  It is nothing short of miraculous.  And with this remarkable photograph, we have visible proof of it.  Out of all this madness, and out of all this suffering, there remains an irrepressible, elemental urge for redemption and rebirth:  and it is this impulse which gives human life an inexplicably sublime grandeur.   



Read more on this topic and other related subjects in the complete collection of essays, Digest: