You stand at the front of the amphitheatre, chalk in hand, the right side of your face drooping like a stroke victim’s. Your hand curving inward, clenched, right leg dragging behind your left so it resembles a vestigial appendage, a half-amputated limb.
You play to the crowds—ape paralysis—distort your countenance until they almost cease to recognize you, wondering if you have not in fact escaped the wards, if you are actually an inmate imitating the great professor. Charcot, le Maître. Cold. Aloof. With a face like an undertaker’s. Under your black stovepipe hat. Your dark coat that always smells of damp wool.
Your entire body is dedicated to this performance of paralysis, the illusion only ruptured when you add to the illustrations on the blackboard—standing straight to draw more accurately, coloring the muscles along the right side of a chalked skull a bright and glaring red, as though you have peeled back the board to expose flesh. Only then do you relax the muscles of your mouth, your arm, your leg. Only then do you return to yourself. The audience applauding your transformation.
Tuesdays are the public events, les leçons. The sole time that you address a crowd other than your peers and students. Hours of memorization in which the drawings you will make are traced, erased, and traced again, until you know that every illustration will be accurate, precise. You rehearse your lecture before me, repeating it so often that I can mouth it back to you like a prompter poised offstage, never needed, this speech of yours fixed flawlessly in your memory. Every detail so conscientiously, so conservatively chosen. Programs printed out and distributed along the aisles, intermissions scheduled upon the hour. And you in the center of the stage. The amphitheatre empty until you order the doors to be opened.
Waiting in the wings, I have counted more than five hundred spectators crowding the circular sweep of seating, spilling into the standing room along the sides, eager to catch a glimpse of cher professeur. Gentlemen imitate your dress, your manner, even your monocle, as if hoping to share your illustrious vision. Ladies hand you autograph books to inscribe, leather-bound covers ornamented with gilt.
The interns whisper that there are authors and journalists in the audience, actresses, the women in furs have performed before royalty. And starstruck, we step onto the boards or find ourselves thrust before the crowd. Those who cannot walk are borne to the stage on stretchers, their bodies stricken and small, swallowed by the immensity of the auditorium. Side by side, we form a living tableau, posed amidst sketches and plaster casts. You refer to us by diagnosis, supplanting our proper names, clothing us in concepts. The aged woman in the feathered hat is Parkinson’s, the red-headed woman in the simple frock epilepsy, and I, spectacular in my flowing nightgown, with the ribbons in my hair, I go by the most majestic name of all, a word strung together from hisses and sighs. La grande hystérie.
We possess a museum of living pathology in which the resources are great, you tell the audience. Your finger marking out a frame around us. Your expression for a moment moved, as if you cannot take in the enormity of what you have accomplished. What you have yet to achieve.
Here, at the Salpêtrière, we have converted what was once an arsenal into an anatomo-clinical complex beyond compare—prisons, barracks, clerical quarters subsumed into the body of the institution. But more importantly, you remind them, we have at last separated patients who were housed together indiscriminately—removing the hysterics and epileptics from the population of psychotics and creating a clinic of nervous disorders, what one might refer to as our “new collection.”
We are curators who aspire to cure, and we have constructed an appropriately modern institution in which to hold our masterpieces. The hospital grounds are home to endless expansion, innovation—new buildings grafted onto old, kitchens turned into classrooms and clinics, rooms redesigned to accommodate laboratories, studios, electrostatic baths. This is the domain of hystero-epilepsy, of catalepsy, of tetany. The first medical theatre to offer demonstrations on the living. Here, it is the patients who claim our attention, who comprise the exhibits. Standing amongst them, we can almost imagine ourselves inside a hall of statues at Versailles, contemplating the most compelling works of art.
You motion to the rear of the amphitheatre, where a painting hangs of a body bowed backwards like a bridge. Your fingers trace the shape before you, making a flourish so graceful that it is like flight, like a holy gesture—the swing of a censer in church, leaving plumes of smoke braided in air. The figure is lovelier than a body on a cross.
And I think, if there is a Eucharist for this, it is a wafer curved like the roof of the mouth, my tongue curling to taste it—this vaulted and weightless thing, like the ceiling of a cathedral that traps in God.
A single touch sends me to the floorboards, crumpled like a body deprived of breath. A second renders me rigid, taut. The interns lift me onto a gurney, the audience whispering in excitement—anticipating your approach. And then there is no stage, only the sphere around us, the space between us, steadily closing.
You say, seize for me, and place your hands on my stomach, above my hips. Applying gentle pressure, you release and wait, and I, arching my back, ecstatic, pelvis pressing upward, eyes rolling back, teeth gritted, wait for your fingers to find me again. Writhing, rocking, unable to stop, legs twisting around themselves, and the bed hardly beneath me now for more than a moment at a time, as if I am levitating, only my head and my toes touching the mattress. You whisper, arc-en-ciel, and the reverence in your voice freezes me there, and I cry out, Maître. Everything in focus for a moment.
Excerpted from Asylum by Nina Shope. Published Dzanc Books. Copyright © 2022 by Nina Shope. All rights reserved.