The Asylum of Dr. Caligari: A somehow funny melding of German Expressionism, WWI, and art therapy


The Asylum of Dr. Caligari Kindle Edition by James MorrowThe Asylum of Dr. Caligari Paperback – June 20, 2017 by James Morrow The Asylum of Dr. Caligari
by James Morrow

Using a cult-class silent horror film (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) as the template for a speculative fiction anti-war novel might be a weird idea, but James Morrow has made a career out of weird ideas (including several books on killing God) and that experience mostly pays off in The Asylum of Dr. Caligari, though I would have preferred a shorter version of the tale.

On the eve of WWI, Francis Wyndham, artist-wannabe, makes the European circuit to try and find a mentor. But after getting pushed down a flight of stairs by Picasso and not finding much success otherwise, he’s happy to take on the job of Art Therapist at an insane asylum. Once ensconced in the gothic institution, where he offers up art instruction to a bevy of patients, including one who thinks she’s the Spider Queen of Ogygia and another who travels the solar system visiting aliens, he soon learns that the institute’s head (the titular Caligari) is more than a proponent of odd psychiatric theories and a fellow artist. He is, in fact, a mesmerist and a sorcerer who has far grander designs than curing a few sick minds. The vehicle for Caligari’s goals is a massive painting that evokes in those who view it an unwavering Kriegslust (war lust). Soon Caligari is parading troops of all sides (French, English, German — he has no loyalty to any particular nationality) by his masterpiece, ensuring the growing carnage of the war continues unabated while Wyndham, aided by a few patients, plots to destroy the painting.

If it sounds a bit over the top, well, it is. Morrow dives fully into gothic/surreal mode here, having fun with it even as he shows himself quite accomplished in its voice and tropes: the twisting, canted architecture; the purple and at times stilted prose; use of fire and shadow, classic types such as the mesmerist and sorcerer, and so forth. This is all wedded to the historical events of the time, such as the assassination of the Arch-Duke, the rolling in of one country after another due to alliances, specific military actions and strategy, and the use of new weapons such as the flamethrower and the early tank. Morrow also raises the intellectual stakes with explorations of art’s power (or lack thereof) to affect human action, psychology, violence, propaganda, war profiteering, sexuality, the gross absurdity of warfare — either individually or as they are entwined in culture/human nature.

If you’ve seen the film or know a lot of early 20th Century/late 19th Century art, Morrow offers up a slew of allusions for you to revel in. If not, the book is still enjoyable for its prose style, big ideas, and especially for its humor. The Asylum of Dr. Caligari is peppered with lots of one-liners or funny dialogue bits. Not all the humor worked, and some would have stood better with a bit more subtlety (the line “Rube descending a staircase” would have been even funnier without the explanation just before of the painting itself. I thought), but I laughed aloud a few times and chuckled many more. I’d offer up examples but don’t want to spoil the jokes (Freud and Nietzsche makes especially ripe targets here, though).

I did think The Asylum of Dr. Caligari felt too long even though it comes in at just about 200 pages and would have preferred it as a long short story/short novella, maybe about 130-150 pages or so. But for such a short book this is a relatively minor complaint since the length of time to finish it was so minimal, making this an easy recommendation despite that one issue.

Published May 30, 2017. If you think today’s profiteers are diabolical, blink again. It is the summer of 1914. As the world teeters on the brink of the Great War, a callow American painter, Francis Wyndham, arrives at a renowned European insane asylum, where he begins offering art therapy under the auspices of Alessandro Caligari — sinister psychiatrist, maniacal artist, alleged sorcerer. And determined to turn the impending cataclysm to his financial advantage, Dr. Caligari will — for a price — allow governments to parade their troops past his masterpiece: a painting so mesmerizing it can incite entire regiments to rush headlong into battle. The Asylum of Dr. Caligari is a timely tale that is by turns funny and erotic, tender and bayonet-sharp — but ultimately emerges as a love letter to that mysterious, indispensable thing called art.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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