THE SYSTEM OF DR. TARR AND PROF. FETHER with David Burchell

David Burchell-01

“Believe nothing you hear, and only one-half that you see.” Our protagonist here, whilst on a venture through the southern stretch of France, finds himself just miles away from a personally much-lauded location: the Maison de Sante. Private madhouse. A place flown famously throughout the airs of the medical community due to its unorthodox treatments, rehabilitations. The system of soothing. This system, although still strict at its parameters, acted as a better angel for the peoples there. Punishments were eradicated. Confinement was a rarity. And although still watched, there was a freeness which allowed said lunatics to wander unwaveringly, donning the wears of sane and rational. Upon his arrival, and with the presciences given to him by his knowledges of the system, he begins wary, at the meeting of a young, and beautiful, woman, a pianist. Subtly, he remains wary of her, fitting her perhaps into the camp of the insane. But, such things progress as to elude him, as certain aspects of hers find definition and detail—and as, at the excusing of herself, his host, the formidable and stoutly Monsieur Maillard, quite bafflingly reassures him of her sanity. His niece, the young lady, is a most accomplished woman. After which, our protagonist is regaled in rigorous explanation the changes to the system, that the patients are not to be left liberty, that, due to a bulwark or two, confinement is very much a thing in place. Sad, but exciting, news. There becomes talk, both of the system’s successes and failures. “There is no argument which so touches the feeble reason of the madman as the argumentum ad absurdum,” says his host, proudly. The line here delves psychologically into the machinations of the mind. Said patients in particular believed themselves truly as chickens, and thus were encouraged and affirmed to be so, fed only the foods of the diet of the chicken, the nonsense of the conclusion effectively negating the crotchets and beliefs. More of this I’ll touch on later. Preceding a tour of the institute, it is suggested a dinner be in order, so as to ease the stomach and the mind. And so the evening begins. At the table, our character is faced with very many a strange thing, watching at the gathered guests dressed up wild and weird and overtly lavish, stared at with the burgeoning towers and excess heaps of food, and gallons of drink. There’s a consistent wariness plaguing him, and he wonders again if these guests are actually patients, and if he’d been lied to, as a means to some end, perhaps to ease him in, alleviate some shock. But as the feast makes way, he is very swiftly assuaged of such suspicions. These are intelligent beings, witty, and eclectic, personages, important peoples. Excusing some of the lavisher and stranger ways in which they dress and speak, he lowers his guard, giving in gracious to the night. But therein lies the fault. What starts as cordial and civil conversation, regaling their guest— our protagonist—with anecdotal tales of patients past, ascendantly swirls into a competition of sorts. Each patient story professed out louder than the last. Each move of the belief, acted out. The clamor rises and bubbles and settles. Howls are heard, from some other chambering of the Maison, to do the same. Guests at the table whisper each other’s ears, halting them from rising upon the table, from the methods of the acts. A slip of Monsieur Maillard’s lips, as he scolds a one of his beloved guests for acting out, perturbs our character, as she is addressed with the namesake of the woman she spoke: a patient believed of themselves to be a hen. But, again, as is per our protagonist’s usual, he is persuaded of his fears otherwise, due to the respectable, and formal, nature of his host. The host who begins to speak so direly. He begins again vaguely, as he’d earlier, to tell our hero of the newer system in place, the system of a Dr. Tarr and a Prof. Fether. Cutting that short, he merges into discussion of the dangers of letting the loons

that short, he merges into discussion of the dangers of letting the loons run free, as they are unparalleled in wit and cunning when lumped together so freely, as they can put on airs of sanity, rationality, mindfulness. He talks of a rebellion that occurred one sometime ago, in which the patients surmounted the doctors, swapping places, caging the sane, and charging, and empowering, the insane. He talks of a man they welcomed in during this, a stupid man, to poke fun and to play and to heckle with. An unassuming fellow. And but how would he know? What, with their fancy dress and bountiful feast and drowning drink? What, with their intelligences? Their stories? Their committals to the method and to the act and to the system? He tells to him that, in his honest, honest opinion, that that newer system, enacted by the loony man in charge, the head rebel, was a better system than whatever older one they used: “simple—neat—no trouble at all—in fact it was delicious it was . . .” The lunatics break free. Pandemonium descends from the outs and ins of the Maison de Sante. The bands plays frenetic a feverish Yankee Doodle. The guests and partners and members all lavish and light find finally a freedom, breaking the methods of their acts, blowing whistles of tea and croaking throats of frogs and spinning rounds and rounds and rounds of teetotums. The windows, in they break. Monsters attack. Tarred and feathered monsters attacking backwards their captors, captives. And the whole of the night fades into traumatic memory. To me, the System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether is a tale what warns of supposition, of rumour, of gossip, of the dangers of believing conniving parrots, trusting alone in appearance, hanging on tight the threads of prejudice, and stereotype. Rutting the paths of beliefs passed on to you. A dangerous, dangerous system, no matter how long it’s been in place. A story of cat killing curiosity, lavish in its dress, but blunt in its execution, telling our protagonist from the start exactly what this is, with an ending perhaps more viscerally ironic than the whole of the piece. Lamenting upon the tragedy of that night of the Maison de Sante, no matter how far he scours, library after library, for the printed works of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether, he cannot seem to find them. And so the arrow . . . Never made . . . Its mark. Remember, Reader, if you will: “Believe nothing you hear, and only one-half that you see.”


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