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Alphonse Daudet & The Phenomenology Of Pain



Alphonse Daudet (1840-1897), novelist, playwright, and journalist, contracted syphilis at the age of 17 years, shortly after arriving in Paris in 1857. Syphilis was the HIV of the 19th century. Literary men such as Baudelaire, Flaubert and Maupassant were all afflicted and syphilis was central to Ibsen’s Ghosts and of peripheral importance in Doll’s House. It was second only to tuberculosis as a cause of death of talented writers.


By the early 1880s Daudet was in the tertiary stage of neurosyphilis and his dorsal column pathways were affected by tabes dorsalis. His gait was ataxic, and eventually he became paralyzed. He lived in this agonizing state, afflicted by pain and debility, for 12 years after his diagnosis. Charcot, the most eminent neurologist of his time had pronounced in 1885 that all was lost. This was the same Charcot that Freud had travelled from Vienna to Paris to train with. Charcot’s classes and demonstrations at Salpetriere were legendary.  It is said that he was blunt to the point of rudeness. He was once said to have told a patient “You’re in the position of a man sitting in shit with a sabre flashing above his head: either dive in or have your head cut off”. If he wanted to be tactful, he might announce bad news in Latin! Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.



Daudet’s little known tract on pain ‘In the Land of Pain’ is a triumph of the human spirit over traumatizing pain. It is remarkable how very sparse the literature on the exact experience of pain is. Perhaps, the agony is dispiriting or that once there is relief, even temporary relief, memory of the nature and quality of the experience fades very rapidly. This is the way the mind protects us from pain. Otherwise, what woman would choose to go through another labor pain!


Daudet wrote

My friends, the ship is sinking. I’m going down, holed below the water-line. The flag’s still nailed to the mast, but there’s fire everywhere, even in the water. Beginning of the end. I don’t care if my cannon-fire lands short, and the whole ship is falling apart. I’m going down fighting


This metaphor of the fighter confronting mortal danger is ubiquitous in our time but usually it is against cancer. Although, a variant of it was dramatized in the recent film Dallas Buyer’s Club with Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof taking on HIV. This attitude termed ‘fighting spirit’ was shown by Steven Greer and others to be positively associated with a good outcome in cancers although this finding has now come under challenge from several sources.



Daudet anticipated what is now known of brain function, the fact that like muscle it lives off glucose and can be exhausted

Effect of intense emotions: like going down two steps at a time. You feel as if you’re drawing on the very source of life itself, as if you’re attacking your capital, low as it already is. I’ve noticed twice in the last year: once in particular, about something inane and trivial, just a stupid servant’s quarrel when we were in the country. Also, during the Drumont-Meyer duel. And on each occasion I’ve felt this strange collapse of my face and my whole body, a cutting-away, as if a knife were being wielded on my poor person. Duruy told me how struck he’d been by this complete collapse of my features right in the middle of the drama, as we stood there on the dueling ground. A sort of hollowing-out that doesn’t go away.


This ability to be detached and self-observant, to stand apart from the self, even in the throes of anguish, as Daudet shows, is for me the very heart of the artist’s gift. Well, that’s if you can call it a gift. Some might say that it is a curse. Julian Barnes in his introduction to Daudet’s book wrote

When he was sixteen his brother Henri had died, at which moment their father gave vent to a great howl of ‘He’s dead! He’s dead!’. Daudet was aware, he wrote later, of his own bifurcated response to the scene: ‘My first Me was in tears, but my second Me was thinking, “What a terrific cry! It would be really good in the theatre!” ‘ From that point on he was ‘homo duplex, homo duplex!’ ‘I’ve often thought about this dreadful duality. This terrible second Me is always there, sitting in a chair watching, while the first Me stands up, performs actions, lives, suffers, struggles away. This second Me that I’ve never been able to get drunk, or make cry, or put to sleep. And how much he sees into things! And how he mocks!’.




Pain like other emotions is difficult to tie down with words. Words are far too imprecise to capture the variety of the experience or even to communicate, properly speaking what it is like

Are words actually any use to describe what pain (or passion, for that matter) really feels like? Words only come when everything is over, when things have calmed down. They refer only to memory, and are either powerless or untruthful


Varieties of pain. Sometimes on the sole of the foot, an incision, a thin one, hair-thin. Or a penknife stabbing away beneath the big toenail. The torture of the ‘the boot’. Rats gnawing at the toes with very sharp teeth. And amid all these woes, the sense of a rocket climbing up into your skull, and then exploding there as the climax to the show. ‘That’s the disease for you’ says Charcot


And, as for treatment

Morphine nights: the effect of chloral. Erebus, thick black waves, and then sleeping on the edge of life, the void beneath. As delightful as slipping into a warm bath. You feel yourself being taken hold of, enfolded. Pains in the morning: a feeling you’ve been bitten all over; but your mind is clear, perhaps even sharper – or simply rested


There are memoirs and memoirs of melancholia, of mania, of postpartum gloom, of living and dying, but rarely any of that hidden hinterland of pain and woe, the unremitting and pointless anguish of poisonous, vexatious torment. Daudet shines light on this aspect of life, illuminating briefly and poignantly what living with pain is like.




Photos by Jan Oyebode



Brazilians in Lagos

Candido Esan da Rocha was the richest man in Lagos when I was a boy. I lie! When my mother was a girl. He was reputed to own a horse drawn carriage that took him across “Gada” (sic) bridge. It was always unclear whether “Gada” was a corruption of “Carter” or “Girder”. Candido lived at Water House at Kakawa and had piped water to his residence from Iju to Lagos Island and he sold it for profit to Lagosians. His father Joao Esan da Rocha had been abducted a child in 1850 and sold into slavery in Salvador, Bahia Brazil. He returned to Lagos in the 1870s. Candido’s mother was Angelica Josephina da Rocha.
It is difficult to imagine today that 10% of the population of Lagos was of Brazilian origin. Families such as Joaquim, Vera Cruz, Soares, Trezises, Pereira, Pineirho, Martinez, Marinho were leading members of society, artisans, educated men, and wealthy to boot. Their homes round about Campos Square, Igbosere, Tinubu square, built in the Portuguese colonial style stood out. Gonclaves Da Costa built the Shitta Bey mosque and the Cathedral Church of Christ Lagos was influenced by Brazilian architecture.
This was a different Lagos. Colonial Lagos. The tomb to the unknown soldier, Soja Idumota, stood at attention as you entered Eko from Ebute Metta, across the bridge. Tinubu square and for a time the working fountains. And, Western House and the Independence Building, the Race Course, the Polo Club and Lagos Motorboat Club. These varied insignias of colonial power and status dictated in silence who was in charge and who was excluded from governance.
Even in my childhood, you could still take the LMTS bus from Gbamgbose and through Igbosere, Obalende, to Keffi and if you were travelling further into Ikoyi, you changed and travelled Awolowo road and in my case stopped at Queen’s Drive. We lived just where Alexander Road, Queen’s Drive and Cooper Road merged. Ours was the last house on Cooper Road.
Across the road from us was Dr Ademola’s residence. One morning in 1967, I think, there was a flurry of Police activity. He had been murdered or more correctly assassinated. It was all hush hush! There had been a knock on the door and he had gone downstairs to open the door and he had been shot. Simple as that. His English wife, in the evenings used to stand practically nude, before the dressing mirror, facing the window, in silhouette, brushing her hair, getting ready for tea, I suppose. It was whispered that he had conducted the post mortem on the body of the Head of the Airforce and had found that he’d been shot before his plane crashed. Ademola had been killed merely to protect this piece of secret information, which was widely known in any case. Very murky waters! Many years later, when I was appointed Consultant Psychiatrist in Birmingham and was visiting the local surgery in Hall Green, Green Bank Surgery, I met Guy Houghton’s father who before Guy had run the surgery from the same house, a family house at the time. He said “I knew a chap once, a Nigerian who I shared digs with in Cambridge, tall and very dark, would you know him by any chance, Dr Ademola?” I said “Yes, he’s died”. The Yoruba say “Omi l’eniyan”, people are like water.
The Lagos of my childhood and adolescence was still well organised and predictable. You could walk into a post office and expect to be served. Street lights worked. Litter was collected. And even for a while milk was delivered to your door from farms in Agege.
Perhaps the Lagos-Portuguese connection rather than the Anglo Saxon one need not be surprising given that Lagos is named after a small port in the Algarve. And, if such anachronisms as saying an African site was discovered by someone other than an African is permissible then the dubious credit goes to one Lancelot de Freitas in 1450, with respect to Lagos. Of course, Lagos had been settled by Awori and Edo people from much earlier. The names of the islands, Eko (field) and Ikoyi (warriors’ camp) say something about the original occupants.
The Yoruba wars of the 1800s in which the Ekiti Parapo (Ekiti & Ijesha confederacy) was pitted against the Ibadan resulted in many prisoners of war and other captives being sold into slavery. At this time, trade with the English speaking New World had all but ended but Portuguese ships continued to ply the Atlantic and to trade in the Black Gold. Hence many Yoruba or Nago as they were often termed ended up in Brazil, particularly in Salvador Bahia. Joao Esan da Rocha was an example, an Ijesha with feet also in the New World.
Jorge Amado is the Brazilian author who spent his life chronicling this Yoruba diaspora. It is extraordinary to see how Yoruba deities survived in the New World, how the language too prospered and the rituals and culture, the food and manners flourished either in pure form or morphed, transformed. Although not Brazil, I remember once sitting at The Tropicana in Havana watching the most exotic show of sequins and feathers, of gorgeous women and even more beautiful women, all of them golden and toffee coloured, cinnamon. In this most profane of venues, suddenly the music and atmosphere changed and for 15 minutes, the drums were of a Yorubaland grove and the chanting of Ogun, Yemoja, Oshun, Shango, Onile and Eshu and all of it conducted in Yoruba. I think I was the only person in the audience who understood the chanting, the eulogies, the poetry. I think even the old man-priest was merely reciting from ancestral memory. It was a most remarkable event, sorrowful and intriguing.
Now, Amado’s literature was totally immersed in this world. In novels such as Tieta, Tereza Batista, Dona Flor and her two husbands & Tent of Miracles, Amado traced the Yoruba spirit of African Brazil. Angola sometimes but always Yoruba in candomble, in syncretic Roman Catholic Saints secretly named for Yoruba deities. And what about carnival?
The protagonist in Tent of Miracles, Pedro Archanjo is described as follows:
Some said that Archanjo was Ogun’s child and many thought he was son of Xango, in whose house he held a lofty place and title. But then the shells were cast and his fortune told, the first to answer was always Exu the idler, lord of change and movement. Xango came for his King’s Eyes and Ogun was never far away; Yemoja came, too. But in the forefront was the formidable laughing Exu, the daredevil who loved a joke. No doubt about it, Archanjo was his man.
And Archanjo’s view was that “The face of the Brazilian people is a mestizo face, and it’s culture is mestizo”, and if mestizo, then Yoruba is an essential aspect that freckle, that confluence of rhythm and dance that pulsates in the Brazilian viscera. And also in the Brazilian woman, immortalised in Amado’s writings, for example in Rosa de Oxala:
To tell you what Rosa, Rosa da Oxala, the black rose Rosa was really like, to describe her, with her velvet slippers, her night scent, that woman smell, that perfume, that blue-black skin of silk and petals, supple power rippling from head to foot, elegance and arrogance, her silver ornaments, the languor of her Yoruba eyes-oh, my love, only a famous poet could do it, a real poet with lyre and curly locks, not the troubadours of Bahia with their seven syllable verses.
To imagine the astonishing influence of Afro Brazilians in Lagos and the counterpoint influence of the Yoruba in Bahia yet the astounding caesura in the dialogue, wide as the Atlantic itself!
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