Thoughts on “Moravagine”
Posted May 1, 2007on:
(I go in to some detail about the plot, at least in what’s revealed in the first 50 pages or so.)
Moravagine was…it was something, rather, it was many things all of which I’m still trying to pin down. Set in the early twentieth century, the narrator, Raymond La Science, is a psychiatrist at odds with the way disease is treated, with prejudice, scientists intent on its destruction, when they should seek a true objectivity; a stance that translates into admiration, a certain reverence for diseases, psychological ones in particular, as the “future state of health” if not “health itself”. He has little else but contempt for medical science, its practitioners do little but disguise their knowledge behind Greek phases and butcher their valuable patients by performing all sorts of wrong-headed surgeries like lobotomy. Of course, his ideas are not rooted in any sort of altruistic, humane interest and, suitably enough, he finds his perfect patient in Moravagine, who is both physically deformed — he is given apish characteristics, with the long swinging arms, low forehead, and has a knee disfigured by anchylosis — and mentally unstable — he comes upon Moravagine masturbating, undeterred by spectators — into a fish bowl.
...I shall demonstrate how this tiny sound
within, this nothing, contains everything; and
how, with the bacillary aid of a single sensation
— always the same one, and deformed at that
in its very origins — a brain isolated from the world
can create a world for itself…
The quote from Remy de Gourmont’s novel Sixtine (Very Woman) at the beginning of the novel alludes to one of the major themes in the novel. From his birth Moravagine was raised in isolation, as an imprisoned prince in a palace filled with soldiers, tutors and servants, but no family. His father had been assassinated, his mother miscarried at the news and died, giving birth to a son premature by three months. His (undefined, near as I can tell) mental illness, which started to affect him in his childhood in the form of seizures and hallucinations, was no doubt aggravated by his extreme living situations.
At six was betrothed to Princess Rita, the only character with whom he ever formed an emotional connection, besides his pet dog. She visited him on every anniversary and each visit had profound effects: he developed an obsession with her eyes and became paranoid; after another visit he cut out the eyes of all the portraits of his ancestors because they were inferior to hers. The effects of prison not only of the palace, but in his own mind with no one to share his thoughts with (he has nothing but a perfunctory relationship with the help) become increasingly disturbing. At nine or so he was called to be a page at court but, in fear of never seeing Rita again, he concocts the craziest scheme a kid ever came up with to avoid an order. He ties himself to the bottom of horse, sets the barn on fire, and in the confusion hopes to make his escape. Of course a soldier shoot his horse, crushing him beneath it, giving him the injuries that resulted in the physical deformities we see in him later.
Moravagine was inclined to think that his guardian (only referred to as an “sinister, nameless old man” in Vienna) ordered the doctors not to timely set his knee fracture, therefore causing his limp. Further punishment comes when Rita’s visits stop for three years. They resume again though and at this point he’s hit puberty. Her visit triggers a sexual, if not sensual re-awakening in Moravagine and this, combined with his already “fanciful” disposition, transports him to a mental state that he fervently wishes to remain in. He so fiercely desires this that the mundane presence of his faithful pet, who encouraged and helped him during his recovery much like helper dogs do today, sends him into a murderous rage. Literally. He cut out the dogs eyes and broke his back with a chair. Another reason for his anger, I think, was that he recognised in the dog’s “melancholy”, limpid eyes something similar to his own feelings for and behaviour around Rita; in the dog’s position he saw something of his own general circumstance. At night he said, “it seemed to me that it was I who was breathing in this way, poor and vile, humiliated and impoverished.”
This is only a rehearsal for Moravagine’s defining act when he turns eighteen. Rita moves into a castle nearby and visits him every week. But the the frequent make clearer to her his obsession. Deprived of the usual social niceties Moravagine does not hesitate to ask her to undress so he may see her naked; from that day her visits become rarer. The abrupt lack of her civilising influence and as on object for his sexual fixations causes him to regress, at least psychologically. He becomes more “primitive”, turning his attention and artistic appreciation for “ugly objects, almost without workmanship, and very often with raw matter, primary matter itself.” Simple sewing machines, a stove pipe an egg became sexually arousing. In true European fashion this leads him to an interest in frenzied rhythm “like a Negro” and he jumps around doing Zulu dances and howling. (Although how he learnt any of this without having left his rural abode in Hungary is anyone’s guess.)
Rita returns one last time, treats him sweetly and gently, acts with him as she used to, but when she tells him of her plans to have her season at court, all the party invitations, her expected success, the obvious exclusion of Moravagine from this description of her future life provokes Moravagine to respond in the expected fashion.
…I don’t listen to her. I can hear nothing. I rush at her. I throw her down. I strangle her. She struggles, she lashes my face with her riding crop. I am on her already. She has no time to cry out. I have thrust my left first into her mouth. With the other hand I deal her a terrible wound with a knife. I open her belly. A river of blood flows over me. I tear at her intestines.
Back to the luxurious asylum for the rich that Raymond is with Moravagine. Now, what does Raymond do with this diseased patient with whom, if he were given the freedom by his superior, could conduct his study in a more scientifically pure manner? Not a bit, they become fast buddies and plan their escape when the Raymond’s employer expresses his disapproval of their relationship.