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Two of the book’s main characters are described as “schizophrenic,” but I suspect that experts will differ with my use of that term. In fact the narrator, the young psychiatrist Ned Hoffmann, is uncomfortable with this diagnosis which has been placed on Hunter Morgan and his twin sister Antonia:
Everyone at the Institute referred to them as “schizophrenic” because that was the official diagnosis, carried forward on their charts over a seven-year period. But in fact their illnesses bore almost no resemblance to classic schizophrenia or any other recognized form of mental disturbance. Whatever they had, it was unrecognizable, unique, defying classification. This troubled me because it went against all my training and experience up to that time. Patients, I’d been taught, can always be diagnosed—that is, categorized—because they’re not like you and me. They are not normal, healthy individuals with unique personalities that can express themselves in an infinite number of ways. They have illnesses with certain symptoms; there are only a limited number of possibilities. In other words, even if the rest of us are unique, mental patients are not. But here were Hunter and Antonia, who defied medical classification. The lexicon of modern medicine was useless in the face of their individuality. The only thing you could say about them was that they were crazy. Mad. That’s what they were, I told myself privately: Mad.
This concept of “madness” fits in nicely with pre-scientific conceptions of mental illness as embodied in Romanticism and other literary conceptions. The madman was seen as a kind of prophet rather than merely a person whose chemistry needed to be adjusted. Much of the story of THE RULES OF DREAMING revolves around The Tales of Hoffmann, the opera by Jacques Offenbach based on stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann. This is a beautiful, fantastic work which is all about the shifting boundary between fantasy and reality.
E.T.A. Hoffmann popularized the Romantic notion of madness as a spiritual state, akin to love and artistic inspiration. Somewhat like the LSD-inspired hippies of the 1960s and their followers, Hoffmann believed (or claimed to believe) in the existence of a “spirit world” accessible through dreams, drugs and music. If all else failed, madness (though not recommended) was another possible means of accessing the spirit world. Hoffmann was enormously influential in France and Germany for a few decades after his death in 1822. Offenbach’s opera portrays him as an alcoholic artist tottering on the edge of madness, tormented by his Muse and haunted by his three “mad loves.” Some recent productions have depicted Hoffmann as an inmate in an old-fashioned lunatic asylum.
If you haven’t seen The Tales of Hoffmann, I would strongly recommend that you watch the surrealistic film version that was made by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in the 1950s. Powell and Pressburger were British directors who also made The Red Shoes and The Thief of Baghdad. The DVD of The Tales of Hoffmann contains a fascinating commentary by Martin Scorsese, who was strongly influenced by the cinematography. My interest in the film and the opera led to a study of E.T.A. Hoffmann, who is known in the English-speaking world almost entirely through derivative works (The Tales of Hoffmann, Tchaikowsky’s The Nutcracker, Robert Schumann’s “Kreisleriana,” Delibes’s Coppélia, Freud’s essay on “The Uncanny”) and the stream of influence that traces back to him (Schumann, Poe, Baudelaire, Dumas, Offenbach, Dostoevsky).
Long before I saw the Powell/Pressburger film, I had imagined a story about a patient in a mental hospital who sits down at the piano in the patient lounge and flawlessly plays a difficult piece of classical music. Although this usually requires years of training and practice, the patient’s psychiatrist discovers that he has no musical training or experience. So the question I started with is: Where did this music come from? Where does any music come from? Does music come to you as a kind of inspired madness, or does it come from outside the human mind?
When I researched The Tales of Hoffmann and its sources, I recalled the story I’d envisioned years before about the mental patient flawlessly playing a difficult piece of music without the benefit of any musical training or experience. That idea had been Hoffmannesque without my knowing it. THE RULES OF DREAMING took off from there.
Nicole was nimble and petite and very pretty. No, I take that back—“pretty” doesn’t come close to doing her justice. She was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen, with cascading red hair and a bold, astonished look in her eyes that made her seem at once wild and angelic. But since my profession has liberated society from all of its taboos save one—that a psychiatrist shall not fall in love with his patient—all I could do was listen sympathetically as she pulled herself back together and prepared to return to her studies. I put her on appropriate medications and she began to make progress immediately.
As it happened, Nicole had been in the lounge when Hunter sat down to play the piano...
“Nicole,” I said, “did you hear Hunter playing the piano this afternoon?”
“Yes I did.” She stopped in the doorway, framed in the shadows that darkened the adjoining hall. “It was impressive, wasn’t it?”
“Impressive isn’t the word, when you realize that he’s never had a lesson or even touched a piano before.”
Her smile faded. “That’s uncanny.”
“Do you know what piece of music he was playing?”
“I think I’ve heard it before. One of the German Romantics, I think, maybe Schumann.”
She started through the door, but just before she disappeared into the shadows she turned back around and her eyes caught a sparkle of the afternoon light. “He went mad, you know.”
“Who went mad?”
“Robert Schumann. The composer. Died in an insane asylum.”
About the Novel:
A beautiful opera singer hangs herself on the eve of her debut at the Met. Seven years later the opera she was rehearsing—Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann—begins to take over the lives of her two schizophrenic children, the doctors who treat them and everyone else who crosses their paths, until all are enmeshed in a world of deception and delusion, of madness and ultimately of evil and death. Onto this shadowy stage steps Nicole P., a graduate student who discovers that she too has been assigned a role in the drama. What strange destiny is being worked out in their lives?
Bruce Hartman has been a bookseller, pianist, songwriter and attorney. He lives with his wife in Philadelphia. His previous novel, Perfectly Healthy Man Drops Dead, was published by Salvo Press in 2008.
His novel is available through Amazon.
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