Course: En 3004 Introduction to Anglo-Irish Literature
The representation of madness in Clarke's poem Mnemosyne Lay in Dust
In his narrative poem Mnemosyne Lay in Dust, Austin Clarke writes about a personal experience, which he has made some 50 years before he first published this poem, when he suffered a mental breakdown. Although, it is his own experience, he does not write in first person but uses a protagonist, Maurice Devane, and presents this trauma in third person to the reader. This could be, because this experience, even if it has happened half a century ago, is a very personal one and using a third person narrator possibly makes it easier for him to write about it. The protagonist Maurice Devane experiences the loss of self: he looses his memory, he does not know himself any more.
The poem can be divided in three parts: the first in which he describes the journey to the hospital, the second, in which he talks about his ordeal in the hospital and the third, in which he leaves the hospital as a healthy man. I´d like to take a closer look on the second part, when he is in hospital.
In the hospital he is totally locked from the outside world, the only things he hears from outside are the trains from Heuston train station. He has a very inhuman, brutal and painful time. The doctors there are uncomprehending maybe even incompetent and their „efforts” do not help Maurice to get well. Beside the medication he is kept as a prisoner, he is being force fed, he is sometimes even locked in a padded cell. So his state first does not become better but gets even worse. Clarke talks about his time in hospital as a mixture between what he experiences there, his dreams, hallucinations, nightmares and his memories, as they slowly come back to his mind. These things cannot entirely be separated from each other, as they merge. Another important point, which should be kept in mind while reading the poem is, that after approximately fifty years Clarke possibly cannot remember everything exactly, and which is even more obvious, is that he cannot entirely remember what happened to him while he was under medication. But as the poem seems very honest, we can be sure that Clarke wants to give the reader a truthful glance into this former chapter of his life as an ill person.
As he looks into a mirror in the hospital, the face whose reflection he can see seems familiar to him, but he do not know who he is. He cannot remember anything. This is an extreme painful experience, not to know who one is. It also, understandably, fills him with fear.
During his madness Maurice discovers that ”the soap-dish had [b]een moved an inch” and he is wondering about it. This is an insignificant thing, no normal man would have noticed it. So in his madness and as he has nothing to do there in the hospital, he observes such tiny little things, which are normally not so important, maybe to keep himself occupied with something. He wanders weather it was a ”trap [t]o test his observation” but shortly after he thinks about it, he is not sure any more, because he may forget where he put it and he won't be able to remember it the next day, so he then can not be sure whether it was again moved by somebody or not. That is he suffers from persecution mania, he burden himself with such -for normal people - unimportant things, which of course is one symptom of madness. At the same time, it is important to know, that there is a „peep-hole” on his door, so the doctors and others who are outside his room can look at him, they can observe him at any time, which of course does not make him feel comfortable and take away every privacy.
Once he dreams that he is in an Exhibition Hall. There, as he is moving up the ”marble stairs” he finds himself in ”mirrored halls”, where he moves from one to another. Everywhere these mirrors, where he can see, but cannot identify himself, indicates, that he is concerned about this topic all the time, so he even dreams about it, he cannot escape his problem. Such „mirrored halls” can often be found on fairs and their task there is, to cause fear and confusion, just as it causes fear and confusion when Maurice is looking into a mirror. He is in these „mirrored halls”, the other visitors are downstairs, „walzing below” in the „Exibition Hall”. So there is this big contrast between him and the rest of the visitors: he is alone, lonely, confused in halls full of mirrors, where he can see only himself and on the other hand the others are happy, dancing downstairs.
Strictly speaking, he is not alone in these mirrored halls, there are also „statues in niches”. Such statues have the shape of a human beings, because they represent humans but are at the same time motionless, because they are no real people, just statues. Because they look like humans but cannot move, they seem as they were people be trapped in these shapes of statues. They are just like Maurice: he is stuck in a body, which he does not know. Besides these „statues” there is also the „Watcher”, who „stares” at him. This again intensifies his feeling of being followed by somebody, the „Watcher” is the personification of his persecution mania in this particular dream. At the other hand, it is also possible, that he really was in such a ”mirrored hall” earlier in his life and now remembers bits of it as his memory comes back. We cannot be sure about this.
Awaken, he hears the cries and shouts of the other patients because they just as he are not treated well. „Suddenly [his] heart began to beat [t]oo quickly, [and] too loudly. It clamoured [a]s if it were stopping.” So as being alone in his room, he is so lonely that he even seems to hear his own heart beating. He panics, he is afraid of dying and cries for help, but instead of calming him down in a proper way, the doctors put him into a „padded cell”, into a „private darkness”, where the „wall was circular”. There he can shout, but nobody hears him, he feels as if he was buried alive. This situation even adds insult to injury, it does not help him to get well. The wall is circular, so there is no beginning and no end: Maurice cannot exactly locate himself, he cannot for example retreat himself to a corner. It must be a feeling like being in the middle of nowhere, which in his case is extremely bad, not even knowing who he himself is.
His state goes worse and worse, after a time he even does not want to eat any more. He tries to escape the attention of the doctors, „[w]raping himself in the filthied blankets, [f]earful of dire punishment” not to give them another reason to treat him in such an inhuman way. He receives medication, loses consciousness, he passes „[f]rom sleep to sleep” but as he refuses to eat the doctors force feed him. As they do it he again experiences „fear of death” and such a pain that he again looses consciousness. This again emphasises what cannot be mentioned often enough: this hospital gives him no hope of recovery, he is afraid of the doctors he hates them, because they do not help him, but torture him.
As time goes on Maurice also starts to remember things. Little parts of his former life come back to his memory: for example the time when he was a student or when he was seven years old, being next to his mother, who „was at her sewing machine”. But we can never say for sure whether he is just dreaming and hallucinating or is remembering something particular from his life. He also gets to know the other patients in the hospital. After a time he knows them by name and gives a description what happens to them. They are treated the same inhuman way as he is.
Then, finally in a „summer month”, „[i]n June” „he saw a dish [o]f strawberries” on a table in his room. This dish of strawberries makes the important change in his life: he „[a]te for the first time”. So he is not on hunger strike any more, he wants to live, to get well: he eats something. The strawberries do not fit into the hospital: they are red and green, and the most common colour in hospital is white and grey. So they look like something that comes from the „outside world”, from the „normal world” where there are no doctors who torture the patients, where there is no monotony of life but a colourful and happy life. These strawberries give him the strength to hold out and to get well.
It seems as if after this occurrence he does not receive strong medication any more. Instead he more and more gets to know the other patients, he talks about them and does not have this strange hallucinations or dreams any more, he even daily talks French with one of the patients for practice, and after a time, he recovers.
Austin Clarke gives a very detailed and honest description of his madness in this poem. He talks about private things, which one normally never shares with others. The poem is also full of contradictions and figures of speech but here I did not went into this. He extraordinarily mixes the stases of being awake, dreaming, remembering and hallucinating. Step by step we can observe how Maurice Devane gets well, until, finally he leaves the hospital as a healthy man.