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Ask Dr. Salvo

March 8, 1994

Dr. Salvo and Tim

Ask Dr. Salvo

Dear Salvo,

I enjoyed the psychiatric in-jokes in your last column. Column? You hogged a whole page! Anyway, I am a serious student of Brazilian Psychoanalysis. At least, as you set it forth. Who knows what they would say in Pernambuco? To enrich my studies I need to know more about Dr. Salvo's childhood on Rua Dolfino in the Green House. But first I'd like to read some observations on Dr. Salvo at work in a Green House environment. What about Mount Misty?

Preferably, a few words from some other observers than yourself. It seems to me that some of your writings toot your own horn? Or at least they are more flattering to you than to your friends, relatives, and colleagues. Deny it if you can!

With respect bordering on idolatry,
Faithful but Frank

Dear F. but F:

It just happens that my old capybara skin folding file is bursting with observation of the type you seek. I believe the best ones to start out with would be those of Dr. Sol Tarfeather, the old sage who used to be Superintendent of Hospitals. I must warn you it is not always easy to distinguish the voice of Salvo from that of Tarfeather -- they had much in common, but Tarbaby knew more and was a generation older.

Now he speaks:

"Here at Mt. Misty we lock people up who make themselves and the world unhappy by insisting on gazing into the abysses all around us. If we lock them up tightly enough we have hopes of containing the sadness in one place so that twenty counties in lower Alabama will be safe from its ravages. If everyone knew what our patient savants understand so well, few of the "sane" could carry the burden. Most would not need suicide. They would simply turn, face-to-wall, and die. That is why by a gentleman's agreement, indeed by worldwide convention, the dire sadness is tactfully referred to as "the madness." It is then widely agreed that one must be insane to become melancholy over the way life is, our absurd predicament; the rationale for being here at all. However, even at Mt. Misty, a small provincial sanctuary for the sad or mad, a rapprochement is forming of itself between the keepers identified by keys, and the kept, who have no keys. The keepers have admitted, some of them, that their keys are useless. They open no secret door to deeper understanding, comfort, or wisdom. They are symbols of a pathetic and impotent authority, powerless even to keep the grand-madness from leaking into, and the dire-sadness leaking out of, Mt. Misty. The dread dire- sadness! Your pardon, patient reader, for so suddenly introducing the phrase "grand madness"; it was premature. Let me explain: One of the most eccentric psychiatrists to appear at Mt. Misty for many years was Dr. Salvo, who is no longer with us. Indeed he was often mistaken for a patient, both by other patients and by staff members. It was typical of him to forget to carry his passkeys in his hand, thus rendering the distinction almost impossible. He would stride about restlessly, greeting patients by their first names, puffing clouds of pipe smoke, and looking either abstracted, secretly amused, or in a rage. He seemed to be in a terrible rush to get people out of Mt. Misty before their sadness became permanent, and even agreeable to them. "Don't take root here!" he'd warn them. It never concerned Salvo that many of his outgoing patients still had delusions, or even claimed to have hallucinations. "Just keep them to yourself, dear," he would advise, "They are strictly private and are essentially harmless, but people who fancy themselves sane become restless and irritable, even dangerous, if you divulge these fancies."

"However," he'd go on with a wink, "If you really need to come back to this dull, boring place to hide out, all you have to do is tell a few people -- even if you don't have any -- and you'll be back pronto. If that doesn't work, break a few windows. Better still kick some automobiles and make big, ugly dents. Sane people set a very high value on the automobile."

By now, some of the patients in the group would be easing out of his office, ready to fly if ole Doc made a false move. "Remember," he'd shout at a retreating back, "your worst delusion is that the people in the free world are in their right minds!"

If there were still one or two patients left in his "discharge planning conference," they would now be very curious: "Doc what was all that you were lecturing us --"

"I never lecture. Dr. Wertaloski lectures. I discuss things, like a sensible man."

"Okay Doc, you were discussing the big madness and the little madness, only you said them in French or something and"

"Yes Winfred, I recall telling you, you didn't have to stay crazy just because your father needed for you to be that way, and"

"Doc there's a lot of school stuff all gone to the filling station and somebody should put a stop to these authorities."

"I think I know what you mean -- your old man wants authority over everything you think or say. So you talk nonsense, and it drives him up the wall. It is the only method you've found to defeat him. Too bad it defeats you too. Maybe we could try some geography. You are going to need a lot of it between you and him."

"Listen, Doc, you and this nut Griswold are using up all my time. I asked about the "grand fou" and away you went!"

"Sorry Mr. Akenn. Here, let me show you a good trick for holding that harmonica -- gives you a stronger tremolo. Anyway it all came to a head when I saw the movie "Apocalypse Now" and then went out looking for the book or play it was taken from. Well, after a lot of searching, I was told it was taken from Conrad's Heart of Darkness. I remembered having read it, but not what was in it, so I bought a paperback of it and read it again."

"Hey Doc, we had to read all that crap in high school too, but what I want to know is"

"Patience, lad. Getting there. The book and the film were indeed very close, names and all. They contrasted the private madness of an individual with the collective madness of rulers and nations. The first one, on the analogy of the epilepsies I named "petit fou," or little madness. Like petit mal epilepsy it is -- an absence, shall we say? A withdrawal of attention from, even allegiance to, the outside world and its clamor. A turning toward inner darknesses, inner visions and voice."

"Doc, you are lecturing!"

"Ah no, Charlie, I'm just hitting my stride on this question. You'll see in a moment I'm not as mad as I sound. Well petit fou, though mostly harmless, calls forth a regular s**tstorm of fear, reproach, and suspicious rage from the sane people. It is traditional, and politically astute, for the sane people to devote so much attention, time and energy (but not money!) to the handful of humans with petit fou, that the grand fou of their rulers passes almost unnoticed, except by a few sour grapes radicals and liberals who think they always know better than the government."

"But what is it -- I can see the petit fou, it's the same as the dire sadness and the death terror you've told me about."

"Uncle Walter you're like a bulldog with a bone. Here, now, is the story: "After the film and the paperback I suddenly recalled a book on the Congo. Looking through it I found at once the chapter entitled "Leopold's Kingdom." It told how Leopold of Belgium had acquired the Congo basin for his personal property back in 1885, say. He did it with the help of the American explorer and newsman, Stanley, the one who found Dr. Livingston. And, he held it for over twenty years with the full approval of Europe and the United States. During this period he killed, or his rubber and ivory agents did, about 15,000,000 men, women and children. The killing was done in a planned and businesslike fashion, that is during slumps in production. Those tribes who were lagging in their deliveries were then encouraged to be more productive, even with fewer hands. Ah yes, the hands! Each time an agent murdered a tribesman (of any age or sex), he'd cut off the right hand and add it to a string of them dangling from his waist. At night he would smoke them over a low fire to preserve them for the long canoe trip back to -- civilization, I was about to say. You see, without the hands as evidence the agent would not be paid by the company. And, of course, this practice ensured an accurate census of the dead. Thus we know there were about 15,000,000 hands -- I mean deaths."

"Doc, this is hard for crazy people to listen to, much less believe. Are you making this up?"

"No, Charlie, and I'm coming to an end, now. I began to think, "Who was madder, Leopold the mass murderer, or Mr. Kurtz, the ivory trader up the river with a couple of dozen skulls hanging on his picket fence -- and his delusions of being rich, powerful, magical, of being a veritable God? And what are we to think of Europe and the United States who condoned Leopold and traded with his Company? Did anyone ever accuse Leopold or the great nations of madness? Maybe a couple of crackpot philosophers, and of course Conrad, who knew the story and wrote it, and made the world, finally, stop Leopold. He, Leopold, was allowed to keep his millions in profits, of course. He died old, respected, and well loved. That, my friend, is the grand fou. The mindless rapacity and cruelty, the incredible grandiosity and all that passes for the sanity and the polity of nations." Salvo smiled at his now diminished audience. Two or three of the faithful, nodding. But they hadn't run off. Maybe next time they'd listen, and think, and someone might say, "My so-called schizophrenia doesn't seem to be quite as much the handicap I'd thought it was, Doc."

Tarfinger: "Well, that's a pretty fair sample of how old Salvo saw things and how he talked to patients. They knew he respected them as fellow castaways from the same shipwreck. He had had a few hard knocks himself, and didn't stand on his dignity or put on airs. Some of the doctors thought his carrying on set a bad example to the younger staff. But they didn't think so, and some of the patients liked him well enough, and said so. Sometimes I'll tell you about his life before he came back to Mt. Misty. I know a lot of it from the newspaper and some from him. I think, I understand him a little, but damned if I can understand his disappearance. By the way, it was Marlowe the narrator in the Conrad story, who was astonished to see people on the streets of London walking about oblivious to the abyss beneath their feet. He had seen it clear, in the Congo. The horror..."

Dr. Tarbaby tamped his pipe and nodded, indicating the interview was over.

Yours for Brazilian psychiatry,

March 8, 1994

The Harbinger