The Man Who Walked Away
by Maud Casey
And the big Mississippi
And the town Honolulu
And the lake Titicaca,
The Popocatepetl is not in Canada,
Rather in Mexico, Mexico, Mexico!
Canada, Málaga, Rimini, Brindisi
Canada, Málaga, Rimini, Brindisi
Yes, Tibet, Tibet, Tibet, Tibet,
–Geographical Fugue, spoken chorus by Ernst Toch, first performed in Berlin in 1930, translated under the auspices of John Cage and Henry Cowell
For many years now, I’ve been writing a novel called The Man Who Walked Away about a man who, well, walked away. From his home, from his family, from so-called real life. He was a Frenchman named, remarkably, Albert Dadas and he was the first diagnosed fugueur, a diagnosis that no longer exists but which became the origin of fugue state. In the second half of the 19th century, as psychiatry was staggering into existence, Dadas who was neither a vagrant (a particular fixation of the French after the Franco-Prussian war) nor a flâneur, walked through great swaths of Europe, sometimes 70 kilometers in a day. He didn’t sleep much; he didn’t eat much; he just walked and walked and walked. The problem, other than sheer exhaustion, was that when he arrived in Ghent, say, or Cologne or Berlin or Budweis or Posen or—the time he claimed he hitched a ride from Warsaw on a cattle wagon—in Moscow, he would have no idea how he got there.
Dadas, anguished and bewildered, eventually took himself to the St. André Hospital in Bordeaux where he met the doctor who would treat him and give him an original diagnosis. The doctor, Doctor Phillipe Tissié, went to great lengths, including hypnosis, to understand Dadas’ wanderings in order to cure him. This was contemporaneous with Charcot and before Freud was Freud with a capital F and though Tissié didn’t cure him (Dadas would eventually wander off for good), he did give him a name for his pain. As a novelist, I’ve been interested in imagining and trying to capture the experience, the feeling, of Dadas’ pain. And this is where Toch’s Geographical Fugue comes in. Recently, while reading one of Lawrence Weschler’s essays from his most recent book, Uncanny Valley: Adventures in the Narrative, I came across the piece on his grandfather, Ernst Toch, a well-known composer and the inventor of the “spoken word chorus.” Toch considered Geographical Fugue a fluff piece, a silly diversion from his exquisite string quartets. But in 1935, soon after Toch fled Germany for California, John Cage knocked on his door wanting to know if he was, in fact, the author of the brilliant Geographical Fugue. When you hear it performed you understand why it would appeal to Cage and his love for sounds as they are (“a sound is not a bucket!”—one of my favorite Cage-isms) and for what he called the “activity of sound.”
–The Lusavoric Choir performing Geographic Fugue in Ankara, Turkey in 2006
In the Geographical Fugue, the sound of the overlapping voices speaking these place names is eerie and absorbing. It puts you in a kind of trance. Which brings me back to Dadas. For all these years I’ve been imagining Dadas’ walking as an ecstatic event—horrifically painful when he stopped, yes, but while it happened, wondrous. And for narrative purposes, I’m sticking to what I made up and which, for Dadas’ sake, I hope was at least partly true. For all these years I’ve also been thinking about the musical fugue—the contrapuntal counterpoint, the repetitiveness—and its relationship to the diagnosis, fugueur. It was in listening to the Geographical Fugue and thinking about Cage’s appreciation for it that it occurred to me that while focusing on the feeling of Dadas’ wanderings, I may have missed a more subtle point: the absence of feeling. In those sessions of hypnosis with Tissié, Dadas performs his own Geographical Fugue. “Lyon, Saint-Etienne, Le Puy, Mauriac, Tulle, Brives, Périgueux, Coutras, and Libourne,” he says. And: “Tournai, Bruges, Ostende, Ghent, and Brussels….” And: “Finally, always walking, I went through Ratisbonne, Passau, Linz, and arrived in Vienna….”
Sure, Dr. Tissié was taking notes, creating a map that became the shape of Dadas’ life but maybe, too, these places tripping off Dadas’ tongue led him somewhere that had nothing to do with a shapely narrative. Maybe moving through them provided the opportunity for a kind of delirium; perhaps they were as much an escape as an answer. Cage was fond of something Kant said about music and laughter: they are the two things that don’t have to mean anything. Maybe there was a way in which Dadas’ fugue state led him not only somewhere but precisely nowhere, to a kind of nothingness that was a relief and a release. From convention, from meaning and maybe for just a little while, himself.
And the big Mississippi, and the town Honolulu, and the lake Titicaca…