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Book Review: The Asylum of Dr Caligari by James Morrow

***This book was reviewed for the San Francisco and Seattle Book Reviews, and via Netgalley


The Asylum of Dr Caligari by James Morrow, spun from the 1920s silent film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, is a commentary on duality- life and death, war and peace, science and art, reason and mysticism, sanity and insanity- and how things are often not as dualistic as first they seem, for they are connected. Like the yin-yang, there is always a bit of one in the totality of the other. Beyond that, it is an admonishment against war, the foolishness that starts it, and the lust that fuels it.


A young artist, Francis Wyndham, sets off from America, headed to Europe to learn from the masters. Unfortunately, poor Francis cannot find a place as an apprentice, and he begins to need to consider focusing on a trade in order to survive. He is spared from brickmason’s schooling when he is unexpectedly offered a job working as an art therapist for Dr Caligari at his asylum in Weizenstaat. Caligari is a mesmerist and alienist with unconventional methods including sex therapy and heteropathy. Francis accepts and begins teaching four gifted ‘lunatics’.


On his initial tour, Francis is shown artwork done by his new students, which is held on display at a museum attached to the asylum. Shrouded in one section is a painting Dr Caligari has done. Francis asks about it and is pretty much told to mind his own business. Not only does Francis go back to see the picture, but he takes Ilona, one of his students, with him. What they find defies explanation. Using alchemy, Caligari has created a painting to arouse bloodlust in all who view it. As World War One looms on the horizon, Caligari begins to charge governments, and exposing soldiers to the painting, priming them for fighting. Francis and Ilona have to stop him, but how? Thankfully, Caligari isn’t the only paint mystic around. Question is, can they pull off a peace painting to counter the lust for war?


This is a satire for the ages, a skillful blending of the history of World War One, and the fantastical realm of alchemy and magic. There’s so much going on in this book, philosophy and spiritual-wise. With Caligari, Francis, and Ilona, you have both Creator and Destroyer in each. The art they create can incite intense emotion, and it’s a lesson that such power should be handled with care. Art, and creativity itself, in any form is a gift and a chance to give beauty back to the world. Abuse of that gift is tragic. Jedermann is a liminal guardian, and a psychopomp, in a quite literal way for Francis, and for countless soldiers in a more figurative fashion.


The wry, tongue-in-cheek amusement of Morrow’s writing reminds me of reading Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal many moons ago (and reread a few years past). I’m not a huge fan of satire, but this tale is eminently readable.



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