The Sleepwalker

Here is Albert Dadas, an elegant, charming young man, a gasworks engineer from Bordeaux. He has just been arrested by the Russian police in their spiked helmets, suspected of being a nihilist, a terrorist. He does not know whether he is going to be executed or sent to Siberia. But luckily enough he is taken in a prison transport to the Turkish border, where he is set free. And that was good, too, since he still so wanted to see Constantinople. He gets by through doing a variety of odd jobs, and tramps around the Ottoman Empire. Gradually the adventure turns to misery. Lousy and with no money, he heads for the French consulate, which helps him to reach a good friend in Vienna, herr M.D: In Vienna he works for a while at the local gasworks, until he happens to meet a runaway French soldier, who tells him how beautiful the Swiss Alps are. So Dadas sets off there. He works his way, sees Interlaken, Geneva, the cantons of Vaux, Schaffhausen and Basel. Once there, he grows weary and takes himself off home to France again. Why not? He is only 22 years old.

Here is Johan Furåker, he, too, an elegant, charming young man, still a student at an art college. He draws an, in principle, infinitely long, finely structured drawing of the Swiss Alps that Dadas could have seen. But large parts of it are white, like terra incognita on old maps. He wants to try to reconstruct Dadas’ memory (Pathological Tourism, 2007).

Dadas remembers nothing of the escapade in Russia and the journey to Switzerland, except under hypnosis. He is a sleepwalker and, in order to categorize and describe Dadas’ and other young men’s behaviour at the turn of the last century, his doctor, the psychiatrist Philippe Tissié, came up with the mental illness called Fugue, flight.

The historian of ideas Ian Hacking describes Dadas’ life in his book Mad Travellers. In it, in the spirit of Michel Foucault, he discusses the diagnosis of various mental illnesses as a phenomenon that mirrors its time, and the varying needs of society to distinguish between what is accepted as normal and what society sees as harmful. For Foucault, mental illness involves a kind of theatre, a symptom, another way of communicating. This is basically the same approach as Sigmund Freud’s, who with his famous “talking cure” showed that hysterical symptoms are a message that has to be received and understood by another person in order for it to vanish.

So, what kind of message is Fugue? What does the diagnosis say about its own time, the decade prior to the outbreak of the First World War, the time that Walter Benjamin calls the cultural unconscious of our age? This is the question that fascinates Furåker, and which has prompted him to paint himself into Dadas’ time, a project that, so far, has been going on for more than four years.

The novelist Hermann Broch called his trilogy about the decline of values in bourgeois society, three essay-novels spanning the years 1888-1918, The Sleepwalkers. And that is what Dadas and his colleagues are, sleepwalkers, or somnambulists as they are termed.

What kinds of values does Dadas undermine? What causes society to diagnose him as sick because he likes to go on the road? Travelling around a bit aimlessly as a young person seems a lot less subversive today, when close on a year of escapism in the form of more or less adventurous journeys around about the world is one of the formulas that define youth. Or what is the difference between Dadas’ travels and the Grand Tour, which was recommended for well-to-do young men from the 18th century onwards, among other things, as a remedy for melancholy?

The big difference is presumably that both Interrailing and grand educational tours, far from undermining a fixed social system, actually confirm it and are a precondition for it. A little escapism when young is the thing to do. The more settled and the more mature one is to build a career and raise a family later. And, of course, in society it is always entertaining to have a number of exciting and amusing stories!

This is, in fact, also the way that both the mass tourism of our day and the bourgeois travels of the 19th century function: with a dependable guide, a Baedecker, one knows what is happening everywhere. In an all-inclusive trip to some exotic destination today, one needs only to leave one’s hotel on pre-scheduled excursions with a guide, who might possibly be local. This was how British tourists travelled, too, with the aid of Cooks travel agency. In order to minimize even further the risk of being subjected to anything alien and potentially unpleasant, they preferred to travel in the English-speaking countries, i.e. the new colonies. In this way they could continue to belong to the empire.

Tourism undermines nothing. If it is a kind of escape, then the fugitive is found immediately.

What is peculiar about Dadas is that, under hypnosis, he talks about all his long journeys specifically to the tourist destinations of his age! He ”does” his Switzerland, which the romantics turned into a “must”. He travels to Algeria, the exotic destination par excellence for the French of that time. He is in Constantinople, Vienna, Berlin, Paris and Moscow, the metropolises of the day. He has an excellent eye for detail and is able to describe beautiful landscapes and interesting public monuments. He is horrified by the poverty in certain parts of what is now Poland, with comments on how dirty and badly dressed the inhabitants were. He thus behaves more or less like any other bourgeois tourist. In Wandertrieb,2008, Furåker paints a figure in a straw hat, with a cane, i.e. the summer uniform of the French bourgeoisie of the day, alone on a winding mountain trail, in front of a black tunnel. He is sunk inside himself, while letting the landscape become a background to his thoughts. He looks more like Marcel Proust, whose discovery of involuntary memory undeniably has a lot in common with Dadas’ hypnotized memory.

Dadas was not someone who, like Proust, was born into the upper middle classes. Nor was he proletarian, either, but belonged to an indefinable lower-ranking civil servant/artisan group. Almost all reported fugue cases belonged to this same group. It was the large group in 19th-century society that was supposed to stay in its place, and know its place. The very fact that Dadas was drifting around in Moscow was enough for the police to suspect that he was a nihilist, a terrorist. The fact was that, while the bourgeoisie could travel around the whole of Europe without a passport, the lower social classes were forbidden even to leave their home towns without permission, and could be arrested at any time if they did not have their identity papers with them. This, of course, applied to men. If women did not belong to the upper class, or to the vanishingly small minority of women with professions, they could not travel alone at all.

There are some photographs of Dadas, in the ordinary state of consciousness, and as a sleepwalker, evidently taken on the same occasion. Dadas is dressed as a proper artisan, in an overall and wearing a loosely tied scarf. In another pair of photographs, one showing him awake, the other under hypnosis, he is more elegantly clad. Furåker has used the hypnosis photograph to make two portraits of him (2008, 2009). The subtle Grisailles show him dressed up, more typically bourgeois. As a result, the contrasts between the sleeping, the self-absorbed, the simultaneously relaxed and pleasurable expression in his face, become even greater.

Dadas was one of the ordinary people who should by no means go out and be a tourist. He was on the run, not just from his ordered existence, but also from the military – of course, he deserted. He should have been punished.

Oddly enough that did not happen, rather he was carefully examined, a new diagnosis introduced for his sake, he had benefactors and, with time, became well-known at embassies, and consequently could carry on his sleepwalking journeys – why?

Furåker gives one of the explanations – apparently Dadas confirms the grandiose self-image of the late 19th century. In Alienated everywhere (2008) we see a pink house of paradisiac beauty, with the Alps in the background and with a pond in the shape of a keyhole. Like the medieval paintings of saints, right at the bottom of the picture there is scenery from Dadas’ life – the mechanisms of the gasworks. In At the Embassy (2009) the embassy has become a palace that most resembles Versailles. Plausibility (2010) takes a decidedly worm’s eye view, making the horseman statue magnificent and the decorated ceiling noble. In Docility (2010) the lion of the empire sleeps serenely on its pedestal under a bright-blue sky.

If we read Dadas’ own account, given under hypnosis to his doctor and the man who discovered him, Tissié, the tone is strangely light: “I was calm for a long time when one fine day I awoke on the train. I was at Puyoo. ‘Well’, I said to myself, ‘Yet another escapade. What a calamity!’“. “Then I come to Kassel, where I was sick for two months – Kassel, where the magnificently sculpted town hall resembles a church, and where there is the castle in which Napoleon III was held prisoner.” “I was admiring the statue of Peter the Great in the middle of a large square, when some police officers with pointed helmets felt the need to enter into conversation with me.” (quoted in Dadas’s account 1872-May 1886, reproduced in Hacking’s book).

This is also how the characters in Broch’s The Sleepwalkers talk – the romantic Lieutenant von Pasenow, the bewildered anarchist Esch, the swindler Huguenau: good humouredly, although resolved never to wake up – if the First World War changes anything in Broch’s novel construction, then it is that the characters drift even deeper into sleep, until one of them, convinced that he is dead, tries to climb into a recently opened grave.

Dr Tissié is no sleepwalker. Just the opposite. He is the man of the new age and chairman of Bordeaux cycling club. When he hears talk of Dadas and his travels, he becomes inordinately interested, and not just out of a professional sense of shared humanity, but more than that, he sees a chance to promote Bordeaux’s medical reputation via a relationship with the famous Dr Charcot at La Salpetière in Paris. Charcot investigates hysteria – Tissié suspects there is a connection between Dadas’ somnambulistic state and hysteria. Tissié is especially interested in whether Dadas really does not remember anything, and starts hypnotizing him. And then these fantastic stories emerge. Dadas’ entire personality is transformed – he is as though in a trance when the wanderlust overtakes him. And he walks really quickly – over 70 km a day. Is he dreaming or is this an altered personality state? Tissié conducts experiments on Dadas so as to investigate and report on a case, in which he could study the wandering phase in one place: Dadas is admitted to a hospital when the attack comes upon him: he lies in bed and walks in the air. He calls out joyfully: “Ah, it’s very hot on the road, you others don’t feel the heat?”

Tissié arranges for Dadas to get papers that declare that he suffers from fugue, and that he is to be taken into custody and sent back to Bordeaux if he is found.

The late 19th century is a strange time – a time of enlightenment and rationalism, when the belief in progress and greater freedom focused, among other things, on the bicycle with its potential function as a tearer down of all manner of frontiers – geographic, class boundaries, social boundaries, indeed, even sexual taboos. The fantastic technological innovations – the train, steamship, car, telegraph, telephone, photography, which became film – point towards a world that can communicate over great distances, a world in which the terra incognita of the map is soon filled up. Dadas’ travels can not simply be carried out by tireless walking – he often takes the train. Suddenly, he is in a compartment, with 200 Francs in his pocket, on his way to Paris. Or, equally suddenly, he is a steward on a steamboat destined for Algiers. Furåker paints Gare de Nice, 1890 (2008) from a black-and-white photographic original. The imposing station looks deserted, and reminds us of how mass society itself is introduced as an idea in the 19th century, only to become a reality in the 20th. Quite simply, very few people could yet afford to take the train.

Dadas, however, does not cycle, despite the fact that Bordeaux is a centre of cycling enthusiasm, but Furåker has him dreaming of the happy, erotically liberated woman with billowing hair and bare breasts that cycling conjures up in the novels of the day. In the collection of small paintings of associations prompted by Dadas, Polyfocality (2008), she is there, as in the paintings whose originals were taken from the liquor adverts of the time.

(The cycle novel Voici des Ailes by Maurice Leblanc from 1898 has on its cover a woman cycling with her blouse pulled down to her waist, her breasts bare, and flowers in her flowing hair and her hands. The novel is about how a cycling tour for two couples involves not just being able to travel any distance, and rapidly, but also the way the free life on the road leads to the disappearance of social barriers, such as women’s corsets and conventional love. The book ends with a partner swap).

At the same time, this is the age of the unconscious and of spiritualism. Apart from Fugue and the updating of hysteria, there is an interest in so-called multiple personalities, which particularly affected women – case reports speak of women who can have up to ten different personalities, all with different voices and different experiences.

Everything is re-projected onto the human being. Phenomena that previously belonged to – and in other societies do belong to – religion now have to be understood and explained within this linear time and in this world. Psychology replaces spirituality.

That is why it is, of course, extra interesting to investigate certain spectacular cases, and Dadas is one of them. What happens immediately before an attack? Is he hallucinating, or has he really been to all these places? Is this a kind of dream state or a totally different personality that lives inside the same human being? Is it epilepsy? Migraine?

Furåker, who himself happens to suffer from migraine, has made a painting that describes how seeing is altered immediately before a migraine attack: Memory Loss At Mont Sainte Victoire (2007) shows an Alpine landscape. Over the entire surface Furåker has laid a pointillist pattern of black-and-white dots, as unsettling as a premonition.

Hypnos (2008) is a black-and-white painting, painted in a pattern reminiscent of 1960s Op Art. Furåker seems to be suggesting that the illness and the cure have a lot in common, not least the memory loss. Dadas remembers nothing from hypnosis once he has woken up out of it. The migraine that precedes an epileptic fit is preserved in memory, but not the fit itself.

The decline of bourgeois values, which Broch analyses in such masterful fashion, becomes a fact when in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) Sigmund Freud explains that the ego is not master in its own house. That the rational supremacy that is the very precondition for the self-consciously progressive 19th century is a chimera. That not just Dadas, but all of us are driven onwards by the unconscious, which remains hidden to use. That we never really know why we act in a certain way. And here he is not speaking about people with a mental illness, but about so-called normality itself.

Before him, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in The Gay Science (1882) “Consciousness is the last and latest development of the organic, and consequently also the most unfinished and least powerful of these developments.” Nietzsche advocates idleness, selfishness, folly, dignity, joie de vivre as characteristics of the superman – by the way, like Dadas, he was a wanderer, and his philosophy a wandering philosophy, which he wrote down in notebooks during his long walks in the Alps. It is a tempting thought to have Dadas and Nietzsche meet each other, perhaps in Basel, Nietzsche’s hometown, or when they were both out walking in the Alps. Nietzche’s homage to Epicurus (section 45 of The Gay Science) could have been written for Dadas:

“I see his eye gazing out on a broad whitish sea, over the shore-rocks on which the sunshine rests, while great and small creatures play in its light, secure and calm like this light and that eye itself. Such happiness could only have been devised by a chronic sufferer, the happiness of an eye before which the sea of existence has become calm, and which can no longer tire of gazing at the surface and at the variegated, tender, tremulous skin of this sea. Never previously was there such a moderation of voluptuousness.”

For Johan Furåker a newspaper article about Albert Dadas four years ago has grown from being a fascination with a human being’s story into a painted essay about our cultural unconscious, about the dreams that lead to our present moment. Consequently, all the layers of time and layers of representation have to be so visible and so carefully rendered, right down to the way that the paint is treated in the hand-coloured photographs that are the originals for a painting.

An essay has the property of being able to grow and change in a rhizomatic pattern, with no inevitable end. Furåker has been living with and living himself into Albert Dadas’ world for four years. Through this he is able to show us something in our own world.

Gertrud Sandqvist
Professor at Malmö Art Academy, Sweden.

The text was published in the catalogue for the exhibition The First Runaway at the CAPC, Bordeaux, France.