Thursday, 10 December 2015

‘Carol’ . . . In the Heat of the Moment and Other Febrile Automata

How curious to read that the genesis of Carol (the current acclaimed movie adapted from the famously transgressive novel, The Price of Salt, 1952) is to be found in a fever induced by chicken pox, the symptomatic high temperature under which Patricia Highsmith plotted her synopsis of a story that soon ‘flowed from the end of my pen as if from nowhere,as she later wrote.

Patricia Highsmith

Works That Write Themselves.

From which flows another curious thought because this distinguished American novelist prompts a memory of her eminent compatriot, William James, Doctor of Medicine (1870) and psychologist (and author of The Varieties of Religious Experience) who so subtly observed, ‘For aught we know to the contrary, 103 or 104 degrees Fahrenheit might be a much more favourable temperature for truths to geminate and sprout in, than the more ordinary blood-heat of 97 or 98 degrees.’

How true. In the feverish heat of the moment certainly a number of great works of the imagination have been brought forth. One thinks also of Sir Walter Scott who, in 1819, under the influence of laudanum wrote The Bride of Lammermoor and claimed afterwards, on reading the proofs, that he did not recognise a single character, incident or conversation found in the book. 

Detektiv ‘Zherebets’ Houyhnhnmkin.

My as-yet-unpublished novel, D-r Tchékhov, Detektiv, was written in the same mood of involuntary volition, and similarly transcribed from an undisputed source. Englished in the spirit of the original, the often bawdy text makes great play of the young doctor’s febrile condition, his senses betrayed by a dangerous rise in body temperature akin to that of the rectal temperature of a horse having just undergone routine exercise:
Anton reflected that perhaps, after all, he had overlooked his affinity with horses; certainly, as the forenoon approached, his temperature was again rising to meet that of an average healthy horse which, if he were not mistaken, was some two degrees higher than that intermittent phenomenon, his own normal body heat.                                                                 He had hæmorrhaged again only the month past – profoundly from his right lung – practically a shtoff of disembogued blood pouring over his beard.                                                                                                                           He had recently in the mornings become aware of his unnaturally low temperature on rising, his excessive fatigue and his progressive failure of appetite. Yet now, as afternoon approached, his temperature had risen (a febrile state exceeding 40 degrees Celsius) and pulse quickened to over a hundred beats per minute. Under his jacket, sweat trickled from his armpit.  Profuse axillary sweating embarrassed him and he feared his condition smelt.                                                                                                               As for his excessive body heat, the ætiology of the cauma and desudation he knew intimately; long ago the prognosis had held that his compensatory emphysema would grow worse by remedy, and any remissions he could expect in the variations associated with the chronicity of his disease were now complicated by his intestinal catarrh, caused by a change in the water.     

In a grim diversion to displace the pain, Tchékhov feverishly imagined the very real prospect of his personal physician, D-r Klebnikov, surviving him to compose a waspish clinical footnote to his obituary for the edification of his medical colleagues: 

‘Manifestly, the observation has not been made in hagiographical writing on Tchékhov that the symptomatological signs of his two conditions – pulmonary tuberculosis and acute morphinism – were inextricably combined and compounded.  The co-existing conditions were presented, for example, in feelings of tremendous heat and sensations of terrifying cold, particularly during periods of withdrawal from the opiate. The giddiness to which Tchékhov on occasion referred could well have been a mild case of cinchonism brought about by an overdose of quinine, which, in the absence of an informed dual diagnosis, was not identified.  His meconeuropathia was further complicated by hyperæsthesiæ  induced by mood-elevating morphine derivatives.’
Tchékhov’s eyes are not closed to the truth of his opiate dependancy. In characteristically rueful condemnation of his elevated temperature,  Tchékhov at his lowest ebb begins to style himself Detektiv Zherebets [‘Stallion’] Houyhnhnmkin, evidently a bitter self-lacerating commentary on his drug-impaired virility. (If Tchékhov in this passage of D-r Tchékhov Detektiv assumes the sardonical appellation, ‘Stallion’ or ‘Stud’, then we must assume the reference recalls those envious jottings in his published literary notebook : ‘A vet. belongs to the stallion class of people.’ )

Fate Knocks at the Door.

And in the same opiate-induced fever, of course, Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan, a poem revealed to him as fully conceived, requiring merely its automatic transcription, until – at Line 54 – the notorious Person From Porlock arrived to knock on the door and break the spell.

This fateful distraction from the sublime oneiric prosody granted a dope-fiend reminds me of my good friend, The Great Poet, who wrote to tell me he had altered his will . . .
Have been making some small adjustments to my Will, and have added that you are to have first crack at my poetry books. [He was at Westminster School and won the Gumbleton Prize for English Verse.] No big deal [he added] but you might find something of interest, but not yet a while hopefully.
I wrote at once to record my appreciation . . .
I am genuinely flattered, but in my present mood I fear I shall predecease you. Should this not be the case, however, I shall make every effort to seek out your forwarding address and have your books sent on to you.                You will have a forwarding address, won’t you?                                               In Ghana it is believed that a person who dies prematurely can appear in a distant town and continue their life there.                                              Saman twén-twén the Ghanaians call them. Custom asserts that the ‘Dead-but-Leaving-People’ can be met only by someone who has not heard of their death.                                                                                                       So an accommodation address in Porlock might be the thing.                        This explains why so many people swear they saw X ‘only the other day’ and learn to their horror that X died some months before.                            Why is life made so mysterious when the explanations are really very simple? I shall be in Porlock if I predecease you.                                                       Should you lose your memory then we can meet there because you will not remember you heard of my death.                                                                  It is possible, though, that a poet even with a seriously impaired memory will remember that fateful person from Porlock . . .
It was on these terms that we agreed to meet in the Afterlife, an agreement, I may add, sealed during the worst bout of flu I’ve ever endured in my life, when I was in the throes of a high fever and running a barely tolerable temperature practically off the scale at 103°F 

The tragedy is that my dear poet friend predeceased me, as he predicted.


For excerpts from my as-yet-unpublished crime novel, D-r Tchékhov, Detektiv, see

This long lost crime novel by Chekhov (he, himself, referred to such a work in progress in 1888) charts the misadventures of morphia-addict D-r Anton Tchékhov, aged 28 years, as he investigates the mysterious duelling death of an aristocratic cadet in a remote snowbound northern garrison. In a contest between the animistic pagan beliefs of a Cheremissian shaman-medicineman and his own psychopathological insights as a graduate doctor, Tchékhov, weakened by tubercular fevers and drug dependency, succeeds in solving the case and saving the life of a young prostitute, Mariya. 

For the origins of this text see my previous posting, D-r  Tchékhov, Detektiv.


Catherine Eisner believes passionately in plot-driven suspense fiction, a devotion to literary craft that draws on studies in psychoanalytical criminology and psychoactive pharmacology to explore the dark side of motivation, and ignite plot twists with unexpected outcomes. 
see Eisner’s Sister Morphine (2008)

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