Tuesday Fiction: “The Transformist” by Horacio Sentíes Madrid

I’m delighted to have this week a story from the Small Beer Press anthology Three Messages and A Warning: Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the Fantastic, edited by Eduardo Jiménez Mayo and Chris N. Brown. My thanks to Small Beer Press and the author and translators for letting us reprint the story.

Intoduction: A History of “The Transformist”

by Horacio Sentíes Madrid

“The Transformist” is a tale about the concept of reality. The story is based in the first description of Frégoli Syndrome by Professor Paul Courbon and Dr. G. Fail in January 17th, 1927. Leopoldo Frégoli (Roma 1867 – Viareggio 1936) was an Italian transformer actor who was famous because he was capable to modify his physical and psychological appearance—specially his face—in a very fast way during his performances, he could play up to sixty characters in one performance. Frégoli wrote in his memoirs in 1936 that “Art is the Life and the Life is the Transformation.” Frégoli Syndrome consists of the conviction that some physical and psychological characteristics go through from one person to another. This syndrome occurs after right frontal lobe lesions secondarily to trauma, neurodegenerative diseases, or a stroke. In the tale some of the philosophical and historical ideas about reality, from Parmenides to Henri Bergson are described. Some of the events of Sarah Bernhardt’s life are included since this actress was part of the delirious ideation of the first patient diagnosed with this syndrome. Physical and psychological characteristics from this patient are described in the tale including his belief in “Mentalism.” The importance of the memory in the perception of reality is emphasized, so Marcel Proust becomes a central figure in the story.

The Transformist

Horacio Sentíes Madrid

Translated by Eduardo Jiménez Mayo and José Alejandro Flores

For Bruno Estañol, with admiration

October 15, 1923

One always chooses how one dies and, in the end, death is nothing but a transformation: this idea is an obsession of Monsieur Poulenc, who swears he knows the day and time of his death. Perhaps in the future someone will decide to die a gaucho’s death, dagger in hand, somewhere in the remote south of Argentina. All my miseries began when Sarah died, this past March, but only until now have I dared to write about my sorrows. Her funeral was attended by one hundred fifty thousand people. I took some flowers to her grave in Pere-Lachaise. After leaving them, I felt a terrible pain on the right side of my head as I bumped into one of the stone arches while roaming about the grounds.

I was eleven when I first saw her. My father had taken me to the Odéon Theater: which years later she utilized as a convalescent hospital, caring for the war wounded, an effort earning her the Legion of Honor. Her performance as Queen Elizabeth, interpreting Moreau’s film script, was superb. A couple of years later I witnessed her transform into Jeanne Doré. The beauteous Oceanids, legendary daughters of the Titans Oceanus and Tethys, must have paled in comparison to her splendor. In 1887 when she appeared at the Grand National Theater of Mexico as “a beautiful stranger,” her performance in “La Dame aux Camelias” earned her glowing praise from the critics: “We were fortunate to be visited by one of Virgil’s goddesses, shrouded by a dense veil of mystery. More than a woman, she is a burning bush.” After her right leg was amputated, following years of suffering, I could no longer see her on stage. Unlike other actresses her mannerisms were natural. I hated the gross overacting of her contemporaries. She delved into the mood of her characters: every intonation, every gesture, was uniquely suited to her role. Most intriguing was her stage interpretation of “dying”—stammers, groans and agony during which the cobalt blue of her eyes and her blond hair seemed to glow and then fade. Perhaps she slept in a coffin so as to be closer to death in life. The photographs of Monsieur Nadar and his son capture her practicing this custom.

For over three years her spirit pursued me closely in all my whereabouts, every woman’s face became hers. The countenances of the women around me invariably reflected her features and she took possession of their thoughts and feelings as well. Terribly, unavoidably, I succumbed to her spell. I was forced to evade my places of work—the coffee shop, the factory, the restaurant, private homes—hoping to escape from her invasive presence. But to no avail. I took to sleeping in the shelters of the Salvation Army to elude her roving spirit. When I look at my mother in a matter of seconds her face began to assume the appearance of the woman with “the golden voice.” Not only my mother, mind you, but all the people with whom I associated suffered this transformation; even their clothes mimicked Sarah’s: camisoles, bustles, corsets, crinolines, petticoats. A few days ago a begging girl knocked at the door. Upon seeing her face assume Sarah’s features, I decided to lock her in the shelter pantry, thinking maybe that way I could get rid of her forever. I even contemplated killing the child. I went out but the first face I saw became that of my persecutor. I decided to return to free the little girl who was crying incessantly when I arrived. The abducted child was sitting on the floor, hugging her knees, when I opened the door. Her face morphed into Sarah’s, momentarily expressing the actress’ mocking laughter, before she rose to her feet and ran from the place.

November 6, 1924

Lately the situation has become intolerable. Sarah’s mother and aunt were women of ill repute. She inherited her real name from her Aunt Rosine. Neither she nor her sisters knew who her parents were. Her sister Jeanne dedicated herself to the courtesan’s life. But she was committed to the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital under the care of Professor Charcot for the treatment of neurosis and morphine addiction. Why is it that women of ill repute, patterned after Manon from the homonymous opéra comique, always seem to end up confined in Pitié-Salpêtrière? As a child, Sarah remained in a boarding school in Auteuil near the homes of Bergson and Proust, and later in the Grandchamp convent school near Versailles.

She wanted to devote her life to God but her mother influenced her to be a high-class courtesan. At first, she refused. But after her abandonment by Prince de Ligne while pregnant with Maurice, her libertinism began. Monsieur Hugo chose her for the role of the Queen in the revival of Ruy Blas, and ever since then her name was associated with his, as it would be with Monsieur Doré and Monsieur D’Annunzio. Monsieur Nadar photographed her naked on several occasions. Her marriage to Monsieur Damal was a sham. Both were exemplars of infidelity. Only another morphine addict would have thought to marry her. Marie Colombier recently provoked a scandal by publishing Sarah’s Les voyages en Amérique and Mémoires, for which a three-month prison sentence was imposed in response to public outrage at the materials’ supposed indecency. The gallant life of the actress is revealed in them in all its grandeur.

Sarah’s sister has also begun to haunt me atrociously. I am the only woman in my family who lives in chastity. I have been able to keep away foolish men with the assistance of a skin condition that makes me look prematurely aged yet affords me the opportunity to remain purer than my sisters. Perhaps this is why Sarah’s sister has chosen to invade my thoughts and compel me nocturnally to make dirty and immoral contact with myself of which I am ashamed.

December 3, 1926

How has Sarah accomplished her postmortem persecution of me? I can only explain it through Spiritualism. Allan Kardec in, The Spirits’ Book, explains how the dead can come into contact with the living. I firmly believe that this is possible and I am joined in this belief by the likes of Ravaisson-Mollien, Monsieur Lachelier, a Scottish writer named Conan Doyle and even the recently assassinated Mexican president. I have attended the performances of magicians Erik Weisz and Erik Jan Hanussen and I have read about mentalism in search of a solution to this martyrdom. Despite the spectacular cures of James Braid and Professor Charcot through hypnosis, in my case this treatment has had no effect whatsoever. After meeting Monsieur Hoffman, the magnetizer, I turned to the glass harmonica for assistance. I experienced a temporary improvement similar to that of Maria Theresia von Paradis, the woman who despite her blindness managed to play concerts by Mozart and who was treated by Monsieur Mesmer himself. I decided to abandon my treatment regime after a few days because Sarah appeared again, ubiquitously, and because many have witnessed that those who hear the sound of the glass harmonica, an invention of Benjamin Franklin, eventually grow as insane as Lucia di Lammemoor.

December 9, 1926

Dearest Paul:

A new patient came to me a few days ago. She is twenty-seven, employed as a domestic servant, and her appearance is a little coarse. She has striven to develop a modicum of culture and is a fervent believer in mentalism. She possesses the firm belief that the former actress, “The Great Sarah Bernhardt,” and her sister, are pursuing her by imposing their facial and physical characteristics on the people with whom she associates. During the course of my interview with her, for example, she mentioned that I and the interns who accompanied me had assumed their visages. I have written to our colleagues Capgras and Reboul-Lachaux; but the woman who sought help from me suffers from an illness opposite to the one in which they specialize. I always appreciate your valuable opinions and hope you might shed some light on this experience.

Best wishes and warmest affections,

G. Fail

December 20, 1926

My Dearest Friend:

I have been thinking about the woman whom you refer to in your letter and I do not have a plausible explanation for it, but it awakened in me some reflections which I shall make an effort to present to you. It seems to me that the whole problem lies in the understanding one has of reality. Parmenides said that the universe, including time and space, and perhaps we ourselves, are nothing but an appearance or a succession of appearances. Thomas Carlyle, in Sartor Resartus, promotes a similar view, only that for the Scot the whole universe is a charade. Similarly, Bishop Berkeley holds that matter consists of a series of perceptions whose reality would be inconceivable without consciousness. John Locke would reduce reality to our perceptions and feelings, even more precisely, to our memories and perceptions of those memories; matter exists because the five senses make it so. All this establishes that the nature of the reality of objects is not contained in their primary characteristics, rather in the perceptions that we are able to create on the basis of their secondary characteristics.

Now I shall mention some new ideas that my father-in-law Paul Sollier related to me and which are relevant to this case. Remember that my father-in-law was a disciple of Professor Charcot and some twenty years ago wrote a book called Les phénomène d’autoscopy. He worked primarily on the phenomenon of memory. In fact, one of his patients whom he treated at Boulogne-Billancourt wrote a novel, À la recherche du temps perdu, inspired by the concepts in my father-in-law’s scientific essay, Les troubles de la mémoire. In the novel of which I speak, the son of Professor Adrien Proust wrote that true reality exists only in the mind; consequently, the reality we perceive depends only secondarily on the objects and circumstances surrounding us but primarily on the perceptions and memories that we have of them. The unfortunate woman you describe, relentlessly pursued by the Bernhardt sisters, represents a pathological example of this psychological truth. What a dreadful life she must lead, tormented by the guises of deceased souls. I do not think you can convince her otherwise, for her perceptions fashioned from powerful memories are as real to her as yours are to you. Our friend Henri Bergson, akin to Proust, has devoted much of his attention to the analysis of reality. In fact his book Matière et mémoire takes up the subject directly. For Henri, the brain registers movements, sensations and perceptions, but “pure memory” refers to a spiritual reservoir of images of the past continuously reshaped according to present conditions and necessities. Objects must be situated and conceptualized to ensure the stability of their representation. Man relies on such representations to make sense of reality and yet he laughs at them, knowing them to be a caricature or deformation of reality as such. The impressionist painters of the past century and now the surrealists remind us of the treachery of human consciousness. Their work speaks volumes on the condition of your patient besieged by omnipresent images of the Bernhardt sisters.

Receive my most cordial greetings,

Paul Courbon

Chef de Service

Hôpital Sainte Anne Paris

1 Rue Cabanis

January 3, 1927

Dearest Paul:

Your reflections are interesting but perhaps a bit too positivist given this woman’s mystical nature. I would like to discuss her case further with you and for you to meet her, perhaps this Friday afternoon. Afterward we might attend the Olympia Theatre, which, as you recall, stands opposite to the home and studio of Monsieur Nadar on the Boulevard des Capucines. A retrospective film will be shown there of Leopoldo Frégoli, the great quick-change artist who said that art is life and life is transformation.

Until then,

G. Fail



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