Friday, May 18, 2018

Hope in the Mice

The narrator of W. G. Sebald's The Emigrants visits a shuttered sanatorium for mental patients in Ithaca, New York, seeking traces of a relative who died there decades before. Its retired superintendent indulges in a gleeful fantasy of annihilation:
Besides, said Dr Abramsky, all of the material on file - the case histories and the medical records Fahnstock kept on a daily basis, albeit in a distinctly cursory fashion - have [sic] probably long since been eaten by the mice. They took over the madhouse when it was closed and have been multiplying without cease ever since; at all events, on nights when there is no wind blowing I can hear a constant scurrying and rustling in the dried-out shell of the building, and at times, when a full moon rises beyond the trees, I imagine I can hear the pathetic song of a thousand tiny upraised throats. Nowadays I place all my hope in the mice, and in the woodworm and deathwatch beetles. The sanatorium is creaking, and in places already caving in, and sooner or later they will bring about its collapse. I have a recurring dream of that collapse, said Dr Abramsky, gazing at the palm of his left hand as he spoke. I see the sanatorium on its lofty rise, see everything simultaneously, the building as a whole and also the minutest detail; and I know that the woodwork, the roof beams, door posts and panelling, the floorboards and staircases, the rails and banisters, the lintels and ledges, have already been hollowed out under the surface, and that at any moment, as soon as the chosen one amongst the blind armies of beetles dispatches the very last, scarcely material resistance with its jaws, the entire lot will come down.
Dr Fahnstock was Abramsky's predecessor at the institution. Sebald, who was evidently well acquainted with the geography of New York State, may have borrowed the name, with a slight variation in spelling, from Clarence Fahnestock Memorial State Park in Dutchess and Putnam counties a few hours to the east. If so, he may or may not have known that the park's namesake was also a physician (photo above), one who died of pneumonia in France in the closing weeks of World War I.

Photo credit: Bobby Kelley