Alphonse Daudet & The Phenomenology Of Pain



Alphonse Daudet (1840-1897), novelist, playwright, and journalist, contracted syphilis at the age of 17 years, shortly after arriving in Paris in 1857. Syphilis was the HIV of the 19th century. Literary men such as Baudelaire, Flaubert and Maupassant were all afflicted and syphilis was central to Ibsen’s Ghosts and of peripheral importance in Doll’s House. It was second only to tuberculosis as a cause of death of talented writers.


By the early 1880s Daudet was in the tertiary stage of neurosyphilis and his dorsal column pathways were affected by tabes dorsalis. His gait was ataxic, and eventually he became paralyzed. He lived in this agonizing state, afflicted by pain and debility, for 12 years after his diagnosis. Charcot, the most eminent neurologist of his time had pronounced in 1885 that all was lost. This was the same Charcot that Freud had travelled from Vienna to Paris to train with. Charcot’s classes and demonstrations at Salpetriere were legendary.  It is said that he was blunt to the point of rudeness. He was once said to have told a patient “You’re in the position of a man sitting in shit with a sabre flashing above his head: either dive in or have your head cut off”. If he wanted to be tactful, he might announce bad news in Latin! Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.



Daudet’s little known tract on pain ‘In the Land of Pain’ is a triumph of the human spirit over traumatizing pain. It is remarkable how very sparse the literature on the exact experience of pain is. Perhaps, the agony is dispiriting or that once there is relief, even temporary relief, memory of the nature and quality of the experience fades very rapidly. This is the way the mind protects us from pain. Otherwise, what woman would choose to go through another labor pain!


Daudet wrote

My friends, the ship is sinking. I’m going down, holed below the water-line. The flag’s still nailed to the mast, but there’s fire everywhere, even in the water. Beginning of the end. I don’t care if my cannon-fire lands short, and the whole ship is falling apart. I’m going down fighting


This metaphor of the fighter confronting mortal danger is ubiquitous in our time but usually it is against cancer. Although, a variant of it was dramatized in the recent film Dallas Buyer’s Club with Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof taking on HIV. This attitude termed ‘fighting spirit’ was shown by Steven Greer and others to be positively associated with a good outcome in cancers although this finding has now come under challenge from several sources.



Daudet anticipated what is now known of brain function, the fact that like muscle it lives off glucose and can be exhausted

Effect of intense emotions: like going down two steps at a time. You feel as if you’re drawing on the very source of life itself, as if you’re attacking your capital, low as it already is. I’ve noticed twice in the last year: once in particular, about something inane and trivial, just a stupid servant’s quarrel when we were in the country. Also, during the Drumont-Meyer duel. And on each occasion I’ve felt this strange collapse of my face and my whole body, a cutting-away, as if a knife were being wielded on my poor person. Duruy told me how struck he’d been by this complete collapse of my features right in the middle of the drama, as we stood there on the dueling ground. A sort of hollowing-out that doesn’t go away.


This ability to be detached and self-observant, to stand apart from the self, even in the throes of anguish, as Daudet shows, is for me the very heart of the artist’s gift. Well, that’s if you can call it a gift. Some might say that it is a curse. Julian Barnes in his introduction to Daudet’s book wrote

When he was sixteen his brother Henri had died, at which moment their father gave vent to a great howl of ‘He’s dead! He’s dead!’. Daudet was aware, he wrote later, of his own bifurcated response to the scene: ‘My first Me was in tears, but my second Me was thinking, “What a terrific cry! It would be really good in the theatre!” ‘ From that point on he was ‘homo duplex, homo duplex!’ ‘I’ve often thought about this dreadful duality. This terrible second Me is always there, sitting in a chair watching, while the first Me stands up, performs actions, lives, suffers, struggles away. This second Me that I’ve never been able to get drunk, or make cry, or put to sleep. And how much he sees into things! And how he mocks!’.




Pain like other emotions is difficult to tie down with words. Words are far too imprecise to capture the variety of the experience or even to communicate, properly speaking what it is like

Are words actually any use to describe what pain (or passion, for that matter) really feels like? Words only come when everything is over, when things have calmed down. They refer only to memory, and are either powerless or untruthful


Varieties of pain. Sometimes on the sole of the foot, an incision, a thin one, hair-thin. Or a penknife stabbing away beneath the big toenail. The torture of the ‘the boot’. Rats gnawing at the toes with very sharp teeth. And amid all these woes, the sense of a rocket climbing up into your skull, and then exploding there as the climax to the show. ‘That’s the disease for you’ says Charcot


And, as for treatment

Morphine nights: the effect of chloral. Erebus, thick black waves, and then sleeping on the edge of life, the void beneath. As delightful as slipping into a warm bath. You feel yourself being taken hold of, enfolded. Pains in the morning: a feeling you’ve been bitten all over; but your mind is clear, perhaps even sharper – or simply rested


There are memoirs and memoirs of melancholia, of mania, of postpartum gloom, of living and dying, but rarely any of that hidden hinterland of pain and woe, the unremitting and pointless anguish of poisonous, vexatious torment. Daudet shines light on this aspect of life, illuminating briefly and poignantly what living with pain is like.




Photos by Jan Oyebode


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