Archive for the ‘Gustave’ Category

We Are All Gustave Now

December 5, 2005

This is something my friend J.J. Steadman wrote. I believe it to be true, and so it is reprinted here for your enjoyment. For more of Mr. Steadman’s writings, please visit

This is the transcript of a speech given by Dr. B- to the Royal Scientific Society of Ultima Thule, a small, isolated island in the Greenland Sea between Jameson Land and the island of Spitsbergen.

Your Royal Highness, ladies and gentlemen, Members of the Society, good evening. I cannot say I am glad to be here, for the solemnity of what I have come to tell you will not permit it. I am only glad to know I could not ask for finer or more discriminating minds than those of the Society, nor for hearts more full of Sympathy and Charity than those of my audience, nor for a better exemplar of these virtues than your Highness, who is like a sun, whose light of wisdom and warmth of benevolence radiate to infuse all your subjects, and of course this sceptered Isle at whose head you sit.

As you know, I am here to discuss a patient, a patient with a most strange affliction, a malady of unknown cause and uncertain course. I call him Gustave, though naturally that is not his true name.

Gustave is a young man who came to me some time ago. When I asked what was wrong, he gave me a long list of symptoms. He cannot sleep until late into the night. He sleeps only fitfully. His dreams are fleeting, hectic and restless. No matter how long he is abed he wakes feeling tired. When he looks into the mirror in the morning, dark circles haunt his eyes. He eats but sparingly. Neither wine nor strong liquor seems to have any beneficent effect; he feels neither the revivifying warmth nor the comforting lull of the alcohol. Colour and flavour seem to have been leeched from his world. The brightness of the sun makes his eyes hurt, so he spends his days in the perpetual twilight of his apartments. He is a young man, yet he takes little exercise, and when he does it seems a chore rather than a robust enjoyment. Books give him no solace, nor does music, nor painting, nor even the pretty faces of the young ladies in the park on a Sunday afternoon. He has become quiet, withdrawn and morose. In short, he is sad.

Well I know that the men of science among you will be thinking, “Well that’s no good thing for a young man, but sadness is not a disease.” Too true! But I beg your indulgence while I continue the story of Gustave.

There are two facts about this sadness that convinced me it was not merely a mood but a chronic disease. I have interviewed at length the physicians he has consulted throughout his life, and painstakingly examined all the documents relating to this case. I discovered that, in the first place, Gustave did not grow sad but became sad all at once. And in the second place, he has been sad ever since. It was a summer day when he was yet a boy, just beginning to turn into a young man. He describes the day as bright, the sky blue, dotted with the pleasant white clouds whose appearance reminds us of wool. He turned from the game he was playing with his brother and sisters and looked up into this beautiful summer sky. All of a sudden he was overcome with a great sadness. That was the first night his food seemed to lose its taste; he ate, but unenthusiastically, pushing his food around his plate. Such behaviour, in a growing boy-you can imagine his mother’s consternation. He tells me that from that day, he has occasionally felt his sadness lessened, from one cause or another. But it always returns, and if we may be thankful that it never seems to grow any worse, any more severe, we must also feel sympathy for its stubborn duration all these years.

I shared my findings with some colleagues. To my great surprise, I learned that all of them had encountered similar stories, in some places a very great profusion of them. It seemed I had stumbled, not just on a disease, but an epidemic. But my surprise, and my dismay, was to grow deeper still.

It happened that the great Dr. D- travelled to this, the great capital of our nation and the brightest jewel in Your Majesty’s crown, on some scholarly business. As he is one of my correspondents, and one of the most respected of our men of science, I told him of my case and begged him to find time in his busy schedule to take a luncheon at my Club so we could discuss it. He seemed, to my surprise, eager to accept.

At our luncheon I learned that not only was he already aware of this unknown and as-yet unnamed modern malady, but he had distressing news-it was much worse than I had even begun to suspect. For, he told me, not only were new cases appearing among young men like Gustave, but many more cases had gone undetected for years. Here he paused, told me I would not believe what he was about to say but assured me it was true, and proceeded to say that not only were almost all of our patients infected and living with the effects of this disease, but so were he and I.

You can imagine my shock, my incredulity at hearing this. Surely, I said, that cannot be so. Like you sitting before me today, I told him I was quite sure I would know if I were sad. At this he looked at me, his eyes full of sympathy, a melancholy smile on his face. “Are you not?” he said. “I ask you to take a moment now, search your memories, closely examine your life, and tell me that you are not sad.”

This I prepared to do, settling into my chair, my brows creasing as I looked into the candle flame, searching my memory. I recounted faces, voices, great events and quiet evenings with my parents, my siblings, my wife and our own children. After I know not how long, though I think it no more than a few moments, I was struck by a sensation that fired my brain like a bolt of lightning. I had experienced no true joy in many, many years-if indeed I ever had. In all my memories I found, I freely confess, little in the way of true misery, but also little, o so very little, in the way of delight. Instead even my mother’s fruit pies, whose sweetness, I assumed without reflection, I would remember taking great pleasure in eating, upon this strenuous examination tasted like ashes. As had the roast I had thought I had eaten with gusto the night before, the whiskey I had believed I’d enjoyed after dinner, and indeed the very pork pies we had enjoyed that very day at dinner.

Our luncheon continued, but on later reflection I would find that I was afflicted with many of the same symptoms as my poor patient, Gustave. I wandered my house, fingering the curtains, touching the upholstery, noting how muted all the colours seemed. I tried to read passages from my favourite books, finding them only dry and dusty. I went to the symphony, and found it pretty, from time to time, but ultimately just so much noise.

But, as I say, our luncheon continued, though I was still too stunned to speak. Dr. D- continued to inform me of his researches into this malady and the disturbing picture that had begun, slowly, to emerge. For it was not he and I, nor even the many patients whose cases I had just begun to review but had already been the subject of my luncheon companion’s painstaking researches. This new disease had, Dr. D- concluded, infected every man and woman among us. Every one!

I was astounded, as I imagine are you. No doubt many of you are sceptical. There are, after all, many Men of Science here, for whom a thoroughgoing scepticism is a natural as breathing. But I ask you to consider this: no one would deny that our great artists are inspired by great passions. Joy and delight, wonder and awe, yes, even anger, fear and despair, and of course love.

But think, I urge you, of our modern age. Where are the great composers, the great poets, the great artists that move not just some of us, not just now and then, but all us and with their every note, every line, every brushstroke? Where are our great delights, like the Bacchanals of the ancients? Indeed, apart from a constant, numb sadness, where are our great sorrows? Where the keening at our funerals? Who among us, like Achilles, has poured ashes on his head and cried out to shake the very heavens at the passing of a dear friend?

Look into your own hearts. You will find, I can almost assure you, that all is sadness-a dull, numb ache of sadness. My friends, I am very sorry to tell you this, but we are all Gustave now.

So now, finally, we come to the question of what is to be done about my poor young patient, Gustave. What is to be his fate? For, indeed, his fate is all our fates. Some, no doubt, would prescribe medicine. But I tell you this has been tried, and it will not avail. Others will hope to use various therapies to snap us out of our doldrums. But again, this has been tried, and again, it will not avail. Some will suggest we turn to the Church, which has always insisted that in the next world lies our only true happiness anyway. But alas! Even religion has become petty and hollow.

I have given this much thought, and in light of the evidence, there is only one thing to be done. This thing will shock you, but if we hope to recover our humanity, it is, I fear, the only way.

When we leave this theatre tonight, we must go to our great factories, wonders of our age, and dismantle them, brick by brick. We must take hammers to the machines and smash them. We must go the offices of the accountants and the lawyers and the insurers and take torches to the documents that define and classify and proscribe us. Only when even the wealthiest of us must again turn the soil with our hands, when we turn our faces to the sun and sky, feel our feet planted on the rich earth and wade through the fast-flowing stream, only when we butcher our own meat and learn the lessons of the blood, only then will our hearts expand and feel the true passions of delight, sorrow, rage, wonder and a love embedded in the hearts of our fellow men and women, just as we are embedded in the ecstatic green of Nature.

Your Royal Highness, ladies and gentlemen, Members of the Society, once again I thank you. And now I exhort you to follow me back down the path of false progress. Only then shall we live again.