Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of around 50 or 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor. We are posting one each Wednesday to coincide with the schedule of his old BMJ column. We hope you enjoy them.
Xavier de Maistre (1763 – 1852) was the younger brother of the brilliant reactionary philosopher, Joseph de Maistre (1753 – 1821). Both wrote in French, but were actually Piedmontese: Joseph was Sardinian ambassador to St Petersburg while Xavier served the Tsar and died there.
Xavier is now mainly remembered for his amusing Voyage autour de ma chambre (Voyage Round My Bedroom) in which he describes with wit and irony a circumnavigation of his room in forty-two days, stopping off at various points to reflect philosophically on the condition of mankind. For example, he calls his looking-glass the greatest masterpiece of human art because it reflects, and can reflect, nothing but the truth; the only problem is that the prism of amour-propre is the most powerful distorting prism known, far more distorting than that used by Sir Isaac Newton. In other words, we are ready to receive anything except the truth about ourselves.
Xavier wrote little; one of his works was The Leper of the City of Aosta. The protagonist of the story – the leper – is made to live in an abandoned castle in a depopulated area south of the city, where he is provided for by the municipality but is cut off from all human contact for fear of contagion. His sister lived with him for a time, also a leper, but she dies of the disease, leaving him entirely alone – apart, that is, from a dog.
The dog is not a handsome one, but he is affectionate and the leper loves him. From time to time, however, the dog roams and is thought by the nearest inhabitants to be a potential spreader of his master’s disease, so that one day they come to the castle and demand that he deliver the dog up to them so that they can kill him. Initially they want to drown him but finally decide on lapidation. The leper hears the pathetic cries of the dog as he is done to death, and despises himself for not having protected him better as it was his impossible duty to do.
De Maistre here demonstrates his sympathetic understanding of the intense and loving relationship that the lonely and disabled develop with their dogs; his story is strongly reminiscent of Turgenev’s short masterpiece, Mumu, in which a deaf and dumb serf called Gerasim is forced to drown the little dog upon which he pours all the love of his heart for lack of any other object upon which to pour it because his mistress, a capricious and thoroughly spoilt woman, says that the dog’s barking (not very much) has given her a headache. Carlyle wrote that Mumu was the most powerful denunciation of arbitrary power that he had ever read; and if there is a more powerful one, I certainly do not know it.
After the dog dies, the leper thinks of suicide, but even the thought seems to him a terrible crime.
In de Maistre’s story, a sympathetic soldier visits the leper and extends his hand to him, which the leper refuses to take. He does not even agree to epistolary contact between them, for fear of infecting the soldier. Instead he says to him as he takes his leave that he needs no other friend than God, in whom they will eventually be united. ‘Stranger,’ he says, ‘when sorrow or discouragement attack you, think of the hermit of Aosta. You will not then have visited in vain.’
Ah, if only the thought of those who are worse off than ourselves could truly console us as it should!