In 1896, Lesia Ukrainka wrote ‘City of Sorrow’ about the patients of a mental health clinic. It was published in the collection of her works in 1929. This short story is based on the author’s stay in the town Tworki near Warsaw where her uncle worked as the head doctor at the psychiatric hospital Warszawska Lecznica dla Obłąkanych.
Motto: ‘Where is the line that separates what is normal from what is not?’
Once I happened to stay in a huge asylum. Anyone who stepped in an establishment like this is familiar with the feeling of dread, unbelievable compassion and – what a shame to admit – curiosity wrapping a stranger at the doors to this big verkehrte Welt [upside down world (German)]. Apart from that I also felt a special affection for some sick souls, which made my curiosity even more lively. Images of some of the ill-starred people did not leave me through the night there. Often, after switching off an electric light and lying on a wide sofa in the doctor’s office that served me as a bedroom, I would stare at moonlight rays on the dais and tall white walls, which made me dream of fantastic images of delusion – I thought the very air was filled with hallucinations flying around like sparkles of invisible flame, like an echo of invisible tools. Strange cries would burst into my window now and then, so dramatic and heavy in the dead of night, they sounded with such terror, such despair of the sort that can only fit in a human chest, and there was something strange about the way they intertwined with the moonlight and my own inner ghosts.
Even now on nights like these my mind frequently flies great distances, leaks into the thick tall stone walls of the ‘city of sorrow’, leans at the head of the bed of a young girl with dark eyes, who is rolling her head on the pillow in automatic despair, her black loose hair covering her shoulders and chest in a messy net, black eyes flaming with horrendous grief, her voice trembling so monotonously and mournfully, as if someone was touching the same string over and over again: ‘Mary, Mary, an innocent girl, a white lily… broken, dishonored, your lily, elle était pure et belle comme un cygne et fraîche comme la rosée [she was pure and beautiful like a swan and fresh like morning dew (French)]’. I take her by her hand and ask without a reason: ‘Etez-vous souffrante? [do you suffer? (French)]’ – ‘Oh, comme je souffre [oh I suffer so much (French)], – her voice trembles, – gone, your Mary is gone, les démons l’ont souillée, la vièrge Marie est morte [the demons defiled her, the Virgin Mary is dead (French)]… Mary, Mary, white lily…’ I give her dry eyes a wet look… And here comes a brisk woman’s voice: ‘Er…e, oh, you have no idea! To achieve a clean goal, one has to walk a clean road, is that right? What if someone steps on a dirty road?… Oh, you have no idea! You think I am a lunatic? Oh, my husband you ask? My husband is a haggler…he is good at haggling, oh he is good…no you wouldn’t understand…’
A slim woman like a shaky shadow is ironically smiling and her wide-open eyes are running so fast with a ghastly anxiety… And here going past me is a young poetess with fair wavy hair, beautiful blue eyes, where talent destiny and madness are shining so bright and merging in one ray; charming musical stanzas are pouring out of her lips blowing with mountains air, but by the mountains will they suddenly abrupt with a sorrowful and satirical joke full of mad humour and laughter that sounds more like a cry! ‘It is always like this’, I recollect her words, ‘poetry, aspirations ins Blau [into the blue (German)], deceived hopes and… and one unhappy love, and then everything ends up here in this lovely company…’, and again there is a laugh bitterly accompanied with a cynical laughter of an oldish woman with coquettish gestures, both drowned by the sounds of a broken piano, played by a mad composer, her face like a Byzantine icon, her eyes looking gravely and strictly straight ahead, she is playing ‘Grande Polonaise’… And here Her Majesty the Queen is kindly handing me her hand-made flowers, there are many of them lying on the table together with a hand-made tiara. ‘It is a humble present, but made by royal hands. When you see my people out there, tell them in what state you saw their queen’, and her majesty points with a tragic gesture at her worn down shoes and shabby dress, ‘that’s what the kindest of the queens lived to see from her people! Tell them I do not hold anything against them, I only demand my right’. I make a low bow to her majesty and accept her gift with sheer respect. What makes other royals better than her?… I feel the kiss of an idiot on my cheek. ‘My lovely thing!’, she calls, laughing cheerfully, and hands me her toy: a bread saw. ‘Here you are, you may play with it like I do, it is so much fun!’. I hear someone’s wild singing, unanimous and stubborn like a wind in a chimney, and a dancing figure of a jolly maniac comes before my eyes; he is running past in light steps, catches something in the air and cries: ‘O, I am so happy, I wish no one harm, because I am happy as happiness itself!…’ Here comes the sad and astonished voice of a Christian genius: ‘The Gospel says the time of liberation came long ago, nevertheless… I freely put on a crown of thorns to redeem the sins of the world, I know what I am dying for, but why shall those wretched suffer?… Where is the end to the sufferings?’ The face of the Christian genius darkens, and she lowers her eyes.
8 September 1896
Image: Lesia Ukrainka with her aunt Oleksandra Kosach-Shymanovska [detail], 1906. Source: www.l-ukrainka.name