Dr. Heidenhoff's Process

by Edward Bellamy

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Chapter X

The next day he called at 79 ---- Street. There was a modest shingle bearing the name "Dr. Gustav Heidenhoff" fastened up on the side of the house, which was in the middle of a brick block. On announcing that he wanted to see the doctor, he was ushered into a waiting-room, whose walls were hung with charts of the brain and nervous system, and presently a tall, scholarly-looking man, with a clean-shaven face, frosty hair, and very genial blue eyes, deep set beneath extremely bushy grey eyebrows, entered and announced himself as Dr. Heidenhoff. Henry, who could not help being very favourably impressed by his appearance, opened the conversation by saying that he wanted to make some inquiries about the Thought-extirpation process in behalf of a friend who was thinking of trying it. The doctor, who spoke English with idiomatic accuracy, though with a slightly German accent, expressed his willingness to give him all possible information, and answered all his questions with great apparent candour, illustrating his explanations by references to the charts which covered the walls of the office. He took him into an inner office and showed his batteries, and explained that the peculiarity of his process consisted, not in any new general laws and facts of physiology which he had discovered, but entirely in peculiarities in his manner of applying his galvanic current, talking much about apodes, cathodes, catelectrotonus and anelectrotonus, resistance and rheostat, reactions, fluctuations, and other terms of galvano-therapeutics. The doctor frankly admitted that he was not in a way of making a great deal of money or reputation by his discovery. It promised too much, and people consequently thought it must be quackery, and as sufficient proof of this he mentioned that he had now been five years engaged in practising the Thought-extirpation process without having attained any considerable celebrity or attracting a great number of patients. But he had a sufficient support in other branches of medical practice, he added, and, so long as he had patients enough for experimentation with the aim of improving the process, he was quite satisfied.

He listened with great interest to Henry's account of Madeline's case. The success of galvanism in obliterating the obnoxious train of recollections in her case would depend, he said, on whether it had been indulged to an extent to bring about a morbid state of the brain fibres concerned. What might be conventionally or morally morbid or objectionable, was not, however, necessarily disease in the material sense, and nothing but experiment could absolutely determine whether the two conditions coincided in any case. At any rate, he positively assured Henry that no harm could ensue to the patient, whether the operation succeeded or not.

"It is a pity, young man," he said, with a flash of enthusiasm, "that you don't come to me twenty years later. Then I could guarantee your friend the complete extirpation of any class of inconvenient recollections she might desire removed, whether they were morbid or healthy; for since the great fact of the physical basis of the intellect has been established, I deem it only a question of time when science shall have so accurately located the various departments of thought and mastered the laws of their processes, that, whether by galvanism or some better process, the mental physician will be able to extract a specific recollection from the memory as readily as a dentist pulls a tooth, and as finally, so far as the prevention of any future twinges in that quarter are concerned. Macbeth's question, 'Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased; pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow; raze out the written troubles of the brain?' was a puzzler to the sixteenth century doctor, but he of the twentieth, yes, perhaps of the nineteenth, will be able to answer it affirmatively."

"Is the process at all painful ?"

"In no degree, my dear sir. Patients have described to me their sensations many times, and their testimony is quite in agreement. When the circuit is closed there is a bubbling, murmurous sound in the ears, a warm sensation where the wires touch the cranium, and a feeling as of a motion through the brain, entering at one point and going out at another. There are also sparks of fire seen under the closed eyelids, an unpleasant taste in the mouth, and a sensation of smell; that is all."

"But the mental sensations ?" said Henry. "I should think they must be very peculiar, the sense of forgetting in spite of one's self, for I suppose the patient's mind is fixed on the very thoughts which the intent of the operation is to extirpate."

"Peculiar? Oh no, not at all peculiar," replied the doctor. "There are abundant analogies for it in our daily experience. From the accounts of patients I infer that it is not different from one's sensations in falling asleep while thinking of something. You know that we find ourselves forgetting preceding links in the train of thought, and in turning back to recall what went before, what came after is meanwhile forgotten, the clue is lost, and we yield to a pleasing bewilderment which is presently itself forgotten in sleep. The next morning we may or may not recall the matter. The only difference is that after the deep sleep which always follows the application of my process we never recall it, that is, if the operation has been successful. It seems to involve no more interference with the continuity of the normal physical and mental functions than does an afternoon's nap."

"But the after-effects!" persisted Henry. "Patients must surely feel that they have forgotten something, even if they do not know what it is. They must feel that there is something gone out of their minds. I should think this sensation would leave them in a painfully bewildered state."

"There seems to be a feeling of slight confusion," said the doctor; "but it is not painful, not more pronounced, indeed, than that of persons who are trying to bring back a dream which they remember having had without being able to recall the first thing about what it was. Of course, the patient subsequently finds shreds and fragments of ideas, as well as facts in his external relations, which, having been connected with the extirpated subject, are now unaccountable. About these the feeling is, I suppose, like that of a man who, when he gets over a fit of drunkenness or somnambulism, finds himself unable to account for things which he has unconsciously said or done. The immediate effect of the operation, as I intimated before, is to leave the patient very drowsy, and the first desire is to sleep."

"Doctor," said Henry, "when you talk it all seems for the moment quite reasonable, but you will pardon me for saying that, as soon as you stop, the whole thing appears to be such an incredible piece of nonsense that I have to pinch myself to be sure I am not dreaming."

The doctor smiled.

"Well," said he, "I have been so long engaged in the practical application of the process that I confess I can't realize any element of the strange or mysterious about it. To the eye of the philosopher nothing is wonderful, or else you may say all things are equally so. The commonest and so-called simplest fact in the entire order of nature is precisely as marvellous and incomprehensible at bottom as the most uncommon and startling. You will pardon me if I say that it is only to the unscientific that it seems otherwise. But really, my dear sir, my process for the extirpation of thoughts was but the most obvious consequence of the discovery that different classes of sensations and ideas are localized in the brain, and are permanently identified with particular groups of corpuscles of the grey matter. As soon as that was known, the extirpating of special clusters of thoughts became merely a question of mechanical difficulties to be overcome, merely a nice problem in surgery, and not more complex than many which my brethren have solved in lithotomy and lithotrity, for instance."

"I suppose what makes the idea a little more startling," said Henry, "is the odd intermingling of moral and physical conceptions in the idea of curing pangs of conscience by a surgical operation."

"I should think that intermingling ought not to be very bewildering," replied the doctor, "since it is the usual rule. Why is it more curious to cure remorse by a physical act than to cause remorse by a physical act? And I believe such is the origin of most remorse."

"Yes," said Henry, still struggling to preserve his mental equilibrium against this general overturning of his prejudices. "Yes, but the mind consents to the act which causes the remorse, and I suppose that is what gives it a moral quality."

"Assuredly," replied the doctor; "and I take it for granted that patients don't generally come to me unless they have experienced very genuine and profound regret and sorrow for the act they wish to forget. They have already repented it, and, according to every theory of moral accountability, I believe it is held that repentance balances the moral accounts. My process, you see then, only completes physically what is already done morally. The ministers and moralists preach forgiveness and absolution on repentance, but the perennial fountain of the penitent's tears testifies how empty and vain such assurances are. I fulfil what they promise. They tell the penitent he is forgiven. I free him from his sin. Remorse and shame and wan regret have wielded their cruel sceptres over human lives from the beginning until now. Seated within the mysterious labyrinths of the brain, they have deemed their sway secure, but the lightning of science has reached them on their thrones and set their bondmen free;" and with an impressive gesture the doctor touched the battery at his side.

Without giving further details of his conversation with this strange Master of Life, it is sufficient to say that Henry finally agreed upon an appointment for Madeline on the following day, feeling something as if he were making an unholy compact with the devil. He could not possibly have said whether he really expected anything from it or not. His mind had been in a state of bewilderment and constant fluctuation during the entire interview, at one moment carried away by the contagious confidence of the doctor's tone, and impressed by his calm, clear, scientific explanations and the exhibition of the electrical apparatus, and the next moment reacting into utter scepticism and contemptuous impatience with himself for even listening to such a preposterous piece of imposition. By the time he had walked half a block, the sights and sounds of the busy street, with their practical and prosaic suggestions, had quite dissipated the lingering influence of the necromantic atmosphere of Dr. Heidenhoff's office, and he was sure that he had been a fool.

He went to see Madeline that evening, with his mind made up to avoid telling her, if possible, that he had made the appointment, and to make such a report as should induce her to dismiss the subject. But he found it was quite impossible to maintain any such reticence toward one in her excited and peremptory mood. He was forced to admit the fact of the appointment.

"Why didn't you make it in the forenoon?" she demanded.

"What for? It is only a difference of a few hours," he replied.

"And don't you think a few hours is anything to me?" she cried, bursting into hysterical tears.

"You must not be so confident," he expostulated. "It scares me to see you so when you are so likely to be disappointed. Even the doctor said he could not promise success. It would depend on many things."

"What is the use of telling me that ?" she said, suddenly becoming very calm. "When I've just one chance for life, do you think it is kind to remind me that it may fail? Let me alone to-night."

The mental agitation of the past two days, supervening on so long a period of profound depression, had thrown her into a state of agitation bordering on hysteria. She was constantly changing her attitude, rising and seating herself, and walking excitedly about. She would talk rapidly one moment, and then relapse into a sudden chilled silence in which she seemed to hear nothing. Once or twice she laughed a hard, unnatural laugh of pure nervousness.

Presently she said--

"After I've forgotten all about myself, and no longer remember any reason why I shouldn't marry you, you will still remember what I've forgotten, and perhaps you won't want me."

"You know very well that I want you any way, and just the same whatever happens or doesn't happen," he answered.

"I wonder whether it will be fair to let you marry me after I've forgotten," she continued, thoughtfully. "I don't know, but I ought to make you promise now that you won't ask me to be your wife, for, of course, I shouldn't then know any reason for refusing you."

"I wouldn't promise that."

"Oh, but you wouldn't do so mean a thing as to take an unfair advantage of my ignorance," she replied. "Any way, I now release you from your engagement to marry me, and leave you to do as you choose tomorrow after I've forgotten. I would make you promise not to let me marry you then, if I did not feel that utter forgetfulness of the past will leave me as pure and as good as if--as if--I were like other women;" and she burst into tears, and cried bitterly for a while.

The completeness with which she had given herself up to the belief that on the morrow her memory was to be wiped clean of the sad past, alternately terrified him and momentarily seduced him to share the same fool's paradise of fancy. And it is needless to say that the thought of receiving his wife to his arms as fresh and virgin in heart and memory as when her girlish beauty first entranced him, was very sweet to his imagination.

"I suppose I'll have mother with me then," she said, musingly. "How strange it will be! I've been thinking about it all day. I shall often find her looking at me oddly, and ask her what she is thinking of, and she will put me off. Why, Henry, I feel as dying persons do about having people look at their faces after they are dead. I shouldn't like to have any of my enemies who knew all about me see me after I've forgotten. You'll take care that they don't, won't you, Henry?"

"Why, dear, that is morbid. What is it to a dead person, whose soul is in heaven, who looks at his dead face? It will be so with you after to-morrow if the process succeeds."

She thought a while, and then said, shaking her head--

"Well, anyhow, I'd rather none but my friends, of those who used to know me, should see me. You'll see to it, Henry. You may look at me all you please, and think of what you please as you look. I don't care to take away the memory of anything from you. I don't believe a woman ever trusted a man as I do you. I'm sure none ever had reason to. I should be sorry if you didn't know all my faults. If there's a record to be kept of them anywhere in the universe, I'd rather it should be in your heart than anywhere else, unless, maybe, God has a heart like yours;" and she smiled at him through those sweetest tears that ever well up in human eyes, the tears of a limitless and perfect trust.

At one o'clock the next afternoon Madeline was sitting on the sofa in Dr. Heidenhoff's reception-room with compressed lips and pale cheeks, while Henry was nervously striding to and fro across the room, and furtively watching her with anxious looks. Neither had had much to say that morning.

"All ready," said the doctor, putting his head in at the door of his office and again disappearing. Madeline instantly rose. Henry put his hand on her arm, and said--

"Remember, dear, this was your idea, not mine, and if the experiment fails that makes no difference to me." She bowed her head without replying, and they went into the office. Madeline, trembling and deadly pale, sat down in the operating chair, and her head was immovably secured by padded clamps. She closed her eyes and put her hand in Henry's.

"Now," said the doctor to her, "fix your attention on the class of memories which you wish destroyed; the electric current more readily follows the fibres which are being excited by the present passage of nervous force. Touch my arm when you find your thoughts somewhat concentrated."

In a few moments she pressed the doctor's arm, and instantly the murmurous, bubbling hum of the battery began. She, clasped Henry's hand a little firmer, but made no other sign. The noise stopped. The doctor was removing the clamps. She opened her eyes and closed them again drowsily.

"Oh, I'm so sleepy."

"You shall lie down and take a nap," said the doctor.

There was a little retiring-room connected with the office where there was a sofa. No sooner had she laid her head on the pillow than she fell asleep. The doctor and Henry remained in the operating office, the door into the retiring-room being just ajar, so that they could hear her when she awoke.

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