$1000 Repression Challenge Winner
The libretto of the 1786 opera, “Nina,” wins our $1000 award for a case of “repressed memory” in a written work before 1800.
We have recently received a citation to a written work that wins our award of $1000 for a case of “repressed memory” published prior to 1800 – although it was only barely prior to 1800, in 1786 to be exact. This is the opera “Nina,” a one-act opera with a score written by Nicholas Dalayrac and a libretto written by Marsollier. The full title is: Nina, ou La folle par amour, comedie en un acte, en prose, melee d’ariettes, par M. M. D. V. Musique de M. Dalayrac. It was published by Brunet in Paris in 1786. Several subsequent translations into English are available; one of the best known is the 1787 translation by Berkeley, which is available online through Eighteenth Century Collections Online.
Synopsis of Nina
Regrettably, the original 1786 French libretto is not available online, but fortunately it is available at the rare book library at Harvard, where I was able to read it in its entirety. Briefly, Nina is in love with a suitor, Germeiul, and has her father’s approval to marry him. However, another much wealthier suitor appears at the last moment, and the father decides that she should instead marry the wealthy suitor. Nina is devastated. A duel ensues between Germeiul and the wealthy suitor, and to Nina’s horror, she sees Germeiul prostrate in a pool of blood. She faints and is carried home unconscious. She wakes to find her father presenting to her for marriage the wealthy suitor who has just murdered her beloved Germeiul. She becomes delirious:
…muette d’effroi, d’indignation, ne peut resister au combat affreux qu’elle eprouve; elle veut parler, et les expressions se refusent a se couler; elle veut pleurer, et les larmes se sechent dans ses yeux! Ses traits s’alterent, sa raison est troublee, une fievre devourante, un delire affreux s’emparent de tous ses sens…
(Roughly translated: Mute with fright and with rage, she cannot control the horrible passions that she is experiencing; she wants to talk, but words will not come out; she wants to cry but the tears dry up in her eyes! Her features change, her reason is clouded, a fierce fever and a frightening delirium take possession of all her senses.)
Nina’s father, mortified at his daughter’s condition, sends her to his country estate to be taken care of by her old governess. But there, she displays amnesia for the loss of Germeiul:
Nina avoit tout-a-fait perdu le souvenir de ce funeste evenemnt…elle le croit en voyage et sur le point de revenir.
(Nina has totally lost the memory of this deadly event… she thinks that he [Germeiul] is traveling and on the verge of coming home)
Each day, Nina goes with a bouquet of flowers to an appointed spot where she sits, anxiously awaiting the arrival of Germeiul, unaware of what has happened to him.
Up to this point, it might seem that Nina has a clear-cut case of “repressed memory.” Indisputably, she has experienced a traumatic event, and she obviously is unable to remember that traumatic event, despite the fact that she is lucid (in other words, she is no longer delirious, in that she knows who she is, where she is, what time of day it is, etc.). However, she has not developed amnesia just for the traumatic event itself, but has forgotten everything. Indeed, the only thing that she remembers, as the play opens, is helping out the poor:
…qu’alle meconnoit tout le monde, hors les pauvres, et qu’elle a tout oublie, excepte l’habitude qu’all avoit de nous faire bien…
(She doesn’t recognize anybody, except the poor, and she has forgotten everything, except for her custom of being good to us.)
Furthermore, Nina is even forgetting new events that are currently happening in the interval since the trauma. Specifically, the governess tells Nina that the children will sing the verses that Nina has taught to them, but Nina reacts with astonishment and says:
Je leur ai appris…j’oublie tout…rappellez-le moi donc
(I taught them?? I forget everything. Remind me of it.)
Nina’s amnesia seems even more global a couple of pages later when she meets her own father, does not recognize him, and then tells him that she never had a father. Specifically, she says to her father:
Si j’avois eu un pere, il m’auroit protege
(If I had had a father, he would have protected me.)
Later, Germeiul reappears, having miraculously survived, and Nina’s father takes Germeiul aside to warn him in advance about the state that Nina is in. The father explains that Nina waits daily on the bank for Germeiul’s return, and calls out Germeiul’s name. Germeiul is astonished that Nina still remembers his name. The father replies:
C’est le seul qu’elle n’ait pas oublie.
(It is the only [name] that she has not forgotten.)
When Germeiul finally presents himself to her, Nina at first seems to recognize him, then doubts that it is he, and only slowly is reconciled to the fact that he really is Germeiul. Berkeley’s English translation of this scene take some liberties with the original, subtracting several lines and adding others that don’t exist in the French version, but the facts are unchanged.
Does Nina represent a case of repressed memory?
In summary, therefore, if one wanted to be strict, one might say that Nina really has a delirium, rather than a simple case of “repressed memory,” because her amnesia is global, rather than restricted to a specific traumatic event. She cannot even remember the songs that she is writing currently for the children. However, if we disqualify Nina as a case on these grounds, then theoretically one might argue that we should disqualify our own case of Dr. Manette in Tale of Two Cities, cited in our paper, because Manette is working as a simple shoemaker in a garret in Paris, with no apparent memory of the fact that he is a physician. And, analogous to Nina, he fails to recognize his own daughter when she first arrives. Similarly, we might even theoretically also have to disqualify our case of Penn in Captains Courageous, because he too has forgotten his past profession as a preacher, rather than exclusively and selectively forgetting the trauma of the flood that killed his family.
In short, it appears that the notion of “repressed memory” evolved gradually over more than a century. It seems that it may have started with the notion of a delirium (a genuine neuropsychological phenomenon, often associated with widespread amnesia, and well-known to our ancestors), and then evolved in the late 18th century to the notion that one could be amnestic without being entirely delirious. Nina is initially delirious, perhaps, but she is reasonably lucid by the time that she is waiting for her lover with her flowers each day.
Les Liasons Dangereuses, a similar “transitional case”
Another work, published only four years before Nina in 1782, is the novel Les Liasons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos. This work also contains a case with features of both delirium and suggestions of “repressed memory” in the form of Madame de Tourvel. This case did not quite meet our criteria for the $1000 award, because the period of “repressed memory” is at best only half an hour long. However, the case is nevertheless instructive, so I will summarize it here.
Madame de Tourvel, a deeply religious woman, becomes delirious after the trauma of being exposed for her infidelity, but then has a period of about half an hour when she temporarily becomes lucid, but is still amnestic for the trauma that has happened to her. Specifically, after the trauma of the scandal has erupted, as described in Letter CXLVII of the novel, Madame de Tourvel arrives at a convent and demands to be allowed to stay in a room that she had once occupied. She enters the room and announces that “qu’elle n’en sortirait qu’a la mort” (she would not leave the room until she is dead). Soon after, observers watch her holding her hands on her head and ask her if her head hurts. She replies, “ce n’est pas la qu’est le mal” (that’s not where the trouble is located — except that “mal” is actually broader in meaning than that; it means more like “bad-pain-evil”). Later, at 5 AM the following morning, she screams at her maid, “Qu’on me laisse seule, qu’on me laisse dans les tenebres” (leave me alone, leave me in the shadows). She goes on that day to develop “une fievre ardente, un transport violent et presque continuel” (a burning fever, a violent, almost continuous delirium) to the point that “quatre personnes puissent a peine la contenir” (four people could barely hold her down). This sounds like somebody who is violently delirious, rather than an otherwise lucid individual who cannot remember a traumatic event. In fact she refers to the “mal” and states that it isn’t in her head.
A couple of days later at the convent, as described in Letter CXLIX, Madame de Tourvel sleeps very deeply for three hours, then wakes up to see her friend Madame de Volanges at her bedside, and seems to have temporarily recovered from her delirium. But she can’t remember how she arrived at the convent or why she is not in her own house. This interval lasts only “environ une demi-heure” (about half an hour), following which the unfortunate Madame de Tourvel exclaims “je me ressouviens…je retrouve tous mes malheurs” (I remember again…I recall all my misfortunes). Later, the delirium returns.
So there is a brief interval that might be considered a transient moment of “repressed memory” during which Madame de Tourvel is apparently lucid, but still amnestic. However this interval lasts only half an hour, and occurs in the midst of a delirium. Certainly, delirious people, or people who are mad, may have temporary semi-lucid intervals when they partially recognize people they know or remember information about themselves, but still don’t understand where they are or what is happening. One can see this in high fevers, for example, and of course that is what Madame de Tourvel is portrayed as having. In the late 18th century, Choderlos de Lacos and his contemporaries would have surely known about (if not personally witnessed) deliria like this in people with fevers or other medical conditions affecting the brain.
Analysis – the evolving notion of “repressed memory”
As illustrated by both of the two examples above, the notion of “repressed memory” seems to be arising out of the original concept of delirium. Madame de Tourvel, in 1782, is primarily delirious but is briefly lucid while still having a “repressed memory”; Nina, in 1786, is still moderately delirious, but somewhat more lucid, as she sits awaiting Germeiul.
As we move into the 19th century, we see a more fully developed notion of “repressed memory” in characters such as Dickens’ Dr. Manette and Kipling’s Penn, who show no suggestion of delirium at all, but are still amnestic. Still, however, they are not completely pure cases, because they have amnesia for their entire past professions, rather than just the traumatic event. Nevertheless, they come close to the modern conception of “repressed memory,” because in each case it was a specific traumatic event that triggered the amnesia – incarceration in the Bastille in the case of Manette, and a tragic flood and loss of family members in the case of Penn.
Therefore, it may not be until the 20th century that one can find the fully developed notion of pure “repressed memory” where somebody selectively forgets a specific traumatic event, while remaining lucid in all other respects, and remembering everything else.
In conclusion, therefore, the case of Nina does not contradict our hypothesis that “repressed memory” is a romantic notion that evolved in recent Western culture; it simply suggests that this evolution began a bit earlier than we originally suspected. In some ways, the cases of Nina and Madame de Tourvel actually clarify our understanding by providing a “missing link” in the evolutionary chain, suggesting that notion of “repressed memory” perhaps gradually evolved from observations of an actual neurological disorder (delirium), which in turn provided the groundwork for a pseudo-neurological disorder (amnesia for a traumatic event in the absence of delirium). This evolution seems to have happened between the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 20th century.