Avenging the prince with crocodile tears

The tragic story of Caspar Hauser has been hijacked by a pushy psychoanalyst. By Marina Warner; Lost Prince: The Unsolved Mystery of Caspar Hauser by Jeffrey Moussaief Masson The Free Press, pounds 16.99

Wicked Stepmother tales weave back and forth between fact and fiction. In Snow White, her death is ordered and the huntsman spares her out of pity, but in historical chronicles, there's rarely a magical reprieve. Some of the most vicious, Jacobean-style stories feature true-life characters, like the 11th century Saint Godelive who, with her husband's connivance, was tormented and abused by her mother-in-law, until they finally did away with her by drowning her down a well.

This kind of malevolent plot returns as structure, as explanation, as dream, to provide a way of controlling the unanswerable riddles of history. It crystallised, for example, around the pathetic Caspar Hauser, wild child, boy-man, who is, alongside Chatterton, one of the most enigmatic and mythopoeic figures of the Romantic age. He was discovered in the town square of Nuremberg in 1828. All his life until that point, he had been kept in a cellar in which he could not stand up; had been given only bread and water; was sick when he first ate meat and drank beer; and could not speak, except for one sentence: "I want to be a rider like my father". He was about 12 years old, it was reckoned, and could give no further description of his origins or his identity. He had not seen daylight or starlight; the first sight of them overwhelmed him. He walked awkwardly, as he had only recently learned how to; he was unable to distinguish image from reality.

In his lifetime, a distinguished Bavarian jurist, Anselm von Feuerbach, wrote an account of Caspar Hauser and published it after Hauser died, in mysterious circumstances, in 1832. In it, von Feuerbach hintingly endorsed the story that Caspar Hauser was a lost prince, that he had been spirited away from his mother's arms in childbed, that another, dying infant had been substituted, who had then died; and this conspiracy had been organised by a rival, in order to secure for her own son the throne of Baden. Caspar Hauser - crippled, amnesiac, possibly autistic - was, according to this theory, a usurped king.

The memoir is a remarkable document: written with a lively feeling for case-study narrative, it declares the burden of its story is "the murder of a soul", a chilly Enlightenment experiment (von Feuerbach examines Caspar in close up, from the peculiarities of his knees to his first encounter with snow). But it's also an emotional manifesto, in the aftermath of Rousseau, for the original innocence of the child, and hence the perfidious vice of adult humanity. The ascribed aristocracy of Caspar works to add preciousness to this state of grace, as it does in the title of this book, Lost Prince, in which Jeffrey Moussaief Masson milks the metaphor of aboriginal princeliness to serve his own interest.

The tabula rasa of Caspar Hauser has inspired much speculation, as well as some outstanding films and poetry - the finest being David Constantine's recent book-length narrative poem in terza rima, in which he writes:

the truth

Seems to have lain a million years beneath

The dripping accretions which are

The writing of doctors, prelates and legal men

In the dripping accretions clustering on Caspar Hauser, there cannot have been many giving off quite such a whiff of opportunism, tendentiousness and slackness as this edition of von Feuerbach's text by Masson. From the jacket, you'd think Masson has written a new book about the episode; but his contribution consists of a muddled, 70-page introduction, in which he claims that the documents he reprints in appendices are fresh discoveries (they may be newly published in English, but their contents undo no tangles). His bad faith shows even more clearly in the uses to which Masson puts the story of Hauser's tragic mystery.

Jeffrey Masson has made the diagnosis of child (sexual) abuse his special area of interest, ever since he argued in The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory, that Freud damaged his patients and all who came after them on the psychoanalytic couch when he developed his later, Oedipal theory and refused to believe that the tales of infant seduction his patients were recounting had truly taken place and were not sexual fantasies. Masson's arguments have been highly influential in the current American crisis around "recovered memory" and child abuse, and von Feuerbach's text gives him two strong lines of argument which he takes up with energy: first, the idea that personal testimony should be considered valid, for he stresses, "here we have before us a case that is by its very nature unique, in which for the most part, the evidence for the crime lies hidden in the human soul." (his italics) Masson links this with a plea to listen to the witness of children, and, even more extremely, to take dreams diagnostically, as memories. He reprints Caspar Hauser's recorded dreams, and uses fragments of heraldic crests, and parts of buildings that appear in them as proof of his noble infancy. This offers a variation on the contested theory that victims can suppress altogether traumatic episodes from their past, but relive them in therapy, and it comes close to aligning such healing practices with the work of diviners, haruspices and fortune tellers. Dreams should be listened to, of course, but hardly as a forensic evidence or historical records. Secondly, von Feuerbach proposed to institute in law "a crime against the life of the soul", again, in the context of child abuse today, Masson wishes to pursue molesters with new, improved means.

Oddly, Masson doesn't mention that Caspar Hauser was probably seduced by one of the women who offered him shelter, as David Constantine dramatised, poignantly, in his poem; but then Masson isn't interested in the workings of Caspar as an individual.

Children, as we have seen again only this week, are imprisoned for adult's pornographic purposes, but this was not what happened to Caspar Hauser - even Masson does not suggest this. Once more, the image of the innocent abused is not invoked to mitigate child suffering, but to draw attention to the exquisite pity, the superior sensibility, of the observer. It would have been much more helpful to analyse the sexualisation of childhood in American society than to weep for the sins committed against children and demand vengeance. Masson declares his sympathy for Caspar Hauser's plight so that we might think he has a heart; but the more he opens his, the emptier it looks.

Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'