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.

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