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BMJ. 2007 June 30; 334(7608): 1377.
PMCID: PMC1906676
Between the Lines

Reality bites

Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

Public affairs, Dr Johnson once said, vex no man. What he meant by this, I suppose, is that what really and truly interests and motivates us is our private little world, and that when we pretend to care deeply about politics we deceive both ourselves and others.

Guy de Maupassant has a story making precisely the same point. Dr Massarel is the doctor in the small Normandy town of Canneville, and the leading republican there. The mayor, the Vicomte de Varnetot, is an adherent of Napoleon III.

At the start of the story, which is one of the funniest that I know, two peasants come to consult Dr Massarel. The husband has had varicose veins for seven years, but waits until his wife has them also before consulting the doctor.

During the consultation, the doctor receives news of the Battle of Sedan, the capture of Napoleon, and the proclamation of the Republic. The peasant is explaining his symptoms—“It all started with a feeling of ants running up and down my legs”—but the doctor tells him to shut up, his legs can wait, the Republic has been proclaimed.

Dr Massarel rushes into the town square, where he addresses the townsfolk and the visiting peasants in an exalted fashion. They are completely bemused by this and fail to respond. They think that if the Emperor is imprisoned, someone must have betrayed him.

Dr Massarel is frustrated by their impassivity and decides on a grand gesture. He orders that the white plaster bust of Napoleon in the town hall be brought out and put on a chair. He then addresses it: “Tyrant, tyrant, now you have fallen, fallen in the mud. The expiring patrie was choking under your boot. Vengeful Destiny has struck you. Defeat and shame are now yours; you fall defeated, prisoner of the Prussians; and, on the ruins of your crumbling Empire, the young and radiant Republic arises, raising your broken sword . . . ”

But even this fails to arouse the crowd from its apathy, and so Dr Massarel decides to shoot the bust, which has “pointed moustaches that go past the cheek on each side” and is “well-coiffed like a hairdresser's sign.”

“The bullet made a little black hole in the forehead, like a stain, almost nothing. M Massarel fired a second shot, which made a second hole, then a third, then, without stopping, the last three. Napoleon's forehead flew into white dust, but the eyes, the nose and the fine ends of the moustache remained intact.”

The doctor then takes further action to impress the crowd. “Exasperated, the doctor overturned the chair with a kick and, putting his foot on the remains of the bust in a triumphal posture, turned towards the astonished crowd and shouted, ‘May all traitors perish thus!'”

He then retreats to his house and consulting room, where the peasant and his wife are waiting for him. The peasant says, “It all started with a feeling of ants running up and down my legs.”

Does this mean that we should all become political quietists, and deal only with real problems—that is to say, formication and the like? The problem is that when we are sucked into politics, or worse still, management, we begin to sound (and perhaps think) like Dr Massarel. This is a dilemma I cannot solve.


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