Homage to Catatonia
Homage to Catatonia is a book by Orwell George. Set in a mental institution in 1930s Spain, a group of catatonics are set upon by cruel guards of the institution and their practices are sometimes condoned by the nurses. The war between the inmates and the staff hired to protect and nurse them causes fractions amongst the other remaining inhabitants, some of whom help the nurses, or assist the catatonics usually for their own purposes. Others remain passive the whole affair, appeasing both parties.
In the book, Orwell quotes from the DSM-III in its description of catatonia:
Catatonia, a condition realised as early as the century, was treated in the past, by placing the patient in a dungeon, and having a highly-trained cat miaow some tonic melodies of the day. Failing this, they would beat the shit out of them. They would then wonder why the highly static poses, a feature of the catatonic state, would be prolonged by this punition. It did however, enable some of the catatonic patients to become exceptional yoga practioners, as their mangled bodies would stay the way the dungeon-master shaped them for hours on end. When they died they were often used as cheap statues....I would say more, but I've got another book to be writing about evil dictatorships and the like. Several fascists, only one Orwell!
Vasquelos, Rafael, and Pepe are frustrated at their position in lives as mental health wardens. They are underpaid, and feel that the patients have too much power over them. Vasquelos asks 'Why don't we ever get to use our truncheons? I bet if we didn't give them their medication, they'd start kicking off, and then we'd get some action!' Rafael strongly disagrees and says it would be much more agreeable if they brutalized them whilst under medication. Pepe, a kinder soul, objects completely and suggests that the pair are sexually frustrated, in need of a more peaceful remedy with their wives. Vasquelos interprets Pepe's suggestion as meaning to make love to one of the catatonics, none of whom are female. He rejects this outright. Rafael says: 'At least there'd be no issue over consent - I can never get my wife to consent to even ironing my clothes these days'. Pepe rules himself out of all intimate encounters with the inmates, but reminds them to stay away from people with Multiple Personality Disorder unless they want an orgy on their hands.
Vasquelos and Rafa leave Pepe behind and decide to make use of their truncheons on some catatonics. The Catatonics are in a largely frigid and motionless state (like Alabama) having been strongly medicated. Rafael calls them pajeros. A catatonic mimicks him which Vasquelos takes as provocation to take up arms. The two wardens give them a thorough pounding (or pesetaring, if you will). They leave the ward. Rafa and Vasquelos stride down the stairs back to the porter lodge, feeling unjustifiably macho having effectively beaten up the equivalent of plankton in an underwater civil war. In such ecstacy they fall down the stairs, heavily bruising themselves and their egos before returning to Pepe.
Pepe laughs at the bruised wardens - 'Those catatonics sure know how to fight!' Pepe heads off home, and the two night wardens arrive to relieve Rafa and Vasquelos who depart for their homes similarly.
Rafael and Vasquelos are queried over their bruises, as well as the injured catatonics. Vasquelos, ever the schemer, says that the catatonics assaulted both the guards and they had to defend themselves. The nurses, one Italian and one German, agree with Vasquelos' verdict. They decide to discipline the poor catatonics in the same way that Soviet Union reeducated 'dissidents'. Ouch.
Some of the catatonics, a bit more bright-eyed though bruised after their drug-induced stupor, remember being beaten by the guards and are unsurprisingly angry. Others, still in a catatonic state, do not. At breakfast, the catatonics speak about their experiences to other inmates. A Russian schizophrenic is outraged by their treatment and wishes he could have stood up for them. One particularly delusional patient insists that it was aliens who abducted the catatonics and gave them a roughing up. Another believes it is Franco's fault, to which one patient with MPD says: 'I did not authorize that action'. A British depressive does not care. A serial killer wonders where all the inmates have got this sense of moral injustice from. (It never stopped them before).
After dining, the patients are lectured by the nurses who believe that the inmates started the fight with the wardens. The inmates protest but their voices are not heard (nor even the ones inside their head). The other wardens, excepting Pepe, side with the nurses and agree to be tougher on the patients (Which kind of undermines the meaning of hospital)
The nurses medicate the patients with double dosages to prevent any insurrection, actual social contact with the patients, or feelings of empathy. God forbid that! (Since God likes forbidding, as evidenced by the Ten Commandments. Religious prohibitions probably now total a number only a supreme being could comprehend or count to) None of the catatonics however, have swallowed their tablets. They return to their cells, which are as squalid as as a squatter's underpant drawer. Some of the catatonics, who pledged to fight, desert the cause and swallow their doses. The rest despair over the lack of weapons they have.
Was that a short chapter or what? Come on Orwell! Anyway, a couple of wardens enter the catatonics' wing, and wonder why some of them appear to be alert and aware. Then, one of the patients, Jose, sounds the battle cry and the catatonics besiege the wardens who are downed the sheer number of forces against them (imaginary constructs of the schizophrenics not counting).
Jubilant after their victory, they salute each other 20000 times. Worn out by this celebration, they collapse exhausted, only to be woken by the Russian and Mexican who agreed to help them. They have overthrown the wardens on the schizophrenic wing (Though the Russian thought he had been fighting Leon Trotsky)
Reception and legacy
Homage to Catatonia was not well-received. Kingsley Amis wrote in The Evening Standard: 'Does one have to be catatonic to enjoy or understand this?' Saul Bellow complained 'Isn't this just some hack allegory about the Spanish Civil War based upon a terrible pun on a Spanish province?' Bellow however confessed that it made his current boyfriend 'Laugh like a queen'.