THE ASYLUM KEEPER AND THE POET

Religious mystic, asylum keeper, Whitman obsessive—the career of Richard Maurice Bucke 

confounds what we think we know about the drab conservatism of the Victorian era in Canada

The story of the asylum keeper is told by Daniel Francis in Geist 93 and can be read online below.

THE ASYLUM KEEPER AND THE POET:
Cosmic Consciousness

Text by Daniel Francis

AFTERTASTE OF HEAVEN

Richard Maurice Bucke, a thirty-five-year-old Canadian doctor vacationing in England, was riding in a horse-drawn buggy through the streets of London late one night in April 1872 when the Infinite embraced him in a flame-coloured cloud. Bucke was returning home from an evening spent with friends reading the poetry of Walt Whitman and the English Romantics—Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats. “For an instant he thought of fire, some sudden conflagration in the great city,” he later wrote, describing his experience in the third person; “the next, he knew that the light was in himself. Directly afterwards came upon him a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe. Into his brain streamed one momentary lightning flash of the Brahmic splendour which has ever since lightened his life; upon his heart fell one drop of Brahmic bliss, leaving thence-forward for always an aftertaste of heaven.”

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The account of this life-altering moment comes from the introduction to Bucke’s book, Cosmic Consciousness, which appeared in 1901, the year before its author’s death (and the same year as Sigmund Freud published The Psychopathology of Everyday Life), and has been in print ever since. The book is an attempt to explain what happened that night. Having had a glimpse of what he took to be eternal truth, Bucke spent the next thirty years pondering what it meant.

His conclusions are summed up in the first section of the book, in which he describes two mundane levels of consciousness, the animal and the human, and a supreme or cosmic level of consciousness, which he describes as an awareness of “the life and order of the universe.” Cosmic consciousness, Bucke argues, exists in a heightened state of “moral exaltation” experienced by the individual in a flash of illumination and an insight into the true nature of the world, including an awareness of immortality. “Along with the consciousness of the cosmos there occurs an intellectual enlightenment or illumination which alone would place the individual on a new plane of existence—would make him almost a member of a new species.” 

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The occurrence of ecstatic religious states was nothing new when Bucke set out to explain them. His innovation was to apply the notion of evolution to the spiritual world. At present, he argues in the book, only a few individuals have achieved cosmic consciousness and they have done so only briefly. This is how he explains his own experience in London. But humankind is evolving toward a state of bliss, he says, in which cosmic consciousness will replace self consciousness as the permanent condition of everyone. By Bucke’s own calculation, the experience of cosmic consciousness was already occurring with greater frequency among more people.

Bucke becomes almost ecstatic as he contemplates a future that, he writes, “is indescribably hopeful.” “The human soul will be revolutionized,” he declares. There will be no poverty, no boundaries between people. Conventional religion will disappear, replaced by the permanent knowledge of eternal bliss. He ends on a triumphant note. A “new race is in the act of being born from us, and in the near future it will occupy and possess the earth.”

As evidence for his theory, Bucke devotes a large chunk of his book to case studies of individuals whom he identifies as members of this “new race” because they have experienced cosmic consciousness themselves: religious leaders such as the Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed, poets like Dante, William Blake and Walt Whitman, and others. (None of his case studies were women; Bucke believed that cosmic insight was denied the weaker sex.)

Bucke was no crackpot. Though Cosmic Consciousness was dismissed by many of his more conservative medical colleagues, his ideas were not that unusual. Spiritualism—a belief in an afterlife and the possibility of communicating with it—was much more mainstream in the nineteenth century than it is today. (Canada’s longest-serving prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, took guidance from the spirit world.) Bucke did not consider himself to be a spiritualist but he did not discount the paranormal. He thought that communications with the spirit world were a proven reality, though he interpreted them as latent abilities that in time everyone would possess. Bucke was at pains to differentiate his spiritual insight from irrationality or pathology. He was a man of science seeking to explain a state of consciousness, much like Freud was proposing the importance of the unconscious.

But on the night the city of London erupted in a flame-coloured vision, this was all ahead of him. It required years to make sense of his experience. Meanwhile he returned to Canada to continue his medical career.

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CULT OF CURABILITY

The second great turning point in Bucke’s life occurred four years later. He was living in Sarnia, Ontario, with his wife and their children, working as a small-town doctor. The study of “man’s moral nature” (it was the title of his first book, which would be published in 1879) still preoccupied him, but otherwise he was finding existence in a provincial backwater stultifying and dull. His life, he confided to his diary, was “so monotonous that what is said for one day answers for every other day.” To make matters worse, he was suffering from recurring bouts of acute anxiety (“nervous dyspepsia” in the language of the day), manifested in sudden panic attacks and accompanying depression, a condition that not even his ecstatic experience in London had relieved.

Seeking a way out of this professional and personal impasse, Bucke turned to his friend, T.B. Pardee, a local lawyer and influential provincial cabinet minister, who obtained for him a posting as medical superintendent at the Hamilton Asylum for the Insane when it opened in February 1876. A year later, he took over the same position at the asylum in London, Ontario, where he seemed to have found his vocation. During the subsequent twenty-five years of his life, until his death in 1902, he rose to become one of the leading psychiatric practitioners of his day, recognized not just in Canada but in the United States and Britain as well.

When he entered the world of the asylum, Maurice Bucke was a forty-year-old general practitioner with no experience, or even much interest, in the care of the mentally ill. Indeed, he had been a qualified doctor for barely ten years. He had arrived in Canada as a one-year-old child in the arms of his parents. His father, Horatio, had been a Church of England cleric, but in Ontario the family settled on a farm near London. Though Maurice, the seventh of ten children, did not attend school, his father amassed an extensive library of classics in which to browse and taught his youngsters to read in several languages. Following the death of his stepmother when he was fifteen years old, Maurice left home and wandered footloose around the United States for the next few years, picking up work as a farmhand in Ohio, a stave cutter in the cypress swamps of Louisiana and a deckhand on a Mississippi riverboat, and driving oxen in a wagon train to Utah. In the autumn of 1857 he was in Gold Canyon, south of Reno, working a silver claim owned by the Grosh brothers. Though no one yet knew it, the Groshes were sitting atop the origins of the famous Comstock Lode, the first important discovery of silver ore in the United States. That November Bucke and Allan Grosh set out to walk across the Sierra Nevada to California in search of capital to extend their operations. During the harrowing trek Grosh died of exposure and starvation. Bucke lost one foot and most of the other to frostbite, and barely survived. For the rest of his life he walked with a pronounced limp and endured almost constant pain.

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When Bucke returned to Canada following this misadventure, he was, in his own words, “a cripple, a wreck.” With a small inheritance, he enrolled in McGill College medical school in Montreal, following in the footsteps of two of his older brothers. Despite his lack of formal schooling Bucke turned out to be an adept student and after four years graduated with honours. Following two years of postgraduate study in England and France, he returned to Ontario and to Sarnia, where he took over the medical practice of his brother Edward, who recently had died.

The Canadian mental hospital, or lunatic asylum as it was more commonly known, was only forty years old when Bucke began his career as a “mad doctor.” Prior to 1836, when the first facility devoted solely to the care of the mentally ill opened in the basement of a one-time cholera hospital in Saint John, New Brunswick, lunatics were cared for by their families, held in jails or, if they were no trouble to others, left to wander at large. There was little incentive to incarcerate the insane. Confinement was expensive, and had no therapeutic effect anyway since no one really understood the conditions they were dealing with. The British North American colonies were predominantly rural societies in which the family and the community were called on to care for the indigents in their midst, which for the most part they did in their own rough way. Only at the end of the eighteenth century did attitudes toward the mentally ill begin to change. In several countries in Europe, reformers began to view the mad not as dumb beasts who were best locked away from the world but as unfortunate victims whose disturbed minds could, with humane care, be won back to reason. These ideas migrated across the Atlantic and took root with social reformers and progressive doctors in the United States and then in British North America. In Ontario the first permanent mental facility, the Provincial Lunatic Asylum, opened just west of downtown Toronto at the beginning of 1850. The Globe newspaper hailed it as “a monument to the Christian liberality of the people.”

 

The new asylums were considered to be the hallmarks of a progressive, enlightened community. They were conceived as institutions in which a new kind of therapy could be put into practice. Known as moral treatment, or the humane method, it was not treatment in the medical sense at all, but rather a combination of compassion and gentle persuasion. The idea was to treat mental patients with the same dignity and respect as anyone else. No longer shut away in lonely cells, chained to walls or strapped into straitjackets, patients in the asylum instead lived openly as members of a compassionate community in a system of structured activity where the shattered mind could experience the tranquility it needed to find its way back to wholeness.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the humane asylum had sparked what has been called “the cult of curability.” For the first time, practitioners and members of the public were convinced that the puzzle of mental illness had been solved. The new asylums reported cure rates approaching 90 percent. Dorothea Dix, the American social reformer, proclaimed that insanity was “as curable as a fever or a cold.” In Ontario the new optimism led to a flurry of asylum building, and by the 1880s the province had a network of four large institutions housing more than 2,600 patients and consuming close to 20 percent of the government budget. It was in this context of hopeful reform that Maurice Bucke took up his position as medical superintendent at the London asylum.

The medical superintendent was the linchpin of the moral method. Inasmuch as the new asylum resembled a large family, the medical superintendent was its patriarch. It was his responsibility to ensure that the institution ran smoothly. All authority centred on him. He was less a doctor than a father: his most important function was to set a moral example, disciplining and instructing his “children.” Though most superintendents of the Canadian asylums did have medical training, they had little need to use it. They were administrators, role models, loving parents and sometimes tyrants. The role of the medical superintendent, writes the asylum historian Andrew Scull, was “to rule like petty autocrats over the miniature kingdoms of the mad.”

Bucke seems to have been chosen by central casting to play this role. Large in both physique and personality, he administered one of the most populous asylums in North America. The London Psychiatric Hospital had 900 patients along with a staff of 130, most of them attendants but also an extensive roster of indoor and outdoor employees necessary to keep such a large institution functioning smoothly. Most of these people lived at the hospital, which included the main building, four smaller buildings for “refractory” and chronic patients, Bucke’s own brick residence where he lived with his family, lodges for the employees and a variety of workshops and farm buildings. The entire complex was on the scale of a modern suburban gated community. As became a monarch, Bucke’s manner sometimes was described as “imperious.” Sir William Osler, the famed medical theorist, remarked that in later years Bucke looked like “a venerable seer.” With his fulsome beard and imposing stature, he made a strong impression on everyone who came into contact with him.

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Bucke was an enthusiastic proponent of humane treatment. He removed all mechanical restraints from the London institution and discontinued the use of alcohol, which was widely used to pacify mental patients. He introduced female attendants to the male wards (widows only; single women were not thought ready for the scandalous sights they might see there) with the hope that it would encourage the men to behave civilly to the women and to each other. Most notably, he initiated an “open door policy,” allowing most patients the freedom to wander at will around the buildings and the grounds. The object of treatment is the rehumanization of the patient, he wrote. Not only were patients granted freedom of movement, the asylum itself opened its doors to outsiders. “The asylum is full from morning to night of people to see friends and people to see through the institution,” Bucke observed approvingly. In his view, members of the public had a distorted idea of the asylum, viewing it, he once wrote, as “an immense prison, full of all sorts of horrors.” By keeping the door open he hoped to dispel the stigma attached to the institution, to its inhabitants and not incidentally to the profession of asylum keeper.

For all his reforming zeal, Bucke was notorious, even in his own day, for carrying out surgical procedures that seem more barbaric than humane. In the nineteenth century madness was considered to have many causes, but chief among them was any form of illicit sexual activity. Masturbation, for instance. As much as one half of all mental illness was attributed to “the solitary vice,” which was thought to weaken the body and make it susceptible to collapse. Shortly after he took over as medical superintendent in London, Bucke began inserting a length of silver wire through the foreskins of the most incorrigible male masturbators. In all he “wired” twenty-one patients before abandoning the practice as ineffective. “There are no cases given in which the habit was arrested and no improvement took place,” he was forced to admit. But instead of abandoning the link between sex organs and madness, Bucke switched his attentions to his female patients.

 

It was widely accepted that many if not most of the mental maladies afflicting women were attributable to their reproductive systems. The regular life changes that women experienced—menstruation, childbirth, menopause—were all thought to drain the vitality, not to mention the blood, necessary to maintain mental stability. During these episodes, women were susceptible to mood changes, morbid thoughts and extreme behaviour: susceptible, in other words, to losing their minds. A catchall diagnosis for this loss of control over the emotions was hysteria, a term derived from the Greek word for uterus. It was treated with a variety of pills, tonics and rest cures, but some doctors, viewing hysteria as a stepping stone to full-on mania, chose to experiment with more dramatic methods, and Bucke was among them. He began by authorizing the asylum surgeon, Dr. A.T. Hobbs, to perform uterine surgery on a patient known as SQ. When SQ recovered, not just physically but mentally as well, Bucke and Hobbs began operating on female inmates on a regular basis. Between 1895 and the beginning of 1901, when Hobbs left the hospital, more than two hundred operations took place to remove diseased ovaries and repair other abnormalities of the reproductive organs. Bucke was careful to point out that operations were intended only to relieve physical problems, but he was convinced that there was a connection between gynecological health and mental health, and he reported that over 60 percent of the women who had been operated on showed some mental improvement.

Wendy Mitchinson, the historian who has paid most attention to the operations, has questioned this success rate. She suggests that candidates who were chosen for surgery were patients who were most likely to recover their mental health regardless, and concludes that the evidence that surgical intervention had a positive impact on mental recovery is doubtful. Most medical opinion at the time rejected such a dramatic form of treatment. With the exception of Dr. Ernest Hall, who operated on twelve female inmates at the BC Provincial Asylum, no other Canadian doctor followed Bucke’s lead. It would not be the last time, however, that doctors used patients in mental hospitals as guinea pigs in experimental surgical procedures—one has only to think of lobotomies, insulin comas, electroshock therapy—and it remains a stain on Bucke’s reputation that he was such an enthusiastic proponent of what one of his colleagues called the “mutilation of helpless lunatics.”

Part of what motivated Maurice Bucke may have been desperation. By the end of the nineteenth century it had become obvious that moral treatment and the asylum were not the silver bullets an earlier generation of reformers had believed they were. Plagued by economy-minded legislators, ill-trained staff and overcrowded facilities, asylums abandoned the high ideals of their founders. Within a few years of being established, their halls were overflowing with long-term patients—the so-called chronics—for whom little hope of cure existed, and the asylums had become much like the prisons they had replaced. Bucke himself was forced to the conclusion that “insanity is essentially an incurable disease.” Perhaps he turned to sexual surgery out of frustration that more conventional treatments were having no effect.

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THAT OUR EYES SHOULD BE OPENED

Growing impatient with the routines of asylum administration and frustrated at the lack of therapeutic success, Bucke increasingly sought fulfillment in the work and eventually in a friendship with Walt Whitman. A friend introduced Bucke to Whitman’s epic and—to many—scandalous collection of poems, Leaves of Grass, in 1867, and Bucke had been reading Whitman the night of his transcendent experience in London, but the two men did not meet until the summer of 1877. Bucke was visiting Philadelphia on medical business and took the opportunity to cross the Delaware River to Camden, New Jersey, where Whitman was living in an upstairs room in a house occupied by his brother George and his family. This encounter only lasted a few minutes, but for Bucke it turned out to be the third great turning point of his life. “If I tried to say how much he impressed me you would probably put it down to exaggeration,” Bucke wrote to a friend, recognizing that he sounded like a star-struck teenager. “He is an average man magnified to the dimensions of a God…” Bucke compared his meeting with Whitman to falling in love and then again to a “spiritual intoxication.” “I not only felt deeply in an indescribable way towards him, but I think that the short interview has altered my attitude of my normal nature to everything—I feel differently, I feel more than I did before.” In an instant, Bucke had joined the adoring cult of apostles who believed in Whitman’s genius and devoted their own lives to spreading the word about it. He credited his new friendship with curing his panic attacks, and photographs suggest that he went so far as to model his own appearance on Whitman’s: he soon cultivated a fulsome beard that covered his chest and a mane of swept-back hair that curled over his shirt collar.

For his part, Whitman seems to have been of two minds about Bucke. No doubt he was fond of him and respected his medical skills, but he also found the hero-worship a bit too zealous, the enthusiasm a bit extreme. “There are times,” he wrote to a friend, “when [Bucke’s] boisterous vehemence gets on my nerves.” But they were friendly enough that Whitman journeyed to London, Ontario, in the summer of 1880 and stayed at the asylum with Bucke and his family for several weeks. The two men travelled together down the St. Lawrence River to Quebec, where they visited Montreal, Quebec City and the Saguenay. Bucke’s wife Jessie was less enthusiastic about her husband’s new friend. She feared that Whitman’s notoriety as a free thinker would do no good for the career of a prominent medical doctor. (These events are the focus of a 1990 movie, Beautiful Dreamers, starring Colm Feore as Bucke and Rip Torn as Whitman. While it gets many of Bucke’s biographical details wrong, the film nicely conveys the influence Whitman had on Bucke’s thinking and the unsettling effect he might have had on pious nineteenth-century Ontario society.)

 

Whatever his wife’s reservations, Bucke’s friendship with Whitman deepened during the London visit. He soon conceived the idea of writing the poet’s biography, and for the next couple of years the two men collaborated on the project. (It is unusual to co-author one’s own biography, but Whitman wanted to be involved, in part to restrain Bucke’s tendency to identify Whitman’s work with his own sweeping vision of religious transcendence.) After the book, Walt Whitman, appeared in 1883, contact between the two became less frequent.

Then, five years later, Whitman suffered a series of strokes and Bucke, who happened to be in Philadelphia at the time, supervised his recovery. Whitman was convinced that Bucke had saved his life and the relationship became close once again. They exchanged letters several times a week and Bucke frequently visited Camden, where Whitman by this time occupied his own small house and was cared for by a live-in housekeeper. When Whitman died, in 1892, Bucke was one of five speakers at the cemetery; the others—two lawyers, an academic and a poet—were friends of Whitman from Philadelphia and Camden. “The Christ is dead!” Bucke wrote in a letter. “Again we have buried the Christ!” As one of Whitman’s literary executors, he devoted the remainder of his own life to solidifying his friend’s position in American letters. He had found a calling that surpassed his professional interests and allowed him to proselytize for the spiritual ideas he would articulate in his magnum opus, Cosmic Consciousness.

Bucke saw in Whitman the living exemplar of his evolutionary theories, a messiah, a prophet, a spiritually enlightened being who dwelt on a higher plane than other mere mortals. “Walt Whitman is the best, most perfect, example the world has so far had of the Cosmic Sense,” he wrote in Cosmic Consciousness. He identified what was for him Whitman’s central teaching: “that the commonplace is the grandest of all things, that the exceptional in any line is no finer, better or more beautiful than the usual, and that what is really wanting is not that we should possess something we have not at present, but that our eyes should be opened to see and our hearts to feel what we all have.” For Bucke, this made Whitman the first person to fully integrate a knowledge of the transcendent with the everyday self; to integrate the sacred and the profane, the spirit with the flesh. He possessed, thought Bucke, a truer understanding of man’s spiritual nature than the Buddha, or Saint Paul or even Christ himself.

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Maurice Bucke died late in the evening of February 19, 1902. He had just returned from a dinner party with friends. Stepping outside to view the clear night sky, he fell and suffered a fatal head injury. His wife and son heard him collapse onto the front porch. He did not recover consciousness.

Bucke expected that posterity would remember him as the defender/explainer of Walt Whitman, or perhaps as a progressive asylum reformer. In fact, the legacy for which he is best known turned out to be Cosmic Consciousness, probably the most influential book on religion written by a Canadian. Cited approvingly by both the American religious scholar William James and the Russian metaphysician P.D. Ouspensky, it has been in print ever since its publication. It was immediately taken up by theosophists and other adherents of non-mainstream religious thought. For example, Mackenzie King kept a copy of the 1926 edition in his library, and Cosmic Consciousness was an important influence on the artist and theosophist Lawren Harris, who called it “the greatest book by a Canadian.” Many of his professional colleagues thought Bucke’s foray into religious speculation a bit eccentric. However, successive generations of readers of Cosmic Consciousness have continued to discover in itif not an actual blueprint for human evolution, at least an affirmation of the transformative power of mystical experience. And that is a message that never loses its timeliness.

 


 

Daniel Francis is the author of two dozen books and is currently at work on a history of the Canadian mental hospital. Read more of his work at geist.com and danielfrancis.ca.

Special thanks to the City of Vancouver Cultural Services for their support of this project.

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