The Bipolar family saga of the French poet and undisputed lord of darkness, Maurice Rollinat.
The life of the French poet Maurice Rollinat (1846-1903) was destined for darkness. He sprang from a deep well of it. Recent research into psychiatry reveals a clear link between bipolar “and creativity, especially among poets”. A 2014 study by Dr. Christian Moreau actually uses Rollinat’s family as a case study to illustrate the relationship between Bipolar illness and creativity. The study says that Bipolar, “is not only a source of disease or suffering, but can also be a source of great creativity as evidenced by numerous scientific publications, and the lives of many remarkable artists”.
Moreau’s study was made possible by the novelist and political activist, Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin (whose male nom de plume was George Sand) and her prolific correspondence with the Rollinat family. Sand was one the most celebrated writers and controversial personalities of nineteenth-century France; as famous for her bohemian lifestyle as for her written work.
In Maurice Rollinats’ famly, depression, suicide and the asylum go back generations. His elder brother Emile was a second lieutenant in Emperor Napoleon III’s Army of the Rhine. Emile fought in the Battle of Sedan of 1870 where the French were defeated and Napoleon III was captured. With the surrender, the French troops, including Emile, signed a commitment never to take up arms against Germany. Almost immediately, he broke his promise and fought with Le Bataillon des Francs Tireurs de la Seine against the Germans during the Siege of Paris. At the end of the seige his broken promise not to bear arms against the enemy was seen as a breach of his honour by his regiment who imprisoned him at Mazas, only releasing him after a vote by an investigative council aquitted him by four votes to one.
On Feb. 2nd 1871, in a letter to George Sand, Emile wrote of his political ambitions, “I am a candidate for the National Assembly in the department of Indre (Châteauroux) who have already twice named my good father, and have certainly not lost the memory of his name.” He enclosed the copy and a design for his election poster as well as a photograph of himself to accompany it.
Two months later, on April 4th Maurice too writes to George Sand that, “After the death of our dear Father, a horrible event has brought us the last blow: Emile is suffering from mental alienation. This dear boy, initially so full of sweetness and charm, no longer inspires us and is today a painful terror! We are forced to take the most poignant measure for a family…”, Maurice added that, “…in his more violent tips of delirium he always pronounced your name with respect enthusiasm: this morning again, he was leaving, he said, to pay a visit to Naugeat” ! Emile had admitted himself as a voluntary patient to l’Asile de Naugeat (Naugeat Asylum) in the town he was hoping to run for election to the National Assembly just 2 months before.
This, says Dr. Moreau, is the “alternating depression and depression exaltation” of Bipolar which in the Rollinat family, “manifested itself with varying intensity in several family members, over several generations, as is generally the rule”.
Emile was released from Naugeat Asylum into the care of his mother, Isaure Didion-Rollinat on July 10th 1871. He’d been in the asylum for just over 2 months.
On 2nd Jan. 1872 Emiles’ mother wrote to George Sand. “Maurice has probably kept you informed of the happy recovery of our dear Emile, with whom I spent three months in the countryside following his frightful fever”, he’d returned to his regiment she said, “but he did not recover his spirit! I rely heavily on the neighborhood of his brother, who will visit him from time to time at Fort Nogent-sur-Marne, his new home.”
By August 3, 1872 Emile had been promoted to Lieutenant to the 82nd Infantry Regiment of the French army. “Our dear Emile has finally returned to calm.”, gushed Emiles’ mother Isaure to George Sands, “He is a lieutenant at La Rochelle”. On 24th July and 2 years after leaving the asylum, Emile married Pauline Marie Osouf. Then during what his mother called “a new crisis of madness”, Emile committed suicide.
In 1834, over 40 years before Emiles’ death his lawyer father, François had also written to his friend George Sand: “I am always sad and suffering like you, my friend”, he said, “there are some moments when I lose resignation and patience with madness; these terrible crises of the soul in which I am struggling like a damned, weary and overwhelm me: I do not know how to suffer anymore. As well, my friend, my life is a life of exhaustion, of feverish and convulsive energy. When will all this end?”
François again, two years later on Feb 2nd 1836; “…I am overwhelmed, exhausted, annihilated, or rather I no longer live, I am already dead. It’s not exaggeration, it is unfortunately only too true, and certainly the life that I leads here, the ignoble worries that pursue me everywhere and leave me do not breathe, all this does little to kill the little energy I have left…I will soon have a machine that has lost its movement its spring, and his moral death that threatens me, I feel that a horrible fatality drives me there every day.”
“What do you have, old man?”, George Sands wrote back 2 days later, “Do you lack courage? Did anything happen to you? What is worse than ordinary life? Why are you so dismayed and dejected? Your letter worries me a lot. But what about you? You are mad with your moral death! Men like you are not called to such an end.”
“Where does this horrible spleen come from, this universal disgust of all things except you?” replied François, “Well, I do not know, I only feel that it exists…there is a term to everything, and yet for a long time, always, that’s what despairs me.”
Then there’s a break. The lull when depression becomes “depression exaltation”.
A year later in 1837 and François’s black dog returned looming large: “I would need Hercules at this moment not to succumb under the burden that crushes me, and never have I been weaker, more stripped of all feeling and all energy. When will all this end? When will I be able to sleep five feet under the ground? May the devil take life and the whole shop.”
On April 11, 1842, François married Isaure Didion. He was elected to the National Assembly of the Indre, from April 23, 1848 (he served until 1851). Nevertheless, he’s not happy and writing to George Sand again on 14th June 1848: “I am hugely sad, what I’ve seen this three months made me a hundred times more misanthropic than I was.”
François Rollinat died, age 61, in Châteauroux on August 13, 1867. It’s not known how he died. In his last letter to George Sand, François mentioned no health problems. Sand, in a letter to Gustave Flaubert on August 18, 1867, wrote: “I am in despair. I lost suddenly and without knowing it Rollinat, an angel of kindness, courage and dedication”. The death of François Rollinat was sudden and surprised his contemporaries. François was a “Man of imagination and feeling, he is also an artist like his father, but a more serious philosopher.” remembered Sand in her book The Story of My Life.
In Dr. Moreau’s study there’s a flow chart that visualises the ebb and flow of the angst in François’s regular letters to George Sands across the last 3 years of his life. It’s a regular, uniform wave. It goes up when he’s depressed and down when he’s in “depression exaltation”. He dies when the next wave is clearly due.
François’s brother, Octavie Rollinat (1816-1866) died in a psychiatric asylum. Of another brother, Charles, François wrote to George Sands of “a terrible scene that took place between one of my brothers and me, a suicide attempt that I happily prevented..” His piano teacher sister Octavia died in Limoge Asylum on November 11, 1866 at 49 years old.
George Sand’s cross-dressing was more a practical decision than a sociallly subversive act. It simply made sense to her to have the same freedom of movement in her clothing as a man.“on the Paris pavement I was like a boat on ice.”, she explained, “My delicate shoes cracked open in two days, my pattens sent me spilling, and I always forgot to lift my dress. I was muddy, tired and runny-nosed, and I saw my clothes go to rack and ruin with alarming rapidity. I can’t convey how much my boots delight me…with those steel-tipped heels I was solid on the sidewalk at last. I dashed back and forth across Paris and felt I was going around the world. My clothes were weatherproof too. I was out and about in all weathers, came home at all hours, was in the pits of all theatres”.
And then there’s François’s father, grandfather to Maurice, Jean-Baptiste Rollinat (1775-1839). George Sand first met Jean Baptiste (whilst dressed as a man) at the French Theatre in Paris, at the premiere of The Queen of Spain by Latouche. She described him as “Artist from head to foot, a man of feeling and imagination, crazy poetry, very good, passionate, prodigal. Earnestly earning a fortune for his 12 children…idolizing them, spoiling them and forgetting them in front of the gaming table, where, winning and losing in turn, he left with his life. It was impossible to see a younger and more lively old man drinking, drunk singing and ridiculous, because he had a chaste spirit and a naive heart; enthusiastic about all things art, endowed with a prodigious memory and of exquisite taste…” He was creative, a poet and according to Dr Moreau a “Bipolarité probable” too.
And now we come to Maurice. He knew. In April 1871, after his brother Emile was interred in the local asylum at Naugeat he wrote of “This atmosphere of unmatched woe where the Rollinat seem sentenced to live by atrocious fatality”
On leaving school Maurice became a religious cleric in his hometown of Chateauroux and then in Orleans, followed by a spell as a clerk at city hall – a position wrangled for him by Sand and Emmanuel Arago, a politician. He had literary ambitions and dreamed of being published. Sand encouraged him. “Well my child, here’s what I would do if I were a poet”, Sand told him in 1874, “…a collection of verses for children”. “…do what you want with my advice,” she added, “I believe it good”.
Two years later, in 1876, Maurice was in Paris, his pen spewing poetry that conjured the obsessed phantasmagoric images of death and acute unpleasantness. Sands tried to open the curtain and let some light in, “You have to open your eyes wide and see the beautiful, the pretty, the mediocre as you see the ugly, the sad and the weird, you have to see everything and feel everything.”, she wrote. He began to see his poems published in journals, in collections of poetry and in 1877 he self published his first collection Dans les Brandes.
On January 19, 1878, the 32 year old Maurice married 23 year old Marie Sérullaz. Marie was an educated daughter of a bourgeoisie family, she could paint and play piano. Her parents paid for their honeymoon in Italy, Maurices’ first and only trip overseas.
On his return to Paris, Maurice channeled his waves of angst and their heights crested and broke in his writing. He became a disciple of Baudelaire and a member of the literary group Hydropathes (“those afraid of water”), an anti-church circle with ties to the decadent literary movement. His circle was a milieu of artists, performers and writers, he frequented salons and cafes. A combination of this bohemian Parisian night life and a rumoured affair with poet Marie Krysinska, whose salon he frequented, led to a separation from his wife, Marie. Rollinat immediately regretted this, promised to mend his ways. They tried again but his nightly wanderings led to a final split and they divorced in 1879.
The darkness in his work wasn’t contrived. It was real and it was powerful to behold. Rollinat’s friend, the author Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, wrote that “Rollinat might be Baudelaires’ superior in the sincerity and depth of diabolism.” In the 1880s, he was performing poetry, 3 or 4 nights a week at a new venue, an absinthe-soaked club in the Montmartre district of Paris called Le Chat Noir. Maurice was the first real star of the world’s first cabaret. His act attracted celebrities such as Oscar Wilde and Leconte de Lisle and artists jostled to paint the portrait of this peculiar, gaunt, pale apparition.
Rollinat didn’t simply read poetry, he set poems to piano accompaniment and he was an extraordinary success as a pianist and singer.
The poet’s friend and fellow Hydrophobe, Edmond Haraucourt, brings home for us the visceral, in-your-face reality of a Rollinat performance: “In his habitué of hell escaped from Dante or the Kingdom of Darkness, everything reveals the agony of an obsession: his pale mask with clean finely-drawn features framed in the halo of a dark mane which shook as if buffeted repeatedly by fitful shudders, his electrifying pupils, his contorted mouth with which he frightened even himself…He sat before the commonplace piano, beneath his fingers, it became a lyre from another world, he twisted round and looked at you as he sang: the excruciating fear that filled him flowed forth in magnetic emanations which entered into you, and the most immoderate sceptics and jesters, when their eyes had encountered his, forgot for a whole evening how to laugh, and took home with them the terrors of a mysterious beyond…”
“This psychic contagion worked all the better for not being deliberate; far from playing with a force, he was as much a plaything as the rest of the company. It only overpowered others so effectively because it possessed him too, and completely so; a demon dwelt in him to which he was perpetually a prey, and he carried it through the city, through the fields, always, like an errant Prometheus sauntering with his internal eagle and setting men’s hair on end when he happened to raise his cloak and let them glimpse the drama of his wound.”
In 1883 Rollinat published Les Névroses, a collection of carnal poetry which cemented his reputation. It was both highly acclaimed and denigrated by critics some of whom accused Rollinat of plagiarising Poe and Baudelaire. Rollinat was at the height of his popularity but couldn’t bear the inevitable jealousy, questioning and satire that came with success and stopped performing in public.
On August 8 1883, Rollinat locked the door to his apartment on rue Oudinot and left Paris with the actress Cécile Pouettre. They travelled 350 kilometres to Puy-Guillon, in the municipality of Fresselines for the winter. In March 1884, the couple moved to a remote peasant property on the edge of the nearby village of Pouge. The couple lived in seclusion in Pouge for almost twenty years. They recieved visitors from Paris including the painter Claude Monet who stayed from February to May of 1889 painting 23 canvases there. In 1893, Rollinat took the advice George Sand had given him in 1874. He wrote a children’s book, The Book of Nature which, with the approval of the Minister of Public Instruction was introduced in schools all over France.