The Mad Reader

When Fiction becomes Reality

Carlos Fuentes, in his introduction to a 1999 re-publication of The Adventures of Don Quixote, points out the striking resemblance between the Spanish words for reading (lectura) and madness (locura). In the classic work by Miguel Cervantes, an otherwise sane man is driven to the insanity of his own overly stimulated imagination upon reading old stories of knights and chivalry. Thinking he is a knight, he "arms" himself to go out on his own "quest" in honor of his "Lady Dulcinea." The reality beyond his own imagination shows an entirely different picture. The otherwise comical tale ends in a sad note when a few others indulge his senses, leaving nothing for him to imagine anymore.

One does not have to be a scholar to realize that Erik, according to original story by Leroux, is a prodigy. He is fluent in quite a few languages. He is such a master magician that his tricks appear to border on sorcery. He plays an assortment of musical instruments flawlessly. He is also an excellent master architect. It does not end there, but I hope you get the point. Once he practically buried himself alive in the catacombs of the Opera House, however, I am of the belief that he became a victim of his own overly active mind.

As a recluse with little or no worry of intruders, Erik has the freedom to pursue his wildest dreams in his house on the lake. He has his music, his books, his poetry, anything he wants to study. I would not be suprised if he is also involved in necromancy. He is a wizard at heart, and as a wizard, craves always to know and to learn more.

In Murder at the Met by David Black, the detectives investigating the murder of a young violinist are baffled by the behavior of the other performers. They treat this real death as just something to step around to get to the "reality" of their performances. There is the saying about life imitating art and art imitating life. It would not suprise me if Erik became so engrossed in his stories below the catacombs, that they became his reality.

Erik's manner of speech is chock full of allusions to stories, classical and contemporary. Erik refers to the water in the catacombs around his house as his river Styx. When Christine rips off his mask, he remarks (sarcastically, I presume) that he is a regular Don Juan. Later on, Christine remarks that she is curious about something to which he retorts, "I do not like curious women. Remember the story of Blue-beard and be careful." It is as though Erik cannot communicate without an allusion to some story, poem, or song.

During the early days of the Paris Opera House, the legendary story of Faust had been set to an operatic musical score by Gounod and found its way to the new opera house in Paris. In this tale, the aging Dr. Faust is about to end his life in despair. In his endless quest for knowledge, life no longer holds mystery and awe for him. He has mastered many skills but he feels empty and alone. There is no magic anymore and he is weary of this futile quest to bring magic to life. He then hears young people laughing outside of his window and wants to return to his own youth, when he could laugh and enjoy life like these young people are now. Mephistopheles appears and tempts Faust into a contract whereby Faust gets back his youth and the love of a young woman, Marguerite, in exchange for his soul.

With Faust's replenished youth also comes the replenished foolishness of youth. He seduces Marguerite, then abandons her. Things go from bad to worse for Marguerite, as she is so far driven into madness that she dies in prison after killing the child she conceived by him. This was during the days of the French Guiana, a prison colony in South America. The majority of women inmates had been found guilty of infanticide. In Kay's novel and in the Kopit teleplay, Christine bears a remarkable resemblance to Erik's mother. In Kay's work, his mother is cruel but in Kopit's work, she is loving. It makes me wonder if perhaps she suffered from what was later diagnosed as Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. Leroux had originally conceived Erik as suffering congenital porphyria and I wonder if his mother aggravated his condition for pity and attention, giving him some bizarre, confused ideas about pity and love. (I've been watching way too much Dr. Phil!)

During this same period of time, the classic fairy tale Beauty and the Beast develops a new twist in which time is crucial. If Belle cannot truly love the Prince by a certain set time, he is forever condemned to live as a Beast.

It would not suprise me if Erik, as "the mad reader," believes these stories, and others, to be about him and his love for the young Christine Daaé. He has his freedom to master many disciplines, but her innocence and youth make him realize the emptiness of his own soul. Learning of her emotional needs and vulnerabilities, he spends the next three months impersonating an angel while giving her singing lessons through her dressing room mirror. (While some of Erik's time frames vary, I think the principle remains the same.) He literally believes Christine's love will save him.

Did Erik make a pact with the devil in the spirit of the legendary Faust? Does he at least think he did? In his longing to bring magic to life and to be freed of his own perceived curse, did he come to believe that Christine's love would actually cure him?

In the movie starring Robert Englund, this idea is given a more "literal" approach. Erik Destler has sold his soul to the devil and can only be loved for his music. He now has physical immortality and a host of unusual powers (an obvious example during the street fighting scene).

I imagine it is a more psychological issue that has subtle beginnings but works its way into something uncontrollable, much like the nostalgic A Double Life starring Ronald Coleman. I think, in this respect, it was played out well in the lesser-known Phantom movie with Maximillian Schell and Jane Seymour, except the Phantom believes he is living a dark twist to one story in the Orpheus legend while his diva is taunted by the Mephistopheles demon he has become to her. In the final scene of that movie, a full opera house watches Marguerite's torment by the demons as Maria looks about in fear of her stalker. Marguerite on stage hears the voices of demons call her name while Maria hears the Phantom call her name.

In all I have read of Mephistopheles, the famed devil is in control, always in control, yet refers to himself as a humble servant. It reminds me of how Erik closes his Phantom notes as "Your humble and obedient servant" after listing his demands that must be met or suffer his wrath. Erik had already shown Christine two small bronze figurines in miniature ebony caskets: one shaped like a scorpion and one like a locust. He commanded her to make her choice by eleven o'clock on the third night. If Christine turned the scorpion, she would live with him as his bride. If she turned the locust, she would not marry him but with dire consequences for everyone involved. The opera house, filled with an unsuspecting group of performers and their audience, would explode. In those catacombs were barrels of gunpowder from the days of the Communist renegades. Erik had these figurines wired so that the locust would ignite the gunpowder, the scorpion would flood them. According to some religious texts, the scorpion is a symbol of fertility and the locust of hellfire.

When the daroga is trapped in Erik's torture chamber, he can hear moans of despair and terrible lamentation from outside. At first, he thinks the moans are coming from Christine while Erik taunts her. In time, he realizes that they are coming from Erik himself! The picture races through his mind of Christine looking at Erik in horror with Erik at her knees, trapped in his own horror as he cried and wailed for Christine to rescue him with her love. He begs her, promising to be or to do whatever she wants, if she would just love him.

Christine, at long last, agrees to be his bride. In an ironic twist, it all collapses from there. Oh, Erik enjoys his "normal" life for a short time. Then Christine makes a small gesture that makes everything fall for him like an old tower with a broken foundation and a weak frame: she turns her head ever so slightly so that he can kiss her on the forehead. Christine becomes, as he describes it, his living bride versus his dead wife.

Like Don Quixote, Erik no longer has anything to imagine. The fantasy is gone and reality has kicked in. Like Don Quixote, Erik dies shortly thereafter.

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