AB’s ‘willed collapse’

In 1959, Anthony Burgess was teaching a class at Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien College in Brunei Town when he appeared to undergo some sort of personal crisis. He lay down on the floor and ‘let other agencies take over’, refusing to speak.

A description of the collapse appears in the 1960 novel The Doctor is Sick — German-language title Der Doktor ist übergeschnappt (1968); later Der Doktor ist defekt (1985) — when something of the kind happens to the character Edwin Spindrift, a doctor (of philosophy) working in Moulmein.

Edwin thought of…his…accident. A lecturer on linguistics in a college in Burma who had one day, quite without warning, fallen on the lecture-room floor while lecturing on linguistics. He had been talking about folk etymology (penthouseprimroseJerusalem artichoke) and then, quite suddenly, he had passed out. He came to to find concerned, flat, delicate-brown Burmese faces looking down on him, himself saying: ‘It’s really a question of assimilating the unknown to the known, you see, refusing to admit that a foreign word is really foreign.’ While he lay on the cool floor he could see quite clearly, on the fringe of the group that surrounded him, one or two students taking down his words in their notebooks. He said: ‘While we honour none but the horizontal one.’ That, too, was taken down.

Burgess writes in his autobiography:

I was teaching one morning when the end of my colonial career was signalled. The class was Form Four, the subject the Boston Tea Party; the fans were not working and it was rumoured that a female cobra was looking for her young in the corridor outside. At the end of the lesson I felt I had also come to the end of my tether. A great deal of tension had been building up — a dissatisfied wife, a libel action, Australians who called me a pommy bastard, a disordered liver, dyspepsia and dyspnoea which morning droplets of Axe oil did nothing to alleviate, a very large measure of simple frustration. I had done my best; I could do no more: let other agencies take over. I lay on the classroom floor and closed my eyes….There was prompt action. The principal, [L.A.] Bradshaw, appeared, and he summoned strong Malays. I was taken to the local hospital. I felt well enough now but maintained my passivity: passivity from now on would be the answer to everything….Lying down on the classroom floor had been an act of purgation or reconciliation or something.

I discuss the ‘collapse’, or ‘willed collapse’ as it might have been, in depth in the three-part video Burgess’s Borneo Breakdown (Part One below).

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