Thursday, November 16, 2006

Raspe Syndrome

I belong to this quirky group of docs that gets together once a month --- we have a few adult beverages and a nice dinner, and then each evening two of us give a talk. The talks have to be 10 minutes long, with no notes or visual aids (I said it was quirky). My turn comes around every two years or so --- I posted one of the talks I gave a while back here. Anyway, a lot of my time the past few weeks has been spent trying to put together something that I thought would be entertaining for a group of us stuffed shirt physicians --- and then editing and re-editing and re-editing.....and finally memorizing the thing. Anyways, here was last night's talk (I'll try to add some hyperlinks when I catch up with sleep):

It’s the election season, so I thought tonight it would be appropriate to tell a story about a liar --- a liar who’s sheer talent for misrepresentation is matched only by his total obscurity today. But this is a story that also provides the background for a clinical scenario well known to us in practice today. This is the story of a man named Rudolf Erich Raspe.

Raspe was born in Hanover in 1737, the son of a Prussian Lady of the Junker family and a respectable accountant. He grew up in the orbit of minor nobilities, influenced by the prestige of the English court --- King George II, as you may remember, was a dual monarch for both England and Germany.

At 18, Raspe entered the University at Göttingen, what is felt to be the “cradle of German Romanticism.” It had been founded in the year of his birth by the former Hanoverian minister in London, giving him another taste of English culture. Intelligent and eager to make his mark on the academic world, he had a particular aptitude for science and a gifted way with words and languages.

Clever though he was, the young Rudolf soon discovered that keeping pace with the lesser nobles crowding the university scene was more than his meager allowance would cover, and he quickly accumulated what he termed “debts contracted out of zeal for learning and youthful frivolity.” This was a problem that was to be revisited upon young Mr. Raspe with the frequency, certainty and pain of menstrual cramps throughout his adult life. To deal with these troubles, Raspe just as quickly learned the art of stretching the truth much farther than he could stretch his nearly empty wallet.

Raspe was not, however, without talents, with interests ranging from science to mathematics to antiquities and art. To his good fortune, he was able to impress the renowned mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz enough to be a contributor to one of Leibniz’s last great publications in 1762. The following year brought acclaim for his own publication of an ambitious work on volcanic geology, and, if it wasn’t for his later activities, Raspe may well have been remembered favorably for this substantial production, which became a standard text for the next half-century.

Raspe had already mastered several languages, and not being content to focus his attentions on science, he published a dissertation on a series of Gaelic poems. His versatility and cleverness was certainly noted, and he was dubbed the “Puer Septum Artium,” or the boy enveloped by the arts, by his colleagues. Such was their esteem that Raspe was given the heady responsibility of editing and publishing Leibniz’s posthumous papers --- quite a feather in his cap, as Leibniz was universally felt to be the most distinguished German of the previous generation. With such acclaim, Raspe began to wallow in the attention of his learned friends so much that he developed an appetite for that attention for the remainder of his life.

Soon he was named the Secretary of the State Library of Hanover. His star was rising, but not fast enough to keep up with his expenses, or with his arrogance. Raspe made the rounds of balls, parties, and operas --- and in so doing squandered his inconsequential income. And so he lied to protect his reputation – he lied to friends, he lied to acquaintances, and he certainly lied to his many creditors, somehow concocting stories that were believable enough to avoid public discovery of the fact that he nearly always teetered on bankruptcy. Not content to simply fib a little about his finances, he also publicly dated his cousin’s wife, whom he described as “beautiful” and – to put it delicately, “most agreeable.” The majority of his time, however, was spent in dogged pursuit of his main goal of establishing an estimable international scientific reputation --- above all, he desired recognition and attention.

It wasn't long before he was given another choice position, being appointed Councillor, Professor of Antiquity, and “Keeper of the Collections” of Frederick II, the Count of Hesse-Cassel. Frederick possessed such a vast collection of antiquities and art that it had never been catalogued, and was therefore relatively useless. The university to which Raspe had been appointed was also more ornamental than it was useful, having more professors than pupils, and therefore generating little income.

Such a modest position meant only a modest salary increase --- it was certainly welcome, but by this time not in the same stratosphere as the money he owed. And so, he spun yarns with the skill of a politician, playing one creditor off another, borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. Attempting to ignore his financial woes, Raspe tore into the task of cataloguing the vast and quite valuable collection at hand --- and as a result was able to squeeze the count for a cash advance upon its completion. Once again, the money was not enough, as by this point he owed about three years of his salary to various moneylenders.

Despite, or perhaps because of, his money troubles, Raspe was hardly lazy --- but much of his energy was spent ensuring the continued attention that he desperately coveted. Unfortunately, this was costing him not only time but also money, as sending correspondence to colleagues in order to maintain his European reputation was costing him more than a tenth of his salary in postage alone. But he was able to cultivate such a small army of learned acquaintances in doing so that he was elected to the Royal Society of London in 1769. For Raspe, this was the ultimate triumph, and should have ensured his standing in the social and scientific communities for years to come.

But. But. But by now the wheels were coming off. The accolades he had been handed did not fill his wallet or soothe the appetite of his creditors, and so Raspe turned to that most ancient form of income generation --- marriage. Artfully avoiding his cash-strapped situation, he wed the 18 year old daughter of a wealthy Berlin physician. However, the hefty dowry that came with the lovely young thing took up residence only temporarily in his pockets, being quickly doled out to those creditors who hounded him now on a nearly daily basis.

Over the next few years, his debts grew exponetially, and his creditors became more numerous and more dangerous, to the point where they threatened him with a bankruptcy that was sure to destroy his carefully guarded reputation. Even further loans from his now suspicious father-in-law were not enough. But Raspe was crafty enough to weave carefully misleading stories, prevaricate like an orthopedic surgeon on a History and Physical, exaggerate like a Texan, and bald-face lie his way out of trouble like a United HealthCare CEO. But the hole he had dug only grew deeper.

Desperate for a way out of this mess, Raspe grasped the opportunity to get out of Germany, taking a position in Venice. To do so, he lied yet again. He planted his unknowing wife in Berlin and raced out of town, praying his creditors would not follow him. But there was one simple problem --- what was he to do with the keys to Frederick’s valuable collection, which he himself had painstakingly catalogued, and from which he had been steadily embezzling for several years? His own meticulous accounting of Frederick’s vast treasure trove was the noose that would be used to hang him.

Caught red-handed, he confessed, but mercy was not at hand --- and so he fled to England to save his hide. Surely, he thought, there he would still be welcomed as an esteemed member of the Royal Society. However, as soon as word of his character made its way across the Channel, he was unceremoniously ejected, a dishonor handed out only a handful of times in the history of the Royal Society.

Rudolf Raspe was, according to his arrest warrant, a middle-aged, dumpy, balding, deceitful flop of a man, now far removed from his aspirations of scientific acclaim, shunned from polite society, soon to be divorced --- and he was absolutely flat busted broke. A less resourceful man may have slunk away and never be heard from again, but let’s give the man some credit.

Over the next few years, he was able to cobble together a living, particularly by applying his aptitude for science in the Scottish mining industry. His gift for languages served him well in translating scientific articles from the continent, and he wrote several of his own ---- always with an eye to regaining some modest degree of respectability. Never to be trusted, however, Raspe was involved in an embezzlement scheme a few years before his barely acknowledged death in 1794 of Scarlet fever. He died as a 56 year old man who started life full of cleverness, wit and promise, ending obscurely as a social pariah who had taken dishonesty to levels unheard of until Bill Clinton uttered his wedding vows.

So what? Why should I bother talking about a liar, an embezzler, an unscrupulous prevaricator of no small proportion? Because there is something that Mr. Raspe produced in 1785 that survives to this day, a collection of stories that he published --- anonymously --- trying to make a little money during those cash-strapped years in Britain. Compared to the likes of Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels, this little book of outlandish tales full of sheer hyperbole took first England, and then Europe, by storm. Intended as a political barb aimed at his many German detractors, they gained a wide audience as a well-read set of tall tales.

These stories, like America’s Paul Bunyan tales, described the outlandish and impossible exploits of one Karl Friedrich Hieronymus who, unlike Paul Bunyan, was a real man and very much alive at the time. Karl Friedrich had been a distinguished soldier, and was a warm host to his guests at his estate upon retirement. He was well-known for entertaining his guests with straight-faced recitations of impossible to believe exploits. But Raspe’s stories went much further, describing such things as flights to the moon in a hot air balloon, daring military feats while riding a two-legged horse, and riding cannonballs shot across a battlefield. Perhaps the years of practice at weaving tall tales of his own came in handy as Raspe wrote this collection.

The book of stories was soon translated into German, and numerous successive editions were produced by a variety of authors and publishing houses all across Europe. They were most famously illustrated by the French artist Gustave Doré, who compared them favorably with the challenge of his most famous illustrations, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, and Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven.

But with the wide enjoyment of these entertaining stories, why did Raspe remain anonymous? Why did he not publicly stake his claim as their author? Why, to come back to the overriding theme of his life, did he lie? Quite simply, he still clung to the belief that somehow, some way, he could be welcomed back into the arms of the learned scientific community from which he had been so thoroughly ousted. And so, this man, who had built his life upon a series of falsehoods and deceits, would not, in fact could not, admit that he had written the most entertaining and fantastic series of lies ever published --- because in the final analysis, he craved the attention of the learned men of the Academy.

And what of Karl Freidrich? The poor man was still living when the book was published, and he made clear his displeasure at being singled out as the world’s greatest liar by everyone in Europe. It is said that he never again entertained his guests with the type of tall tales with which his name had so suddenly become synonymous.

Karl Freidrich Hieronymus, Baron von Münchhausen, died in 1797, a sad and bitter man, but his name lives on to this day --- because in 1951 a British psychiatrist named Richard Asher reached back to an old set of tall tales for a catchy name to apply to patients who fabricate elaborate stories of symptoms to gain medical attention. Given the origin of these stories and the attention so desperately sought by their author, I would say he could just as well have called it “Raspe Syndrome.”