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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 3 page 07


Note that in "Nocturnal Confession" Nelligan employed the rondel form whose constricted rhyme scheme and repeat phrases intensify the sense of entrapment. To be tormented like that, and yet to execute one’s craft with skill, must be an extraordinary state to be in. Perhaps this art represented the last ounce of control Nelligan had remaining to him.

On the other hand, according to his friend Louis Dantin, there were occasions when verse flowed ready-made from Nelligan’s tongue, as if he were merely a mouthpiece.

The transition from functional to non-functional person came quickly. Nelligan’s expectation of making a career of poetry was a dream even more impractical in those days than it is now. He had been living off his family, but, with his dad hounding him to get a job, the tension at home was unbearable. He fled, taking refuge in the mansard at a fellow poet’s place. His mom went to roust him out of there, resulting in scenes in which Nelligan ended up hysterical. On one such occasion, he climbed a tree and seemed about to attempt to kill himself. His parents hauled him off to the St.-Benoît asylum.

Nelligan’s friends did not know where he had disappeared to. They eventually published a notice seeking news of his whereabouts.

Oddities have been noted about the Emile Nelligan case. For one, St. Benoît was not Montreal’s official mental hospital. Instead, the institution accommodated a range of sub-psychotic conditions such as epilepsy and senility and was also a place where the Church dumped priests afflicted with alcoholism and/or what was labelled déviance sexuelle — sexual deviation. Modern story-spinners have had a field day with that. Furthermore, after leaving Emile at St. Benoît, his parents look like they wanted no part of him: his mother, who lived till 1913, visited him just once, and his father, who lived to 1924, never visited at all.

The diagnosis from the doctors who admitted Nelligan to St. Benoît was schizophrenia. The specific terms they employed, drawn from the science of the day, pointed to genetic and neurological causes for the disease. Their initial approach was to separate Nelligan from all excitements. Since we know that even in later years visits from friends could stimulate nervous crises in Nelligan, the possibility that his parents stayed away for fear of provoking such crises is at least worth mention.