What constitutes a bad day for you? Chances are it doesn’t involve persecution by legions of demonic goblins invisible to all but one’s self, or opening the letterbox to find a letter from Lucifer, threatening to send even more of his hellish hordes if his conditions are not met.
Such were the daily travails of the delightfully named French writer Alexis-Vincent-Charles Berbiguier de Terre-Neuve du Thym, who died this day in 1851. He walked (cautiously, with one eye out for more farfadets, or goblins) the fine line between sanity and madness. The “demons” by which we may characterise our worst instincts, compulsions or addictions were, for Berbiguier, all too real.
“His whole world became ‘farfadérisé‘,” writes Peter Schulman in a study of French literary eccentrics, “if his umbrella broke, it was the farfadet’s fault; planets were aligned according to a ‘secte farfadéene‘.” They could impregnate a woman, push a cat off the roof, bedevil a priest. Berbiguier found temporary relief through the use of thyme, which had the same effect on the infernal visitors as garlic does on vampires. He hoped to cultivate a plot of land which would yield enough of the imp-repellent herb to see off all of Satan’s minions (hence the last part of his name “de Terre-Neuve du Thym“). In 1821 Berbiguier published a three-volume study of his tormentors, addressing it to the “emperors, kings, princes, sovereigns of the four corners of the world”.
Not surprisingly, Berbiguier was an object of fascination for his contemporaries. One of them suggested that his writings sprang from “the inevitable inaction of an organ of the brain…which touches on veneration, imitation, imagination or idealism, of gaiety and of causality. This organ is that of the wondrous. Berbiguier possesses it to a rather pronounced degree.” In short, a diagnosis at least as insane as anything that came from Berbiguier’s pen.
After his death, Berbiguier was enrolled into the motley ranks of cranks and oddballs who made up the “fou littéraires“, or literary fools who “disrupted the status-quo of their immediate circles and then disappeared into oblivion” as Schulman has it.