Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Is Genius a Disease? article in The Literary Digest 1895

IS GENIUS A DISEASE? article in The Literary Digest 1895

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IT was Moreau de Tours who formulated the sentence: “Le genie est une neurose" [Genius is a neurosis]. Lately Max Nordau, a German physician residing in Paris, attempted to prove the truth of the assertion. In his already famous work, “Die Entartung," he examines nearly all the now living French authors of the schools called Decadents, Symbolists, Nee-Christians, etc., with a view to showing their neuropathic conditions. In this country much useful and scholarly work has also been done in that direction. Lately the United States Bureau of Education issued Arthur MacDonald's “Abnormal Man, being Essays on Education and Crime and Related Subjects." From the fifth chapter we quote as follows on the subject of genius and insanity:

"According to Arndt [‘Lehrbuch der Psychiatrie’], our manner of knowing, feeling, and willing is differently developed, and shows itself in feeble or strong constitutions as nervousness, weakness, or insanity; or as gift, talent, or genius. Every mental disease is a reaction of the nervous system impaired in its nutrition, especially the nutrition of the brain. Arndt's idea is that when a nervous condition appears occasionally in parents and grandparents it sooner or later passes over into mental disease, as seen in children of aged parents born late, or in children of parents with talent or genius. In the first case (in children born late) this nervous condition develops with the decrease of vital energy; in the second case it comes from the nature of the higher endowment or genius. This endowment or genius is an expression of a highly organized nervous system, more particular than that of the brain. Thus it is that all higher gifts, including genius, are very frequently subject to all kinds of diseased conditions, peculiarities, idiosyncrasies, and perversities. Arndt mentions, as examples among poets, Tasso, Lenau, Heinrich, von Kleist, Holderin, Gutzkow; among artists, Robert Schumann, Carl Blechen; among scientists, Pascal, Frederic Sauvages, John Muller, Robert von Meyer; among statesmen and generals, Tiberius and the Duke of Marlborough. A large number of geniuses were the last of their kind, as Democritus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Caesar, Augustus, Galenus, Paracelsus, Newton, Shakespeare, Leibnitz, Kant, Voltaire, Gustave Adolphus, Frederick the Great, Napoleon, Linné, Cuvier, Byron, Alexandervon Humboldt. The family of Schiller have died out in their male members. This dying out of genius can only be explained according to Arndt by the weakness of their organizations and the resulting hyperaesthesia. This also is an explanation of the fact that the brothers and sisters of geniuses are often mediocre, and sometimes weakminded. . . .

“Lombroso (‘L'Homme de Génie') says that from an anatomical and biological study of men of genius, who are semi-insane, from an investigation of the pathological causes of their apparition, marks of which are almost always left in their descendants, there arises the conception of the morbid degenerative nature of genius. . . .

“While, then, some alienists hold that genius is a pathological condition of the nervous system, a hyperaesthesia, a nervous or mental disease, others do not go so far; yet all seem to be agreed that the relation between insanity and genius is very close."

The author next proceeds to give the opinions of the geniuses themselves:

“Aristotle says that under the influence of a congestion of the head there are persons who become poets, prophets, and sybils. Plato [in Phaedo] affirms that delirium is not an evil but a great benefaction when it emanates from the divinity.

“Democritus [according to Horace’s ‘Ars Poetica'] makes insanity an essential condition of poetry. Diderot [in ‘Dictionnaire Encyclopédique‘] says: ‘Ah, how close the insane and the genius touch; they are imprisoned and enchained; or statues are raised to them.’ Voltaire says: ‘Heaven in forming us mixed our life with reason and insanity; the elements of our imperfect being, they compose every man, they form his essence.’ Pascal says: 'Extreme mind is close to extreme insanity.’ Mirabeau affirms that common sense is the absence of too vivid passion; it marches by beaten paths, but genius never. Only men with great passions can be great. Cato [according to Plutarch] said before committing suicide; ‘Since when have I shown signs of insanity?‘ Tasso said: ‘I am compelled to believe that my insanity is caused by drunkenness and by love; for I know well that I drink too much.’ Cicero speaks of the furor poeticus; Horace of the amabiles insania; Lamartine of the mental disease called genius. Newton in a letter to Locke says that he passed some months without having a ‘consistency of mind.’ Chateaubriand says that his chief fault is weariness, disgust of everything, and perpetual doubt. Dryden says: 'Great wit to madness is nearly allied.' Lord Beaconsfield says [in ‘Contarini Fleming']: ‘I have sometimes half believed, although the suspicion is mortifying, that there is only a step between his state who deeply indulges in imaginative meditation and insanity. I was not always sure of my identity or even existence, for I have found it necessary to shout aloud to be sure that I lived.’ Schopenhauer confessed that when he composed his great work he carried himself strangely, and was taken for insane. He said that men of genius are often like the insane, given to continual agitation. Tolstoi acknowledges that philosophical scepticism had led him to a condition bordering on insanity. George Sand says of herself, that, at about seventeen, she became deeply melancholic, that later she was tempted to suicide; that this temptation was so vivid, sudden, and bizarre that she considered it a species of insanity. Heine [in his ‘Correspondance Inédite,’ Paris, 1877] said that his disease may have given a morbid character to his later compositions."

Dr. MacDonald then presents a formidable array of men and women of genius who exhibited signs of neurotic disorder, some by attempts at suicide, some by seeing apparitions, some by melancholia, some by developments of apoplexy, epilepsy, somnambulism, insanity, or other morbid symptoms. Among those cited in evidence are Raphael, Pascal, Walter Scott, Voltaire, Richelieu, Descartes, Goethe, Cromwell, Rousseau, Jeanne d'Arc, Mohammed, Mozart, Cuvier, Condillac, Bossuet, Madame de Stael, Dean Swift, Dr. Johnson, Cowper, Southey, Shelley, Byron, Goldsmith, Lamb, Poe, Keats, Balzac, Coleridge, Dickens, George Eliot, De Quincey, Alfred de Musset, Wellington, Napoleon, Carlyle, Warren Hastings, and others.

In the same book the author gives tables showing that the insane and men of genius alike "exceed the normal man in cranial capacity or weight of brain." He states his conclusion of the whole matter as follows:

“The facts cited thus far would seem to indicate that genius is not only abnormal, but often passes into a pathological form. But it may be asked more particularly as to what is meant by pathological and abnormal.

“The modern and fundamental conception of disease is an excess of normality. This statement can be supported by the highest medical authorities. Virchow [‘Cellular Pathology'] says that substratum upon which pathological manifestations play is a repetition or reproduction of the normal morphological stratum; its pathological character consists in this, that the stratum arises in an unfit way or at the wrong place or time; or it may depend upon an abnormal increase of the tissue elements, resulting in deviation, which becomes degeneration. Thus in pathological relations there is preservation of specific normal characteristics; nothing new arises functionally. Pathology is in potentia in physiology. According to Perl, pathological phenomena are distinguished from the normal by their unequal and little constancy. Cohnheim affirms that physiological laws hold their validity in diseased organisms; that abnormal means a considerable deviation from the type. Ziegler says that disease is nothing else than a life whose manifestations deviate in part from the normal.

“In saying that genius manifests the symptoms of a neurosis or psychosis, we mean an excessive nervous or cerebral action. Many forms of insanity are also manifestations of similar excessive action. Such action in one individual can give rise to most wonderful, original, and brilliant ideas, and we call it genius; in another individual it produces also wonderful and original but highly absurd thoughts, and we call it insanity. But it appears that the fundamental cause in both genius and insanity is the same: it is excessive psychical or nervous energy. "

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