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Essays Unravel the Mysteries of Neurological Disorders Among Artists: Some Facts and Speculation

Brust, John MD

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Dr. John C.M. Brust is professor of clinical neurology and director of the Harlem Hospital Neurology Service in New York City.

Essays Unravel the Mysteries of Neurological Disorders Among Artists: Some Facts and Speculation, Neurological Disorders in Famous Artists, Edited by Julien Bogousslavsky and Frantois Boller, 192 pages, Karger 2005

Why did Guillaume Apollinaire abruptly lose his sense of humor as well as interest in his fiancée? What illness allowed Guy de Maupassant to experience an explosion of literary creativity yet eventually caused him to brag that he was the wealthy younger son of the Virgin Mary? Was it the same illness that led Friedrich Nietzsche to boast, “… since the old God has abdicated, I shall rule the world from now on,” while drinking his own urine?

How did Alphonse Daudet and Jean-Martin Charcot find themselves in the same Parisian social circle, and why did Daudet write his “Diary of Pain” (La Doulou)? What misdiagnosis did Sigmund Freud apply to Fyodor Dostoevsky and Jean-Paul Sartre to Gustave Flaubert?

Did Dostoevsky's seizures, like those of Prince Myshkin in The Idiot, begin with an ecstatic aura? In Edgar Allen Poe's Berenice, why does the narrator bury alive his epileptic cousin? What was the basis of Immanuel Kant's late life cognitive decline and ritualistic behavior?

Why, at age 45, was Charles Baudelaire's verbal output suddenly limited to the phrase, “cré nom”? Do the later paintings of Carolus Horn support the view that patients with Alzheimer disease have a selective impairment of blue-green color discrimination?

Why do so many of Caspar David Friedrich's paintings contain screech owls, funerals, coffins, and skeletons? Why did Vincent Van Gogh cut off part of his left ear? Why was Maurice Ravel unable to write his opera “Jeanne d'Arc”? Why did Modest Mussorgsky's opera “Khovanshchina” have to be completed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov? Why during the last six years of his life did George Frederick Handel dictate his compositions? Why, at an 1808 performance of his oratorio “The Creation,” did Franz Joseph Haydn have to be carried home during intermission? What was so astounding about the composer VS Shebalin after his stroke? How was George Gershwin misdiagnosed during the last year of his life? Why in his twenties did Robert Schumann give up a budding career as a pianist to concentrate on composition?

Answers to these questions, some factual and some speculative, are provided in Neurological Disorders in Famous Artists, a slim multi-authored volume that is part of the Frontiers of Neurology and Neuroscience series. Most of the essays are based on familiar sources without attempts at original scholarship. For example, nearly all the information on de Maupassant can be found in Macdonal Critchley's The Divine Banquet of the Brain, where it is more comprehensively and colorfully presented.

Figure. Most of the ...
Figure. Most of the ...
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Some essays — on Kant, Handel, and Haydn, for example — do offer original tentative diagnoses, some more provocative than persuasive. Although the editors seem to have kept howlers to a minimum, it should be noted that Gershwin's musical comedy was entitled “Girl Crazy,” not “Crazy Girl,” that it was written for Broadway not Hollywood (it became a Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland vehicle 13 years later), and that Gershwin's songs were “immortalized” by Al Jolson, not “A. Johnson.”

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SOME ANSWERS FOLLOW

Still, the book does address some questions. Why did Guillaume Apollinaire abruptly lose his sense of humor and his interest in his fiancée? The answer is that he had “right temporal lobe syndrome” following a head injury in the trenches of World War I. Apollinaire, famed as a poet and an early champion of Picasso and Braque, enlisted in the French infantry in 1914. Fifteen months later, while perusing a literary magazine, Le Mercure de France, he was shot in the right side of his head.

Although the shell penetrated the metal of his helmet, he did not lose consciousness. Two weeks later, however, he developed headaches, fatigue, and left hemiparesis. Following surgical evacuation of what his surgeons called an “intracranial abscess,” (more plausibly, a subdural hematoma), his hemiparesis rapidly improved, yet he was left with a profound personality change, including anxiety and “intolerance to emotional stimuli.”

A feeling of sadness as well as “defiance” thereafter permeated his poetry until his death from influenza two years later. Although Apollinaire's symptoms were attributed to “psychological shock associated with war experience,” they more likely represented a right temporal lobe syndrome as first described by Julien Bogousslavsky in 1991.

What illness allowed Guy de Maupassant to experience an explosion of literary creativity yet eventually caused him to brag that he was the wealthy younger son of the Virgin Mary? The answer is neurosyphilis, more specifically, “general paralysis of the insane.” Infected at age 20 “by a ravishing boating companion,” de Maupassant years later developed symptoms that forced him to quit his job as a civil servant. Treated with mercury and potassium iodide, he bragged about his illness: “I've got the pox! at last! the real thing! Not the contemptable clap… no – no, the great pox, the one which François I died of. The majestic pox, pure and simple; the elegant syphilis.”

Freed for 10 years from regular employment, he proceeded to write six novels, 300 stories, three plays, travel books, and poetry. Eventually he became overtly psychotic, twice attempting suicide, and was finally committed to an asylum, where, his doctor recorded, “He howled and licked the walls of his cell.” At the end of his life he was kept in restraints, and his last words were “ténèbres, ténèbres — darkness, darkness.”

Finally, the answer to the question about why Robert Schumann gave up a budding career as a pianist to concentrate on composition is that he had task-specific dystonia in his right middle finger. He first noticed this in his late teens and it worsened as he continued to practice up to seven hours daily. Ineffectual treatments included rest, diet, electricity, bathing the hand in animal blood, and homeopathy. Shumann composed “Toccata for Piano,” which did not require him to use the affected finger, but thereafter he limited his playing to improvisation.

For answers to the other 20 questions, check out the rest of Bogousslavsky's and Boller's diverting neurobiological miscellany.

©2007 American Academy of Neurology

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