Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/March 1887/Genius and Mental Disease
By WILLIAM G. STEVENSON, M. D.
IT were comparatively an easy task to explain psychological phenomena by asserting, as did the metaphysicians of the past, and as some do even at the present, that the human brain—the physical sanctuary of thought—is merely an instrument through which various spiritual beings operate, producing at one time the prophetic utterances of the seer, at another time the gifted words of genius, and yet again the extravagant and discordant expressions of madness. This was the "working hypothesis" of Pagan antiquity in its efforts to explain the utterances of its oracles, and also of the Christian fathers in their attempts to explain the inspiration of the prophets and of the apostles.
Greek supernaturalism and the Christian doctrine of inspiration here found a common point of agreement, for both implied a "divine intoxication"—an "overflowing of the mind"—because of its entire possession by a divine influence, which, according as it was good or evil, excited a "poetic furor" indicative of genius, or caused a wild frenzy which was known as madness.
Genius, therefore, was simply a reflection, through the human brain, of an outside divinity of good; while insanity was merely an expression of satanic possession—an inspiration of an evil spirit—and in nature was closely allied to genius.
This belief, although somewhat modified by filtering through ages of changing thought, has been superseded only in very recent times by the conceptions which reflect the broader generalizations of inductive science. From the data thus furnished comes the conviction that mental phenomena "are dependent upon the properties and molecular activities of nerve-tissue," and that there is a "bond of union" between psychical expressions and a nervous mechanism, although the nature of this union is unknown. The facts of consciousness are marshaled before us with all the force of attested verities, but are yet veiled with all the mystery of a passing dream.
The quality of mind known as genius involves, in connection with the reasoning faculties, the special exercise of imagination in its higher creative or constructive forms; and in understanding this faculty we have an insight into the marvelous nature of genius.
It may be said that imagination is that faculty which, in its lower or constructive form, works within the limits of recollection, and transforms the materials of sense-experience into pictures of thought, and recombines them into forms of greater beauty and usefulness, while in its higher or creative form it distills therefrom truths which reason has not yet discerned, and idealizes beauties and excellences which excite our admiration and exalt our emotions.
When thought symbolizes to the mind "the forms of things unknown," it is because the imagination—leaping beyond the bounds of sensory perception—gathers from the infinitudes of unrevealed realities new truths, and thereby "gives to airy nothing, a local habitation and a name." It is thus that the intellect is able to extend the horizon of knowledge, and obtain material for the workshops of the brain.
Imagination, however bold may be its flight, is, nevertheless, under the restraining influence of reason, and performs its wondrous work along true parallels of thought. Its ideals are not mere symbols of myths and fleeting shadows, but ideals which are the embodiments of eternal truths. Thus, by its sovereignty in realms where Ariadne's thread is lost from view, the imagination constructs its empire, and gives by its own methods new revelations of truth, thereby "converting all nature into the rhetoric of thought."
This, then, is the special mind-quality—the "vision and the faculty divine"—which constitutes the power of genius.
In the attempt, not to define genius, but to explain the order of its succession, Mr. Galton was led to "conclude that each generation has enormous power over the natural gifts of those that follow," and that native endowments of mind are of themselves quite sufficient to enable an individual to become "eminent" or even "illustrious."
That there is a profound principle of truth involved in the question of heredity can not be denied, and that the factor of inheritance is the most essential of any which enters into the complex equation of mind as well as of body, is a well-established fact; but it is not the only factor which determines mental expression, nor can a complete classification of known facts be made from it alone. Heredity explains the existence of a general nervous constitution, a brain-fiber, having definite aptitudes or "organic dispositions," which are transmitted from parent to offspring, securing thereby not only a continuity, but a conservation of psychical as well as of physical properties; but the special way in which this mental aptitude shall show itself is largely dependent upon external influences or an unexplained spontaneity.
Organization limits the influence exerted by environment, while environment limits and modifies the development of the capacities of the organization.
The explanation of genius through the operation of the biologic law of heredity is very satisfactory so long as antecedent and sequence bear to each other definite and ascertainable relations; but trouble begins when the genetic record fails in its apparent unity—as when genius and mediocrity have kinship.
Whence came the genius of Phidias, which enabled him with such immortal art to create in carved ivory and fretted gold the Lemnian statue of the Parthenon and the Zeus of Olympia; whence came the power of Michael Angelo, Salvator Rosa, Leonardo da Vinci, and Rubens, to paint in matchless beauty, on canvas and in fresco, the wondrous imagery of their minds; or of Beethoven, to record in his symphonies the raptures of his soul; or of Scott, to clothe with the habiliments of life the ideals of his brain; or of Spenser, Burns, and Byron, to write with such rhythmic beauty; or of Goethe, to garnish with poetic dress the deep philosophy of his thought? In what cloudland of the past were hidden the possibilities of Dante and Milton, who made their visions of the eternal realms the subject of impassioned verse—at once gorgeous in its rich tracery of thought, and sublime in its pageantry of bliss and woe? In what ancestral brain did sleep the transcendent genius of Shakespeare that read every page "in Nature's infinite book of secrecy"; or did smolder the giant intellect of Newton, which weighed the planets and bound with the force of gravity atoms and worlds in a bond of unity?
Such examples seem indicative of conditions powerful to modify, transform, or deflect the action of the laws of heredity, and to cause "indefinite variability" in psychological phenomena, as is done in material forms. This variability, this new psychic manifestation, is robed with the insignia of a new creation; a new species has been born into the realm of mind, displaying new and more exalted powers, but nevertheless restrained in its action by the organization which, under law, presides with such tyranny over every mental expression, and makes us, to a greater extent than we commonly think, creatures of an inexorable destiny. The contrast between the exalted ideals and grand achievements of genius, and the feeble, discordant expressions of madness, is as pathetic as it is striking. The citadel of thought has been despoiled of its most precious adornment, and in the place where once the Muses sat, mocking echoes now hold carnival, and "melancholy sits on brood."
To give a definition of insanity which shall prove acceptable to medical psychology and to practical jurisprudence, is a more difficult task than it may appear. This is because of the differences in the appreciation of causes and effects in mental phenomena which exist between minds trained in the technical details of physiological and pathological knowledge, and those who witness merely a few of the more pronounced expressions of lunacy, but are unable to trace the expressions to tbeir relating causes.
To have even a moderate understanding of insanity, it is necessary to clearly comprehend the nature and import of "illusion," "hallucination," and "delusion"—which, when they exist, are of so much importance that some would fain have us believe that the possession of any one of these symptoms is sufficient to make genius and insanity "a little more than kin, and less than kind."
When a person sees, hears, smells, tastes, or feels an object, but perceives it to be what it is not—as when a tree becomes a man, and the murmuring wind his voice—an illusion exists; a real sense-impression is wrongly interpreted by the perceptive centers, and hence the perception does not correspond with the external object.
Hallucination originates within the brain, and is the perception of that which has no real existence; indeed, so purely subjective is it, that the senses have no agency in its production. Under conditions of concentrated attention, ideas, feelings, and sense-perceptions, are marshaled into consciousness with as great distinctness as if they were the products of external objects, rather than that of subjective conditions alone. This comes from the fact that the sense-centers are influenced by impressions received independent of their source. Its function is to transform impressions into conscious sensations, and hence an idea or emotion, when directed in a special way with persistent, concentrated force, may so impress the sensorium as to cause it to project into consciousness sensations which seem to come from objects in the external world. I can not tell how this is done, neither can I tell how it is done when impressions come from without. The facts we know, but the secrets of transformation elude us. The brain constructs new forms, but conceals the methods of imagination by the shadow of unconsciousness.
Ajax becomes enraged because the arms of Achilles are given to Ulysses, and in his wrath he sees animals as Greeks and assails them as if Ulysses and Agamemnon themselves were before him. Talma intensified his emotions and his dramatic effect by the illusive specters of his mind. Spinoza beheld with great distinctness the disagreeable image of his dream a long time after sleep was gone; and Niebuhr, when describing the scenes of his travels, would see all rise before him in "all the coloring, animation, and splendor of Nature." Multitudes have been at times subject to the same false perceptions; as when the soldiers under Constantine saw the cross in the sky bearing the inscribed words, "In hoc signo vinces"; or when the army at the battle of Antioch, excited and superstitious, saw the saints—George, Demetrius, and Theodosius—descending through the clouds of heaven to their support.
The consummate skill of Shakespeare in portraying the different phases of false perception, and his power of psychological analysis, are wonderfully illustrated in the dagger-scene of "Macbeth." Intent on murder, with "courage screwed to the sticking-place," Macbeth is about to enter the king's chamber, when he is startled and dismayed by an apparition of a bloody dagger in the air. For a moment he questions the reliability of his sight, and exclaims:
"Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle towards my hand?"
He can not believe the testimony of his eyes, and therefore seeks confirmation in the sense of touch:
". . . Come, let me clutch thee:
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still."
Failing to grasp the dagger, he wonderingly asks:
"Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight?"
And then, as if reason were struggling to gain supremacy over the senses, he continues:
". . . or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation
How suggestive, how replete with truth was this prophetic utterance; and yet the intensity of his mind's tension—because of the deed to be done and the vision of the instrument for its execution—still makes the terrible idea the dominating factor of his mind, and subordinates the senses to its rule! He is not yet able to entirely dispel the hallucination, and he compares the apparition to the trusted blade at his side:
"I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw. . . . I see thee still,
And then, as if the blood upon the dagger had, by its horrid suggestiveness, steadied his brain, Reason once more resumes her seat and denies the apparition, by asserting—
". . . There's no such thing;
It is the bloody business which informs
These false perceptions, these illusions and hallucinations, while they do not necessarily indicate any mental unsoundness, have been, however, the fruitful source of those apparitions, whether of demons, fairies, or ghosts, which have added to the credulity of man, intensified his superstitions, and made possible the organization of human error under such forms of belief as are typically illustrated by witchcraft and spiritualism.
So loner as an individual is conscious that the illusions and hallucinations of his senses are unreal—merely "such stuff as dreams are made of"—the intellect is not affected; but when the false perceptions are accepted as realities, the mind itself is then involved, and a delusion or a false belief is said to exist.
A delusion may be based upon false perceptions; faulty ideas from perverted reasoning about real events, or from mental inability to distinguish differences in things.
A false belief is not, however, of itself indicative of insanity, so long as it is in harmony with the individual's common mode of thought and with the spirit of the age. This is apparent when it is remembered that withcraft—now regarded as a delusion—was, not long since, held to be a truth; indeed, such master-minds as Bacon, Jewel, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Blackstone, Coke, and Dr. Johnson, in accepting as a truth that which we now know was a mental epidemic of error, reflected only the universal belief of the age, and were free of any taint of insanity.
That the standard of mental health is variable because it is conditioned by race, age, environment, and circumstances, is abundantly attested by the history of the past; and this fact should be recalled in discussing the kinship of genius and madness.
The popular literature relating to genius and insanity is so meager and fragmentary that the recent contributions by Mr. Sully, on "Insanity and Genius" and "Genius and Precocity," and by Miss Sanborn, on the "Vanity and Insanity of Genius," are as welcome as they are interesting. It is obvious, however, that names are often used to show the kinship between insanity and genius which do not represent the most illustrious minds. Mr. Sully is, however, logically correct in thus using names, for he includes under the term genius "all varieties of originative power, whether in art, science, or in practical affairs"; but in so doing he destroys, it seems to me, the value of his argument in support of the relationship of insanity and genius, for, measured by this standard, the evidence is overwhelmingly against the theory. Neither is due regard given to the real significance of false perceptions, which are often made to appear indicative of insanity, when in reality mental integrity is not impaired.
Although obliged to follow a common trend of thought with familiar illustrations, it is, nevertheless, my hope to place a few garlands of honor on the brow of Health, and to defend genius against the implication that it exists only with madness. The profound ignorance of the ancient philosophers concerning the nature of mind itself justifies us in attaching but little importance to their interpretation of its phenomena.
Thus, Plato's "Psychology" affirmed a self-existent, self-moving, and eternal soul, in form "like a pair of winged steeds, ... In divine souls both steeds are good, in human souls one is bad. . . . Before entering the body the wings are lost which were nourished by beauty, wisdom, goodness, and all that is divine. . . . The mind of the philosopher alone has wings; he is ever initiated into perfect mysteries, and his soul alone becomes complete. But the vulgar deem him mad and rebuke him; they do not see that he is inspired. This divine madness is kindled through the renewed vision of beauty. . . . Love itself is madness."
The soothsayers, or diviners, to whom Plato ascribed the "nobler madness," were regarded mad, not only because of their wisdom, but because of their extravagant rage and noisy behavior.
Virgil describes the inspired priestess as full of enthusiastic rage, and fiercely raving in her struggle to disburden her soul of the influence of the mighty god. Indeed, raging, foaming, and yelling, accompanied with antic motions, was the usual way of expressing the influence of inspiration or "possession."
Since Aristotle held psychological views similar to those of Plato, his saying that "it is the essence of a great poet to be mad" adds nothing to the strength of the theory.
The "madness," referred to in the conversation between Horace and Damasippus, did not specially relate to intellectual conditions, or to what we know as insanity, as has been intimated, but rather to individual and social ethics. The "Satire" says: "The school and sect of Chrysippus deem every man mad whom vicious folly or whomsoever the ignorance of any truth drives blindly on. This definition takes in whole nations; this even great kings; the wise man alone being excepted. . . . Whoever is afflicted with evil ambition or the love of money; whoever is smitten with luxury, or gloomy superstition, or any other disease of the mind, . . . come near me, in order, while I convince you that you are mad. . . . Whoever shall form images foreign from truth, and be confused in the tumult of impiety, will always be reckoned disturbed in mind; . . . where there is foolish depravity, there will be the height of madness. He who is wicked will be frantic too."
I confess that, with such statements before us, it hardly seems necessary to discuss the value of ancient opinions on a subject which must be treated under the restrictions of modern definitions. We will, therefore, examine the question from the standpoint of more modern times, when the supernatural agency in insanity gives place to the deteriorating influences which unite it to other forms of nervous disease; and genius becomes a product of an age, in the expansive growth of the human mind.
That these extreme forms of mental expression are often associated, there is no doubt; and that genius is, at times, shadowed by mental disease is a fact well known; but our interest centers in the inquiry, whether this relationship is such an essential one as to justify Dryden in asserting—
"Great wits are sure to madness near allied,
And thin partitions do their bounds divide."
"The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact."
In support of this essential union, Montaigne, Diderot, Pascal, Lamartine, and others, have subscribed their names, but in terms more general than specific, and with more rhetorical beauty than philosophic strength; while Moreau boldly affirms that genius is a nervous disease.
Charles Lamb, himself at times oppressed with mental gloom, stands almost alone in defense of "the sanity of true genius." With this view I am in accord, and, that the justification of this position maybe seen, I desire to review the facts commonly cited against it.
Sophocles—poet, statesman, commander—was obliged to make a defense against the charge of insanity, instituted by ungrateful and avaricious children. He answered by reciting the tragedy of "Œdipus at Colonos," which he had just finished, and he then asked the judges if the author of such a work could be regarded as mad. The reply was, "No!" and he was acquitted.
Lucretius—"writer of the purest Latin, and author of 'De Rerum Natura,' the most exalted poem of the age"—whose mind combined the "contemplative enthusiasm of a philosopher, the earnest purpose of a reformer and moral teacher, and the profound pathos and sense of beauty of a great poet," has been used to illustrate the kinship of genius and madness upon the unreliable evidence that he lost his reason from the effect of a "love-philter" (a very ridiculous absurdity) which had been given to him; and after writing several books, during his lucid intervals, he committed suicide.
Were this allegation true, it could only show the baneful effect of a drug upon his brain, which is quite apart from the influence of any psychic cause. The historic facts are too few and insufficient to justify any statement as to the life and personal character of this man, who exerted such an influence over others by his writings, and yet, like Homer, was content to let his personality "pass through life unnoticed." Caesar, Catullus, and Cicero were his contemporaries, and yet we know of him only through a brief record given by Jerome four hundred years after the poet's death. Independent of the historic doubts as to his insanity, the theory which makes a drug its potent cause, should at least find reason for not uniting to it his genius.
That Socrates had his "demon," or guardian angel, may be true; but, if so, the hallucination corresponded with the accepted belief of the age, and therefore signifies nothing against his mental integrity.
Neither is there justification in using such illustrious names as Descartes, Newton, and Goethe, to prove that madness holds its court so near the temple of greatness.
It is true that Descartes, in an hour of deep intellectual subtraction, was "filled with enthusiasm, and discovered the foundations of a marvelous science"; and, it may be that, during his profound meditations, in which he "turned the eye of reason inward upon itself, and tried to measure the value of his own beliefs," an idea became so dominant that the sense of hearing responded to its impression, as if a voice from without had called him "to pursue the truth." In no way, however, did this simple and momentary hallucination interrupt the great work of his life, and in no lawful way can it be interpreted as an expression of a morbid mind.
That Goethe once saw his own counterpart approach him I doubt not, but that this false perception, this passing incongruity—a mere incident of poetic revery when the mind, self-absorbed, wandered in its fancy—should be classed as evidence of a pathological condition, and made to bear witness against the healthfulness of Goethe's mind, is an assumption extravagant and absurd.
That Newton was once "decidedly insane," as some allege, is doubtful; and that he ever suffered from any mental disturbance which justifies the inference that his genius was allied to madness, I hesitate not to deny. Mr. Sully says, "The story of Newton's madness, which is given by a French biographer, and which is ably refuted by Sir David Brewster, may owe much of its piquancy to what may be called the unconscious inventiveness of prejudice."
The facts, as I gather them, point to a congestion of the brain which culminated in a brain-fever—the result of overwork under unfavorable hygienic conditions. Newton himself refers to his illness in a letter to Mr. Pepys, and again in a letter to Locke, wherein he mentions his loss of memory, and his sleepless nights. It is not strange that his illness should excite the fears of his friends, not only for his physical but for his future mental health. Mr. Pepys expressed his anxiety to Mr. Millington, who replied that he had recently seen Newton, who was then well, and that, although his illness had caused "some small degree of melancholy, there is no reason to suspect it hath at all touched his understanding." Huygens, a contemporary scientist, says, in a letter to Leibnitz in 1694, that Newton was ill for about eighteen months with phrenitis or brain-fever, from which he recovered by the use of medicines. With these data before us, it is a misconception of physiological and pathological facts to assert that Newton was insane; and that there was a kinship between his mighty genius and madness, is contradicted by the intellectual work which has given immortality to his name.
The star seen by Napoleon, which was to him an omen of success; the vision which came to Cromwell, and spoke the words prophetic of his greatness; the apparition which uttered the ominous words to Brutus—"I am thy evil genius, thou wilt meet me at Phillipi!" the dreams and visions of Benvenuto Cellini; the "trees like men walking," as seen by Sir Joshua Reynolds, and the appearance of the devil to Luther—are all examples of hallucinations which are entirely consistent with reason, and are not justly indicative of insanity or mental disease. They represent a habit of mind which naturally, under conditions of concentrated attention, intensified in an age tolerant of all forms of superstitions, "seeks for and creates, if need be, with or without consciousness, an outward object as the cause of its feelings." Luther, for example, saw with his "mind's eye" the image of the devil, which, in that age of religious excitement and credulity, was ever expectant in all minds, and generally present everywhere. "Hallucinations were," says De Boismont, "in the whole social community, not in individuals"; and hence it was that under the dominion of a general belief, however vague or irrational it may have been, the individual mind "demanded of imagination the realization of the phantasms of its dreams; and imagination, despite of the resistance of reason, endowed them with form and substance." Herein is found a distinguishing factor "between real insanity and the separate phenomena of genius and moral exaltation,"
In further support of this opinion we may cite the hallucinations of Loyola, when he heard celestial voices; of Edward Irving, who received the gift of prophecy and the "power of tongues"; of Dr. Johnson, when the voice of his dead mother came to him; of Male-branche, when the deep feelings of his soul were to him the audible voice of Deity, and of Joan of Arc, who, under the guidance of saints, led the French arms to victory.
That genius "has its roots in a nervous organization of exceptional delicacy," is undoubtedly true, but it does not necessarily follow that the liability to mental discord and confusion is thereby increased, because this delicacy of brain-structure and its functions are admirably adjusted, and the very perfection of the mechanism enables it to work with the least possible friction or injury.
Under certain conditions, however, we have eccentricities of thought, feeling, and action, which indicate an unstable condition of nerve-element; but it does not follow that this instability necessarily impairs the integrity of the mind; much less does it imply that "genius," more than the lower expressions of mental power, is nearer the border-land of mental disease. I doubt not that permutations of this unstable condition may occur which, by supplementing the natural gifts of mind, cause a variety of individual traits. It may give to the poet Campbell indecision and indolence; make Carlyle cross and pessimistic; Byron proud, generous, and reckless; Schlegel foppish in his vanity; Keats despondent; Pope crafty and pretentious; Swift satirical, avaricious, and irascible; Chateaubriand egotistic and vain; Burns and Poe convivial and intemperate; Eliot sensitive and dependent; Hawthorne shy and modest; Wordsworth simple-hearted yet full of conceit; and Ampere absent-minded and unpractical. Thus might I show certain peculiarities which belong to the personal mental outfit of almost every one whose individuality is sufficiently marked to make him worthy of notice; but these peculiarities or eccentricities are not essentially morbid, neither do they give affirmative evidence that genius is related to madness. Such peculiarities belong to all orders of mind—the humble as well as the exalted—and can not, therefore, have an exclusive application.
Add to the personal eccentricities of Pope, Byron, Johnson, Carlyle, and Swift the temper which at times became in them extravagant rage, and the proof is yet no stronger that genius and insanity are but different types of mental disease; for passion and appetite are, in all their forms, expressions of organic life and common to humanity, and therefore, as universal factors, they can not be dissociated and made to bear witness either for or against the subject before us. It has already been admitted that eccentricities of character imply a want of mental poise or equilibrium, which is even more apparent in the extravagant passions which at times hold individuals under despotic control, and often indicate decided moral obliquity. This I do not deny, but yet affirm that the violent passion at times observed in one of exalted powers of mind is no more evidence in favor of the kinship between those powers and mental disease, than is the same passion, when displayed in a low and vulgar mind, proof that stupidity is a congener of madness. Mr, Madden is quite as justified in asserting that "the maladies of genius have their main source in dyspepsia," or I in affirming that, because some eminent men have been physically puny and ill-formed, therefore their genius is related to, and dependent upon, bodily imperfections.
In trying to establish the kinship between mental greatness and disease, Mr. Sully states, what I do not deny, that "a number of great men have died from disease of the nerve-centers," naming Pascal, Cuvier, Mendelssohn, Mozart, and Heine—none of whom, however, were insane.
That genius should be subject to "all the ills that flesh is heir to" challenges neither surprise nor dissent; but to hold this as evidence in support of the idea that "the extreme mind is near to extreme madness" is, as it seems to me, an erroneous interpretation of physiological and pathological facts. To prove that Pascal died in convulsions from an acute brain trouble, in connection with a disease of bodily organs, and that Mendelssohn and Rousseau died of apoplexy, and Heine of spinal disease, is not proof that there was any essential weakness or disease of nerve-element, but rather is it evidence of disease of blood-vessels through faulty nutrition. When haemorrhage occurs in the brain, its substance is disorganized, as it might be if any other foreign substance were forced into it, and nervous disturbance very naturally follows; and possibly secondary nervous or mental disease, but it is not correct to speak of the primary apoplexy as a disease of the brain, or to infer that, because a person of high mental endowments has thus suffered, therefore, as Lamartine says, "Genius bears within itself a principle of destruction, of death, of madness." Cuvier, after a life of incessant intellectual toil, with mind unclouded, died at the age of sixty-three, from paralysis of the throat and lungs. Kepler, sound in mind, died when sixty years old of fever, which some say caused an abscess in the brain. The cause of Mozart's death is unknown; his sickness was of short duration. He thought himself poisoned, but the facts were hidden in the pauper-grave wherein his body was unkindly thrown. Now, I protest that such cases give no evidence of insane temperament, and in no way illustrate the kinship between mental greatness and disease.
Again, it is said, and often with reason, that this kinship is shown by the suicidal impulse, which "is only another phase of insanity." That suicide or homicide may result, under this impulse, I doubt not, but to make this fact of special value its numerical proportions should at least be such as to make it a factor of constant value. Because Goethe, Chateaubriand, George Sand, and Johnson have said that at times they felt an impulse to commit suicide; because Beethoven, Schumann, and Cowper, who were at times morbid, really made the attempt; and Kleist, Beneke, and Chatterton succeeded in self-destruction—we are not justified in saying that the impulse or the act itself came because genius contains an element of madness. Hundreds who commit suicide every year do not possess genius; why, then, make it the responsible agent for the few?
It is charitable to think that the misdeeds of our friends, or of those whom we admire, are covered by the plea of irresponsibility through insanity. Science, however, deals with facts, not sentiments. That mental and motor impulses often occur which, because they are stronger than volition, regard not the consciousness of right or wrong, there is no doubt; that these impulses are very frequently the product of a morbid mind is also well attested, but the question before us is limited to the relationship which genius bears to suicide, as one expression of madness.
I confess I can see only that relationship which exists in the organic necessities which constitute the foundation of human thought and action, and not the psychological relationship which makes the exaltation of mind the destroyer of its life.
The regularity and constancy of results which spring from the varying conditions of race, climate, and occupations, as well as from the social, political, and moral influences around us, clearly indicate, what statistics prove, that madness is but one of many causes of suicide. Now, since genius is itself exceedingly rare, and its union with insanity still less frequently found, it is evident that suicide, although occasionally committed by those of exalted minds, is altogether too infrequent among them to justify us in claiming it as evidence in behalf of the insanity of genius. Certainly, when we find that Kleist, Beneke, and Chatterton stand almost alone in this list, the support for the assumption is not strong, nor is it enhanced if the quality of genius thus represented is duly estimated.
Those who would make genius dependent upon or associated with a morbid mental state, seek to strengthen their position by citing the names of Burke, Chatham, Linnaeus, Moore, Southey, Scott, Swift, and Shelley, as among those whose faculties were impaired by mental disease. I interpret the facts differently.
It is true that Linnaeus at the age of sixty failed in memory, and that, when nearly seventy, an attack of apoplexy ruined his mind; that Moore, Southey, and Scott, when the years of their life were nearly numbered, were enfeebled in mind, because in old age the work of repair had failed; while Swift, at threescore years and ten, lost his mental powers as a result of a disease which began long years before, not in the brain, but in the organ of hearing.
Shelley, indeed, was eccentric and given to sleep-walking and hallucinations, and at times he may have confounded the mythical with the real, seeing "forms more real than living man," but I know of no rule of psychology or of medical jurisprudence which will authorize us to say he was insane. His fervor, his reason, and his imagination conspired to lift him into the higher realms of an idealism which was the antithesis of things as commonly seen, and his mind grew and strengthened until, at the age of thirty years, obedient to the "infinite malice of destiny," he died.
Because Lord Chatham suffered at one time from melancholy, the direct result of suppressed gout, it in no way proves that his genius was allied with madness, for the same clinical facts are observed in all orders of mind.
Since, therefore, every degree of mental disorder from the simplest feeling of depression to the wildest mania, regardless of the quality of mind, may follow from the undue retention in the blood of the waste products of tissue-change, either alone or combined with other morbid bodily conditions, there seems to be but little justification in asserting that "there is no great genius without a mixture of insanity."
In the history of political literature the name of Edmund Burke stands among the first, and is representative not only of that illuminating power which belongs to lofty minds, but of the genius which comes "as the consummation of the faculty of taking pains." Year after year his voice sounded in behalf of the "sacredness of law, the freedom of nations, the justice of rulers," and the imagery of his thought—imposing in its majesty—"carries us into regions of enduring wisdom." For nearly threescore years his mind retained the dignity and calm of lofty greatness, and seemed to totter from its balance only when he breathed the torrid heat of fury which was sweeping over France and gathering wrath against the horrid atrocities of "'89." He had before him the vision of Marie Antoinette, "glittering like the morning star, full of life and splendor and joy," and felt that, through unbelief and passion, the props of stable government and morals were being broken and destroyed. The "divine right of kings" was yet an article of common faith, and he saw their sorrow, but heard not the wail of anguish which ascended from the oppressed and starving people. Rage against the lawless Parisian mob filled him, and in his wrath he spoke as if envenomed hate had made him mad; and he was 80 adjudged, but only by those who differed from him. The inspiration of his genius gave him the tongue of truth, and the penalty was an assault upon his sanity.
Then came the supreme sorrow of his life, the death of his son, and in his grief he wrote: "The storm has gone over me, and I lie like one of those old oaks which the late hurricane has scattered about me; I am stripped of my honors; I am torn up by the roots, and lie prostrate on the earth. I am alone, I have none to meet my enemies in the gate; . . . I live in an inverted order. They who ought to have succeeded me have gone before me. They who should have been to me as posterity are in the place of ancestors."
Because of the outward expressions of grief which were at times his, as when his son's favorite horse came to him and put its head upon his bosom, which caused Burke to cry aloud in his sorrow—because of such manifestations of grief, it is said Burke was mad. Edward Everett has well said: "If I were called upon to designate the event or the period in Burke's life that would best sustain a charge of insanity, it would not be when, in a gush of the holiest and purest feeling that ever stirred the human heart, he wept aloud on the neck of his dead son's favorite horse." As proof that his intellect was not disordered, his "Letters on a Regicide Peace," written in 1796, a year before his death, bear ample evidence, and are regarded, says John Morley, "in some respects the most splendid of all his compositions. . . . We hardly know where else to look either in Burke's own writings or elsewhere for such an exhibition of the rhetorical resources of our language."
That Burke had at times eccentricities and fleeting aberrations may be true, but to call such a man insane, or to speak of him as illustrative of the kinship between genius and madness, is to make sport of facts and mockery of human thought.
Notwithstanding the many names I thus take from the roll-call of madness, there are, nevertheless, many gifted minds that have not been absolved from this sad heritage, or been able to bear with calm serenity the misfortunes and burdens of a weary life. Such was Schumann, the eminent composer of music; and Blake, to whom the realities of the world were but dissolving forms of his own consciousness; and Clare, who, when his melancholy was deepened by the neglect of family and friends, wrote so plaintively of his own gloom and loneliness. Cowper was timid and morbid, and agonized under religious melancholy and suicidal impulse. The insane temperament was also definitely marked in Comte, the oracle of the "Positive Philosophy"; in Tasso, whose melancholy fate gave to Goethe the opportunity to picture a psychological drama, wherein character is revealed under the glow of "poetic furor," and also, at times, oppressed by morbid fears and delusive visions; in Swedenborg, whose prolific mind teemed with fancies and speculations, contradictions and absurdities, which can only be explained on the theory of a mind diseased; and in Charles Lamb, whose "diluted insanity" cast an enduring shadow over his life.
The facts, as I view them, make me dissent from the theory that a diseased brain is the physical substratum of genius, or that the possession of such exalted mental endowments "carries with it special liabilities to the action of the strong disintegrating forces which environ us." "A large genius," says Dr. Maudsley, "is plainly not in the least akin to madness; but between these widely separated conditions a series of connections is made by persons who stand out from the throng of men by the possession of special talents in particular lines of development; and it is they who, displaying a mixture of madness and genius at the same time, have given rise to the opinion that great wit is allied to madness."
To the extent that a nervous organization makes possible excessive emotional life, or vagaries in thought or action, to this same extent is true genius qualified and limited; for, without calm reason and volitional control, creative imagination is distorted into an irresponsible fancy.
The degree of perfection of any mechanism, whether it be a watch, an engine, a harp, a telescope, or the human brain, is the measure of the quality of the work which can be produced therefrom; and, conversely, the quality of the work is an index of the structural character of the instrument employed.
The better the finish and adjustment of a mechanism in its various parts, the less will be the friction, and the "wear and tear" from constant use; and, although the very delicacy of its adjustment may give a greater susceptibility to disturbing causes, the causes themselves are not inherent but incidental. These facts apply with equal force to that most perfect and complex of all known mechanisms—the human brain, which is energized with the subtile principle of life, and evolves thought, feeling, and will, which, in their noblest and most exalted expressions, are indicative not of disease but of mental health.
Nervous and mental diseases are too common among all classes of people, and orders of intelligence to permit us to think that genius is the special object of their dominion. This idea is rejected, not because it is repugnant, but because it is not sustained by facts when measured by the standard of the highest art, or loftiest thought, or greatest work.
Look at the scores of eminent names within a hundred years, and show therefrom, if possible, the evidence which justifies the statement that intellectual greatness is "beset with mental and moral infirmity," or that genius is merely an expression of a morbid mind, akin to madness.
Imagination gives to genius—which is the intellectual scout of progress, and the Titan force which organizes the factors of civilization—a realm wherein the soul throbs and burns with the fervor which comes only when a new truth cleaves the darkness and illumines a pathway hitherto unrevealed; and where the clash and turmoil of cerebral action excite the highest pleasure, though at the same time they often weary and exhaust.
In this century, when the fierce blaze of modern thought has filled the world with unparalleled glory, and the inventive genius of man has made the earth a vast workshop of industrial arts, wherein the human brain is "master-workman" over all, how rare is it that the brain-worker feels the oppression of a "mind diseased," except when, like the wage-worker, he frets and worries under the burdens of a weary life, and falls by the wayside because the struggle for existence—keen, sharp, and relentless—has taken from him the inspiration, the strength of hope!
Mental stagnation, personal or domestic sorrow, social inthrallment, religious excitement, crushed hopes, and poverty, are the chief moral causes which contribute so largely to the mental infirmities of man.
In conclusion, I hesitate not to say that the most illustrious names of ancient or modern times—in all departments of human thought or activity—have been, with but few exceptions, loyal to the sovereign rule of sane reason; and the sweep of their imagination has been in curves which rounded in the bright empyrean of truth and beauty.