The Doctors and the Divine
What do we learn when we diagnose genius?
In her Histoire de Ma Vie, the author George Sand describes an encounter with Frédéric Chopin upon returning one night from a trip to Palma. Chopin was playing a melody on the piano, in the grip of a strange delirium. “He saw himself drowned in a lake,” she wrote:
heavy and ice-cold drops of water fell at regular intervals upon his breast, and when I drew his attention to those drops of water which were actually falling at regular intervals upon the roof, he denied having heard them. He was even vexed at what I translated by imitative harmony…. His genius was full of mysterious harmonies of nature, translated by sublime equivalents into his musical thought, and not by a servile repetition of external sounds.
The work that Chopin was playing that night — according to “The hallucinations of Frédéric Chopin,” an article published recently in the journal Medical Humanities — is thought to be the Prelude in D flat major, or Prelude in F sharp minor, or even Prelude in B minor. But for the authors of the article — Manuel Vázquez Caruncho and Franciso Brañas Fernández — the exact piece Chopin was playing, or how it got composed, is less interesting than what might have been happening in Chopin’s mind while he was composing.
The diagnosis is distinctly medical. Chopin was having “hallucinations”. What many have read in Sand’s words to be an example of Chopin’s mysterious genius are in truth the result of a neurological condition. Caruncho and Fernández present a laundry list of possible diagnoses that could account for the Chopin’s hallucinations: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, fever, migraine. Eventually, the authors decide that the best explanation for Chopin’s hallucinations is temporal lobe epilepsy.
What does this say about the work of Chopin? The answer, the authors admit, is nothing. But they think the question is beside the point. What drives Caruncho and Fernández comes in their conclusion: “We doubt that another diagnosis added [to] the already numerous list will help us understand the artistic world of Frédéric Chopin, but we do believe that knowing he had this condition could help to separate romanticized legend from reality…” The particulars of Chopin’s compositions are somewhat outside the scope of the authors’ purview. Their conclusion, though, hints that Caruncho and Fernández are not even that interested in the specifics of Chopin’s physical hallucinations. Their real focus is how these hallucinations affect the story we tell of Chopin. They are interested in the mythology of Chopin’s genius.
For all the sickly Romantic geniuses out there who purportedly succumbed to the wild thrall of their passions — Robert Schumann, Edgar Allan Poe, William Blake, etc. — there have been as many doctors, psychologists, and literary Darwinists itching to diagnose them. Chopin’s exact diagnosis of temporal lobe epilepsy has also recently been given to Poe, Gustave Flaubert, Philip K. Dick, Sylvia Plath, Lewis Carroll, and others. “The hallucinations of Frédéric Chopin” is thus in the tradition of what some call neurotheology, the attempt to medically explain spiritual experiences. The not-always-subtle subtext is that unexplainable visions, or other divine madnesses, have no place in our enlightened, modern world. Neurotheologists have never been comfortable with the idea that romantic visions exist, and far less comfortable with madness as the catalyst for works of genius. The impetus behind these diagnoses is a desire to secularize genius, or to democratize it, and in some cases, to do away with the notion of genius altogether. The aberrant experiences of our great artists and writers have, as a result, often landed them in the loony bin (think Schumann or Robert Walser) or, at the very least, raised serious questions about whether we can distinguish between their illness and their work.
In short, “The hallucinations of Frédéric Chopin” is an attack on the romantic notion of genius. In “Genius and Taste,” a 1918 essay from The Nation, the critic Irving Babbitt discusses the two notions of genius—the neoclassical and the romantic—that are played out so nicely in the exchange between Chopin and Sand above. Whatever our personal opinions about genius are, they likely derive, in part, from one of these camps.
On the neoclassical side of the ring, we’ve got Voltaire and Kant, who defined genius as “only judicious imitation” (that was Voltaire). This means that genius is deliberate and that ideas come from somewhere, rather than from nowhere. When Sand walks into the room and calls Chopin’s playing “imitative harmony,” she’s representing the neoclassical position. “His composition of this evening was indeed full of the drops of rain which resounded on the sonorous tiles of the monastery.” Sand implies that Chopin can hear something extraordinary in the drops of rain that most people can’t hear. His genius is that he can imitate these raindrops and make them his own. (It also implies that he is working in the tradition of other great, rain-loving composers.)
The romantics, on the other hand, replaced judgment and grace with imagination and originality: “The power of acting creatively under laws of its own origination,” in the words of Coleridge. Notice that, genuine romantic that she is at heart, Sand backtracks when Chopin himself protests against the suggestion that he’s just monkeying the sound of the rain. She says, “His genius was full of mysterious harmonies of nature, translated by sublime equivalents into his musical thought, and not by a servile repetition of external sounds.” Both writer and composer agree it is Chopin’s wild reverie (or hallucination) that actually birthed the composition he was playing. Chopin was not just tinkling around to the sound of the rain; he had been seized by the sublime.
In its romantic form, genius is irrational and beyond our control. In fact, true genius requires a loss of control. In a way, the romantics shift genius away from what we do and toward what we feel, from what we create to what we are experiencing. Thought of this way, genius is really a state of being, closer to a state of ecstasy.
Whether we call them reveries or hallucinations, (mostly) everyone agrees that Chopin had extraordinary visions of some kind that corresponded with distinct physical effects. Romantics and neoclassicists alike — along with Caruncho and Fernández — would agree that these experiences played some role in the work Chopin produced. The hallucinations and the man and the music are all one package. What is exciting, then, about the work of Caruncho and Fernández is not their dismissal of the sublime in Chopin’s experience, but rather, their engagement with the physical experience of genius.
In the end, Caruncho and Fernández say they want to separate romance from reality, but their diagnosis leads to a conclusion no less romantic, and no less religious, than the legend: that our own bodies can generate within us a sensation of the divine. From this, maybe the romantics and neoclassicists can be brought together for a new notion of genius, one that allows for, and sometimes necessitates, ecstatic irrational reveries that must still be grounded in practice if good works are to be produced. After all, visions alone are not enough. If Chopin hadn’t practiced his piano, he may never have gotten past the Polish border. But his experience of the sublime, whatever its cause, was a real factor in his ability to compose as well.
Even William Blake might have approved of this synthesis. “As a man is, so he sees,” Blake wrote. “As the eye is formed, such are its powers.” Likewise, just because great ideas might come from somewhere doesn’t always mean that genius can be, or should be, explained away. • 15 February 2011
Stefany Anne Golberg is an artist, writer, musician, and professional dilettante. She's a founding member of the art collective Flux Factory and lives in New York City. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.