'Seized' tries to link art and epilepsy

August 26, 1993|By Daniel Grant | Daniel Grant,Contributing Writer

Why did Vincent van Gogh slice off a portion of one of his ears and disrobe in an art gallery among other strange behaviors? Of course, no one knows for certain, but there are a number of competing theories, including alcoholism, chemical poisoning, glaucoma, manic-depression, schizophrenia, sunstroke, syphilis and -- according to Eve LaPlante -- epilepsy. Did whatever ailed van Gogh affect his art? On that point, there appears to be unanimity that it did.

Eve LaPlante, a free-lance magazine writer, enters this discussion with her own affirmative, sorting out the symptoms in van Gogh as well as Alfred Lord Tennyson, Gustave Flaubert, Fyodor Dostoevski, Lewis Carroll, Jonathan Swift and others (both well-known and not) that correspond to recognized

characteristics of epilepsy. Her aim is to acquaint readers with epilepsy, which she believes is too often misdiagnosed or undiagnosed, and to show the ailment affects behavior, both positively and negatively.

To her mind, epilepsy has "distinct benefits" for artists: "In addition to . . . seizures, the disorder is linked with personality change: between seizures many people with [temporal lobe disorder] are intensely emotional, deeply religious, and compelled to write or draw," she writes. "In such famous sufferers as Dostoevsky, Tennyson, and Lewis Carroll, these traits may have contributed to lasting works of art." This occurs, in the case of the poet Tennyson or the novelist Dostoevski, by providing "material" for their art. With van Gogh, the painter's "desire to express himself artistically" intensified, and his production increased.

Second book on subject

"Seized" is the second book in recent months to posit a strong relationship between mental illness and art-making. Kay Jamison's "Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament" (Free Press) made a stronger connection between "creativity and mood disorders" in general, seeing an "overlap between the artistic and manic-depressive temperaments." But Ms. LaPlante, to her credit, is not claiming that many or most artists and writers are epileptics; she is stating that, where reports of seizures or seizure-like events exist for artists or anyone, epilepsy should be considered as a diagnosis.

Ms. LaPlante discusses what epilepsy is and the forms it may take with different people as well as a brief history of treatment practices, which have included frontal lobotomies. Temporal lobe epilepsy "affects one million Americans; by some estimates, another one million sufferers are undiagnosed," she writes. The author has interviewed contemporary sufferers of the neurological disease and their doctors and looked over the history of famous men to find those who might now be diagnosed as epileptic.

Like Dr. Jamison, who is a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, she strays toward generalizations that are certainly controversial. Ms. LaPlante accepts the claims by some that "morality has an organic basis" and that "religion is our explanation for the feelings produced by . . . abnormal electrical activity" in the brain. If this is so, clearly more than 1-2 million Americans have some form of epilepsy.

Questionable evidence

There are problems with this book greater than throwaway generalizations, however. There are a number of after-the-fact diagnoses based on highly questionable evidence. "Jonathan Swift is now thought to have had epilepsy," Ms. LaPlante writes. "The miniature and mammoth peoples, Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians, who Gulliver encounters in his travels suggest that Swift experienced micropsia and macropsia."

More literal-minded readers, however, might think that Swift was weaving an allegory, using little people to point up petty minds and giants to reflect the smallness of Gulliver's own thinking. A similar discussion of Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Fall of the House of Usher" reveals that Ms. LaPlante appears to have missed the point again.

Just as with Dr. Jamison, connecting artmaking and mental disorders serves as an ad hominem attack on art, for why should we care about the creations of people who have something wrong with their brains? Ms. LaPlante posits that "the celestial pinwheels in [van Gogh's famous] 'The Starry Night,' painted at Saint-Remy the year before he died, might suggest . . . hallucinatory flashes of light." Perhaps then, what we honor in van Gogh's art is finding a visual equivalent for an epileptic seizure.

No less damning to art is the discussion of epilepsy sufferer Jill who, after receiving treatment for the disorder, leaves off corporate personnel work for a career in art. According to her physician, "Jill's abrupt switch to sculpture may well be a form of hypergraphia, the right hemisphere corollary of the left-temporal lobe epileptics who write a lot."

Ms. LaPlante later adds that Jill "is grateful to the disorder for having brought her a new vocation." Now we know where art comes from.

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