Saturday, January 12, 2013

Illnesses Of Writers

Medical Cures

There has long been a fascination on how famous creative individuals of the past died, and more pointedly how they were able to keep on writing in spite of their illnesses, many debilitating in nature. (One of the most famous examples is that of Mozart.) In an article in The Wall Street Journal, Raymond Tallis reviews a book (Shakespeare's Tremor and Orwell's Cough, by John J. Ross). In it, the physician mixes some fine detective work with intelligent speculation based on modern science to determine what ailed famous literary figures.
Unsurprisingly, infectious diseases dominate Dr. Ross's literary ward round as they dominated all eras in which the germs that cause them were not understood and antibiotics not available. The usual suspects, syphilis (Shakespeare), gonorrhea (Joyce) and tuberculosis (the Brontës, Orwell), are joined by more exotic transmissible misfortunes such as yaws, a tropical disease that causes dreadful ulcers (London), and relapsing fever, or Brucellosis (Yeats). Bipolar disorder—in which frenzied productivity alternates with increasingly frequent crashes into depression—is plausibly ascribed to Melville, Hawthorne and London. Some of Dr. Ross's subjects seem also to have had mild autism, which made ordinary relationships agonizingly difficult. Their medical troubles were frequently compounded by heroic alcohol consumption, intended to mitigate their symptoms. Downwardly mobile parents and other childhood traumas also loom large in the literary C.V.
Job himself would have been grateful to have been spared the burden of illness carried by Jack London. A charismatic, handsome giant in his youth, he was a dying wreck at 40. His problems included yaws, gout, kidney stones, a rotten mouth from recurrent scurvy and massive fluid retention from nephritis. His self-medication with an entire pharmacy's worth of remedies was enthusiastically supported by his star-struck doctor. It included a cocktail of morphine and atropine that killed a man who had survived appalling ordeals at sea and in the Klondike and who, by the time he was 20, had outlived most of his waterfront mates. Even so, in the last week of his life, he worked for a 60-hour stretch, broken only by two hours' sleep, on a final unfinished novel. Melville similarly surmounted family tragedies, critical neglect, profound depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, cardiac failure and agonizing arthritis to write "Billy Budd," the late masterpiece that showed how his mind could still function at the highest level.
Such shows at least two things: that medicine continues to advance, and what we now take as effective therapy will (eventually) be replaced by a better therapy as our knowledge of the human body increases; and that the human spirit among many writers is strong and resistant to illness and death. In other words, the will to live and the need to create dominate many writers' views and their lives. The lesson here, at least as I understand it, is that we require both the advantages of modern medicine and the courage of the human heart.

You can read the rest of the article at [WSJ}