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.
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.
It is not essential that books about medical conditions be written by medical experts or scientists, but Ms. LaPlante's lack of sure-footedness on the subject of epilepsy is too often revealed by how she makes her points and the issues she omits. How do different anti-convulsant medications affect the brain, and what are the side effects of these drugs? How does the brain work, and what causes the disorder known as epilepsy? What are the differences between epilepsy, manic-depression and schizophrenia? Readers get only the most limited information on these and other essential points, precisely because hard science isn't Ms. LaPlante's strength.
Relies on neurologists
The result of this is a reliance on a relatively small number of neurologists whose point of view she accepts-- and passes on -- wholeheartedly. Viewpoints on a variety of issues -- in fact, the entire theme of this book -- are expressed in quoted comments by these authorities rather than by Ms. LaPlante herself. When the quotation marks are gone, one is left with a large number of sentences containing weak, equivocal "mays" and "mights" and "most likelys." A sentence that begins "Biographers suggest . . ." is a poor start to anything readers are expected to take as fact.
The largest problem -- and the greatest asset -- in "Seized" is that the author is essentially a journalist who doesn't recognize the difference between how one writes a magazine article and a book. A journalist quotes various sources, while an author becomes an authority, making reference to -- but not wholly dependent upon -- what others have said or written. The book also feels like an extended magazine feature article, with keep-the-readers-awake asides that magazines often put in "boxes," such as: What is the difference between "normal" and "abnormal," and is there such a thing as free will?
Ms. LaPlante's feature-writing skills are what save her. She is excellent at telling the stories of her contemporary epilepsy sufferers, selecting the kinds of details about individuals that reveal their larger personalities. Even the anecdotes about van Gogh, Dostoevski and other famous artists are so well woven into the overall narrative that one is tempted to see her larger argument as seamless.
Title: "Seized: Temporal Lobe Epilepsy as a Medical, Historical, and Artistic Phenomenon"
Author: Eve LaPlante
Length, price: 256 pages, $19.95