Representing Epilepsy, the latest volume in Liverpool University Press’s acclaimed Representations series, is the first book that looks at the cultural and literary history of epilepsy, a condition that afflicts at least 50 million people worldwide. Jeannette Stirling argues that neurological discourse about epilepsy from the late nineteenth century through to the mid-twentieth century was forged as much by cultural conditions of the times as it is by the science of western medicine. Stirling also explores narratives of epilepsy in works as diverse as David Copperfield and The X Files, drawing out the many ideas of social disorder, tainted bloodlines, sexual deviance, spiritualism, and criminality they depict. This pathbreaking book will be required reading for cultural disability studies scholars and for anyone seeking a better understanding of this very common condition.
It appears that this document is one Muslim’s response to a Christian Missionary. The author describes “Muhammad’s 11 symptoms” which, apparently, the Christian missionary had described as examples of epilepsy. By way of response, the author describes biblical (“Old Testament”) parallels to Muhammed’s symptoms, and concludes by arguing that “…the Prophet Muhammad(P) represented the continuity of the Hebrew Prophetic tradition, which had been broken and contradicted by the false teachings of Christianity.” Needless to say, the author does not consider the possibility that the biblical prophets themselves also suffered from epilepsy. For this Muslim author, like, in all likelihood the Christian missionary with whom he disagrees, the idea that epilepsy and prophecy could be linked is not considered. Instead a binary choice is perceived: either epilepsy (and falsehood) or prophecy (and truth.)
I bring you today, Act 4, Scene 1, from Othello, in which a man, raging with jealousy or anger or madness is excused by (imagined? conjured?) epilepsy. But what did the word mean in that time and place?
Act 4, Scene 1
SCENE I. Cyprus. Before the castle.
Enter OTHELLO and IAGO
Will you think so?
Think so, Iago!
To kiss in private?
An unauthorized kiss.
Or to be naked with her friend in bed
An hour or more, not meaning any harm?
Naked in bed, Iago, and not mean harm!
It is hypocrisy against the devil:
They that mean virtuously, and yet do so,
The devil their virtue tempts, and they tempt heaven.
So they do nothing, ’tis a venial slip:
But if I give my wife a handkerchief,–
Why, then, ’tis hers, my lord; and, being hers,
She may, I think, bestow’t on any man.
She is protectress of her honour too:
May she give that?
Her honour is an essence that’s not seen;
They have it very oft that have it not:
But, for the handkerchief,–
By heaven, I would most gladly have forgot it.
Thou said’st, it comes o’er my memory,
As doth the raven o’er the infected house,
Boding to all–he had my handkerchief.
Ay, what of that?
That’s not so good now.
If I had said I had seen him do you wrong?
Or heard him say,–as knaves be such abroad,
Who having, by their own importunate suit,
Or voluntary dotage of some mistress,
Convinced or supplied them, cannot choose
But they must blab–
Hath he said any thing?
He hath, my lord; but be you well assured,
No more than he’ll unswear.
What hath he said?
‘Faith, that he did–I know not what he did.
With her, on her; what you will.
Lie with her! lie on her! We say lie on her, when
they belie her. Lie with her! that’s fulsome.
confess, and be hanged for his labour;–first, to be
hanged, and then to confess.–I tremble at it.
Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing
passion without some instruction. It is not words
that shake me thus. Pish! Noses, ears, and lips.
–Is’t possible?–Confess–handkerchief!–O devil!–
Falls in a trance
My medicine, work! Thus credulous fools are caught;
And many worthy and chaste dames even thus,
All guiltless, meet reproach. What, ho! my lord!
My lord, I say! Othello!
How now, Cassio!
What’s the matter?
My lord is fall’n into an epilepsy:
This is his second fit; he had one yesterday.
Rub him about the temples.
The lethargy must have his quiet course:
If not, he foams at mouth and by and by
Breaks out to savage madness. Look he stirs:
Do you withdraw yourself a little while,
He will recover straight: when he is gone,
I would on great occasion speak with you.
How is it, general? have you not hurt your head?
Dost thou mock me?
The history of epileptic villages, one of 11 set up across the United States.
Many have addressed the matter of Dostoyevsky and epilepsy. This post will list interesting articles that I find on the subject.
Dostoyevsky was, perhaps, the most famous epileptic in history. The condition had a major influence on his philosophy and his conception of life. A recurring theme in his writing, epilepsy is something he analysed in great detail in many of his novels. Some have speculated that the course of the illness was reflected in how his writing changed throughout his life.
I will add to this post as I gather new material. Please feel free to make suggestions via comment.
In an article in the Huffington Post, Al Eisele explained that Colby’s guilt over his daughter with epilepsy and anorexia is portrayed as having been at least partly responsible for his suicide.
I watched the recent documentary film about William Colby, who headed the Central Intelligence Agency during the Vietnam War, with more than casual interest, even before it stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy because of its suggestion that he killed himself in 1996 because of guilt over his failure to comfort his oldest daughter before she died in 1973 from epilepsy and anorexia. (Huffington Post)
Professor Jan M. Keppel Hesselink made a video about an 1890 book on epilepsy therapies. He combines classical voice with illustrations from the book and descriptions of the treatments and conditions represented in the book.
Here’s a memory of when seizure disorders were shameful. Broadcast Date: March 7, 1965.
This CBC broadcast reflects some progressive views of seizure disorder, but also reveals the negative prevailing social attitudes and terminologies of the time.
Stephen Poliakoff, the film maker, commented on his story of Prince John, the son of England’s King George V, as follows:
It was also a chance to celebrate a child with disability not as a victim, but as somebody who progresses through the story and achieves an inner equilibrium. While Johnnie is achieving this journey the adult world has been overtaken by disaster and had all their confidence and certainty drained out of them. At the end of the story all the major historical characters have become helpless shadows of their former selves.
For me, the most surprising modern echo of The Lost Prince is how, nearly a hundred years after the events I describe took place, we are only fractionally more flexible and wise about how we treat children who are ‘different’ from the Edwardians.
It appears that Vincent van Gogh did not have epilepsy, notwithstanding his receipt of such a diagnosis. The 19th century meaning of the term was much broader than our current meaning.
Asked about van Gogh’s illness on “60 Minutes,” the authors cited “temporal lobe epilepsy.” They see no reason, they explained, to revise the opinion of Félix Rey, who treated van Gogh after the hideous incident in which he sliced off a substantial chunk of his left ear. It is not surprising that Dr. Rey, a 23-year-old intern at the hospital in Arles, felt van Gogh was afflicted with nonconvulsive epilepsy — the concept referred to invisible fits believed to occur in the brain. It provided doctors, in the pre-EEG late 19th century, with a convenient label to apply to everything from schizophrenia to ordinary obnoxiousness. Such a diagnosis hardly seems persuasive today.
This review of a recent book on van Gogh repeats the claim that he suffered from epilepsy.
The Wall Street Journal mentioned Van Gogh’s purported epilepsy here.