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Seize on, Emily.
February 20, 2010 9:21 AM   Subscribe

Speculations have been made about Van Gogh, Julius Caesar, Dostoyevsky, Napoleon, and many others. A case has been made to add Emily Dickinson to their ranks.
posted by grapefruitmoon (59 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Can't believe you left out Joan of Arc, which is kind of the most interesting one in my opinion.
posted by nathancaswell at 9:25 AM on February 20, 2010


Oh, it's in the many others link... Carry on.
posted by nathancaswell at 9:26 AM on February 20, 2010


too soon
posted by mccarty.tim at 9:33 AM on February 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


BTW, since the FPP leaves it as a bit of a mystery, the speculation is that they all may have suffered from epilepsy.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:37 AM on February 20, 2010 [9 favorites]


Thank you, KokoRyu.

That could have been put behind a [more inside].
posted by mephron at 9:38 AM on February 20, 2010


I meant it to be somewhat mysterious as "What the hell do these people have in common?!" but so much for that. It's also spelled out if you click on any single link since the link specifically says "THIS DUDE HAD EPILEPSY!"

*sigh* Attempts at cleverness failed and we're less than 10 comments in.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 9:40 AM on February 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


My first read of this post was that all of these people were queer. While of course that would be fine, I am somewhat relieved that it is a bit more exotic.
posted by Danf at 9:40 AM on February 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


My first thought was hmm they're all famous. That can't be right can it?
posted by Babblesort at 9:42 AM on February 20, 2010


Like Julius Caesar, they all wore skirts that kept falling down.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:45 AM on February 20, 2010


The fact that the links send you "epilepsiemuseum.net" wasn't a tipoff?
posted by nathancaswell at 9:49 AM on February 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


I meant it to be somewhat mysterious as "What the hell do these people have in common?!"

Vincent Van Gogh, Julius Casear, Napolean Bonaparte and Margaux Hemingway. You know they made a hell of a band.
posted by hal9k at 9:52 AM on February 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


So what?
posted by Elmore at 9:54 AM on February 20, 2010


Sorry, I'm just annoyed because now my post about how Tiger Woods, Lady Gaga and Britney Spears all drink milk is redundant.
posted by Elmore at 9:57 AM on February 20, 2010 [8 favorites]


The fact that the links send you "epilepsiemuseum.net" wasn't a tipoff?


I read it as epile psiemu seum, and I have no idea what that is.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:59 AM on February 20, 2010 [6 favorites]


So what?

Well, the theory that Ms. Dickinson had epilepsy is a new one and provides an interesting read on some of her more enigmatic poems. But yeah... that does kind of fall into a "so what" category, I guess.

And here I thought that this would be awesome! Shows me you never know how an FPP is going to go once it's released into the wild.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 10:05 AM on February 20, 2010


I meant it to be somewhat mysterious as "What the hell do these people have in common?!" but so much for that.
Maybe for the best. Some people aren't entertained by "?¿?¿? MYSTERY POST ?¿?¿?".
posted by planet at 10:08 AM on February 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


What did you read "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_people_with_epilepsy" as?

Ok, I'm done, too much coffee
posted by nathancaswell at 10:09 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


The piece on Dickinson is pretty interesting ...
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:19 AM on February 20, 2010


My money was on "bipolar", "would have been aborted pre-Roe v Wade OMG", or "gay."

Epilepsy was my 4th guess after I hovered over the links ("epilepsiemuseum.net").

Any more good stuff you want to add, grapefruitmoon, in terms of the possible link between epilepsy and creativity (or in the case of Joan of Arc, spiritual epiphanies)? Epilepsy, along with schizophrenia, was once seen as a disease of mysticism, or possession.
posted by availablelight at 10:22 AM on February 20, 2010


...and of course that should have read "POST Roe v Wade but I've given up coffee and just came back from a massage so brain isn't working.....
posted by availablelight at 10:25 AM on February 20, 2010


Mine was on bipolar as well at first, availablelight. Kind of interesting. I think I get that mostly from Dostoevsky; reading Notes from Underground was a very surreal experience for me.


I liked the mysterious presentation, personally, it probably got me to click faster than I would have otherwise. If you don't like it it's not too hard to simply ignore the post, or if your curiosity is piqued you can hover over the links.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 10:33 AM on February 20, 2010


What is "Five people who've never been in my kitchen"?
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 10:38 AM on February 20, 2010 [8 favorites]


As a huge fan of her poetry, I find this a really interesting angle to read her from, and one that I haven't encountered before. At first glance, the theory makes a lot of sense. The article is very thorough and well-researched. Definitely worth a read, and thanks for posting.

As for the "so what" snark, the article makes a pretty compelling case that epilepsy -- and the social stigma surrounding it -- deeply informed her work.
posted by treepour at 10:39 AM on February 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


The judges weigh in on the post not for its content, but for its "presentation." With a pinky raised, no doubt. We like our Emily Dickinson-epilepsy posts to be more elegant in their form, to state the matter at hand in a plain fashion and deliver the content in a witty but subdued manner, without resorting to that cheap artifice which might pique our curiosity only to disappoint us when we encounter yet another cultured article in that pretentious fuck rag known as the Guardian. Oh, it's that dreary epilepsy business again, we all knew the poor girl had the shakes, must we bother? Now onward to youtube videos of perplexed kittens, ahem.
posted by bukharin at 10:48 AM on February 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


Maybe for the best. Some people aren't entertained by "?¿?¿? MYSTERY POST ?¿?¿?".

So what? If those people had moused over the links in this post, it wouldn't be a mystery. There's also a big fat clue in the title. Not every post has to spell out everything in the most obvious way, because not every post is going to appeal to every person reading MetaFilter.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:49 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


As for the "so what" snark, the article makes a pretty compelling case that epilepsy -- and the social stigma surrounding it -- deeply informed her work.

It was not intended to be snark at all. I saw the fpp as drawing a connection between the listed people's success/popularity/creativity and this debilitating condition - and I thought "so what?". You may as well connect or correlate colourblindness, insomnia, chron's disease, etc with success/poplularity/creativity or whatever. I do appreciate that for those who are interested in Dickinson and her work, this sheds some new light for them - but that is not really how the post was framed.
posted by Elmore at 10:57 AM on February 20, 2010


That said, it is by no means a bad post and I don't want to shitwreck it or anything - I apologise to grapefruitmoon and I'll step outside now.
posted by Elmore at 10:59 AM on February 20, 2010


This is revelatory yet somehow unsurprising.

To read her letters is to be stretched upon a rack of language to the limit of endurance. When I find myself idly resting my gaze on the three volumes sitting on my shelf, I often feel a spurt of fear in my stomach of the sort I get when I unexpectedly look through a gap down to the water walking across a high bridge.

I'd think the exertion of this degree of force of expression would almost have to have such a neurological backlash.
posted by jamjam at 11:01 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I tend to assume that any list of famous people with something about speculation is headed toward "were they gay?"
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:04 AM on February 20, 2010


A short list of people who cannot beat Epic Beard Man in a fistfight.
posted by fixedgear at 11:05 AM on February 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


A list of people who may have had Temporal Lobe Epilepsy would have been much more offensive to people of many faiths.
posted by orthogonality at 11:16 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


i recently read a claim that dickinson was also being drafted into the likely-had-the-syndrome-formerly-known-as-asperger's club. so which is it?
posted by apostrophe at 11:37 AM on February 20, 2010


As an explanation, epilepsy isn't much more satisfying than midichlorians.
posted by gimonca at 11:38 AM on February 20, 2010


As an explanation, epilepsy isn't much more satisfying than midichlorians.

I have epilepsy. I would rather have midichlorians.
posted by The Bellman at 12:27 PM on February 20, 2010 [6 favorites]


Metafilter: Shows me you never know how an FPP is going to go once it's released into the wild.
posted by infini at 12:33 PM on February 20, 2010


A short list of people who cannot beat Epic Beard Man in a fistfight.

Caesar might have a shot. Epic Beard Guy was in 'Nam but I'm sure J.C. had some pretty gnarly hand to hand combat training (not that it helped him take on 60 men at once).
posted by nathancaswell at 12:43 PM on February 20, 2010


Epic Beard Man, not Epic Beard Guy. Whatever.
posted by nathancaswell at 12:44 PM on February 20, 2010


It was not intended to be snark at all. I saw the fpp as drawing a connection between the listed people's success/popularity/creativity and this debilitating condition - and I thought "so what?"

Not how it was meant at all. It was meant to high light ex-post facto diagnoses of epilepsy amongst famous people and in no way meant to suggest that epilepsy had any connection to their success. Just to say "Look, we're diagnosing famous historical figures with this disease and here's another one!" It's fascinating to me the way we do this - not just with epilepsy, but schizophrenia, bipolar disorder... hell, I heard the other day that Lincoln had Marfan's Syndrome. We view historical figures via modern day diagnostics and come up with all sorts of diagnoses that may or may not be actually true - we have no way to ever know with any certainty. It's fascinating to me, both that we feel compelled to do this, and what we come up with.

In the case of Dickinson, many enigmatic poems may take on a new reading if viewed through the lens of the poet as suffering from epilepsy, but that was the only correlation meant to be drawn: that she wrote about it. Not that it made her a better writer, or not that it inspired her to write, but that it was used as subject matter.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 12:48 PM on February 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


Although no rules have been broken by any commenters, I still feel this thread needs be cleaned up.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:52 PM on February 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


I've never read Dickinson. Now I'm gonna move her to the top of my list.
posted by johnj at 1:02 PM on February 20, 2010


Not how it was meant at all. It was meant to high light ex-post facto diagnoses of epilepsy amongst famous people and in no way meant to suggest that epilepsy had any connection to their success.

FWIW, I think this is a fine and interesting post, but your comments above and throughout the thread illustrate the usefulness of [more inside] for keeping discussion on track.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:02 PM on February 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


the theory that Ms. Dickinson had epilepsy is a new one

Doubtful, actually. A quick Google Books search turns up that speculation in a 1978 article in the Emily Dickinson Bulletin (full text not available, just a snippet). My memory from the time I was reading ED biography and criticism a couple of decades ago is that pretty much every illness, trauma, psychological orientation, and/or romantic entanglement imaginable had been advanced by somebody or other as the "key" to the poetry.
posted by Creosote at 1:35 PM on February 20, 2010


Creosote is right: retrospective "diagnosis" based on nonsensically thin evidence is a whole cottage industry in Dickinson studies. The craziest articles often are those by medical doctors and other non-literary types who basically have no idea how to read poetry without being ridiculously literal. I recall one obscure article (by a psychiatrist!) that confidently advanced a very specific DSM diagnosis (some flavor of schizophrenia, I think, but it's been a while) with the argument that the mental state sorta-evoked in a few of the poems couldn't possibly have been described by anyone who hadn't experienced it firsthand. I wanted to write the guy and ask if he thought Hitchcock stabbed people in the shower, too.
posted by RogerB at 1:51 PM on February 20, 2010


KokuRyu: With all due respect, your concerns about framing have been alleviated with a simple reading of the links.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 1:52 PM on February 20, 2010


What is "Five people who've never been in my kitchen"?

I don't know, what is it?
posted by Evilspork at 1:53 PM on February 20, 2010


Yeah, but did you know she had crapilepsy?
posted by hermitosis at 2:39 PM on February 20, 2010


Although no rules have been broken by any commenters, I still feel this thread needs be cleaned up.

I don't think this thread needs to be cleaned up, but I do enjoy policing other people's behavior.
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:42 PM on February 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Not how it was meant at all.

I get that now. As said upthread.

Although no rules have been broken by any commenters, I still feel this thread needs be cleaned up.

WTF?
posted by Elmore at 3:05 PM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wow, I get to make two Emily Dickinson posts in two days. Thanks for the article, grapefruitmoon. There are a number of problems with Gordon's interpretation that are probably only visible to people who have been engaged in Dickinson studies for years and are familiar with the sources.
My memory from the time I was reading ED biography and criticism a couple of decades ago is that pretty much every illness, trauma, psychological orientation, and/or romantic entanglement imaginable had been advanced by somebody or other as the "key" to the poetry.
Creosote, you are absolutely right, and it hasn't changed at all. Possibly the most annoying tendency of Dickinson scholars over the years has been their need to advance various illnesses (tuberculosis and epilepsy are common proposals), anachronistic psychological disorders, and romantic disasters as the key to finally unlocking all the mysteries of Dickinson's life. For such an imaginative, cognitively original poet, the dull-witted psychobiographical industry that has sprung up around her is pretty embarrassing to watch.

I've often wondered, reading this stuff, why people are so disconcerted by the mystery of this woman's life, and why they feel it's a problem to be solved. It isn't. There are only so many sources, and unless we turn up a letter from the Master figure to Dickinson in some future year, it seems very unlikely that we'll come to any more satisfactory solution about his identity. The sources are simply ambiguous, and honestly, the romantic/psychobiographical speculations are probably the least interesting tack to take in analyzing Dickinson's life and work.

Dickinson may or may not have been epileptic, but to be blunt, there's simply no evidence for it. The intensity and wrack of her poems, their "spasmodic" character, etc., can be attributed to any number of disorders, but unfortunately the most plausible explanation is that that's just how she thought and wrote. That she suffered emotionally in the early 1860s is clear (at one point, she begins a letter, "At Centre of Sea"), but in my opinion anyone who proposes a single theory for her pain and creative incandescence during this period, as many have done, is pretty unimaginative, and more likely wrong than not.

Gordon also makes several problematic pronouncements about the publication-related "Dickinson wars" between the Todd women and Susan and Martha Dickinson. He writes,
Todd legend built up a pitiful Emily "hurt" by her "cruel" sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson.
This is a frequently repeated assertion by adherents of the Susan Dickinson legacy, including scholars like Martha Nell Smith. Yet many of the sources on Susan's "cruelty" are not Todds at all—in fact, probably the most famous source is Lavinia Dickinson herself, who once said that Susan had shortened Emily's life by several years with her cruelty. There are also the damning letters of Mary Lee Hall, helpfully included in the first appendix to Richard B. Sewall's biography of Dickinson. And there are many of Dickinson's own letters to Susan (as well as one by Susan to Emily!) that address the imbalance in their relationship, with Emily constantly wishing for more from Susan while Susan, who had plenty to worry about on her own, consistently put her off.

Gordon's assertion that Emily took a side in the emotional imbroglio surrounding Austin and Mabel's affair is simpy false. We don't know what she thought of the affair, but she was certainly aware of it and (as with Lavinia) permitted the lovers to meet in the Dickinson house. Dickinson was certainly disconnected from Susan in the later years of her life; she continued writing little notes, but she also didn't go over to The Evergreens, Susan and Austin's home—which was right next door!—for a fifteen-year stretch until her nephew's death in 1883.

There's lots more to address, but I'd say overall that Gordon's proposals are, for one thing, not very new, and for another, not very well-constructed, based on my knowledge of the source material. A much better way to approach Dickinson, rather than through various theories of her suffering, is to simply read her great poetry! If you're unfamiliar with her work and would like a selected edition, Thomas H. Johnson's Final Harvest is hard to beat. I also highly recommend the Richard B. Sewall biography; although it was written a few decades ago and, we now know, has a few errors, it is by far the best-written and most comprehensive accounting of her fascinating life.

If you're looking for a place to start with her poetry, you could do worse than by reading the poems I listed in this AskMetafilter post yesterday.
posted by cirripede at 3:09 PM on February 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


An embarrassing correction: Lyndall Gordon is, of course, a woman, not a man.
posted by cirripede at 3:19 PM on February 20, 2010


The question whether Dickinson had epilepsy or something else or what is an interesting one, and there's interesting stuff in the Gordon article -- but man, the prose in that article is agonizing.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:45 PM on February 20, 2010


What is "Five people who've never been in my kitchen"?

Yeah, met too. All those assholes were at my house for dinner once but I wouldn't let them in the kitchen. Dostoyevsky kept wanting to come in and lift the lid off the saucepan and sniff the grilling onions, but I wouldn't let him. Fucking Napoleon kept putting his boots on the coffee table. Last time I have that crowd over.
posted by marxchivist at 5:22 PM on February 20, 2010


grapefruitmoon: "*sigh* Attempts at cleverness failed and we're less than 10 comments in."

Nah it is a well done post. I purposefully read the comments looking for a spoiler. The mystery was there if I wanted to play along, but I'm tired and busy at the moment and just want to know what the story is. You did your job well, and the spoiler did their job well.
posted by stbalbach at 6:00 PM on February 20, 2010


As I said, I don't believe Dickinson was an epileptic,—or, rather, I don't think we have much evidence either way—but Gordon is onto something important about the poet with this evocative turn:
Her violent images, the "spasmodic" rhythms Higginson deplored, and the sheer volume of her output show that she coped inventively with gunshots from the brain into the body.
Dickinson is, as Richard B. Sewall has written, a poet of the "unitary moment," the sharp, paralyzing pulse of pain, numbness, or transformative vision. I can't think of another poet who has done this as E.D. does at her best: that is, she arrests in language the kind of human experience that is beyond language, moments in which a human being is seized by the play of forces much greater than herself. We see one such moment here, in a wonderful pair of lines from 1862:
When Winds take Forests in their Paws -
The Universe - is still -
(Fr477)
And in another of my favorites, "It was not Death, for I stood up":
When everything that ticked - has stopped -
And Space stares all around -
Or Grisly frosts - first Autumn morns,
Repeal the Beating Ground -
(Fr355)
Melville, in an essay of 1850, says of the Bard that "it is those deep far-away things in him; those occasional flashings-forth of the intuitive Truth in him; those short, quick probings at the very axis of reality;—these are the things that make Shakespeare, Shakespeare." It seems to me that this is also what makes Dickinson, Dickinson. It has to be kept in mind that the kind of poetry that prevailed in Dickinson's day was almost uniformly smooth, clean, ringing, and musical. Dickinson at her most original is explosive, strange, and daring, with contorted syntax, slant rhymes, and magpie diction—choices that enable her to capture what might be lost to a more conventional poet.

One of my favorite bits of Dickinsoniana is the memory from one of Dickinson's friends who, later in life, remembered evenings in the library with Emily "at the piano playing weird and beautiful melodies, all from her own inspiration." Dickinson seems to have stopped playing the piano in her later years, but "weird and beautiful" applies quite aptly to her poetry as well.

I would really be interested in hearing more from those in this thread who have experienced epilepsy or similar conditions, if they're comfortable speaking about it; do Dickinson's evocations of these "unitary moments" strike a chord with you?
posted by cirripede at 6:10 PM on February 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


I would really be interested in hearing more from those in this thread who have experienced epilepsy or similar conditions, if they're comfortable speaking about it; do Dickinson's evocations of these "unitary moments" strike a chord with you?

As someone with epilepsy who is also an artist... I've been encouraged many times to "express" my disease in art, and absent any direct representational BRAINZ kind of thing, I've been dismissed as being "evasive" or not addressing the issue. So, to me, the kind of thing that someone says "AHA! THAT! is what it must feel like!" is never actually what it feels like. At all.

(One of my painting professors told me to read The Idiot because it had a great description of a seizure. I nearly bit my tongue right off trying to repress some choice comments in response.)

I've never felt something like a "unitary moment" except in meditation, which has nothing to do with my seizures. It's the kind of thing that someone who doesn't have seizures imagines that they feel like. There's a lot of déjà vu. Sometimes a feeling of immense panic - like the apocalypse is coming for me, personally. Often there's an extreme swell of emotion - I'll find myself crying my head off for absolutely no reason at all. But no kind of "moment of clarity" type thing where "life just stops."

This bit cited in the article, however, rings true to me as a possible description of epilepsy:
My loss, by sickness – Was it Loss?

Or that Etherial Gain –
Epilepsy has been referred to as "the sacred disease" and often linked to mystics and creatives because the increased activity in the temporal lobe is thought to spike some kind of innate creative power. Whether or not this is empirically true, I have found that there are periods of creativity that precede/follow my seizures and it's an interesting rhythm to try and work around. There's a sense that yes, this is a sickness, but maybe it's also providing some kind of benefit in terms of creative thought.

(I don't think it makes me a better artist, but I do wonder if I would have been compelled to have a consistent artistic practice if I didn't have this disease to "work through." Maybe I'd take up golf or something instead if my temporal lobe worked normally.)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 7:16 PM on February 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


Whether or not this is empirically true, I have found that there are periods of creativity that precede/follow my seizures and it's an interesting rhythm to try and work around. There's a sense that yes, this is a sickness, but maybe it's also providing some kind of benefit in terms of creative thought.

That's interesting. Your experience sounds similar to my own, and other people I've known, with severe depression and related conditions like bipolar disorder. I don't think there's much poetry or revelation in a depressive episode—in fact, I'd go so far as to call depression an antonym for poetry.

There's a contradiction here, however, because actually, one of the reasons that I was initially attracted to Emily Dickinson's work was that it seemed to capture that dead space in poetic terms: "like Chaos - Stopless - cool," as she writes. Dickinson often stated that she sought relief from pain and fear through her work. "I sing, as the Boy does by the Burying Ground -," she told Higginson, "because I am afraid." And in another letter, "I felt a palsy, here - the Verses just relieve."

The dance between physical or mental illness and creativity appears to be quite complex. The romantic view might assume that a condition manic depression or epilepsy somehow inherently breeds or stimulates originality and genius. Obviously this is not the case, but at the same time, there does seem to be something about chronic, severe disruptions of everyday rhythms that interacts with the artistic impulse in an interesting way. I know Kay Redfield Jamison has written a book, Touched with Fire, about the link (if one exists) between bipolar and creativity. It's possible someone's done similar research on epilepsy.
posted by cirripede at 8:20 PM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wow, there is only one Google result for "crapilepsy", and it is this thread. Glad I could contribute something meaningful to the human race.
posted by hermitosis at 11:13 PM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Just wanted to cast my "this post was just fine" vote. A little mystery is just fine. Having a wide variety of posting styles on this site is just fine. People racing in to a thread simply to complain about the framing? Not just fine.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 2:20 AM on February 21, 2010


Sorry, I'm just annoyed because now my post about how Tiger Woods, Lady Gaga and Britney Spears all drink milk is redundant.

Do we know Tiger really does drink milk? I thought a majority of African Americans (certainly African Africans) are lactose intolerant.
posted by DU at 5:58 PM on February 21, 2010


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