Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, 29-June-2012, Vol 125 No 1357
Editorial: genius and insanity
Excerpt from Editorial published in 1912 March issue of the NZMJ.
"THE question of race culture, or, as it is now called, eugenics, is one of great perplexity. No doubt, it is an admirable aim to attempt to eliminate the production of the unfit, and no one but a reactionary and obscurantist will deny that much can be done to this end, mainly by education, but also by slight degrees of compulsion.
There is, however, a great danger that harm, as well as good, may come if some of the main principles of race culture are carried into effect, and it may well be the better course "to bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of."
The enforcement of eugenic principles would have robbed the world of intellectual giants. The greatest men, with rare exceptions, have sprung from neurotic stock, and, in very many instances, genius has been allied to insanity. Aristotle was one of the first to point out that often great men displayed morbid mental symptoms, and late writers, for example, Moreau, have contended that genius is essentially a neurosis.
It is near the truth to say that genius cannot be explained, that it certainly is not essentially a mental aberration akin to insanity, is the product of no class and no system, and is very rarely transmitted The average man's lamp of reason burns steadily if not brightly—there is neither fitful gleam nor dazzling flash.
Darwin could not explain the cause of spontaneous variations in the lower animal kingdom where the law of survival of the physically fittest generally prevails, and in the human race, the variations of mental development pass far beyond the range of our understanding. There are more things in Heaven and earth than are dreamt of in the evolution theory, and Wallace has admitted that the "noblest and most characteristic of human faculties" do not appear to come under the Darwinian law.
The greatest men in Art, Philosophy, and Literature (and Science, also, in a less degree), are nearly all the subjects of nerve disorder, but, for our present purpose, we may confine our attention to authors and poets.
Swift, once observing a wayside tree blasted by lighting, said to a friend : "I shall be like that tree I shall die at the top." His vicious courses, his irresponsibility, his uncontrollable fits of temper, facial twitchings and giddiness, and the hereditary taint in his family were sure signs to him that his reason reeled, and indeed he finally came under the charge of a keeper.
That great and good man, Dr. Johnson, inherited "a vile melancholy," and was obsessed by two fears all his life, the fear of madness, and the fear of death and the bondage of the grave.
Goldsmith's reason might have tottered upon her throne had it not been for the solace of Samuel Johnson's approval.
Cowper varied between suicidal impulses and religious melancholia.
There was insanity in Southey's family, and although the poet himself escaped, he was the "excitablest man" Carlyle had ever met.
Shelley suffered from hallucinations, and Byron wrote "some curse hangs over me and mine." His life was blighted by heredity, and the fear of madness possessed him all his life.
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