The 'perilous gift' of genius: nervous exhaustion, stress, and mental excess

Goodman, H (2018) The 'perilous gift' of genius: nervous exhaustion, stress, and mental excess. In: Measure and Excess: Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Studies (INCS) Supernumerary Conference, 13 - 15 June 2018, Università Roma Tre, Rome, Italy.

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Thinkers and researchers as diverse as Mill, Darwin and Faraday are well-known for their contributions to what Asa Briggs termed ‘the Age of Improvement’. However, nineteenth-century publications ranging from fiction to biography and scientific journals explored the excess of ‘genius’, manifested in overworked minds and bodies which threatened to undermine national and international progress. On one hand, study guides and memory training manuals absorbed by the young Faraday urged strict focus and discipline, and on the other, neo-Lamarckian thinkers such as Lombroso urged that over-specialisation be avoided (to escape the fate of delusions and monomania suffered by men of outstanding ability since Socrates). Instead, Lombroso insisted that geniuses, like the rest of the population, should strive for mental balance above all other intellectual attributes. This paper reveals a network of European and transatlantic anxieties about mental excess in writings by Wilkie Collins, H. G. Wells, Conan Doyle, Francis Galton, George Beard, Marie Curie and others who describe cases of gifted young men and women suffering from nervous exhaustion and stress, many of whom are plagued by a host of bodily symptoms ranging from the inconvenient and embarrassing to the debilitating. The language used to describe this form of pathological over-stimulation (perhaps the most severe of the ‘infirmities of genius’ ) bears a striking resemblance to Esquirol’s idée fixe which characterised monomania, dwelling on one particular subject to the point of pathological obsession and exhaustion. It illustrates a fine line between genius and monomania, but arguably such descriptions show something more concerning: an overlapping of the two.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Keywords: nervous exhaustion, neurasthenia, stress, genius, nineteenth-century science, Charles Darwin, Francis Galton, J. S. Mill, Michael Faraday, Wilkie Collins, H. G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, George Beard, Marie Curie, hydrotherapy, hydropathy, water cure, spas, Malvern Monomania
Subjects: D History General and Old World > DA Great Britain
P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General)
P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN0080 Criticism
P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN0441 Literary History
R Medicine > RB Pathology
R Medicine > RX Homeopathy
R Medicine > RZ Other systems of medicine
Divisions: Chancelry and Research Management
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Date Deposited: 26 Nov 2018 14:11
Last Modified: 15 Aug 2021 09:50
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