The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

November 6, 2013

November 6, 1835

Cesare Lombroso, (November 6, 1835 to October 19, 1909) was an Italian thinker: he was a physician and psychologist who put forward theories about criminality. These ideas posited that you could see in the human body inherited characteristics which went along with a criminal mind. Like short stature, big ears, broad forehead. L'uomo delinquente, was published in 1878. He founded what he called a school of positivist criminology. Lombroso in trying to apply contemporary scientific labels ignores the basic scientific task of empirical investigation of an issue. Otherwise questions about what constitutes a norm for human behavior would be prominent. But he assumes what was considered obvious to 19th century society need not be verified. He mistook a passing set of popular assumptions for truths which could be accepted uncritically. 

A similar problem came up when Lombroso set out to clarify the issue of what constitutes genius in people. By genius Lombroso really meant creativity. Having explained criminality, Lombroso posits genius (creativity) is an inherited mental illness. In other words, what bothered Lombroso was anything which fell outside a cookie cutter view of normalcy. From The Man of Genius (1891 is the English translation of L'uomo di genio in rapporto alla psichiatria, 1888)  we read:

[L]iterary madness is not only a curious psychiatric singularity, but a special form of insanity, which hides impulses the more dangerous, because not easy to perceive, a form of insanity, which, like a religious insanity, may be transformed into a historical event.

Before inquiring into the proof Lombroso puts forward for his explanation of artistic creativity, let's glance at his view of the history of "the problem."

History Of The Problem.
Aristotle—Plato—Democritus —Felix Plater—Pascal—Diderot— Modern writers on genius.

IT is a sad mission to cut through and destroy with the scissors of analysis the delicate and iridescent veils with which our proud mediocrity clothes itself. Very terrible is the religion of truth. The physiologist is not afraid to reduce love to a play of stamens and pistils, and thought to a molecular movement. Even genius, the one human power before which we may bow the knee without shame, has been classed by not a few alienists as on the confines of criminality, one of the ... forms of the human mind, a variety of insanity.

This impious profanation is not, however, altogether the work of doctors, nor is it the fruit of modern scepticism. The great Aristotle, once the father, and still the friend, of philosophers, observed that, under the influence of congestion of the head, "many persons become poets, prophets, and sybils, and, like Marcus the Syracusan, are pretty good poets while they are maniacal ; but when cured can no longer write verse." And again, "Men illustrious in poetry, politics, and arts, have often been melancholic and mad, like Ajax, or misanthropic, like Bellerophon. ..."

In the
Phaedo, Plato affirms that "delirium is by no means an evil, but, on the contrary," when it comes by the gift of the gods, a very great benefit. In delirium, the prophetesses of Delphi and Dodona performed a thousand services for the citizens of Greece; while in cold blood they were of little use, or rather of none. It often happened that, when the gods afflicted men with fatal epidemics, a sacred delirium took possession of some mortal, and inspired him with a remedy for those misfortunes. Another kind of delirium, that inspired by the Muses, when a simple and pure soul is excited to glorify with poetry the deeds of heroes, serves for the instruction of future generations."

We are indebted to Carl Van Vechten for highlighting the interesting aspect of Lombroso's ideas. Van Vechten in The Tiger in the House (1924) says of the book we mention above

In THAT remarkable volume in which Cesare Lombroso attempts to prove that all men of genius are tainted with insanity he makes a complete case against Charles Baudelaire. The charges are that he wrote three poems about cats.

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