THOMAS WOLFE, GENIUS AND MENTAL ILLNESS…

July 9th, 2016

Thomas Wolfe became the Tupac Shakur of his generation. During his brief lifetime—he died on my birthday in 1938 at the age of 37—he saw only eight of his 18 completed works published. The most recent of his works, O Lost: A Story Of The Buried Life (the 736-page, unabridged version of Look Howard Angel, 512 pages) was published in 2000.

Wolfe died from miliary tuberculosis of the brain. When the doctors had attempted to operate on Wolfe’s brain they found that the disease had overrun the entire right hemisphere of his brain. How long Wolfe suffered from this condition I am unable to ascertain, but that he did suffer from a brain affliction fascinates me as a writer.

As I watched Jude Law’s portrayal of Wolfe in the movie Genius (a movie I could easily watch again), the first thought that came to my mind—in the very first scene in the trailer above—was: what has fucked up his brain?

The very title of the movie should have been a clue. For ancient peoples manifestations of conditions that we know to be caused by malfunctions and diseases of the brain were thought to be supernatural, connections with gods and demons. The ravings of such people were carefully interpreted as oracles. This was so true that very origins of the word genius was not that a person was a genius, but rather that they were possessed by a genius.

When I first began to think of myself as a writer, and to read about the lives of writers hoping for some guidance, I was taken again and again by the stories of alcoholism, drug addiction, melancholy/depression, mania and flat-out madness told of so many great writers. The very act of writing excessively has a psychological diagnosis: Hypergraphia, a condition that I suspect both Issac Asimov and Anne Rice (and maybe Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates) dealt with. I first became familiar with the condition when I read Kay Redfield Jamison’s most excellent Exuberance: The Passion for Life, a book I now consider a must read for any budding writer (or anyone who loves a writer).

So, if a writer’s genius is caused by a mental illness, what is the writer to do? Self-medicate with alcohol or drugs? Find a sane person to interpret—which I am inclined to think was the case with Wolfe—or seek a cure and risk losing the genius? This was the very dilemma in Lying Awake by Mark Salzman about a nun whose poetry is so wonderful, she has been asked to read for the Pope, but there is a problem:

In a Carmelite monastery outside present-day Los Angeles, life goes on in a manner virtually un-changed for centuries. Sister John of the Cross has spent years there in the service of God. And there, she alone experiences visions of such dazzling power and insight that she is looked upon as a spiritual master.

But Sister John’s visions are accompanied by powerful headaches, and when a doctor reveals that they may be dangerous, she faces a devastating choice. For if her spiritual gifts are symptoms of illness rather than grace, will a “cure” mean the end of her visions and a soul once again dry and searching?

Should, can! Sister John of the Cross let go of her poems?

I’ve attended more than a dozen writers’ retreats over the years and there I’ve learned that a surprising number of the attendees go off their meds for the duration and turn to unprescribed (and sometimes illegal alternatives) to allow them to write for one or two weeks. The medications, they’ve told me, destroy their creativity; make them feel less and less. If a writer can’t feel, they can’t write.

So, go see Genius. Tell me I’m crazy and that my analysis is bullshit.

I really want to know.

2 Responses to “THOMAS WOLFE, GENIUS AND MENTAL ILLNESS…”

  1. Rob Penland says:

    Hi Jeff,
    Let me start by telling you I am Thomas Wolfe’s third cousin. My father (who would have celebrated his 101st birthday today) never spoke much about his family. Much of what I know is derived from research and third person accounts. One story he did recount before his death (1997) was when he graduated from college in 1938, his bookworm sister took him on a trip to NY where they met with Tom at the Chelsea hotel. The depiction of Wolfe writing standing up does seem to be accurate. My father told me he stood up at a bureau wrote on a legal pad and once a page was completed, would tear it off and drop it in a valise at his feet. Other than that, I have trouble relating to Jude Law’s portrayal of Tom as a waifish bumpkin.

    One thing I have learned in my years on this earth is that there is indeed a very fine line between genius and insanity. I have known a number of writers, poets, musicians and artists and on that point I am clear. I always thought I could be a writer but alas I fear I lack the “crazy” gene that seems necessary to excel.

    I came across your blog while watching the film for the first time and researching its origins. Thanks for the post and again, I think Law missed the mark and if Colin Firth doesn’t take off the hat I think I will scream. It is so prevalent that it must have some cinematic meaning. Even though the movie was panned by the critics it is probably a film I will watch again and again.

  2. Rhory Lamboy says:

    Looking for something to keep me company during dinner, I found Genius. Not knowing much about Wolfe, I found myself surfing the web to find out more about him, Aline, and Max. I found your blog and enjoyed it so much! I read the response from Wolfe’s cousin. Now I’d like to read a biography to see what was true and what wasn’t. I suppose that will be questionable too. Thanks again. And by the way, I too couldn’t believe the “hat” thing. I laughed myself silly when I read that post. I might just take you up on the Jamison book. Thanks.

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