The Null Device
Mozart’s 140 causes of death and 27 mental disorders
Among the British Medical Journal's Christmas season of light-hearted articles this year: Mozart’s 140 causes of death and 27 mental disorders
, an amusing piece about the tendency to posthumously diagnose illustrious historical figures:
Schoental, an expert in microfungi, thought that Mozart died from mycotoxin poisoning. Drake, a neurosurgeon, proposed a diagnosis of subdural haematoma after a skull fracture identified on a cranium that is not Mozart’s. Ehrlich, a rheumatologist, believed he died from Behçet’s syndrome. Langegger, a psychiatrist, contended that he died from a psychosomatic condition. Little, a transplant surgeon, thought he could have saved Mozart by a liver transplant. Brown, a cardiologist, claimed he succumbed to endocarditis. On the basis of a translation error of Jahn’s biography of Mozart, Rappoport, a pathologist, thought Mozart died of cerebral haemorrhage. Ludewig, a pharmacologist, suggested poisoning or self poisoning by drinking wine adulterated with lead compounds. For some, Mozart manifested cachexia or hyperthyroidism, but for others it was obesity or hypothyroidism. Ludendorff, a psychiatrist, and her apostles, claimed in 1936 that Mozart had been murdered by the Jews, the Freemasons, or the Jesuits, and assassination is not excluded by musicologists like Autexier, Carr, and Taboga.
What clearly emerges is that Mozart’s medical historiography is made out of various alternatives, with a general time trend as tenable diagnostic hypotheses are progressively exhausted: the more recent they are the less probable. The most likely diagnoses—such as influenza, typhoid fever, and typhus—were proposed first, and only rare and irrelevant conditions such as Goodpasture’s syndrome, Wegener’s granulomatosis, Still’s disease, or Henoch-Schönlein syndrome were left for those who came later.
Thus, highly selective readings of the sources, blatant misquotations, and perversions of the diagnostic criteria have led to shoddy medical interpretations. Mozart allegedly had thought disorder, delusions, musical dysfluency, and epileptic fits, plus he did not actually compose music but merely displayed musical hallucinations. He was a manic depressive, a pathological gambler, and had an array of psychiatric conditions such as Capgras’ syndrome, attention deficit/hyperactive disorder, paranoid disorder, obsessional disorder, dependent personality disorder, and passive-aggressive disorder. This has resulted in psychiatric narratives that blend an uninterrupted long tradition of defamation—the film Amadeus was one of the last public expressions of this tradition.
This phenomenon is Mozart’s medical nemesis. It covers the hidden intent to pull an exceptional creator down from his pedestal through some obscure need to cut great artists down to size. It is reminiscent of Rameau’s nephew in Diderot’s novel who says about people of exceptional creativity: “I never heard any single one of them praised without it making me secretly furious. I am full of envy. When I hear some degrading feature about their private life, I listen with pleasure. This brings me closer to them. It makes me bear my mediocrity more easily.”
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