Chopin's Dark Hallucinations
A team of doctors in Spain has published a paper in the Medical Humanities journal which claims that Frédéric Chopin might have been epileptic. The results of the composer's autopsy have long been lost, but many scientists and historians have written about his health. Throughout his short life, he suffered from breathing difficulties. Emaciated and plagued by melancholy, he had frequent lung infections and severe headaches. The respiratory problems that finally killed him have recently been linked to cystic fibrosis, but temporal lobe epilepsy could explain the terrifying visual hallucinations that he regularly endured.
Earlier theories have included bipolar disorder, depression, migraines and schizophrenia, but the report's author, Manuel Várquez Caruncho, argues that none of these would have caused such vivid visual hallucinations. Schizophrenia, for example, is usually associated with aural hallucinations, and migraines are also unlikely to have been the cause because of Chopin's age and the briefness of his visions. We also know that he took opium drops as a form of medication. Although they too can cause hallucinations, this has been ruled out in Chopin's case as he hallucinated long before he started to use opiates.
It is thought that Joan of Arc and Vincent Van Gogh also suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy. But the condition could easily have been overlooked by Chopin's doctors according to Caruncho, a radiologist at the Xeral-Calde Hospital in Lugo, Spain, because there was such a limited understanding of the condition, which only affects one part of the brain, at the time of his death. In fact it was first diagnosed by a British neurologist in 1861, more than a decade after Chopin died, but we now know that temporal lobe epilepsy can produce the sort of brief but complex visual hallucinations that the composer described.
As Caruncho read Chopin's biographies and letters, he noticed symptoms and patterns that suggested a seizure disorder. His hallucinations were, for example, recurring, and lasted from seconds to minutes. But he could always remember them in detail, and they were often accompanied by a fever. Intrigued, Caruncho dug deeper. He pored through papers and books, including George Sand's autobiography, The History of My Life, in which she recounts the 'terrors and ghosts' that Chopin could not overcome and the 'anxiety of his imagination'. Chopin himself described feeling 'far away, in some strange region of space.'
His most vivid account of a vision came in a letter to Sand's daughter, Solange. In it he recalls a recital that he gave in 1848, when he saw creatures emerging from the piano and had to abandon a performance of his Op. 35 Piano Sonata. 'I was about to play the March,' he wrote, 'when suddenly, I saw emerging from the half-open case of the piano those cursed creatures that had appeared to me at the Carthusian monastery.' Chopin's hallucinations have always been considered the manifestation of a sensitive soul, but perhaps in time we will come to understand him better by separating the romantic cliché from reality?