Sunday, March 16, 2008

In Search Of Historic Tourettists

(For what it's worth, this post is dedicated to the memory of the late Rodney Marks).
Never having seen 'I, Claudius' in its entirety before, it's been very interesting catching it on UKTV History; and the nature of the Claudian affliction is, well, puzzling.
Although the Wikipedia entry for Claudius states the possibility that he suffered from Tourettes, it also quotes the following -
"The historian Suetonius describes the physical manifestations of Claudius' affliction in relatively good detail.[1] His knees were weak and gave way under him and his head shook. He stammered and his speech was confused. He slobbered and his nose ran when he was excited. The Stoic Seneca states in his Apocolocyntosis that Claudius' voice belonged to no land animal, and that his hands were weak as well;[2] however, he showed no physical deformity, as Suetonius notes that when calm and seated he was a tall, well-built figure of dignitas.[3] When angered or stressed, his symptoms became worse. Historians agree that this improved upon his accession to the throne.[4] "
Weak knees that give way from under you...yeah, know that one...shaking head...know that one...(occasionally) confused speech...know that one...'when angered or stressed, his symptoms became worse'...know that one very well...
It's impossible to verify a diagnosis for Claudius, of course - but the very broad range of Tourettes symptoms, and what seems to be the fact that he exhibited many of them, means that a punt on him having been a sufferer might not be too wide of the mark.
Whether or not this adds any weight to the conclusion may be debatable; but Claudius seems to have shared a personality characteristic, the tendency to take long digressions, with the second possible historic Tourettist - Adam Smith.
Wikipedia's page on Smith notes,
"Contemporary accounts describe Smith as an eccentric but benevolent intellectual, comically absent minded, with peculiar habits of speech and gait and a smile of "inexpressible benignity."[6]"
'Peculiar habits of speech and gait'...hmmm...
In his book on 'The Wealth of Nations', P. J. O' Rourke wrote,
"He talked to himself. His head swayed continually from side to side. When he walked he looked as of he was headed off in all directions...Dining at Dalkeith House, the country seat of the Duke of Buccleuch, Smith began a scathing commentary on some important politician with the politician's closest relative sitting across the table. Smith stopped when he realised this. But then he began talking to himself, saying that the devil may care but it was all true...(w)hen Smith was a government official in Edinburgh he had a ceremonial guard consisting of a porter..wielding a seven foot staff. Each day when Smith arrived the porter would perform a sort of drill team exercise. One day Smith became fascinated by this and, using his bamboo cane in place of the staff, matched the porter's every motion, present arms for present arms, about face for about face, parade rest for parade rest. Afterward no one could convince Smith that he'd done anything odd". (pps 172-173)
Why should he think that? He was a sufferer of complex tics who couldn't stop blurting out what he thought and who'd just undergone an echopraxic episode. At that time, for him to walk behind his porter in that manner must have been the most natural thing in the world to do.
For Smith to have been a Tourettist is not at all beyond the bounds of possibility; yet if Smith's influence on history has been largely benign, I'm afraid that of the third possible historic Tourettist was largely not.
The late Lindsey Hughes' biography of Peter the Great recounts that Peter suffered from extremely violent facial tics - if memory serves, Professor Hughes didn't make the connection with these being a possible consequence of Tourettes.
Having thought myself a very clever boy for producing this insight, it's with only mild disappointment that I've discovered, while preparing this post, that Bengt Lagerkvist has beaten me to it - specifically in regard to Peter's above average alcohol intake, a not uncommon feature of the condition.
However, there were other aspects of Peter's behaviour that also make Tourettes plausible.
Peter was a raging obsessive-compulsive; no explanation other than OCD can account for the consistent energy and effort he put into creating a Russian navy - a project which, as Evgeny Anisimov has quite rightly described it, had all the ultimate value of the Soviet space program. All it did was consume resources in pursuit of national prestige, and produced very little to show for it. The construction of St. Petersburg, Peter's fantastical 'Window on the West', was another project which devoured treasure, and lives, and from which Peter just could not be dissuaded.
The evidence that the man who conquered Britain, the father of economics and the victor of Poltava suffered from a sometimes much-misunderstood condition seems quite strong; but whether or not these speculations have any actual value is for others to determine.


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