Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Love as illness: Symptomatology

Frank Gonzalez-Crussi
Chicago, Illinois, United States

Figure 1. Sappho as imagined by Raphael in the fresco known as Parnassus in the Raphael rooms in the Palace of the Vatican (c. 1509–1511). She appears in a corner of the fresco, holding a scroll with her name. Via Wikimedia.

Is love a disease? I mean erotic, obsessive, knees-a-trembling, passionate love. This is a question on which philosophers have descanted interminably. So have anthropologists, physicians, poets, and, in short, all those who suffer what Juvenal called insanabile cacoethes scribendi1 (“the incurable mania of writing”). All these have set forth their deliberate opinions with as much assurance as their respective fields of endeavor allowed, which is the same as saying that they were all disobligingly dogmatic. Some affirmed that love is a serious disease; others, that no better token of good health could be imagined. Far be it from me to presume to have the insight required to say something new on the matter. But, as a fellow sufferer of the mentioned cacoethes (Joseph Addison once said that it was as epidemic as smallpox in England; may God shield us from such fate here!), I see no harm in recapitulating some of the arguments wielded by one faction or the other. This is all I intend to do here.

Ardent love does look like illness. The person in love loses weight and sleeps poorly. Their eyes are rimmed by a shadow that betrays nights of insomnia. Formerly, sufferers manifested frequent sighing and crimson-hued blushing and sweating when unexpectedly catching sight of the love-object. Today, such florid clinical cases are rare. There is no pathognomonic facies of a lover: we cannot identify a lover, in the heat of his passion, simply by looking at him. We cannot go beyond the discreet statement of Charles Darwin, that “affection is a pleasurable sensation; it generally causes a gentle smile and some brightening of the eyes.”2 This is the statement of a placid, circumspect savant. A less charitable, cynical view was expressed by Chamfort, who said: “A lover is a man who endeavors to be more amiable than it is possible for him to be; and this is the reason that almost all lovers appear ridiculous.”3

On the other hand, the manifestations of a disease may remain unaltered for centuries. Sappho, the greatest lyrical poet of Antiquity (Fig. 1), described in the seventh century BC her tumultuous bodily state during lovesickness. Lovers today adjudicate her report as totally accurate. This is the poem known as “fragment 31.”4 Some believe it expresses homoerotic feelings towards a girl; others think it was inspired by Phaon, a ferryman whom Sappho loved. Whoever the addressee, “fragment 31” is a classic declaration of passion in Western literature, imitated by countless poets.5

The Roman poet Catullus introduces the name of his paramour, Lesbia, in his Latin translation: “Every time I see you, Lesbia, I lose my voice / my tongue turns dull / a subtle flame runs down my limbs / a strange sound resounds in my ears / and my eyes are covered by a double-shaded night.” Compare this bungling English rendering (my own) to that of a true poet, Guy Davenport (1980)6: “If I dare the shock of a glance, I cannot speak, / My tongue sticks to my dry mouth, / Thin fire spreads beneath my skin, / My eyes cannot see and my aching ears / Roar in their labyrinths.” Or that of Kenneth Quinn (1973): “I am bereft, Lesbia, of voice, / my tongue lies dazzled, within my frame / a subtle burning spreads, / my ears resound with their own din, a twin darkness / wraps around my eyes.”

What thoughts would a physician of our day invoke upon recording Sappho’s clinical history?

A lover turned mute in the presence of the beloved suffers from dysarthria, the technical term for impaired articulation of speech. Davenport’s “subtle flame that spreads beneath the skin” is an abnormal sensation that originates without any skin stimulation, i.e., a paresthesia. Richard Lattimore’s (1960) “ears muted in thunder,” must be named tinnitus,7 “a subjective phenomenon reported as a noise in the ears.”

We can now collate the lover’s poetical utterance (say, Paul Roche’s 1966 translation): “My voice when I see you suddenly near refuses to come. My tongue breaks up and a delicate fire runs through my flesh; I see not a thing with my eyes, and all I hear in my ears is a hum.” And the clinical history recorded by a physician:

Figure 2. Friedrich Melchior Baron von Grimm (1769). Engraving by John Swain. Via Wikimedia. Public domain.

“The patient reports dysarthria, excessive dryness of the buccal mucosa, paresthesias in the upper and lower limbs, and transient tinnitus of a humming character. All this frequently associated with visual amaurosis (darkening blindness), equally transitory. These symptoms are episodic, and consistently precipitated by the presence of a person in particular.”

Obviously, in traveling down the road between the lyrical realm of Sappho’s translations and the territory of clinical medicine, the English language suffered an accident that left it badly bruised. This road is dangerous, which is why it is seldom taken.

Atypical cases do occur, and therein lies a great challenge for clinical medicine, which is the most unstable of the “inexact sciences” (in the cock-eyed assumption that it is a science). Here is an example of atypia.

The patient, Friedrich Melchior, baron of Grimm (Fig. 2), was a German settled in France. Personal antecedent: he suffered the “poetical delirium,”8 for he wrote a theater play. Later, in France, he met the likes of Diderot, D’Alembert, Rousseau, and the whole lot of encyclopédistes. He owes his fame to a newsletter, the Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique.9 Gallivanting around, as they all were wont to do, he met a Mademoiselle Fel, who was “neither young, nor pretty, nor even very spiritual.”10 Nevertheless, he conceived a violent passion for her. Alas, faint cinders of loyalty, a nearly extinct virtue in that society, survived in the belle’s heart; she remained faithful to her husband. Grimm then fell into a state that Jean-Jacques Rousseau called “the strangest malady ever described,” namely:

“He passed his days and nights in a continuous lethargy, eyes wide open, pulse well-beating, but without eating, without speaking, immobile, sometimes seeming to hear, but never answering, not even by a sign, yet without agitation, without pain or fever, just staying there as if he were dead. Abbot Raynal and I shared his watch. The abbot … passed the nights by his side; I did so in daytime; never together, and never leaving him alone; one never left until the other had arrived. [A physician was called, who said “it will be nothing.”] My concern for my friend made me to observe carefully the physician’s countenance, and I saw him smile as he was leaving. However, the patient remained immobile for several days, taking no food whatsoever, …. Then, one good morning, he got up, got dressed, and took up his former train of life, without ever speaking, to my knowledge, either to me, to Abbot Raynal, or to anyone else, of his singular lethargy or the cares we had for him while it lasted.”11

An “unheard of” clinical form of lovesickness? Grimm was faking! If he did it to impress the disdainful belle, he failed miserably. But he reaped an unsuspected benefit. Gossip of his “illness” spread out far and wide and his popularity skyrocketed among mondaine women, for whom Grimm became the epitome of the passionate lover. Thus goes the world: madness greatly hurts or greatly helps men.

End notes

  1. The expression occurs in Juvenal’s Satire VII: … Tenet insanabile multos / Scribendi cacoethes et aegro in corde senescit. (“Many have the incurable disease of writing, and it becomes chronic in their sick minds.”) Cacoethes is a word that comes from the Greek “kakos,” bad, and “ethos,” habit or character. Together, the two words mean “bad habit” “proclivity to,” therefore “mania” or generally, “disease.”
  2. Charles Darwin: The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Introduction, Afterword and Commentaries by Paul Ekman. New York and Oxford. Oxford University Press. 1998, p. 83.
  3. Quoted by Henry T. Finck: Romantic Love and Personal Beauty. Their development, causal relations, historic and national peculiaritites. In 2 vols. Volume One., London. MacMillan and Co. 1887. P. 353.
  4. For comments and analyses of Sappho’s “fragment 31”, see: T. Mc Evilley: “Sappho Fragment Thirty-One: The Face Behind the Mask.” Phoenix 32: 1-18, 1978; Emmet Robbins: “‘Every Time I Look at You…’: Sappho Thirty-One.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 110: 255-261, 1974; Garry Wills: “Sappho 31, Catullus 51.” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 8: 167-197, 1967. Joel B. Lidov: “The Second Stanza of Sappho 31: Another Look.” The American Journal of Philology 114 (No.4): 503-535, Winter 1993.
  5. With little time searching, I found a collection of 34 different translations of Sappho’s poem in the internet, 25 or them in English, although more than 100 English translations are known. See: http://www.bopsecrets.org/gateway/passages/sappho.htm.
  6. Ibid. All English translations quoted appear on this website.
  7. Entry “tinnitus” in: James L. Bennington (editor): Saunders Dictionary & Encyclopedia of Laboratory Medicine and Technology. Philadelphia. W. B. Saunders & Co. 1984, p. 1498.
  8. Jakob Heinrich Meister: Mélanges de philosophie, de morale et de littérature. Vol. 2. Genève, Paschoud. 1822, p.85.
  9. Grimm’s “Correspondance littéraire” (Eds. Taschereau, Jules-Antoine. Paris; Furne. 1829-1831) is published as part of the ARTFL Project of the University of Chicago, and may be consulted on line at: https://artfl-project.uchicago.edu/content/grimms-correspondance-litt%C3%A9raire.
  10. Jakob Heinrich Meister: « Le Baron de Grimm » In : Mélanges de philosophie (Op. cit,, see note 8 above)
  11. Grimm’s “Correspondance littéraire” ARTFL Project of the University of Chicago. (op. cit.) Tome 01 [1753]. Xij Preliminaires. Page 19.

FRANK GONZALEZ-CRUSSI, emeritus professor of pathology of Northwestern University School of Medicine, is a frequent contributor to Hektoen International Journal. His last book is The Body Fantastic (MIT Press, Cambridge & London, 2021).

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 14, Issue 4 – Fall 2022

Winter 2022




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