A new article on the founder of criminology, Cesare Lombroso, recounts the curious tale of how he met War and Peace author Leo Tolstoy to confirm his theory on how genius and madness were linked.
Among other things, Lombroso was convinced that mental ‘degeneration’ was reflected in the face and so could be seen externally.
The meeting, it seems, didn’t go well.
…he intended to meet Tolstoy, whom he regarded as the greatest living writer, in order to test his theory on the relationship between genius and madness… Indeed, Lombroso imagined Tolstoy as being of “aspetto cretinoso o degenerato” [“cretinous or degenerate appearance”] (like Socrates, Ibsen, Darwin and Dostoyevsky among others), as illustrated by one of his portraits published in the 6th edition of The Man of Genius…
…Once there, the Italian criminologist began his naturalistic observation with a view to verifying his theory first-hand. Indeed, he managed fully to confirm his hypothesis of the relationship between genius and degeneration, in that, in his view, Tolstoy proved to be affected by an “epileptoid psychosis”, a sign of a hereditary mental illness that was detectable both in his forebears and in some of his children. It was not a happy meeting.
On his part, Tolstoy reacted to Lombroso’s visit by confiding to his diary his contempt for Lombrosian theories (August 27, 1897: “…Lombroso came. He is an ingenuous and limited old man”: cf. Mazzarello, 2001: 983). Mazzarello (2005), who chronicles the visit extraordinarily well, makes an important connection when he notes that, in the days following Lombroso’s visit, Tolstoy would write the pages of his novel Resurrection, in which he depicts a public prosecutor’s harangue that is imbued with Lombrosian ideas; the President of the Court rebukes the official for “going too far”, while another colleague concludes that he is “a very stupid fellow”.
The great writer described his struggles with depression later in life but despite Lombroso’s instant diagnosis of “epileptoid psychosis” he was never known to have experienced psychotic episodes.
Link to locked academic article on Lombroso.