02 June 2007

Just How Strange Was Mr. Satie?

When I first read M. T. Anderson’s Strange Mr. Satie (actually, heard it read), I thought, "What, did the guy have Asperger syndrome?"

Erik Satie's combination of social dysfunction, odd personal habits, and unprecedented musical taste added up to an strange life, to be sure. But might that life also fit within a since-recognized psychiatric diagnosis?

In 2003, the same year that Anderson's picture-book biography came out, Prof. Michael Fitzgerald of Trinity College in Dublin floated the autism/Asperger's idea in a paper titled "Erik Satie: An Autistic Musical Brain," at the Social Brain Conference in Goteborg, Sweden. He later discussed Satie as a likely candidate for an Asperger diagnosis in The Genesis Of Artistic Creativity: Asperger's Syndrome and the Arts.

Fitzgerald seems to make a habit of identifying people with autism-spectrum diagnoses, and/or identifying creative people's emotional or social difficulties as connected to such a condition. His suggestion that Satie, who proposed to his first and only girlfriend on the day they met and later threw her out a window, had severe difficulties with social relations is far more convincing than his similar suggestion about Beethoven, who could be grumpy.

Historians have been reluctant to apply such psychiatric diagnoses to people of the past because those labels have changed greatly, and often reflect the values of the society that comes up with them. But as we learn more about brain science, those diagnoses may well become more rooted in biochemistry and measurable phenomena, less in subjective judgments. Just as historians don't write about smallpox epidemics without applying our knowledge of the virus that caused them, so they might have to consider neurology in assessing individuals' behavior.

Such psychiatry may affect how the life of a person like Eric Satie or Alexander Cruden gets told. When is "eccentricity" or "originality" not an artistic choice but a mental condition? Was Satie "irreverent" and "childlike," as the dust jacket of Strange Mr. Satie states? Did he set out to cast a "bohemian brilliance" (Publishers Weekly)? Or was he simply unable to fit in?

Actually, Satie's society might have been unusually welcoming for him. He happened to live during the flowering of the Modern, when Picasso, Cocteau, Braque, Stravinsky, Man Ray, and other men were reinventing their art forms. That world took Satie on, but would a person of similar musical invention living at another time have been shunned instead?


mta said...

Hey, JLB!

Another interesting Satie diagnosis was that he was dyslexic – which, some believe, explains the fact that he invariably wrote in an elaborate art nouveau calligraphy. Those who subscribe to this theory argue that the calligraphy was a kind of self-enforced discipline, a rigorous determination to regulate his confusion – not unlike his decision to go back to school quite late in life and learn the rules of strict counterpoint, as a way of counteracting his early failures.

I don’t know which of the various diagnoses I believe. I don’t think that Asperger’s is out of the question. It is clear, regardless, that he was an alcoholic and that, for reasons neurological or psychological, he did have something which could probably be safely called a disorder.

On the other hand, we shouldn’t underestimate Satie’s intentionality or dismiss his odd choices simply as symptoms. He was (as you point out) highly functional in his milieu. Many who knew him recall him being brilliant and charming in company, as well as infuriating. He was personable. He held jobs as a musician, he organized musical events, he organized political events in his neighborhood – he had, in other words, a capacity for professionalism that is often overlooked.

More importantly, he was clearly very aware of the effects of his music. Unlike certain artists – Christopher Smart, say, or Henry Darger, both of whom share a certain flavor of grave absurdity w/ Satie – Satie knew that the weird humor of his inscriptions was weird humor. He used the odd performance directions to make sly, very sophisticated parodistic points. (Making fun of Schubert and Chopin’s emotionalism, for example, in his “Desiccated Embryos,” a set of pieces devoted to the sea-cucumber.) He was very much in control of his art, though he used it to express a sense of his dislocation from the world around him.

There is little doubt that figures like Satie, Alfred Jarry, and Arthur Rimbaud succeeded partially because of the receptiveness of Parisian society to their bizarre eccentricities – and that they might not have succeeded very well in other circumstances. But on the other hand, they, through the vigor of their personalities – however dysfunctional – all produced works which revolutionized their fields – and importantly, they all displayed considerable craftsmanship and intention in creating those works. Satie was a leader in his field, at the center of two generations’ musical development.

So I wonder if diagnosis doesn’t run the risk of unfairly disempowering these people. It’s an interesting inquiry, but it also is an easy method of marginalizing people rather than considering them as full people. It turns them into victims, rather than allowing them autonomy as individuals.

Regardless of whether Satie did indeed suffer from an actual “syndrome” or a more nebulous mix of alcoholism and psychological oddity, this gives us all the more reason to celebrate his life, and the bravery and insight that allowed him to transform his own struggles into something so revolutionary, and so universally appealing.

- mta

J. L. Bell said...

So folks (including me) can see what MTA is talking about, here's an example of Erik Satie's handwriting. Some more samples appear on this page. All thanks to Niclas Fogwall.

J. L. Bell said...

I agree that ascribing creative work to psychiatry could be dangerously reductive. It may wring perceived value out of work like Satie's, or set it apart from other creations in the same form.

At the same time, many of the writers suggesting these connections, such as Prof. Fitzgerald, seem to be motivated by a desire to help people with those diagnoses today. Often such authors are parents of children with the condition in question or people who treat or counsel them. They write, sometimes explicitly, to improve the public image and the self-image of people they care for.

The pattern seems to be to cast a wide net for possible cases, and then argue one or both of these points:
a) many famous, admirable people have also had that condition.
b) that way of thinking was a crucial ingredient in those people's accomplishments.

Of course, when we seek examples of anything in the past, we're more likely to snag a famous, documented, and still studied person than someone who lived more quietly. Which magnifies the perceived connection between the condition and accomplishment (or notoriety).

Emphasizing such a connection has another potential drawback, I think. It may put a burden on people who have the condition in question without other qualities or interests necessary to succeed in highly visible ways. Some people with autism spectrum disorders are unusually talented at music, mathematics, or memory, for example. But that doesn't mean every such person must be a prodigy in such a publicly valued way.

I guess my interest in considering these possibilities about people of the past (who are long past both psychological testing and psychological counseling) comes from two hopes. First, to understand those individuals better as individuals, to recognize their different ways of thinking (if any), and not try to explain their choices through inappropriate models. Secondly, to expand our understanding of the range of natural human thinking styles.

Anonymous said...

I remember reading Erik Erikson's YOUNG MAN LUTHER, subtitled "A Study in Psychoanalysis and History," in college. It was published in 1958 and was considered somewhat of a breakthrough; it applied the principles of psychoanalysis to the study of the adolescent Martin Luther. It also created controversy for the same reasons you discuss.

J. L. Bell said...

I think the latest in brain science always wants to applies its theories and insights to people of the past. In the 20th century that latest was Freudian psychoanalysis, so we heard a lot about Louis XIII's toilet training, etc. We also heard, when it came to conditions like autism, a lot about "refrigerator mothers" and other psychoanalytically-based explanations, now largely discarded.

Right now it appears that the latest advances in neuroscience have a firmer grounding than psychoanalytic theory. There are measurable biochemical and sometimes cellular markers for some conditions, though it's still quite unclear how they arise. To my eyes, that's the equivalent of spotting germs in the microscope at last.

Of course, Freudians also believed that they'd gained a great insight which would be built upon but not supplanted. Erikson's scaffolding was less reductive than Freud's, and more convincing for me as a result.