Transcending Nervous Illnesses: an Artistic Praise of “Violent Fits”

Pauline Picot // “There are some violent fits, some disorders of the body that often excite the nervous system and feed the imagination with an inconceivable activity: the body is in pain, but the mind is lucid. Some people may be ill and yet astonish us with the liveliness of their ideas, and there are others whose memory will become active again and remind them of occasions and events they had completely forgotten until then. […] Emerging from this state of illness will always leave a trace of this excessive sensitivity which has been printed upon the nervous system. Emotions deepen and become easier to reach; every sensation attains a new degree of finesse. It seems that these shakings purify and renew our own self, and this is what Lekain felt after his illness.”[1]

These are not the words of a doctor, but of an actor. François-Joseph Talma (1763-1826) was a French tragedian who had a career of nearly forty years at the Comédie-Française and who should be remembered on account of the three following reasons: he was the very first actor to introduce historical costumes when he infamously appeared on stage in a revealing toga in Voltaire’s Brutus (1791),[2] he was friends with Napoléon,[3] and he was the very first actor who reflected, in writing, upon the art of acting. Talma felt indeed a sorrowful sense of the ephemeral nature of his art,[4] and he decided to diverge from the somewhat shallow tradition of the actor’s memoirs to dwell, in his Réflexions sur Lekain et sur l’art théâtral [Thoughts on Lekain and the theatrical art] (1825), on the profound mechanisms of his craft.

Talma was not the first to write on this subject; since the 18th French century, a very animated debate had indeed been taking place in the intellectual circles between the partisans of an emotional acting (sincere but excessive and uncontrolled, and therefore endangering the actor’s health) and a rational one (the fruit of a more conscious work, but resulting in a rather dispassionate performance). However, Talma was the first actor, among writers and philosophers, who added his invaluable inner point of view to this ongoing discussion, by advocating a synthesis between reason and sensibility.[5] He was also the one to steer this debate towards health-related matters with such precision. Certainly, several works of his time had already intertwined “medical theory and the aesthetics of acting.”[6] However, they mostly focused on describing the actor as an “individual with a troubled mind,”[7] contaminated by his art, and consequently prone to experiencing sudden mood shifts distinctive of that 18th century medical obsession: melancholia.

The originality of Talma’s point of view lies in the fact that, being an actor himself, he is not trying to diagnose his fellow actor—the French tragedian Lekain (1729-1778)—but rather surprisingly defends his nervous frailty and even extolls it as an acting resource. The general opinion at the time was that, even if you picked the side of the sensitive, the excess of emotions would undeniably be detrimental to the artist’s health. On the contrary, Talma praised Lekain’s nervous illness, writing that it enabled him to revitalize his art by gaining newfound awareness. The fact that Talma himself suffered several long-lasting nervous illnesses over the course of his career[8] should come as no surprise: in explaining the positive outcomes of his predecessor’s disorder, Talma was subtly and simultaneously excusing and rehabilitating his own.

Could it also be that Talma, who was a fiery and impetuous figure in spite of his classical tragic repertoire, may have prefigured “the tones of nascent Romanticism?”[9] Then it would shed another light on his apology of nervous agitation as a way to improve stage performance, and inscribe him in a wider paradigm; that of the “electric self,”[10] as theorized by French philosopher Tristan Garcia.

Garcia, whose essay we mentioned in our previous article, dates what might appear as a contemporary obsession with intensity (by which we are nowadays constantly reminded to live intensely) back to the second half of the 18th century, when electrical experiments were conducted amongst European societies for the purpose of entertainment.[11] Feeling something as powerful and unprecedented as an electric shock might have triggered our ongoing search for nervous excess, but it also contributed to shape, in the course of the following centuries, several types of “electrified men.”[12] Among them is the Romantic artist, whose stormy nature mirrors itself in the “natural intensity”[13] of thunderstorms. And what is a thunderstorm besides, as Talma would say, a violent “shaking” that renews the earth and leaves it stunned and beautiful?

Another type of “electrified man” is the 20th century rock musician, whom Garcia contemplates as someone who discharges the excess of intensity running through his nerves via his plugged electric instruments.[14] In both cases, art is a way to transcend what could be regarded as impairment into an aesthetic asset. If we were so bold as to draw a bridge between the early 19th and the late 20th century, we would in this regard relate the nervously troubled actor Talma to the epileptic Joy Division singer Ian Curtis (1956-1980), seeing that the latter has also quite famously interlaced, nearly two centuries later, his illness and his art, “turn[ing] his disability into aesthetics”[15] by developing an uncanny stage performance commonly referred to as the “epilepsy dance.” This wrenching hatching of beauty within painful clinical syndromes has been the subject of many comprehensive studies.[16] Let our small contribution be the suggestion of a link between Curtis’ memorable capacity to transcend his illness onstage and the very first valorization of nervous disorder, which another stage performer had boldly attempted two centuries before him.


[1] François-Joseph Talma, Réflexions sur Lekain et sur l’art théâtral, in Henri Louis Lekain, Mémoires de Lekain, précédés de réflexions sur cet acteur et sur l’art théâtral, par F. Talma, Paris, Ponthieu, 1825, p.LIX. [Digitized by Gallica-BnF]. My translation.

[2] Florence Filippi, « François-Joseph Talma, ou le paradoxe d’un comédien entre avant-garde et tradition », colloque international interdisciplinaire Avant-garde et tradition ; scènes d’un dialogue ininterrompu, 2009, Université de Porto (Portugal), http://ler.letras.up.pt/uploads/ficheiros/10241.pdf, p.50-53.

[3] Bruno Villien, Talma, l’acteur favori de Napoléon Ier, Paris, Pygmalion, 2001.

[4] “The saddest thing about our art [acting] is that it dies, so to speak, with us, whereas all the other artists leave written monuments behind them. Once he has come off stage, the actor’s talent only lingers in the memory of those who saw and heard him.” In François-Joseph Talma, Réflexions sur Lekain et sur l’art théâtral, op. cit., p.III. [Digitized by Gallica-BnF] My translation.

[5] Id., p.XXIX.

[6] Vincenzo de Santis, « Maladies d’acteur. Théorie du jeu théâtral et littérature médicale au XVIIIe siècle », in Revue italienne d’études françaises, 4 | 2014, http://journals.openedition.org/rief/638, p.3-4.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Bruno Villien, Talma, l’acteur favori de Napoléon Ier, op. cit., p.197-207 et passim.

[9] Vincenzo de Santis, « Maladies d’acteur. Théorie du jeu théâtral et littérature médicale au XVIIIe siècle », art. cit., p.9.

[10] Tristan Garcia, La Vie intense. Une obsession moderne, Paris, Autrement, 2016, p.94.

[11] Id., p.27-31.

[12] Id., p.94.

[13] Id., p.99.

[14] Id., p.104-108.

[15] Emma Johansson, “Ian Curtis’ Butterfly Dance: Turning Disability into Aesthetics”, colloque “The Uses of Aesthetics”, 2019, Université de Karlstad (Suède). Courtesy of the speaker.

[16] On this subject, see Julio Rubén Valdés Miyares’ luminous and synthetic approach, « When Performance Lost Control: Making Rock  History out of Ian Curtis and Joy Division », in Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies, 9, 4|2014, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/258992045_When_Performance_Lost_Control_Making_Rock_History_out_of_Ian_Curtis_and_Joy_Division.

Picture : “EEG of an absence seizure”. Wikipedia Commons. Free of rights.

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