4 Famous Smart People With Little-Known Problems
Pop culture loves to portray geniuses as dragging us ungrateful schmucks through history, whether we want to come along or not. So it's always good to remember that brilliant people still have the same problems as the rest of us ... except when their problems get much, much stupider than ours ...
Vladimir Nabokov Hated Sleep, Conducted Weird Dream Experiments
Vladimir Nabokov, the famous author of Pale Fire and that novel about a pedophile that's awkward to read on the bus, is considered a titan of literature, especially by dudes with bad facial hair who keep cutting off other people in their MFA classes. He was also a lifelong insomniac, and the condition took him to some weird, weird places.
For starters, Nabokov called sleep "mental torture," "the most moronic fraternity in the world," and "the nightly betrayal of reason, humanity, genius," among other things offensive to anyone who considers napping their greatest skill. But hey, as he aged, his insomnia and his enlarged prostate became locked in a vicious cycle that forced "hopelessness and nervous urination" up to nine times a night, so you'd be upset too. Even heavy sedatives were no help, serving only to make him groggy during all that peeing. Oh, and in his frustration, he consulted J. W. Dunne's An Experiment with Time, a 1927 book that argues dreams are visions of future events.
While that sounds like the premise of a four hour YouTube video with 12 views, the book had been trendy with artsy types for years. For example, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis took Dunne's idea of parallel time dimensions and molded it for their fiction, although they didn't start trying to predict the future based on a shared dream of Frodo and Aslan making out. Still, popular during a stretch of time when there was a boom in "What the hell is this whole 'consciousness' thing, anyway?" books, even people who didn't believe a word of it considered it a fun thought experiment.
Nabokov, however, had what you might call a phase. Following Dunne's precise instructions, he kept a dream journal for 80 nights and considered it an "incontestable success" when he dreamed he was eating a museum's soil samples, then stumbled across a TV documentary discussing soil samples three days later. But, like that year your mom was really into astrology, Nabokov didn't make any long-term conclusions about what time's big deal was, although the experiment did influence one of his novels. And apparently, the whole affair helped him get a little damn sleep for once.
George S. Patton Thought He'd Have To Fight Forever
Fathers who have reached Patton on the list of movies they're legally obligated to watch may recall the scene where George casually suggests that he was present for a 2,000-year-old battle between Rome and Carthage, then quotes his own poem that explores his reincarnation throughout military history.
While it comes across like the film is taking whatever that brand of creative license is called, but the famous general and soldier slapper really did believe that he had seen millennia of conflict.
Admittedly, he also wrote poems with titles like "The Turds of the Scouts," but his belief in reincarnation was legit, and he spent both World Wars claiming to know his way around old European towns and battlefields thanks to his time as a 14th-century French knight. Unfortunately, Sir Patton was one of many Frenchmen to meet his end at the Battle of Crecy, a crushing victory for the English, but it would have been suspicious if he'd claimed nothing but a string of huge successes.
His propensity for past lives began when he was kicked by a horse as a young man and, through the haze of his difficult recovery, saw a vision of himself as a dying Viking raider. Exactly how Patton reconciled this with his devout Christian beliefs remains unclear, but he also claimed that he was at the Siege of Tyre, served under Caesar and Marc Antony, fought with the English at Agincourt because apparently when you reincarnate during a lengthy conflict, you can ask to switch to what looks like the winning side, served the House of Stuart during the English Civil War, and was a bigshot in Napoleon's Grande Armee. Weird that he never just popped up in some trivial border skirmish, but maybe that just wasn't worth commenting on.
Some of Patton's other poetry paints war as a bureaucratic slog, but he sure seemed to enjoy it on a personal level given that his "Through a Glass Darkly" concludes with the belief that he'll continue to fight "forever in the future." And while Patton was beloved by his troops, they may have had a somewhat different view if they knew his fearlessness stemmed from the belief that he'd soon be right back in business no matter what happened. Anyway, this may all sound ridiculous, but reincarnationresearch.com thinks he's currently living as James Mattis, and surely if anyone would know, it's those guys.
Kurt Godel Would Only Eat Food Prepared By His Wife ... And Then She Got Sick
Kurt Godel is one of those mathematicians who was so smart you need a good math background to appreciate his incredible influence. His incompleteness theorems, contributions to set theory and modal logic, and many other accomplishments are all way over our head. So instead, we'll simply point out that he received the ultimate honor: getting played by Lou Jacobi in I.Q., a 1994 movie about intellectual titans using their powers to make Meg Ryan bone Tim Robbins. Truly there is no greater mark of genius.
Godel was part of the Vienna Circle, a group of scientists and philosophers who shared similar beliefs, including that smart people clubs need fancy names. But the Circle began leaving Vienna because of the whole fascism thing, and, in 1936, physicist and philosopher Moritz Schlick was murdered. Schlick had been a good friend of the shy Godel, and having his pal shot dead in public by a man who would be celebrated and released just two years later by fascists contributed to his anxiety and paranoia.
Godel became obsessed with the thought of being poisoned, either intentionally via food or accidentally through, for example, the venting of gas from his refrigerator. His wife kept his fears in check by preparing and tasting his food for him, and long talks with some guy named Einstein helped keep him mentally grounded, but he was never the most stable genius.
By the '70s, Einstein and Godel's other friends were dead, and his wife had to be hospitalized for a few months. Without her, Godel's fear of poison grew so strong that he stopped eating altogether, eventually weighing just 65 pounds when he starved to death in early 1978. But hey, he had lived to 71 and believed he'd mathematically proven the existence of God and the afterlife, so it could have been worse. We're probably not getting his version of A Beautiful Mind anytime soon, though.
Edward Gibbon's Balls Were Literally Too Big
18th-century politician and historian Edward Gibbon's big claim to fame is The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, an epic 1.5 million word landmark in historical writing. While its central argument -- that Rome's decline can be blamed on its adoption of Christianity -- is considered wrong today, it's still seen as a huge leap forward in research standards and an entertaining read to boot. Books, shows, and games have aped its title, it's been referenced in pop culture like Mad Men, and countless dads once got copies in book subscription programs that they displayed prominently but never got around to actually reading. Whatever Gibbon's flaws, he was an esteemed, serious scholar ... who was undone by an inflamed testicle.
In 1761, during Gibbon's militia service in the Seven Years War, he began to suffer from hydrocele testis, which, and men should get ready to cross their legs and groan here, is the accumulation of fluid in one or both testicles. While not inherently painful, if the swelling grows severe enough, it can start to cause every problem you'd think giant testicles would. And Gibbon once referred to his left ball as "almost as big as a small child."
Gibbon lived with this condition for 30 years, although it only grew to an uncomfortable analogy size in 1793. This caused serious pain and made his social life difficult, and in 1794 he agreed to an operation. A series of three "tappings" relieved his poor scrotum of 13 quarts of fluid, and Gibbon briefly returned to socializing with gusto. But, despite his doctors' impressive credentials, Gibbon soon died from a complication far too gross to get into here. The autopsy noted an "amazing mass" and that "The penis was lost in the lump, and had been for so many years."
The intent here is not to mock a great man of history, although dying from big balls is very, very funny (Gibbon himself joked about it with close friends as he neared the end). The procedure was simply the best available at the time, and the risk was considered worth it, given what the unchecked problem would mean for his life. You are simply invited to reflect on the fact that, while you probably won't go down in history as a genius, you at least don't live in a time when preposterously swollen genitalia can take you to your grave.
Mark is on Twitter and wrote a book.
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