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, 25 (5), 622-37

Gustave Flaubert's Illness: A Case Report in Evidence Against the Erroneous Notion of Psychogenic Epilepsy

Gustave Flaubert's Illness: A Case Report in Evidence Against the Erroneous Notion of Psychogenic Epilepsy

H Gastaut et al. Epilepsia.


The concept of psychogenic epilepsy was recently revived by Sartre (L'Idiot de la Famille, 1971-2) in relation to Gustave Flaubert's epilepsy, which he believed was secondary to hysterical neurosis and not due to a cerebral lesion. A detailed clinical description of Gustave Flaubert's personal and medical history from birth to death is provided. The relationships between his epileptic seizures and both his personal life and the response of others to the attacks are discussed, as is the interaction between seizure occurrence and his literary work and productivity. The various diagnoses made by medical and nonmedical persons during and after Flaubert's lifetime are then reviewed. Particular emphasis is given to Sartre's purely psychogenic interpretation of the seizures, to his total disinterest in their medical aspects, and to the fact that he did not obtain any medical opinions. It is shown that a definitive diagnosis can be made for Flaubert's illness--that of epilepsy associated with a quite normal psychosocial response by current standards. Moreover, the clinical nature of the seizures and other clinical details permit the more specific diagnosis of "complex partial epilepsy of occipital-temporal origin, secondary to lesion of the left posterior hemisphere with occasional secondary generalization of seizures." The concept of the existence of "psychogenic epilepsy" is reaffirmed as erroneous, despite the occasional precipitation of seizures in some individuals by psychological factors. Finally, Gustave Flaubert's case, like Dostoevski's, points to the possible coexistence of a serious and poorly controlled form of epilepsy with true literary genius without the latter being dependent in any way on the former.

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