Many notable creative people throughout history have experienced voices and visions, here are some examples (click on the name for more information):
Also see article Creative minds: the links between mental illness and creativity The Independent, 5 May 2009
Antoine Marie Joseph Artaud, better known as Antonin Artaud (4 September 1896 – 4 March 1948), was a French playwright, poet, actor and theatre director. Antonin is a diminutive form of Antoine “little Anthony”, and was among a list of names which Artaud used throughout his writing career.
Artaud was born in Marseille, France, to Euphrasie Nalpas and Antoine-Roi Artaud. Both his parents were natives of Smyrna, and he was greatly affected by his Greek ancestry. His mother gave birth to nine children, but only Antonin and one sister survived infancy. When he was four years old, Artaud had a severe case of meningitis, which gave Artaud a nervous, irritable temperament throughout his adolescence. He also suffered from neuralgia, stammering and severe bouts of clinical depression, which was treated with the use of opium — resulting in a life-long addiction.
Artaud’s parents arranged a long series of sanatorium stays for their temperamental son, which were both prolonged and expensive. This lasted five years, with a break of two months in June and July 1916, when Artaud was conscripted into the French Army. He was allegedly discharged due to his self-induced habit of sleepwalking. During Artaud’s “rest cures” at the sanatorium, he read Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire and Edgar Allan Poe. In May 1919, the director of the sanatorium prescribed laudanum for Artaud, precipitating a lifelong addiction to that and other opiates.
Imagination, to Artaud, was reality; he considered dreams, thoughts and delusions as no less real than the “outside” world. To him, reality appeared to be a consensus, the same consensus the audience accepts when they enter a theatre to see a play and, for a time, pretend that what they are seeing is real. Antonin Artaud’s final work was a radiophonic creation entitled “To Have Done With The Judgment Of God.” It was written after several years’ internment in psychiatric institutions which roughly corresponded to the duration of WWII. During his stay at the asylum, Artaud’s behavior was characterized “by delusions, auditory hallucinations, glossolalia and violent tantrums”. He underwent a myriad of bizarre treatments for this behavior including coma-inducing insulin therapy and electroshock therapy. “Pour En Finir Avec le Judgement de Dieu” is a heretic’s scatalogical tirade at the extreme of the linguistic lunatic fringe. It was perhaps Artaud’s electronic revenge against his incarcerators– an invective broadcast from the end of the mind.
It was commissioned in 1947 by Ferdinand Pouey, the director of dramatic and literary broadcasts for French Radio. The work defies description, and although it was actually recorded in the studios of the French Radio at the end of 1947 and scheduled to be broadcast at 10:45 PM on February 2, 1948, the broadcast was cancelled at the last minute by the director of French Radio, Vladimir Porche. Citing Artaud’s scatalogical, vicious and obscene anti-American and anti-Catholic pronouncements as something that the French radio audience could do without, he upheld this censorship in the face of widespread support from many culturally prominent figures including Jean Cocteau, Jean Louis Barrault, Rene Clair and Paul Eluard. Pouey actually quit his job in protest. Artaud died a little over a month later, profoundly disappointed over the rejection of the work. It was not broadcast over the airwaves until thirty years later.
In the actual text of “To Have Done With The Judgment Of God” America is denounced as a baby factory war-mongering machine. Bloody and apocalyptic death rituals are described. Shit is vividly exalted as evidence of life and mortality. Questions about consciousness and knowledge are pursued and answered with more unanswerable questions. It all dead-ends in a scene in which God itself turns up on an autopsy table as a dissected organ taken from the defective corpse of mankind. In the recording all this would have been interspersed with shrieks, screams, grunts, and an extensive vocabulary of nonsense words– a glossolalia of word-like sounds invented by Artaud to give utterance to the dissociation of meaning from language.
Ludwig van Beethoven ( baptized 17 December 1770 – 26 March 1827) was a German composer and pianist. A crucial figure in the transition between the Classical and Romantic eras in Western art music, he remains one of the most famous and influential of all composers.
Born in Bonn, then the capital of the Electorate of Cologne and part of the Holy Roman Empire, Beethoven moved to Vienna in his early 20s, studying with Joseph Haydn and quickly gaining a reputation as a virtuoso pianist. His hearing began to deteriorate in his late twenties, yet he continued to compose, conduct, and perform, even after becoming completely deaf.
Born to a drunkard father and an unhappy mother, the young Beethoven was subjected to a brutal training in music at the hands of his father, who hoped that the boy would prove to be another prodigy like Mozart. Failing in this, the young Beethoven nevertheless embraced music and studied for a short time in 1792 with Franz Joseph Haydn in Vienna. Hailed as a genius and a master of improvisation at the piano, Beethoven soon made a name for himself, and by 1794 was known throughout Europe.
William Blake (28 November 1757 – 12 August 1827) was an English poet, painter, and printmaker. Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, Blake is now considered a seminal figure in the history of both the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. His prophetic poetry has been said to form “what is in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language”. His visual artistry has led one contemporary art critic to proclaim him “far and away the greatest artist Britain has ever produced”. Although he lived in London his entire life except for three years spent in Felpham he produced a diverse and symbolically rich corpus, which embraced the imagination as “the body of God”, or “Human existence itself”.
From a young age, William Blake claimed to have seen visions. The first of these visions may have occurred as early as the age of four when, according to one anecdote, the young artist “saw God” when God “put his head to the window”, causing Blake to break into screaming. At the age of eight or ten in Peckham Rye, London, Blake claimed to have seen “a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.” According to Blake’s Victorian biographer Gilchrist, he returned home and reported this vision, and he only escaped being thrashed by his father for telling a lie through the intervention of his mother. Though all evidence suggests that his parents were largely supportive, his mother seems to have been especially so, and several of Blake’s early drawings and poems decorated the walls of her chamber. On another occasion, Blake watched haymakers at work, and thought he saw angelic figures walking among them.
Having informed painter-astrologer John Varley of his visions of apparitions, Blake was subsequently persuaded to paint one of them. Varley’s anecdote of Blake and his vision of the flea’s ghost became well-known.
Blake claimed to experience visions throughout his life. They were often associated with beautiful religious themes and imagery, and therefore may have inspired him further with spiritual works and pursuits. Certainly, religious concepts and imagery figure centrally in Blake’s works. God and Christianity constituted the intellectual centre of his writings, from which he drew inspiration. In addition, Blake believed that he was personally instructed and encouraged by Archangels to create his artistic works, which he claimed were actively read and enjoyed by those same Archangels.
In a letter of condolence to William Hayley, dated 6 May 1800, four days after the death of Hayley’s son, Blake writes:
I know that our deceased friends are more really with us than when they were apparent to our mortal part. Thirteen years ago I lost a brother, and with his spirit I converse daily and hourly in the spirit, and see him in my remembrance, in the region of my imagination. I hear his advice, and even now write from his dictate.
George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, later George Gordon Noel, 6th Baron Byron, FRS (22 January 1788 – 19 April 1824), commonly known simply as Lord Byron, was a British poet and a leading figure in the Romantic movement. Among Byron’s best-known works are the brief poems She Walks in Beauty, When We Two Parted, and So, we’ll go no more a roving, in addition to the narrativevpoems Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Don Juan. He is regarded as one of the greatest British poets and remains widely read and influential.
He travelled to fight against the Ottoman Empire in the Greek War of Independence, for which Greeks revere him as a national hero. He died at 36 years old from a fever contracted while in Missolonghi in Greece.
Byron was celebrated in life for aristocratic excesses including huge debts, numerous love affairs, rumours of a scandalous incestuous liaison with his half-sister, and self-imposed exile. It has been speculated that he suffered from bipolar disorder, or manic depression.
Frédéric François Chopin was a Polish composer and virtuoso pianist of French-Polish parentage. He is considered one of the great masters of Romantic music. Chopin was born in Zelazowa- Wola, near Warsaw. He left Poland permanently in 1830 and lived in Paris until he died in 1849.
Chopin was plagued by bad health. He suffered from respiratory complaints and diarrhoea as a teenager, but otherwise had a very happy child- hood. His health problems continued into adult- hood and included nasal blockage, pulmonary infections and recurrent coughing, haemoptysis and fever. His symptoms gradually worsened and would confine him to lengthy stays in bed. He had poor exercise tolerance and was emaciated. Later he developed rest dyspnoea, limb oedema and severe headaches, and eventually died at 39 years of age in 1849.
He was playing his Sonata in B flat minor when, just after having played the Scherzo, he abruptly left the room for a short period. The critic of the Manchester Guardian was surprised and commented on the incident. The explanation can be found in a letter written by Chopin to Solange Clésinger, George Sand’s daughter, dated 9 September 1848:
A strange adventure happened to me while I was playing my B flat Sonata for some English friends. I had played the Allegro and the Scherzo more or less correctly and I was about to play the March when, suddenly, I saw emerging from the half-open case of my piano those cursed creatures that had appeared to me on a lugubrious night at the Carthusian monastery [Majorca]. I had to leave for a while in order to recover myself, and after that I continued playing without saying a word.
Similarly, as the result of an acute dental infection in 1844, he was in bed with high fever for a week and hallucinated about his dead father and friend Matuszynski, as George Sand recalled:
Chopin, instead of dreaming for those pure souls [his father and his friend Jan Matuszynski] a better world, had only dreadful visions, and I was obliged to pass many nights in a room adjoining his, always ready to rise a hundred times from my work in order to drive away the spectres of his sleep and wakefulness. The idea of his own death appeared to him accompanied with all the superstitious memories of Slav poetry. As a Pole he lived under the nightmare of legends. The phantoms called him, clasped him, and, instead of seeing his father and his friend smile at him in the ray of faith, he repelled their fleshless faces from his own and struggled under the grasp of their icy hands.
Also in 1844, he would see ”a cohort of phantoms” and would feel ”like steam”.
Dali was born on May 11, 1904, in Figueres, north of Barcelona and near the Spanish-French border. Apart from spending time abroad, specifically in New York, Dali remained anchored to his native region. Dalí’s older brother, also named Salvador, had died of meningitis three years before the artist’s birth, at the age of seven. When he was five, Dalí was taken to his brother’s grave and told by his parents that he was his brother’s reincarnation, which he came to believe. Later, Dali claimed they resembled each other “like two drops of water”. His older brother “was probably a first version of myself but conceived too much in the absolute”.
He began to paint at an early age and to paint, he said he brought up images from his subconscious mind. He induced these hallucinatory states in himself by a process he described as “paranoiac critical”. It seems that he “downloaded” information from this other realm, for his painting style matured with extraordinary rapidity, and from 1929 to 1937, he produced the paintings that made him the world’s best-known Surrealist artist.
So much so that by 1939, he had broken with others in the Surrealist movement, though he would remain their most eccentric billboard. That same year, he made “Dalí’s Declaration of Independence of the Imagination and the Rights of Man to His Own Madness”, published in defence of his “Dream of Venus” exhibit for the New York World’s Fair.
Dali considered the station of the French town of Perpignan to be the centre of the universe. Art critics often accept that for Dali it was, for it was here that he shipped his paintings to their buyers. But there was more to it than that. Dali stated that he had a vision while inside the station of Perpignan, on September 19, 1963. “I had an example of a cosmogonic ecstasy, more powerful than the preceding ones. I had a precise vision of the constitution of the Universe.” And for Dali, that was the real reason why he saw the station as the centre of the universe – however bizarre that may be to anyone who has ever visited this unimpressive building.
The vision from 1963 was followed by a painting of the Station of Perpignan, one of his masterpieces, which went on display on December 18, 1965, in New York. In the invitation sent out for the opening night of the exhibition, Dali repeated his claim that the station would be the location from where the universe would start to converge.
Philip Kindred Dick (December 16, 1928 – March 2, 1982) was an American novelist, short story writer and essayist whose published work is almost entirely in the science fiction genre. Dick explored sociological, political and metaphysical themes in novels dominated by monopolistic corporations, authoritarian governments and altered states. In his later works Dick’s thematic focus strongly reflected his personal interest in metaphysics and theology. He often drew upon his own life experiences in addressing the nature of drug abuse, paranoia and schizophrenia, and transcendental experiences in novels such as A Scanner Darkly and VALIS.
Eight of his stories have been adapted into films to date, including “Blade Runner”, “Total Recall” and “Minority Report”.
Philip Kindred Dick and his twin sister, Jane Charlotte Dick, were born six weeks prematurely on December 16, 1928 in Chicago to Dorothy Kindred Dick, and Joseph Edgar Dick who worked for the United States Department of Agriculture. Jane died six weeks later on January 26, 1929. The death of Philip’s twin sister profoundly affected his writing, relationships, and every aspect of his life, leading to the recurrent motif of the “phantom twin” in many of his books.
On February 20, 1974, while recovering from the effects of sodium pentothal administered for the extraction of an impacted wisdom tooth, Dick went to the door to receive an extra delivery analgesic and encountered a Christian woman with his Darvon delivery. When he opened the door, he was struck by the beauty of the dark-haired girl and was especially drawn to her golden necklace. He asked her about its curious fish-shaped design. “This is a sign used by the early Christians,” she said, and then left. The Christian fish-pendant Dick called the symbol the “vesicle pisces”. This name seems to have been based on his conflation of two related symbols, the Christian ichthys symbol (two intersecting arcs delineating a fish in profile) which the woman was wearing, and the vesica piscis.
Dick recounted that as the sun glinted off the gold pendant, the reflection caused the generation of a “pink beam” that mesmerized him. Dick came to believe the beam imparted wisdom and clairvoyance; he also believed it to be intelligent. On one occasion, Dick was startled by the pink beam. It imparted the information to him that his infant son was ill. The Dicks rushed the child to the hospital where Dick’s suspicion and his diagnosis were confirmed.
After the woman’s departure, Dick began experiencing strange hallucinations. Although initially attributing them to his medication, after weeks of hallucinations he considered this explanation implausible. “I experienced an invasion of my mind by a transcendentally rational mind, as if I had been insane all my life and suddenly I had become sane,” Dick told Charles Platt.
Throughout February and March 1974, Dick experienced a series of hallucinations, which he referred to as “2-3-74”, shorthand for February–March 1974. Aside from the “pink beam”, Dick described the initial hallucinations as geometric patterns, and, occasionally, brief pictures of Jesus and ancient Rome. As the hallucinations increased in length and frequency, Dick claimed he began to live a double life, one as himself, “Philip K. Dick”, and one as “Thomas”, a Christian persecuted by Romans in the 1st century AD. He referred to the “transcendentally rational mind” as “Zebra”, “God” and “VALIS”. Dick wrote about the experiences, first in the semi-autobiographical novel Radio Free Albemuth and then in VALIS, The Divine Invasion andThe Transmigration of Timothy Archer, i.e., the VALIS trilogy.
At one point Dick felt that he had been taken over by the spirit of the prophet Elijah. He believed that an episode in his novel Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said was a detailed retelling of a story from the Biblical Book of Acts, which he had never read.
Dick documented and discussed his experiences and faith in a private journal, later published as Exegesis.
“In earlier interviews you have described your encounter, in 1974, with “a transcendentally rational mind.” Does this “tutelary spirit” continue to guide you?
It hasn’t spoken a word to me since I wrote The Divine Invasion. The voice is identified as Ruah, which is the Old Testament word for the Spirit of God. It speaks in a feminine voice and tends to express statements regarding the messianic expectation. It guided me for a while. It has spoken to me sporadically since I was in high school. I expect that if a crisis arises it will say something again. It’s very economical in what it says. It limits itself to a few very terse, sucinct sentences. I only hear the voice of the spirit when I’m falling asleep or waking up. I have to be very receptive to hear it. It sounds as though it’s coming from millions of miles away.
Philip K. Dick’s Final Interview, June 1982, source: Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine, Vol. 2, No. 3, June 1982
Charles John Huffam Dickens (7 February 1812 – 9 June 1870) was an English writer and social critic who is generally regarded as the greatest novelist of the Victorian period and the creator of some of the world’s most memorable fictional characters. Born in Portsmouth, England, Dickens left school to work in a factory after his father was thrown into debtors’ prison. Though he had little formal education, his early impoverishment drove him to succeed. He edited a weekly journal for 20 years, wrote 15 novels and hundreds of short stories and non-fiction articles, lectured and performed extensively, was an indefatigable letter writer, and campaigned vigorously for children’s rights, education, and other social reforms.
The voice hearing experiences of Charles Dickens were widely publicised by the author himself. Charles Dickens summoned living, speaking companions. Their author once remarked that he could hear every word they uttered. He used to tell the tale with relish about becoming so involved with his characters that they actually spoke to him, the best known being the disgusting old ‘nurse’ from his novel Martin Chuzzlewit, Mrs Gamp who, he said, would tell him dirty stories in church during Sunday service and make him laugh out loud.
Later in his career, Dickens’s vocal impersonations of his own characters gave this truth a theatrical form: the public reading tour. Although wisdom has it that “doing” the different voices of his cherished characters hastened his death, no other Victorian could match him for celebrity, earnings, and sheer vocal artistry. The Victorians craved the author’s multiple voices: between 1853 and his death in 1870, Dickens performed about 470 times. “Amid all the variety of ‘readings’, those of Mr Charles Dickens stand alone,” beamed the Times in 1868. Edgar Johnson, his first post-Freudian biographer, wrote in the 1950s: “It was [always] more than a reading; it was an extraordinary exhibition of acting that seized upon its auditors with a mesmeric possession.”
Hearing voices and inventing character were also indivisible aspects of his creativity. Dickens understood his astonishing writing practice as the summoning of voices. “Every word said by his characters was distinctly heard by him,” one critic stressed in 1872. Dickens himself considered his novels to come from some autonomous source beyond volition, as he wrote to his friend John Forster: “when I sit down to my book, some beneficent power shows it all to me, and tempts me to be interested, and I don’t invent it – really do not – but see it, and write it down”. How literally he meant this is hard to judge. But allowing in unsolicited presences was central to his self-understanding as a writer. Mrs Gamp, the disreputable nurse from Martin Chuzzlewit, intruded repeatedly on Dickens when he was writing that novel, “whispering to him in the most inopportune places – sometimes even in church – that he was compelled to fight her off by force”, as the American writer JM Peebles later put it.
Like mesmerism, which he took up, illusion and hallucination were topics of serious interest to Dickens. An essay of 1857, My Ghosts, published in his own journal Household Words, explored these fragile mental states. And his fiction features unanchored voices, such as in his 1866 Christmas story The Signal-Man, which begins with the sudden intrusion of an unidentified voice bellowing “Halloa!” out of nowhere. Members of the international hearing voices movement today argue that voices represent a part of the person that wants to be heard and acknowledged. Whether modern theories help us to better understand Dickens, or vice versa, seems unclear. But he was an exemplary source of voices, as both a writer and performer, in ways that should ask us to consider how we culturally frame literary creativity, inner speech and audition, and unusual mental experience.
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Irwin Allen Ginsberg (June 3, 1926 – April 5, 1997) was an American poet and one of the leading figures of the Beat Generationnin the 1950s. He vigorously opposed militarism, materialism and sexual repression. Ginsberg is best known for his epic poem “Howl”, in which he celebrated his fellow “angel-headed hipsters” and harshly denounced what he saw as the destructive forces of capitalism and conformity in the United States. This poem is one of the classic poems of the Beat Generation. In 1948 in an apartment in Harlem, Ginsberg had an auditory hallucination while reading the poetry of William Blake (later referred to as his “Blake vision”). At first, Ginsberg claimed to have heard the voice of God, but later interpreted the voice as that of Blake himself reading Ah, Sunflower, The Sick Rose, and Little Girl Lost. Ginsberg believed that he had witnessed the interconnectedness of the universe. He looked at lattice-work on the fire escape and realized some hand had crafted that; he then looked at the sky and intuited that some hand had crafted that also, or rather, that the sky was the hand that crafted itself. He explained that this hallucination was not inspired by drug use, but said he sought to recapture that feeling later with various drugs.
From HARPER’S MAGAZINE, January 1990, Readings
LOFTON: But I am interested in this question of your possible madness. It’s not a gratuitous question. There is a history of madness in your family.
GINSBERG: Very much so.
LOFTON: Your mom died in 1956 in a mental institution. Before that. in 1949, when you were twenty-three. you spent eight months in the Columbia Psychiatric Institute. What was this psychiatric disability and why did you spend just eight months in this institute?
GINSBERG: Well, I had a sort of visionary experience in which I heard William Blake’s voice. It was probably an auditory hallucination, but it was a very rich experience.
LOFTON: This happened while you were masturbating, right?
GINSBERG: Yes, but after.
LOFTON: I want to ask you about this psychiatric disability.
GINSBERG: No, no, no. no, no, no, no, no. Sir, first of all your tone is too aggressive. You have to soften your tone, because there’s an element of aggression here. There’s an element almost like a police interrogation here.
LOFTON: But that’s not all bad. The police, in some instances, do a good job, particularly in dealing with criminals.
LOFTON: That’s interesting, because I’m not asking you to respond in any particular way. Why are you telling me how to ask questions? So, can we return to my question? What was this psychiatric disability that put you in an institute for eight months?
GINSBERG: Well, I’m not sure it really was a disability to begin with. So I can’t answer the question the way you pose it.
LOFTON: But I’m asking you if it’s true, that you had this disability?
GINSBERG: It’s neither true nor not true.
LOFTON: But it is true that you were in an institute?
GINSBERG: Yes, I was. I had a kind of visionary experience relating to a text by William Blake, “The Sick Rose.” It went: “O rose, thou art sick! / The invisible worm / That flies in the night / In the howling storm, / Has found out thy bed / Of crimson joy, / And his dark secret love / Does thy life destroy.” So, it’s a very mysterious, interesting poem that keyed off a kind of religious experience, a visionary experience, a hallucinatory experience—whichever way you want to interpret it. All three descriptions are applicable and possible. Reality has many aspects.
LOFTON: Were you using drugs while you masturbated and had this experience?
GINSBERG: Not at all. I had been living very quietly, eating vegetarian diets, seeing very few people, and reading a great many religious texts: St. John of the Cross, the Bible, Plato’s Phaedrus , St. Teresa of Avila, and Blake, So I was In a kind of solitary, contemplative mood.
LOFTON: Did you put yourself into this institute?
GINSBERG: More or less. Because I questioned my own sense of reality and I couldn’t figure out the significance of the illuminative experience, whether it was a kind of traditional religious experience, where there is a sudden sense of vastness and ancientness and respect and devotional awareness or sacredness to the whole universe. Or whether this was a byproduct of some lack-love longing and projection of my own feelings, or some nutty breakthrough.
LOFTON: Do you think you were better when you got out of there?
GINSBERG: I think they said I wasn’t ever really psychotic or crazy, just an average neurotic.
Percy Bysshe Shelley (4 August 1792 – 8 July 1822) was one of the major English Romantic poets and is critically regarded as among the finest lyric poets in the English language. Shelley was famous for his association with John Keats and Lord Byron. The novelist Mary Shelley (née Godwin) was his second wife.After being sent away to boarding school at the age of ten, he attended a lecture on science which piqued his interest in the properties of electricity, magnetism, chemistry and telescopes. On return trips home, he would try to cure his sisters’ chilblains by passing electric currents through them. He also hinted of a mysterious “alchemist” living in a hidden room in the attic.
While attending the Eton school from 1804 to 1810, the quiet, odd and reflective boy was taunted relentlessly by schoolmates. This generated in him extremes of anger, once even driving him to stab another boy with a fork. Shelley detested the practice of younger boys buying protection (through doing menial tasks) from older bullies. He was ever the visionary and daydreamer, often forgetting to tie his shoelaces or to wear a hat. His odd behavior eventually earned him the nickname of “Mad Shelley”.
At school, Shelley became intrigued with the revolutionary political and philosophical ideas of Thomas Paine and William Godwin. Throughout his life, he emphatically expressed his political and religious views in a struggle against social injustice, often to the point where it got him into trouble or mired in controversy. Later, in Geneva with Byron, he would often write “democrat, great lover of mankind, and atheist” in Greek after his signature in hotel ledgers. Upon finding one of these signatures, Lord Byron remarked: “Do you not think I shall do Shelley a service by scratching this out?” which he promptly did. Shelley detested the monarchy and aristocracy. He was a great believer in the idea of the power of the human mind to change circumstances for the better in a non-violent way.
At the beginning of 1812 Shelley started to suffer from “nervous attacks” for which he took doses of laudanum. He also started to sleepwalk when life became difficult or stressful.
Robert Schuman sometimes known as Robert Alexander Schumann (8 June 1810 – 29 July 1856) was a German composer, aesthete and influential music critic. He is regarded as one of the greatest and most representative composers of the Romantic era. Schumann left the study of law to return to music, intending to pursue a career as a virtuoso pianist. He had been assured by his teacher Friedrich Wieck that he could become the finest pianist in Europe, but a hand injury ended this dream. Schumann then focused his musical energies on composing. He spent the end of his life experiencing auditory hallucinations. Schumann’s diaries state that he suffered perpetually from imagining that he had the note A5 sounding in his ears. The musical hallucinations became increasingly complex. One night he claimed to have been visited by the ghost of Schubert and wrote down the music that he was hearing. Thereafter, he began making claims that he could hear an angelic choir singing to him. As his condition worsened, the angelic voices transmogrified into demonic voices.
The sudden death of her mother in 1895, when Virginia was 13, and that of her half-sister Stella two years later, led to the first of Virginia’s several nervous breakdowns. She was, however, able to take courses of study (some at degree level) in Greek, Latin, German and history at the Ladies’ Department of King’s College London between 1897 and 1901.
The death of her father in 1904 provoked her most alarming collapse and she was briefly institutionalised. Modern scholars (including her nephew and biographer, Quentin Bell) have suggested her breakdowns and subsequent recurring depressive periods were also influenced by the sexual abuse to which she and her sister Vanessa were subjected by their half-brothers George and Gerald Duckworth (which Woolf recalls in her autobiographical essays A Sketch of the Past and 22 Hyde Park Gate).
Throughout her life, Woolf was plagued by periodic mood swings and associated illnesses. Though this instability often affected her social life, her literary productivity continued with few breaks throughout her life. After completing the manuscript of her last (posthumously published) novel, Between the Acts, Woolf fell into a depression similar to that which she had earlier experienced. The onset of World War II, the destruction of her London home during the Blitz, and the cool reception given to her biography of her late friend Roger Fry all worsened her condition until she was unable to work. On 28 March 1941, Woolf put on her overcoat, filled its pockets with stones, and walked into the River Ouse near her home and drowned herself.
“I feel certain that I am going mad again,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her oft-quoted suicide note to husband Leonard Woolf. “I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came.”