October 7, 2013

Did Dante have narcolepsy?


Dante’s eyes are like that because he’s trying REALLY hard not to fall asleep.

Giusepi Plazzi, an Italian academic, recently wrote an unconventional essay on Dante and his famous Divine Comedy.  Plazzi’s academic background might have suggested an odd approach: rather than working in a humanities department, Plazzi works at the University of Bologna’s department of biomedical and neuro-motor sciences. And, instead of focusing on Divine Comedy’s literary style or underlying themes, Plazzi uses the text to diagnose Dante with narcolepsy.

Plazzi argues that Dante’s constant references to sleep are not simply for thematic purposes; instead they are accurate depictions of how Dante himself experienced sleep. At the start of Inferno the speaker states, “So full was I of slumber.” Throughout the Divine Comedy Dante makes references to short naps and at one point describes a possible symptom of cataplexy, a condition often connected with narcolepsy in which the subject suffers from a sudden loss of muscle strength, often following a strong emotion:the speaker, after weeping, “fell, even as a dead body.”

Plazzi writes that, “six centuries before the first scientific report, Dante …depicted narcolepsy with cataplexy in his literary works…” Plazzi believes that the accuracy of the text in describing symptoms associated with narcolepsy with cataplexy is not “accidental,” and he asserts that Dante could accurately depict the symptoms since he suffered from them.

Plazzi’s commentary follows a long line of literary criticisms that attempt to diagnose an author through his or her writing. Many believe that The Sun Also Rises’ depiction of PTSD is an autobiographical piece of Hemingway’s writing. It seems that whenever a famous novelists or poet has a publicized mental disorder, the criticism surrounding their work often turns to studying possible clues hidden in their writing.

Regardless of the utility of this kind of criticism, Plazzi’s study is different than, say, looking for signs of depression in Virginia Woolf’s  or Sylvia Plath’s writings following their suicides. We have plenty of information about Woolf and Plath; diagnosing Dante, dead for close to 700 years, with a rare and possibly unnoticed condition may prove more difficult.



Sebastian Sarti is a former Melville House intern.