“Life is a series of addictions and without them we die”

This opening quote is my favourite quote from the addiction literature and was made by Professor Isaac Marks in a 1990 issue of the British Journal of Addiction. Whether the statement is true or not depends upon what the definition of addiction is. It’s also a quote that makes me think about my own life and to what extent I have any addictions. Most people that know me well would say that my passion for listening to music borders on the obsessive. Others have called me a ‘workaholic’ (which again depends on the definition of workaholism). Personally, I don’t think I’m addicted to either work or music (and no, I’m not in denial), but I did come across a condition called ‘typomania’ that I can’t so easily deny.

Most definitions of typomania are similar but have slight subtle differences in emphasis. For instance, I have come across six definitions indicating that it is either (i) a craze for seeing one’s writings or name in print, (ii) a mania for writing for publication, (iii) an obsession with the expectation of publication, (iv) an obsession with the business of printing or publishing, (v) an unhealthy passion to write, (vi) an obsessive impulse to write, and (vii) an addiction to writing (where people write for the sake of writing without caring about the quality of the written word).

These latter definitional variations (i.e., obsessive impulse or unhealthy passion to write) has been observed in the psychiatric community as in addition to typomania, has also been termed ‘graphomania’ and ‘scribomania’ (although some of these other definitions claim that the condition concerns the obsession to write books). The term 'graphomania' has been used since the early 19th century by both French psychiatrist Dr. Jean-Étienne Esquirol and Swiss psychiatrist Dr. Eugen Bleuler (the man who first coined the term ‘schizophrenia’). A number of independent sources (such as Svetlana Boym in her 1995 book Common Places. Mythologies in Everyday Life in Russia) also claim that the term ‘graphomania’ is a well established concept in Russian culture.

In a 2004 issue of the journal Neurocase, two French academics (I. Barrière and M. Lorch) wrote a paper called “Premature thoughts on writing disorders”. They noted (based on some earlier work by Artières) that writing disorders were one of the 'hallmarks' of the 19th century medical world. The paper reported: 

“The identification of a disease contracted by children whose sight and general health were thought to be affected by too much writing labelled “graphomania”. More importantly for the topic under investigation, writing was perceived by clinicians as the privileged means to gain access to the mental states of atypical individuals, including geniuses (see for instance the study on the handwriting of Leonardo de Vinci), criminals, and those affected by a medical condition. This led to numerous studies on the writing of patients affected by various pathologies including dementia, epilepsy and Parkinson”

One of the first uses of the word ‘graphomania’ in a wider public context, was in the New York Times (September 27, 1896) in an article about US Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan (under the title ‘Bryan’s Mental Condition’). The article noted that:

"The habit of excessive writing, of explaining, amplifying, and reiterating, of letter making and pamphleteering, forms a morbid symptom of known as ‘graphomania’. Some men may overload their natural tendency to write, but a certain class of lunatics use nearly all their mental activities in this occupation, to the endless annoyance of their friends, relatives and physicians”.

In a psychiatric context, graphomania refers to a morbid mental condition that manifests itself in written ramblings and confused statements. Much of the written content is meaningless nonsense and is also referred to as graphorrhea. Graphomania in a non-psychiatric context concerns the urge or need to write to excess (and not necessarily in a professional context). This is certainly something I can relate to.

In his 1979 Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the Czech novelist Milan Kundera noted that:

“Graphomania (an obsession with writing books) takes on the proportions of a mass epidemic whenever society develops to the point where it can provide three basic conditions: (1) a high enough degree of general wellbeing to enable people to devote their energies to useless activities; (2) an advanced state of social atomisation and the resultant general feeling of the isolation of the individual; (3) a radical absence of significant social change in the internal development of the nation. (In this connection, I find it symptomatic that in France, a country where nothing really happens, the percentage of writers is twenty one times higher than in Israel)…The irresisitable proliferation of graphomania among politicians, taxi drivers, childbearers, lovers, murderers, thieves, prostitutes, officials, doctors, and patients shows me that everyone without exception bears a potential writer within him, so that the entire human species has good reason to go down the streets and shout: 'We are all writers!'"

There doesn’t appear to be much academic or clinical research on graphomania although papers dating back to the early twentieth century exist. For instance, in 1921, Dr. F.T. Hunter wrote about graphomania when reviewing the 1920 French book La Graphomanie (Essai de Psychologie Morbide) by Ossip-Lourie. Graphomania was described as a “psychopathic tendency to write”. To differentiate between whether writing was normal or abnormal, it was observed that:

"All writings which do not convey a positive fact, the result of observation or of experience, which do not bring forth an idea, which do not materialize an image – a personal artistic product – which do not reflect the interior life and the personality of the author, are in the domain of graphomania".

Graphomania was believed to be "psychosocially acquired" and was acquired as a consequence of the educational methods of the time that taught children to copy rather than to write creatively. Dr. Hunter said that psychiatrists wouldn’t take Ossip-Lourie’s book seriously. More recently, a 1988 paper in a French neurology journal, Dr, J. Cambler and his colleagues described the case of “compulsive graphic activity” as a consequence of fronto-callosal glioma (a kind of brain tumour). They reported that spontaneous and graphomanic writing “were abundant and incoercible”. They noted that the behaviour was comparable with that of the compulsive activity that may result from other types of brain lesion (e.g., pallidal lesions or bilateral frontal lesions).

So, do I suffer from typomania and/or graphomania? Based on what I have read, absolutely not. Life may well be a series of addictions, but – as yet – I don’t think I have any.

References and further reading

Artières, P. (1998). Clinique de l’écriture: une histoire du regard médical sur l’écriture. Institut Synthélabo pour le progrès de la connaissance. Le Plessis-Robinson. 

Barrière, I. & Lorch, M. (2004). Premature thoughts on writing disorders. Neurocase, 10, 91-108.

Boym, S. (1995), Common Places. Mythologies in Everyday Life in Russia. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Univ. Press.

Cambler, J., Masson, C., Benammou, S. & Robine, B. (1988). [Graphomania. Compulsive graphic activity as a manifestation of fronto-callosal glioma]. Revue Neurol, 144, 158-164.

History Matters (undated). “Bryan’s Mental Condition:” One Psychiatrist’s View. Located at: http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5353/

Hunter, F.T. (1921). Review of La graphomanie (Essai de psychologie morbide). Journal of Abnormal Psychology and Social Psychology, 16, 279-280.

Marks, I. (1990). Behaviour (non-chemical) addictions. British Journal of Addiction, 85, 1389-1394. 

Wayne R. LaFave (2003). Rotunda: Il professore prolifico ma piccolo. University of Illinois Law Review, 5, 1161-1168.

Wikipedia (2012). Graphomania. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graphomania

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