10 Wildly Eccentric Classical Geniuses

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“Have I gone mad?” asked the Mad Hatter. “I’m afraid so,” replied Alice. “You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.”

As we’ve noted before, creative people are a strange lot. They have schizotypal personalities, which can take a variety of forms, such as unusual perceptual experiences, a preference for solitary activities, or mild paranoia. Geniuses don’t all have personality disorders, of course. This is just a piece of the puzzle of why creative people tend to be eccentric. The complete answer is much more complex.

10 Demosthenes 384–322 B.C.

The Athenian statesman Demosthenes, considered the greatest Greek orator, used his gifts to oppose the tyrants Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great. Plutarch, in his work Parallel Lives, recounts that Demosthenes was inspired to become an orator when he heard the lawyer Callistratus make a plea in court on behalf of a client. So brilliantly did Callistratus make his case that it inflamed a desire in the young Demosthenes to take up oratory himself.

But the man had some pretty intimidating roadblocks to overcome. As Plutarch describes it, Demosthenes had “a certain weakness of voice and indistinctness of speech and shortness of breath, which disturbed the sense of what he said by disjoining his sentences.” His initial forays into public speaking were greeted with laughter, and Demosthenes resolved to overcome his impediment with measures like practicing speaking with his mouth full of pebbles.

More than that, Demosthenes worked to discipline himself not to get distracted. For this purpose, he built himself an underground study where he worked on his voice for two- or three-month stretches at a time. To fight off the temptation to hang around and do other things elsewhere, he shaved half his head of hair. This ridiculous hairdo had the effect of making him too embarrassed to show himself in public, thus forcing him to remain in his subterranean chamber and continue his regimen.

9 James Joyce 1882–1941

If you were frustrated by the virtually indecipherable Finnegan’s Wake, consider the conditions under which it was written. Its author, James Joyce, was nearly blind.

He was only six years old when he received his first pair of eyeglasses. At 25, he was diagnosed with iritis, a painful and potentially blinding inflammation of the iris. For the rest of his life, Joyce had to undergo numerous failed operations to repair one or the other of his eyes.

Joyce’s odd writing habits were therefore done out of necessity rather than from personal quirks. His sister Eileen says Joyce would go to bed at night and write while lying on his stomach and wearing a white coat. Eileen realized later that the white coat was used to reflect light onto the paper to aid Joyce’s impaired eyes.

Joyce wrote Finnegan’s Wake this way, using a large blue pencil. That’s right: Joyce didn’t use a typewriter. He favored quality of writing over speed. Asked once how his novel Ulysses was getting along, Joyce said that he had been at work all day. The output of a day’s work? “Two sentences,” said Joyce. “I have the words already. What I am seeking is the perfect order of words in a sentence.”

8 Bobby Fischer 1943–2008

Even people with no interest in chess recognize the name Bobby Fischer. The American “Bad Boy of Chess” captivated his generation with his brilliance, having become the youngest grandmaster ever at age 14. Fischer then single-handedly ended Soviet dominance of the game by winning the 1972 World Chess Championship from Boris Spassky.

Always paranoid about Soviet cheating, he reportedly had the fillings removed from his teeth to prevent the Russians from transmitting secret messages. Fischer’s odd behavior showed itself to the world in that match. He constantly complained about his chair, the lighting, and the TV cameras. A dispute about the cameras and the game clock made Fischer refuse to play the second game.

This was not the first time Fischer’s petulance cost him a game due to forfeit. In his match against Samuel Reshevsky, play was reset for the following morning because Reshevsky, an Orthodox Jew, would not play on the Sabbath. Contending that he didn’t play mornings, Fischer let the game—and the match—go by default. Ironically, Fischer himself would later adopt Saturday as the Sabbath and refuse to play on that day, which resulted in his leaving a 1967 tournament while in the lead.

It was a testament to Fischer’s genius that he managed to come back from 0–2 to beat Spassky in that later championship game. He immediately gave $90,000 of the prize money to the Worldwide Church of God, a Pasadena-based cult he had joined. Like the rest of the church, he was taken in by the predictions of its leader, Herbert W. Armstrong, that Jesus would return in 1975 after a nuclear war. Fischer made Pasadena his home for the next several years and was once mistakenly arrested for robbing a bank, leading him to pen a pamphlet titled “I Was Tortured in the Pasadena Jailhouse.”

In 1992, Fischer defied UN sanctions against Yugoslavia by playing a rematch there against Spassky. Earning an indictment from the US government, Fischer spent his remaining years in exile. Right after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Fischer exultantly broadcast from the Philippines, “This is all wonderful news.”

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