A portrait, and Mandelstam's 'delusions' of being a poet


Kherson, Ukraine:

Sometimes I suffer from the delusion that I am a photographer.

I finished reading Nadezhda Mandelstam's memoirs, and I'm straight away starting to read them again from the beginning, all 600-odd pages of them, that's how good they are. I came across this hilarious passage, about how her husband Osip Mandelstam, who was of course one of the most famous poets of the 20th Century, was referred to a psychiatrist, who made an interesting diagnosis:

"Feeling in poor shape, Mandelstam went to the polyclinic for a checkup, but the doctors immediately passed him on to a psychiatrist. When I returned from Kiev (where I had gone for my father's funeral), Mandelstam asked me to go and have a word with the psychiatrist, who turned out to be a very crude and cocksure type. His diagnosis was that Mandelstam had the illusion of being a poet and of writing verse, though in fact he was only a minor employee who did not even hold a post of any responsibility and harboured all kinds of grudges, speaking badly, for instance, about the writers' organisations. This was a well-known psychosis: persecution mania based on an exaggerated idea of one's own importance. The clinics were full of people who imagined they were Napoleon (the doctor did not dare say "members of the Politburo"). Mandelstam's case, he went on, was completely uninteresting, since his delusion took a dull and tedious form. Some cases were more interesting than others, and the general level of a person's development was reflected in the quality of his delusion. Mandelstam’s delusion was, moreover, a very deep one: it was impossible to convince him that he was not a poet. The psychiatrist advised me not to succumb myself to this psychosis (I had tried to explain that Mandelstam had some grounds for speaking of his poetry) and in the future to cut short all my husband's talk about writing verse."