Although a physician by profession, Diego Carbonell (1884-1945) had a profound interest in history. He was involved in a wide range of his country’s affairs and became recognized as an important twentieth-century Venezuelan intellectual. Historians might recall his General O’Leary íntimo (Caracas, 1937), a valuable insight into Daniel Florencio O’Leary’s activities between 1828 and 1853.
While in Paris as the Venezuelan consul general, the young physician prepared a manuscript which he afterwards developed into Psicopatología de Bolívar. The main feature of his thesis—that Simón Bolívar suffered from epilepsy—was announced previous to his book in an article in the Caracas weekly, La Revista, on September 19, 1915, which he entitled “Cuadro sintomático del mal comicial en Bolívar.” The reaction to this article was immediate and extreme. Many critics felt that Carbonell’s views toward the Liberator were denigrating and unpatriotic. The newspapers of Caracas and the provinces aired these criticisms until an intense controversy arose which resulted in Carbonell’s being relieved of his consulate. Undeterred, he brought out the book-length version of his Psicopatología in Paris during 1916.
Carbonell’s daughter, María de Lourdes Carbonell de Parra, traces the controversy over her father’s views in her “Introducción” to the second edition of the book. Although the debate quickly descended to the level of personal recrimination, it was important in that it brought the cult of Bolívar to the surface in Venezuelan intellectual circles. This cult, a familiar manifestation of the next two decades, was, of course, a reflection of the more imminent presence and personality cult of General Juan Vicente Gómez.
In addition to the above-mentioned introduction, the second edition of the Psicopatología includes both the text of the original edition and a much-revised version (pp. 185-454) on which Carbonell was working at the time of his death. In both versions Carbonell was seeking to combine known facts about Bolívar and his ancestors with various standards of medical and psychological diagnosis in order to confirm his basic hypothesis. While this approach to a historical personality has certain objections, none should deny the author’s mastery of his sources on the Liberator’s life and times, or his considerable erudition in contemporary European medical and historical literature.
Since the evidence which relates to Bolívar’s life before 1812 is extremely fragmentary, I for one find it difficult to subscribe to Carbonell’s clinical conclusions. His method of using scraps of incidental data to support his contentions must also be deplored. On the other hand, the distinctiveness of the Carbonell interpretation, its concern for Simón Bolívar as a human being, and its emphasis on psychological factors which could conceivably have influenced his motivation— all these combine in the two versions printed here to produce a major piece of Bolívariana.
Despite—or perhaps because of—the negative response which it elicited, the Psicopatología was significant as a catalyst in Venezuelan historical literature of the early decades of this century. Students of Venezuela in general and of Bolívar in particular, must thank the Universidad Central for making this forgotten approach to the Liberator’s personality available again.