By the first decade of the twentieth century, Russia was experiencing a decadent period of cultural degeneration. Simultaneous with this artistic response, science was developing ways to identify medical conditions that supposedly reflected the health of the entire nation. Leonid Andreev (1871–1919), the leading literary figure of his time, stepped into the breech of this scientific discourse with literary works about degenerates. The spirited social debates on mental illness, morality and sexual deviance which resulted from these works became part of the ongoing battle over the definition and depiction of the irrational, complicated by Andreev’s own publicized bouts with neurasthenia. Specific to the study is the way in which Andreev readily accepted and incorporated scientific conjecture into his cultural production and how these works were in turn cited by medical authorities as confirmation of their theories, creating a circular argument. This book demonstrates the implications of scientific discourse on Russian concepts of mental illness and national health. It examines the concept of pathology in Russia, the influence of European medical discourse, the development of Russian psychiatry, and the role that it had on popular culture by investigating the life and works of Andreev. Although widely discussed in its European context, degeneration theory has not been afforded the same scholarly attention in Russian cultural studies. As a result, this study extends and challenges scholarship on the Russian fin de siècle, the emergence of psychiatry as a new medical science, and the role that art played in the development of this objective science.
This chapter introduces the various scientific and popular lines of discourse that influenced and informed Leonid Andreev’s sense of self and his relationship with neurasthenia. Of equal importance is the impact that Andreev had as a major contributor to the popular discourse of pathology in the Russian fin de siècle. His illness experience as an acute neurasthenic was informed by numerous medical and popular factors that were ultimately distilled into his literary works, leading to his unprecedented success and popularity. By re-examining Andreev and a nation’s anxiety over its own perceived moral corruption and physical devolution, Andreev once again comes into focus as one of the leading literary voices of his age.
Medical science believed that neurasthenia was just one of the early indications of a much larger problem negatively impacting civilized society. This new science was concerned with degeneration theory, which argued that if a species could evolve, then it could also devolve. Simply stated neurasthenia was one of the signs of an individual’s physical, moral and psychological devolution. Following a discussion of the science of degeneration, attention is given to literary decadence. Degeneration emerged as scientific theory, but was soon incorporated into legal, political and literary discourse. The idea of a nation in a state of decline coincided with other cultural trends which viewed the end of the nineteenth century in apocalyptic terms. This chapter explores the development of the scientific discourse in order to better understand the context for Andreev’s diagnosis and concentrates on the broad outlines of literary decadence in order to support the assertion that Andreev and his works share similarities with European decadence.
As with most scholarly works on Leonid Andreev, we will begin with his birth and childhood, but where this study strikes a different cord is when we begin to examine Andreev’s adolescent diaries, which provide a personalized narrative of illness. Attention is given to Andreev’s illness narrative in order to suggest that melancholic episodes were the impetus for much of his abnormal behaviour. Recognizing the strong impact that bouts of melancholy had on Andreev’s personal life and literary output opens up nuanced moments of imbedded autobiography in his texts, which were enacted as a type of creative therapy, and provide a means for contextualizing the theme of madness in Andreev’s literary works.
Leonid Andreev’s rise to literary fame reached dizzying heights in a short amount of time. There were, unquestionably, many factors that contributed to his success. Yet, this chapter mainly concentrates on the development of Andreev’s particular illness narrative and how it contributed to the author’s cultural relevancy. Stories about sexual deviance and criminal madness propelled Andreev beyond literary discussions and into larger debates about the health of the Russian nation. His works were used by scientists, journalists and scholars alike to support arguments of all colors and stripes, but the most important being that Andreev was representative of a society under duress, suffering from the rapid and disorienting pace of modernization.
In June 1904, newspaper Courier ceased to exist after a prolonged period of financial difficulties. This meant that Andreev now had to earn his livelihood solely as a creative writer. The heady times of his initial success gave way to a period of significant political upheaval and personal loss. Andreev’s life was turned upside down by the deaths of both his youngest sister and his wife, while his works began to reflect his own political ruminations, if not vacillations. This chapter concentrates on the ways in which madness interacts with Andreev’s personal and fictional narratives of loss and rebellion. The central focus is the period 1904–08, although many of the sections in this chapter are organized thematically rather than in strict chronological order.
As Andreev began to rebuild his life around his new family in Vammelsuu, various ideas from his earlier works started to coalesce in coherent and consistent ways. In dramatic and literary works of this period the performance is a way of interacting with madness in an attempt to hide its effects from the public, because there exists the threat of incarceration for those deemed abnormal or dangerous (including the insane), therefore verisimilitude (giving a truth that the public wants to see) is necessary to avoid the stigma of madness. In this chapter, I argue that by maintaining the appearance of normalcy, Andreev wished to avoid the criticism à la Max Nordau that the author was as morally corrupt as his decadent works of art.
For most of 1912-13, Andreev suffered from constant migraines, insomnia and a pain in his arm. Finally in 1914, he decided to go to Rome with his wife Anna and their son Savva to convalesce. The final act of Andreev’s life was one of failing health and diminished artistic abilities. These problems were complicated further by war and revolution, which monopolized a great amount of Andreev’s attention. This chapter concentrates on the author’s Finnish diary, where the illness experience is once again at the fore, as well as Andreev’s own pursuit of treatment. As noted at the beginning of this study, if we examine Andreev’s narrative of illness from adolescent diary, through his literary works, to his final Finnish entries, we gain perspective on how neurasthenia influenced the author’s life and works.
By reopening the fourth line of critical discourse, I have attempted to re-examine Andreev’s literary output in light of his personal and medical history. In doing this, the primary goal was to confront and, possibly refute, the Soviet biography of the author that has dominated discussions of Andreev since the 1960s. Specifically, in addressing why it might be that Andreev was so interested in the theme of madness and how this influenced his literary career, I have touched upon many of the issues that have remained unanswered by scholars. Although there will always be differing opinions, Andreev’s experience with neurasthenia (specifically depression and anxiety) offer keys to understanding his personal life (drinking binges, mood swings, romantic endeavors) and literary themes (performance, institutional spaces, illness narrative). In so doing, I have attempted to show how this might then alter our understanding of Andreev’s literary allegiances (realist or symbolist), how his literary works interacted with the popular science of the day (degeneration theory) and why this interaction may be the key to Andreev’s immense success during his lifetime. Granted, each one of these issues could warrant its own study, but the purpose of this book was to reopen the line of discourse for further discussion of Andreev and his time. In this concluding chapter, the intention is to outline new ways of interpreting Andreev’s life and works in order to encourage future scholarly investigations that go beyond the author presented by Soviet scholars to satisfy the demands of the post-/Soviet literary market and to be candid about the role that neurasthenia played in his life and works.