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Neurasthenia in the life and work of Leonid Andreev

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.

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Frederick H. White

1 Introduction Agonizing health, an agonizing mental condition. Painful. Again I think about suicide. I think [about it] or does it think about me? But the ocean is splendid. Leonid Andreev1 Interpretations Leonid Andreev (1871–1919) was Russia’s leading literary and cultural figure from roughly 1902 to 1914. He and Feodor Sologub (1863–1927) were the best selling authors during much of that time, and Andreev was equal to Maksim Gor’kii (1868–1936) in terms of topical relevance. His name was spoken in the same breath as Lev Tolstoi (1828–1910), Feodor

in Degeneration, decadence and disease in the Russian fin de siècle
Frederick H. White

draft. The author listened to the most frank comments, to both praise and objections. Once he read a story called ‘The Little Ruffian’ and received such a unanimous rebuff that to this day the story has not been published anywhere.3 Andreev’s first real literary success came with the publication of ‘Once There Was’ (Zhili-byli) in 1901. Dmitrii Merezhkovskii (1865–1941) asked whether it was Chekhov or Gor’kii who was hiding behind the name of Leonid Andreev. ‘Once There Was’ had been written during the two months that the author spent in the Imperial university

in Degeneration, decadence and disease in the Russian fin de siècle
Frederick H. White

react, alone evokes suffering and pain. Leonid Andreev1 Typically scholars focus on several main themes when describing Leonid Andreev’s childhood. The death of his father in 1889 meant that Andreev assumed complete responsibility for his family at an early age. The author’s tumultuous relationship with Zinaida Nikolaevna Sibeleva exacerbated many of the usual growing pains of adolescence. An intense interest in the philosophies of Schopenhauer and Hartmann influenced Andreev’s perception of the world around him. Each of these factors are referenced when discussing

in Degeneration, decadence and disease in the Russian fin de siècle
Abstract only
Frederick H. White

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 8.1 Leonid Andreev from February 1901, while a patient at the Imperial clinic for nervous disorders. 258 Degeneration, decadence and disease in the Russian fin de siècle

in Degeneration, decadence and disease in the Russian fin de siècle
Frederick H. White

institutionalization, shock-therapy and physical restraints. Madness was caught in this struggle between art and science – placing the mentally ill artist, in this case Leonid Andreev, in an uncomfortable position between creative posturing and illness; between a sanatorium and a mental asylum; between the sacred and the criminal. Devolution In the 1830s the English physician James Cowles Prichard (1786–1848) formulated the concept of moral insanity, arguing that derangement could occur in an individual’s mental and moral faculties.10 In the second half of the nineteenth century

in Degeneration, decadence and disease in the Russian fin de siècle
Abstract only
Frederick H. White

their kites, and when little Petjka ran in for a piece of bread he found his mother stealthily hiding all sorts of things in the oven – a pair of shoes, an old coat, and his cap! At first the boy laughs, but when he caught sight of his mother’s face he ran shrieking into the street. ‘A-a-ai!’ he screamed as he ran and set the lane in wild alarm. Leonid Andreev, ‘The Governor’1 In June 1904, 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

in Degeneration, decadence and disease in the Russian fin de siècle
Frederick H. White

ease and quickness (my hand was still hurting and I dictated) was written: ‘My Notes’, moreover several times work was interrupted by revelations-surprises of the truth, akin to suicide or madness; and then Days of our Life, Black Maskers, Earthborn Son and Anathema. And all of them were complete improvisation. Leonid Andreev, from his Finnish diary.1 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

in Degeneration, decadence and disease in the Russian fin de siècle
Abstract only
Frederick H. White

7 Diaries and death The attitude which the Allied Governments have assumed with regard to tormented Russia is either betrayal or madness. Leonid Andreev, SOS (1919)1 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 Anna and Savva to convalesce.2 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

in Degeneration, decadence and disease in the Russian fin de siècle