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.

Frederick H. White

2 Degeneration and decadence One issue in the study of mental illness labeling is how the features of mental illness labels are related to labels of disease and of crime and deviance. Psychiatrists typically consider mental illness to share the major characteristics of disease, while sociologists are more likely to regard mental illness as behavior that violates social norms. While mental illness labeling is related in certain ways to labels of both disease and deviance, it is greatly different from both of these categories. It is most appropriate to regard

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

Daniel Pick’s authoritative study of theories of degeneration and their historical contexts, Faces of Degeneration (1989) charts the development of such theories from the 1840s to the end of the First World War. 3 Degeneration had its roots in the work of Bénédict Augustin Morel, who in the 1840s and 1850s attempted to explain psychological abnormalities through a theory of mental decline that was

in Victorian demons
Joanne Woiak

Discourses and policies that connected the concepts of alcoholism and degeneration were prominent sites at which disability was constructed in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Alcoholism was perceived as a ‘borderland’ disability, the boundaries of which were defined in distinct ways by members of various groups of professionals and reformers. Physicians, psychiatrists, temperance advocates and eugenicists promoted and contested a variety of ideas about the aetiology and effects of inebriety. These medical and eugenic discourses focused on

in Disability and the Victorians
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Frederick H. White

unanswered by scholars. Although there will always be differing opinions, Andreev’s experience with neurasthenia (specifically depression and anxiety) offers 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

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

diagnosed as an acute neurasthenic and struggled with various illnesses. He gained a reputation in the popular press for being mentally imbalanced, and a recurring theme of psychopathology in his creative works seemed to support this contention. Although Andreev publicly defended his mental health, he could not escape the popular discourse that constantly conflated his life and literary works. In fact, Andreev’s personal struggle with neurasthenia2 gave him a unique perspective on the discourse of degeneration theory, which was prevalent in contemporary Russian culture

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

the story that he befriended the young writer and soon began to offer him literary advice. 92 Degeneration, decadence and disease in the Russian fin de siècle Along with introducing Andreev to critics and publishers, Gor’kii also invited the young writer to participate in the literary circle Sreda (The Wednesday Circle), which meant that Andreev was soon a part of the new, young Moscow artistic scene. The purpose of the circle was to provide an environment in which young authors could read their latest works and receive constructive criticism. This is where

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

attractive, psychologically complex truth about the individual. At certain moments, this unattractive truth shows through the veneer and creates dramatic, often psychological, tension. Andreev’s most popular play of this period, He Who Gets Slapped, is populated by individuals who have a circus persona and a real life history that is only revealed for brief moments during the play. The Count is not really royalty. The circus performer Consuelo is not really Count Mancini’s daughter. The dashing horse trainer Bezano is actually 232 Degeneration, decadence and disease in

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

the people who should be hanged. Everywhere else honest people are at large and only criminals are in prison. In Russia the honest people are in prison and the criminals are at large.’ 4 184 Degeneration, decadence and disease in the Russian fin de siècle In 1908 Andreev wrote ‘The Story of the Seven Who Were Hanged’ about how seven prisoners meet their day of execution. In this story, the prison is associated with an insane asylum: ‘[I]t appeared to the warden, who passed all his life in the prison, and who looked upon its laws as the laws of nature, that the

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

. Degeneration clearly played into these discussions as scientific proof of the possibility of individual and national regression and devolution.2 The alarm had been raised in 1883 by Francis Galton, but seemed more relevant to Russians after their defeat at the hands of the Japanese; it fueled the fear that the social organism could no longer eliminate the weak from the herd and that the unfit had gained differential reproductive success, making the entire Russian nation unfit. The British biologist Ray Lankester (1847–1929) noted the devolution of ship barnacles which, over

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