Valeria Sobol


On her book Febris Erotica: Lovesickness in the Russian Literary Imagination

Cover Interview of September 15, 2009

In a nutshell

This book is about the cultural connection between love and illness—a connection often referred to in the everyday use as “lovesickness” and all too often automatically assumed.  As a specialist in and a long-time devotee of nineteenth-century Russian literature, I encountered time and again, almost in every nineteenth-century Russian novel, a hero or a heroine who falls ill or even dies from unrequited or unfulfilled love.  I became curious about the scientific, philosophical, and cultural assumptions that underlie that recurrent cliché: indeed, in order to portray a heroine who develops tuberculosis as a result of illicit passionate love, in order to link an emotional distress directly to a bodily illness, one must have a certain vision of the interaction between the two realms in the human being—physical, on the one hand, and “spiritual” or emotional, on the other.

Febris Erotica reconstructs this vision and offers a cultural history of “lovesickness,” as both a literary and a medical concept, first in the West and then in early modern Russia.  Then I turn to its ubiquitous presence in nineteenth-century Russian novels.  I argue that Russian writers so frequently have recourse to this cliché because of its serious philosophical and epistemological implications.  The idea that unconsummated or unreturned passion can cause a physical disorder and, more broadly, that bodily symptoms can serve as a means to read the life of the psyche assumes relationships between mind and body, between strong emotions and somatic ailments, and, at another level, between the exterior and the interior, the revealed and the concealed.

Febris Erotica shows that for various reasons the nature of these relationships deeply preoccupied Russian writers.  Their persistent use of lovesickness was not an automatic deployment of a traditional theme but, rather, a way to address pressing philosophical, ethical and, in some cases, ideological concerns through a recognizable literary convention.  The history of lovesickness in Russian literature is entwined in this study with the intellectual and cultural history of Russia of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  I demonstrate a complex and symbiotic relationship between literature and medicine—or more broadly, between scientific and cultural developments—in the era where the two, far more so than today, were closely linked.