Valeria Sobol


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

Cover Interview of September 16, 2009

The wide angle

Contrary to what some readers may assume, this book arose not from a personal experience of lovesickness but rather from an intellectual and academic engagement with the dialogue between literature and medicine.

Not having any medical training, I nonetheless became fascinated by the persistent presence of medical metaphors, imagery, and themes in Russian literature of certain transitional periods.  It soon became clear to me that this medical discourse almost always played a strategic role in literary texts—it invoked a materialist outlook that typically advocated a reductive, purely physical model of the human being.  This was particularly prominent in the numerous literary scenes of lovesickness where the character’s inner trauma, usually known to the reader, remained inaccessible to the fictional medical professional who treated the condition as a purely somatic disorder and thus revealed the limitations of the reductionist, body-centered view.

My analysis, then, places the literary tradition of lovesickness into the broader context of the mind-body dilemma that plagued Western culture at least since antiquity and became particularly poignant after Descartes, with his dualist view of the physical and mental spheres as completely independent.

For the Russians, however, even more was at stake: Russia’s belated entry into the Western cultural scene as a result of Peter the Great’s reform in the early eighteenth century meant that the culture of romantic love and the literature of lovesickness arrived as Russia was exposed to Western philosophical and scientific ideas.  The literary (and medical) portrayals of passionate love and the suffering produced by it became infused with the scientific problems that were at the forefront of Western European science and philosophy—such as “sensibility,” the anatomical location of the soul, the mind-body relationship, and the physiology of emotions.  By the second half of the nineteenth century, when the strong Russian moral and religious tradition found itself threatened by increasing political radicalism and materialist philosophy, these problems had assumed serious ideological overtones.

It is important to realize that in a nineteenth-century Orthodox Christian monarchy, which Russia was at the time, science was not a neutral and independent sphere.  Even more so than today (recall disputes over evolution theory), scientific developments carried important ideological, political, and philosophical implications.  This was especially true of physiology and medicine—disciplines that dealt with human beings and posed the threat of reducing them to mere physical-chemical compounds.

The problematic status of the soul in experimental physiology and medicine brought these disciplines to the center of religious and metaphysical debates.  These concerns were not purely theoretical: as late as in the 1860s, for example, at the height of the development of positivist science, court actions were taken against the prominent Russian physiologist Ivan Sechenov (generally recognized as a precursor to Pavlov) for his study of the reflexes of the brain.  Research in physiology, in other words, quickly became associated with radical political views.

In my book I use this historical context as a sort of a cultural code through which I read literary developments and particular texts, which then acquire new levels of complexity and frequently entirely different meanings.  The polemics over the boundaries and methods of the positivist inquiry into human nature, the “questions of the soul,” the problem of the mind-body interaction were consistently spilling over from religious, philosophical, and scientific debates onto the pages of the Russian novels.  Here the lovesickness convention came particularly handy—a “malady of the soul” that manifested itself in misleading somatic symptoms, it could be, and often was, used to challenge a purely physical view of the human being without disrupting the plot movement and without forcing the author to resort to a nonfictional philosophical digression.  The banal scenes at the bedside of lovesick girls and young men, in other words, rather than merely reproducing a familiar cliché, responded to pressing contemporaneous concerns and anxieties.  Febris Erotica thus traces critical paradigm shifts in the realm of ideas by focusing on a “case history” of a literary-medical concept.