Valeria Sobol


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

Cover Interview of September 16, 2009

A close-up

The book is divided into three larger parts that stress the nature of lovesickness as a medical problem: “Anatomy,” “Diagnostics,” and “Therapy.”  The introductory chapter, “Cases in History” offers a brief history of the development of lovesickness both as a literary convention and as a medical concept first in the West and then in Russia.  This chapter can serve as a good starting point for the reader because it lays out the scientific and literary background against which I later examine cases in greater detail and simply because in itself it is a rather amusing and fascinating history of the attempts to rationalize and assign a scientific, physiological basis to the psychological distress caused by unrequited or unconsummated love.

Among literary analyses, Chapter 7, “From Lovesickness to Shamesickness: Tolstoy’s Solution,” can be of particular interest to readers—not only because it deals with a well-known literary work, Tolstoy’s famous novel Anna Karenina, but primarily because Tolstoy’s treatment (both literary and medical) of lovesickness is perhaps the most interesting, complex, and full of surprises.  Here I examine the case of Kitty’s illness and recovery in Anna Karenina, which on the surface seems to be the rather trivial distress of a young, inexperienced girl who rejected the proposal of a more worthy man in favor of the less worthy one who had no intention of marrying her.  In portraying this case, Tolstoy shows everything that is problematic with the lovesickness situation—above all, how it is hard to “read,” how it slips away from the overconfident diagnostic gaze of a medical professional, how an attempt to reduce the patient’s problem to a bodily disorder distorts and simplifies the complex psychological drama that causes the malady.

But Tolstoy takes a step further and dismantles the very tradition of lovesickness.  Behind the traditional, almost iconic lovesickness situation—a patient, her grieving family members, and the ignorant doctors—lurks a deeper moral trauma of a high society girl gnawed by shame over her participation in the questionable sexual and social practices of the beau monde which essentially covertly prostitutes young girls in their search for a desirable match.

The “illness” Tolstoy portrays thus is not lovesickness but shamesickness.  And it is cured not by the traditional therapeutic means but by a painful and intense inner search for an authentic selfhood.  The use of the familiar lovesickness situation thus not only allows Tolstoy to critique the one-sided, positivist model of the human being advanced by some of the doctors treating his heroine and so many of his real-life contemporaries; it enables him to address pressing social and moral questions concerning the status of women in society and to suggest the necessity of a moral search for one’s authentic self.

By substituting shamesickness for the traditional lovesickness, moreover, Tolstoy implicitly challenges Western “romantic” culture and values by insisting that it is not romantic passion but, instead, an intense feeling of inadequacy that can and should be devastating for a human being that seeks moral perfection.