The literature of madness and how it shaped modern psychiatry

IN 1890, THE RUSSIAN PHYSICIAN and writer Anton Chekhov traveled across Siberia to document the lives of prisoners sentenced to a remote penal colony on Sakhalin Island. The visit inspired not only a nonfiction exposé but also several works of fiction, including a famous short story, “Ward Number Six,” about the ill-fated friendship of a doctor and a paranoiac patient in a rural Russian institution.

Science and medicine often provide the inspiration for literature, but graduate student Cate Reilly notes that the reverse also can be true. In an effort to establish psychiatry as a legitimate medical science, German physicians in the period from the 1890s to the late 1920s created a standardized terminology, one that eventually formed the basis of our present-day diagnostic manual of mental illness. Reilly, a doctoral student in comparative literature, is exploring how the literary descriptions of mental disorders by Russian and German-language fiction writers contributed to the science of mental illness in ways that stay with us today.

“The story that hasn’t been told is about the birth of these terms and how literature influenced the development of our current international classification system for mental disorders,” Reilly said. “This was all happening at a time of tremendous exchanges between psychiatrists in Germany and Russia. Those nations’ creative writers, some of whom were doctor-physicians like Chekhov, were involved in and contributed to this classification system.”

Reilly was inspired to explore this interdisciplinary area in part by modern debates over the extent to which definitions of pathologies are shaped by culture. At one time, mental illnesses included homosexuality and “indigenous psychopathology,” a diagnosis given by French physicians to native Algerians to justify their subjugation. “Once you have the standardization of these terms, then you start to see their abuse for purposes of power,” Reilly said.

Reilly explores how psychiatry and literature influenced each other during this critical time by citing works by Chekhov, Russian playwright Nikolai Evreinov, and German-language authors Rainer Maria Rilke and Alfred Döblin. For example, Evreinov’s dramas drew themes from German psychology and the anatomical-imaging technologies available during the 1880s and 1890s. Döblin’s 1924 “true-crime” novella, Two Girlfriends Commit Murder by Poisoning, about a court case involving lesbians who plotted to kill their husbands, featured pages of pseudoscientific diagrams to explain the women’s mental states.

“When creative writers influence what happens in psychiatry, it is not so much the case of a specific work of literature influencing a single term or definition, but the opening of a space for experimentation in how mental illness is characterized,” Reilly said. –By Catherine Zandonella

Poetic Trespass: Writing Between Hebrew and Arabic in Israel/Palestine

Author: Lital Levy
Publisher: Princeton University Press, 2014B_4_Levy_PoeticTrespass

A Palestinian-Israeli poet declares a new state whose language, “Homelandic,” is a combination of Arabic and Hebrew. A Jewish- Israeli author imagines a “language plague” that infects young Hebrew speakers with old-world accents, and sends the narrator in search of his Arabic heritage. In Poetic Trespass, Lital Levy, associate professor of comparative literature, brings together such startling visions to offer the first in-depth study of the relationship between Hebrew and Arabic in the literature and culture of Israel/Palestine. More than that, she presents a captivating portrait of the literary imagination’s power to transgress political boundaries and transform ideas about language and belonging.

Blending history and literature, Poetic Trespass traces the interwoven life of Arabic and Hebrew in Israel/Palestine from the turn of the 20th century to the present, exposing the two languages’ intimate entanglements in contemporary works of prose, poetry, film and visual art by both Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel.

All text and images courtesy of the publisher.

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Evening News: Optics, Astronomy, and Journalism in Early Modern Europe

Evening News

Evening News by Naomi Murakawa

Author: Eileen Reeves
Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014

Professor of Comparative Literature Eileen Reeves examines a web of connections between journalism, optics and astronomy in early modern Europe, devoting particular attention to the ways in which a long-standing association of reportage with covert surveillance and astrological prediction was altered by the near simultaneous emergence of weekly newsheets, the invention of the Dutch telescope and the appearance of Galileo Galilei’s astronomical treatise, The Starry Messenger.

Early modern news writers and consumers often understood journalistic texts in terms of recent developments in optics and astronomy, Reeves demonstrates, even as many of the first discussions of telescopic phenomena such as planetary satellites, lunar craters, sunspots and comets were conditioned by accounts of current events. She charts how the deployment of particular technologies of vision — the telescope and the camera obscura — were adapted to comply with evolving notions of objectivity, censorship and civic awareness.

Afterlives of Confinement: Spatial transition in post-dictatorship Latin America by Susana Draper

Afterlives of Confinement

Professor Susana Draper examines the repurposing of prisons as cultural centers and shopping malls in her study of the manipulation of culture and consumerism under the guise of democracy.

During the age of dictatorships, Latin American prisons became a symbol for the vanquishing of political opponents, many of whom were never seen again. In the post dictatorship era of the 1990s, a number of these prisons were repurposed into shopping malls, museums and memorials. Associate Professor of Comparative Literature Susana Draper uses the phenomenon of the “opening” of prisons and detention centers to begin a dialogue on conceptualizations of democracy and freedom in post-dictatorship Latin America. Focusing on the nations of Uruguay, Chile and Argentina, Draper examines key works in architecture, film and literature to peel away the veiled continuity of dictatorial power structures in ensuing consumer cultures.

The afterlife of prisons became an important tool in the “forgetting” of past politics, while also serving as a reminder to citizens of the liberties they now enjoyed. In Draper’s analysis, these symbols led the populace to believe they had attained freedom, although they had only witnessed the veneer of democracy — in the ability to vote and consume.

Draper’s study of the manipulation of culture and consumerism under the guise of democracy will have powerful implications not only for Latin Americanists but also for those studying neoliberal transformations globally.

Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012 (Cover image and text courtesy of the publisher.)