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

JHUMPA LAHIRI awarded National Humanities Medal

PHOTO BY MARCO DELOGU

PHOTO BY MARCO DELOGU

Jhumpa Lahiri, whose novels and short stories explore the immigrant experience, family, love, language and cultural identity, was named a recipient of the 2014 National Humanities Medal. The medal was conferred by President Barack Obama at a ceremony at the White House on Sept. 10, 2015.

The citation for the award honored Lahiri, who joined the faculty in 2015 as a professor of creative writing in the Lewis Center for the Arts, “for enlarging the human story. In her works of fiction, Dr. Lahiri has illuminated the Indian-American experience in beautifully wrought narratives of estrangement and belonging.”

Her 1999 debut collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, which probes issues of love and identity among immigrants and cultural transplants, won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the PEN/Hemingway Award and The New Yorker’s Best Debut of the Year Award. Her 2013 novel The Lowland was a National Book Award and Man Booker Prize finalist. Her 2003 novel The Namesake was released as a film in 2007.

Lahiri’s most recent book of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, received the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and was a finalist for the Story Prize. Her forthcoming book, In Other Words, explores the often emotionally fraught links between identity and language.

–By Jamie Saxon

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