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Diagnosing Literary Genius

, 288 pages
April 2003
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Diagnosing Literary Genius

A Cultural History of Psychiatry in Russia, 1880-1930

Winner of the Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for Studies in Slavic Languages and Literatures from the Modern Language Association

The vital place of literature and the figure of the writer in Russian society and history have been extensively studied, but their role in the evolution of psychiatry is less well known. In Diagnosing Literary Genius: A Cultural History of Psychiatry in Russia, 1880-1930, Irina Sirotkina explores the transformations of Russian psychiatric practice through its relationship to literature. During this period, psychiatrists began to view literature as both an indicator of the nation's mental health and an integral part of its well-being. By aligning themselves with writers, psychiatrists argued that the aim of their science was not dissimilar to the literary project of exploring the human soul and reflecting on the psychological ailments of the age.

Through the writing of pathographies (medical biographies), psychiatrists strengthened their social standing, debated political issues under the guise of literary criticism, and asserted moral as well as professional claims. By examining the psychiatric engagement with the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Gogol, Leo Tolstoy, and the decadents and revolutionaries, Sirotkina provides a rich account of Russia's medical and literary history during this turbulent revolutionary period.

Irina Sirotkina is a research fellow at the Institute for the History of Science and Technology, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow.

"Irina Sirotkina gives a fascinating account of the growth of psychiatry in Russia through the prism of literature."

"[Sirotkina] has a deep interest in her subject, and she offers a mine of information and commentary about the linked histories of psychiatry and literature in Russia (and in the post-1917 Russian émigré community). The results of her archival research are most rewarding for anyone interested in the history of Russian psychiatry."

"In this absorbing work of exemplary scholarship, Irina Sirotkina... convincingly correlates trends in the theory and practice of Russian psychotherapy, during the fifty-year period studied, with changing developments in sociopolitical thought."

"A worthy and cleverly constructed attempt to redress the excesses of casting psychiatry as a self-interested body."

"A valuable contribution to our understanding of the history of Russian psychiatry."

"An interesting and respectable history of a critical time in Russia's history."

"Sirotkina presents a comprehensive overview of the various approaches to madness found from the end of the Imperial period through to the establishment of Stalinist hegemony. Her approach is unique; her material quite exhaustive; and her insights, into the history of medicine, history of literature, and the cultural history of Russia, extraordinary."

"Irina Sirotkina has written a fascinating history of the evolution of the profession of psychiatry in Russia between the 1880s and 1930 by focusing on the borderland where medicine and literature intersect. Examining the psychiatric pathographies of Russia's most celebrated writers, the author offers a new interpretation of Russian intellectual history in the transitional era before and after the revolution."

"As Irina Sirotkina points out, the Russian intelligentsia has always granted an exalted role to literature and literati. By exploring Russian psychiatrists' changing diagnoses of the country's most famous literary figures—particularly Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy—she offers an engaging and instructive look at their changing ideas about mental illness, genius, and creativity, and embeds those ideas convincingly in Russia's turbulent social, political, and cultural history from the mid-nineteenth century through the early years of Soviet rule."

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