Febris Erotica: Lovesickness in the Russian Literary Imagination

By Harrison, Lonny | Canadian Slavonic Papers, September-December 2010 | Go to article overview

Febris Erotica: Lovesickness in the Russian Literary Imagination


Harrison, Lonny, Canadian Slavonic Papers


Valeria SoboL Febris Erotica: Lovesickness in the Russian Literary Imagination. Literary Conjugations. Seattle, Washington: University of Washington Press, 2009. xx, 300 pp. Illustration. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $60.00, cloth. $30.00, paper.

Can one really die of love? The question is asked in Nikolai Chernyshevsky's What Is to Be Done? (Chto delat'? [1863]) about a mysterious illness that the physiologist Kirsanov diagnoses as lovesickness. In Febris Erotica Valeria Sobol inquires not whether the cliché about romantic love's destructive power holds true, but "what assumptions about human nature gave legitimacy to the topos, so it could be reproduced over the centuries" (p. ix). She especially wants to know what gave the trope such prominence in Russian literature of the nineteenth century, and looks for that answer not only in literature, but in the mutual influence of the language and cultural traditions of science, medicine, philosophy, and social attitudes towards passionate love.

Her introduction grounds the study in the association between love and illness through the Hippocratic theory of humours, the Platonic philosophy of Eros, and Aristotelian psychology and physiology of passion. Among the ancient and medieval poets, Sappho, Ovid, Plutarch, and Chaucer are some of those cited who describe the symptoms of love using the terminology of the science of their time.

Sobol introduces the Russian context by discussing early Russian exemplars of the topos of lovesickness. In particular, the seventeenth-century The Tale ofSavva Grudtsyn (P ovest' oSawe Grudtsyne) typifies the medieval Russian worldview, where erotic passion is the result of supernatural intervention (of magic or the devil), which requires no physiological basis. With the Pettine reforms, however, Russian memoirs begin to evince the adaptation of the Western love code with its concept of lovesickness.

The bulk of the study proceeds in three sections: "Anatomy," "Diagnostics," and "Therapy." The first considers the mind-body problem in Russian Sentimentalism. The second reviews the typical diagnostic situation of lovesickness as treated in two Russian novels of the 1840s: Aleksandr Herzen's Who Is to Blame? (Kto vinovat? [1847]) and Ivan Goncharov's An Ordinary Story (Obyknovennaia istorila [1847]). Each takes its stand between the receding Romantic worldview and the analytical orientation of the early positivist era. The friction is "personified in a controversy between a young, naive, idealist hero and an older materialist-minded skeptic," where the latter "reduces the spiritual malady of love to a mere physical disorder" (pp. 7 1-72). Herzen uses the medicalization of Romantic sensibility "to settle scores with the Romantic idealist worldview and its dualistic model of the human being" (p. …

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