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Noontime Scholars Lecture - Strung Out: Chekhov's Neurasthenics, Trauma, and Nineteenth Century Models of Nervous Shock
In Russia, as in Western Europe, the second half of the nineteenth century saw an explosion of interest in the psychological life of man. Two dominant discourses led the investigations into the human psyche and often competed with one another in the cultural sphere: the newly professionalizing sciences of the mind (psychiatry, neurology, psychology, etc.) and the psychological fiction of the Russian Golden Age. Both discourses claimed special knowledge of the human mind and constructed overarching claims as to what constituted psychic and moral health of individuals and extended those claims to the health and future survival of nations. As both a practicing physician and the last lauded representative of the Golden Age of Russian literature, Anton Chekhov provides a fascinating insight into the close relationship between science and literature around fin-de-siècle. Taking into account Chekhov’s extensive knowledge of the developments in the scientific views of the mind, this presentation explores the extent to which he both upholds and challenges those dominant scientific assumptions in his fiction. The presentation focuses on Chekhov's characters who, either explicitly or implicitly, suffer from neurasthenia, an enigmatic, fashionable nervous disease «discovered» in the 1860s and widely spread at the turn of the century. The paper situates the scientific and cultural discourses on neurasthenia within the greater context of the rapidly evolving theorizations of the nervous system in the nineteenth century. It also explores the connections between neurasthenia and present-day trauma theory. Ultimately, the presentation pays particular attention to the conflict between the often physiologically grounded conceptualizations of the mind predominant in nineteenth century sciences and the more psychologically oriented views of the psyche in Chekhov’s work, which at times anticipates the later theories of psychoanalysis.