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Madness and the Mad in Russian Culture.

Madness and the Mad in Russian Culture. Ed. by ANGELA BRINTLINGER and ILYA VINITSKY. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 2007. 331 pp. $74; 45 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 978-0-8020-9140-6.

The articles collected here were first prompted by a conference held five years ago in Columbus, Ohio, on the theme 'Those Crazy Russians'. Fortunately, most of the speakers veered slightly off-topic. Russian craziness as a putatively national phenomenon is not the primary concern here. Madness in itself is more of a draw, especially in its relation to literature: witness Lev Loseff's insightful reconsideration of Brodsky's asylum poem 'Gorbunov and Gorchakov', or Mikhail Epshtein's discussion of how to contemplate one's mind without losing it (an art learnt from Plato and Pushkin). It is, however, the perception, treatment, and institutionalization of madness, or, as Angela Brintlinger puts it, the 'social implications of the mad in modern Russian culture' (p. 7), which most commands the attention of today's scholars.

Doctors, rather than patients, emerge as the key players in many articles. Despite the well-documented abuses of recent decades, Foucauldian axes have been left in the shed; indeed, the Russian psychiatrist is viewed here with a fair degree of sympathy, permitting the reader to piece together the profession's difficult history in Russia, from its struggles to assert its authority in the nineteenth century to its equally contested status today. Post-Soviet psychiatrists, as Julie V. Brown shows in her afterword, have the unenviable job of trying to restore their battered reputation while dealing with rising levels of mental illness, underfunding, heavy competition from alternative practitioners, and the beliefs (shared by over a third of Muscovites, according to a study of 2005) that 'mental disorders can be caused by sorcery [...] or by contact with extraterrestrials' (p. 296).

Particular attention is devoted to the period directly before and after 1917. Irina Sirotkina, for example, compares the medical treatment of 'traumatic neurosis' among Russian soldiers in the First World War with the handling of shell-shock in the West, finding the former to have been considerably milder and more 'relaxed' than the latter. After speculating on purely practical reasons to do with economics and facilities, Sirotkina goes on to suggest that it was above all the political radicalization of psychiatrists at the time which led them to be 'more in sympathy with patients than with those who sent them to war' (p. 127).

With the advent of Soviet power, psychiatry was elevated to the position of political and ideological authority that would bring it into such disrepute from the 1960s onwards. In the 1920s and 1930s, however, psychiatrists were, it seems, still conscious of the extent of their ignorance of root causes and reluctant to advise aggressive, compulsory therapy. Such is the tentative drift of Dan Healey's analysis of the use of psychiatric expertise in cases of sex crime in Petrograd/Leningrad between 1917 and 1934. Healey suggests that psychiatrists of the time were reluctant to confirm the ideological reduction of sexual violence to mental pathology; nevertheless, this association soon became entrenched in Soviet thinking.

The prospect of psychiatry serving a utopian vision of a pathology-free society clearly appalled Anton Chekhov. Margarita Odesskaya's illuminating account of Chekhov's scepticism about the profession emphasizes in particular the author's 'instinctive correlation of psychiatric hospitals and prisons' (p. 196), so clearly displayed in 'Ward No. 6', and his sympathetic identification of happiness and creativity with madness in 'The Black Monk', a story which poses the question of whether 'ecstasy and inspiration' (p. 204) should ever be treated at all. Odesskaya's essay, which skilfully compares Chekhov's treatment of madness and genius with that of a Romantic precursor, Vladimir Odoevsky, is followed by Yvonne Howell's account of the recently published theories of the geneticist V. P. Efroimson (1908-1989). In the hope of tapping mankind's dormant reserves of talent and creativity, Efroimson elaborated a 'science of genius' that treats the latter 'not as a Romantic metaphor for madness, but as a social and biological fact' (p. 210). Genius should be studied, Efroimson believed, through an investigation of biochemical or hormonal disorders (including gout and manic depression) which, though themselves wholly harmful to creativity, appear to have the 'side-effect' of stimulating mental energy (p. 215).

As the juxtaposition of these two articles illustrates, this collection has been intelligently edited, and Brintlinger's translations are of a high standard. Maddening academic jargon is kept to a minimum, if not entirely exorcized: Robert D. Wessling, for example, invites the reader to ponder the 'active scripts of positivist friendship' (p. 82) and 'the psychiatric body encoded in the text' (p. 87) in his chapter on 'Vsevolod Garshin, the Russian Intelligentsia, and Fan Hysteria'. Most of the contributions, however, are commendably clear-headed, beginning with Ilya Vinitsky's discussion of mirth and melancholy under Catherine the Great, an opposition that encourages many interesting parallels with the fate of 'sanity and madness' in subsequent Russian history.


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Author:Ready, Oliver
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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