July 1, 2020

July 1913 - The Year Before The Storm...With A Side Of Neurasthenia

Robert Musil never finished
his novel, The Man Without Qualities
July 1913. Quite a wet month in Prussia.

It also sees war break out between Serbia and Bulgaria over land in Macedonia. Turkey, Greece and Romania join in the fray, but neither Emperor Franz Joseph nor his heir, Franz Ferdinand, want their summer holidays disturbed (including by each other, as they're staying in two distinct castles).

The curators of the Berlin museum are finally exhibiting the results of the latest archaeological digs found in Egypt. However, they keep their best piece--the bust of Queen Nefertiti--safely in storage, afraid that "if everything taken from the country in January 1913 were put on display, the Egyptians would soon start demanding the return of their works."

In the meantime, Austrian philosophical writer Robert Musil is given sick leave from the Technical College in Vienna where he is a librarian. Reason: he wanted more time to write. Duration: six months. Official cause given: neurasthenia involving the heart.


Neurasthenia, the malady of the beginning of the 20th century. According to Philip Blom, "[i]n 1900, the most profound change of all was that in the relationship between men and women, and many indications point towards a deep anxiety on the part of men whose position seemed no longer secure.
   For the first time in European history women were being educated en masse, earning their own money, demanding the vote and, crucially, suggesting that in an industrial age physical strength and martial values were becoming useless. Men reacted with an aggressive restatement of the old values; never before had so many uniforms been seen on the street or so many duels fought, never before had there been so many classified advertisements for treatments allegedly curing 'male maladies' and 'weak nerves'; and never before had so many men complained of exhaustion and nervousness, and found themselves to be admitted to sanatoriums and even mental hospitals.
   [N]eurosis became a leading idea not only in fiction, but also in medicine.
   The symptoms of this mysterious condition had first been described in 1869 by George Miller Beard, an American doctor with a penchant for spectacular therapies, who observed in an alarming proportion of his patients a malaise that he called 'neurasthenia' -- an exhaustion of the nerves. Beard's treatments for this mysterious disorder ranged from cannabis and caffeine to wine, 'particularly claret and Burgundy,' and to electrodes applied to the bodies of his patients. 
   In 1901 the writer John Girdner suggested a different name for this mystery sickness: Newyorktitis, a special inflammation of the nerves resulting from life in big cities. ... What shocked the medical establishment (and no doubt added urgency to the problem) was that this wave of nervous exhaustion had nothing to do with the hysteria that male doctors had long diagnosed in women. Grown, professional men were collapsing. Judges, lawyers, teachers and engineers were suddenly unable to cope with their lives.


   Overwork was a common theme in the patients' histories. In fact, the condition seemed to target those who were most successfully living the lives of modern people - mobile, professional, hard-working, often with university degrees.
   A survey of one mental hospital in 1893 found that among nearly 600 cases, there were almost 200 businessmen, 130 civil servants, 68 teachers, 56 students and 11 farmers (there were no manual workers at this clinic) [who were neurasthenic]. Neurasthenia, the overheating and exhaustion of the nerves, affected mainly white-collar workers, overwhelmed by the demands placed on them.
   Was neurasthenia an illness of successful middle-class men? Of course it was not as simple as that. But workers who were institutionalized for 'shattered nerves' usually complained about the pressure of piecework and the noise and danger of the large machines they operated, while a large proportion of the women treated broke down under the strain of working, studying and trying to win a place in the world. These are conditions that today's doctors would diagnose as different from the feelings of inadequacy and the battles with their sexual selves that were related by the overwhelming majority of male patients from the worlds of business, academia or government. Neurasthenia was a condition that illuminated the emotional constellations of its time."

And thus, neurasthenia became the illness of the age.

Anecdotes: 1913, The Year Before The Storm, by Florian Illies
Neurasthenia: The Vertigo Years, by Philip Blom

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