The Case of Kiti Ščerbatskaja: Lev Tolstoj and the Love-Sickness Tradition

Valeria Sobol, Columbia University

The association of love with illness is an ancient one, both in medicine and in literature, and goes back in the Western tradition to ancient Greek medicine, Sappho’s poetry, Plato’s dialogues, and Ovid’s love poems. This rich tradition was gradually adopted by Russian culture beginning in the eighteenth century (Tred′jakovskij’s translation of Tallemant’s Le voyage de l’île d’amour; Tred′jakovskij’s and Sumarokov’s love songs and elegies; and Russian sentimentalist prose). The language of love-sickness provided the nascent Russian culture of love with a pseudo-physiological apparatus, as well as an elaborate discourse of amorous suffering.

In nineteenth-century Russian literature, the love-sickness topos recurred with astonishing persistence, given the fact that the scientific foundation of love-sickness, together with the Hippocratic/Galenic humoral theory on which it is based, had long since been repudiated by medical science. The function of this topos, however, did not remain unchanged. The Romantic notion of love-sickness as a prestigious “disease of the soul,” or often as a mere metaphor, was replaced in the era of positivism by an understanding of love suffering as a rather simple medical condition, a physical affliction that can be diagnosed and treated by scientific medical methods. The controversy over the “psychological,” as opposed to the purely “physiological,” nature of love-sickness that became prominent in the novel of the 1840s (Gončarov’s An Ordinary Story, Gercen’s Who is to Blame?) clearly involved the problem of the dichotomy of body and soul. In this context, I will analyze Lev Tolstoj’s use of the love-sickness topos in its relation to the issue of body/soul dualism, as well as to Tolstoj’s views on medicine in general. I will focus on one particular scene for a close textual analysis: the medical consultation of the love-sick Kiti Ščerbatskaja in the second part of Anna Karenina. The two doctors invited to diagnose and treat the heartbroken Kiti represent two different theories of disease and, moreover, two competing understandings of the nature of love-sickness. This scene therefore can serve as a point of departure for a more general discussion of Tolstoj’s take on the given tradition.