Fine Madness: Aleksandr Blok and Cyclothymia

Frederick H. White, Memorial University of Newfoundland

On 24 June 1911, A. Kublitskaja-Piottux wrote a letter to M. Ivanova in which she tells of her son's cyclothymic condition (a mild form of bipolar or manic-depressive disorder). She describes it as periodic, effecting all those around him and states that she could always tell "when it had started" (RGALI, f. 55, op. 1, ed. kh. 536(2), l. 57).

This letter has largely gone unnoticed and, therefore, Blok's cyclothymic disorder and general mental health have been ignored by most scholars. Pyman makes reference to Blok's cyclothymia, but mainly concentrates on his depressive moods. A more extensive discussion of Blok's mental condition is given by shcherba and Baturina, but surprisingly cylothymia is never mentioned by name. Ètkind refers to Blok's psychotherapeutic treatment in passing and Dolgopolov thoroughly discusses Kublitskaja-Piottux's mental illness, but only mentions the "Beketov family illness" in relation to Blok's Requiem (Vozmezdie).

Just like Blok, other famous literary figures have suffered from mental illness. Virgina Woolf, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath are just a few examples of authors whose history of mental illness is well documented and understood as a contributing factor to their literary legacy. In fact, there is evidence, which suggests that this fine madness might even enhance creativity (Richards, et al.; Ludwig; Jamison 1993, 1995).

This paper is meant to open a line of discourse concerning Blok and his mental condition. How did cyclothymia shape Blok's image of self? Can we trace his image of the Double to his feelings of psychological displacement? Is Blok's "tavern poetry" a result of chaotic mood swings? Due to time limitations, we will concentrate on the period of Blok's third volume of poetry (1907–1916), with special attention paid to the poetic cycle "Terrible world" ("Strashnyi mir"). This paper asserts that mental illness is not like a philosophical, political or literary influence that lasts for a couple years. Cyclothymia is an intrusive illness that was enmeshed in Blok's life history and probably enhanced his literary career.