n Tolstoy’s oeuvre, illness often serves as a moment of revelation about profound questions of human existence and the limits of knowledge and positivist science. Levin facing the problem of death at the sight of his brother, stricken with tuberculosis, and Ivan Il’ich reconsidering his entire life in the process of his prolonged, lethal illness are perhaps the most intense and memorable examples. My goal in this paper, however, is to focus on an entirely different and seemingly banal example of illness in Tolstoy: banal both because the disease is successfully cured and because it is a traditional literary topos, almost a cliché. The disease in question is the love-sickness from which Kitty Shcherbatskaia suffers and recovers in Part II of Anna Karenina. A close examination of the way her illness is presented in the novel and how her medical evaluation and the process of her recovery are depicted sheds significant light on Tolstoy’s position on the limitations of the positivist understanding of the human being.
The topos of love-sickness has a long history, both in medicine and literature. Its roots in the Western literary and medical traditions and the interaction between the two are explored in detail in Massimo Ciavolella’s comprehensive study, La “Malattia d’Amore” dall’ Antichità al Medioevo. To summarize briefly, the scientific concept of love-sickness has its roots in the Hippocratic theory of humors, later developed by Galen, the Platonic doctrine of the tri-partite structure of the soul, and the Aristotelian psychology and physiology of passion.
From early on, the tradition of love-sickness—a passion that has a destructive physical effect—emphasized a profound interconnectedness between body and soul. The fundamental principle that would characterize the subsequent development of the doctrine is, according to Ciavolella, “the connection love-melancholy-madness, which presupposes that body and psyche are intimately connected, and that the afflictions or passions that strike one, immediately and inevitably affect the other, and vice versa” (31).
To put it in more scientific terms, the phenomenon of love-sickness reveals a complex relationship between physiological and psychological processes in the human organism.
In Russian literature, the topos of love-sickness made a relatively late appearance, owing to the virtual absence of the theme of passionate love in medieval Russian culture. When the Western amorous tradition finally begins to influence Russian narrative prose, the topos of love-sickness quickly emerge —first within the didactic late medieval tradition, as in the seventeenth century Tale of Savva Grudtsyn (Povest' o Savve Grudtsyne), and then in a more markedly “Western” gallant vein, as in the “petrine” Tale of the Russian Cavalier Alexander (Povest’ o rossiiskom kavalere Aleksandre). Canonized in Vasilii Trediakovskii’s translation of Paul Tallemant's Le voyage à l’île d'amour (Ezda v ostrov liubvi, 1730), as well as in Trediakovskii’s and Sumarokov’s love songs and elegies, the association between love and physical illness entered mainstream Russian Sentimentalist prose later in the century. Sentimentalist writers made extensive use of the topos in order to emphasize the destructive physical effects of the heroes’ and heroines’ heightened sensibility.
Subsequently, the topos of love sickness became central in Romanticism, both Western and Russian: the ancient doctrine could not fail to appeal to the Romantic imagination, with its cult of passion and aesthetization of illness and death.